Distorted gospel: Marjorie Taylor Greene, Jesus and the Jews

Greene's claim about Jesus being "crucified by the Jews" is one way to read the Gospel — with a long, ugly history

Published May 3, 2024 12:00PM (EDT)

U.S. Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) takes part in a press conference where she said she would move forward next week with a motion to vacate Speaker of the House Mike Johnson (R-LA) on Wednesday May 01, 2024 in Washington, DC. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
U.S. Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) takes part in a press conference where she said she would move forward next week with a motion to vacate Speaker of the House Mike Johnson (R-LA) on Wednesday May 01, 2024 in Washington, DC. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Marjorie Taylor Greene has a lot of big feelings about the Jews. Whenever the Georgia congresswoman opines on the topic, her thoughts are bound to produce some combination of hilarity and concern. Her latest musings on interfaith dialogue, in response to her vote against the Antisemitism Awareness Act of 2023, skew much more toward the latter. Greene appears to imagine this act as a threat to religious freedom, and grounds her position in an antisemitic trope that has led to violence against Jews for centuries.

H.R. 6090, the “2023 Awareness of Antisemitism Act,” was introduced last October and passed the House by a 320-91 vote on May 1. In an X post shortly before the House vote, Greene stated her intention to vote against it, saying that the bill “could convict Christians for believing the Gospel that says Jesus was handed over to Herod to be crucified by the Jews.” She’s not entirely making this up, since the bill adopts the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism, which includes “claims of Jews killing Jesus” as part of its definition. (For what it’s worth, the ACLU has also spoken out against H.R. 6090, arguing that it “threatens to censor political speech which is critical of Israel.”) 

Aside from Greene’s slippage from belief to acts — Americans will remain free to believe whatever they want, but could face penalties for harassing or intimidating others with those beliefs — her statement also indicates some basic problems with biblical literacy, or at least an intent to disguise her particular belief as a universally accepted truth.

Part of the challenge is in the way the term “Gospel” is used. The word literally means “truth” or “belief,” but is also used more specifically to mean the Christian message. Furthermore, the four books of the Bible that recount Jesus’ life and crucifixion — Matthew, Mark, Luke and John — are referred to as “the Four Gospels.” So when Greene refers to “the Gospel that says…” it’s unclear how she’s using the word. (It might be yet another case of MAGA’s love of deliberate ambiguity.) She might mean “the Gospel” as “the truth” — meaning, this is what a Bible-based Christian should believe. Or she might be referring to “the [one] Gospel that says Jesus was…crucified by the Jews,” as opposed to the others that take at least some steps to blame the religious leadership, not the people. While it’s always dangerous to chase MTG down her rabbit holes, I think it’s important to unpack what she’s talking about here.

In the Gospel accounts — which often have disagreements, or just supply different details — the Roman authorities and the Jewish religious leaders are both implicated in Jesus’ crucifixion. Jewish religious leaders are upset with him for offering new interpretations of their religious laws, interpretations which often pose a direct threat to the power structures in place. In addition, “the crowd” has some degree of culpability, though some of the Gospels take pains to highlight that this crowd was stirred up by the religious leaders. The current conflict in Gaza is just one example of how important it is to separate the morality and culpability of the leaders from that of the people. Much of the Gospel text asks us to do this as well.

The current conflict in Gaza is just one example of how important it is to separate the morality and culpability of the leaders from that of the people. The Gospel text asks us to do this as well.

In most of the Gospel accounts, it’s abundantly clear that the leaders are to blame. The Gospels of Luke and Mark ascribe the plot to the “chief priests and the scribes” (Luke 22:2; Mark 14:1), not to the people as a whole. It is this council of religious leaders that brings Jesus before Pilate, the gentile governor of Judea (Luke 23:1; Mark 14:53 — here Mark adds “the elders”). When Pilate offers to release him, a group Luke describes as “the chief priests, the leaders, and the people” (23:13) all demand that Pilate put Jesus to death. He’s crucified by Roman soldiers, not the Jews as Greene states in her post. John’s Gospel is more troubling, as it frequently refers to the crowd as “the Jews.” (Since we’re in Jerusalem, the majority of the people, including Jesus and his disciples, would have been Jewish, after all.) But in spite of this language that may trouble our sensibilities today, it’s clear that John also places the blame on the leadership, not on the people.

Things get stickier with the Gospel of Matthew, largely due to one deeply unfortunate line.

For most biblical scholars, Matthew’s in-depth knowledge of Scripture and Jewish law indicates that he was an observant Jew, writing to an audience that was primarily Jewish as well. So his rhetoric against “the Jews” who do not accept Christ’s divinity is more pointed than can be found in the other Gospels. Much of the account of Jesus’ arrest and trial follows that of the other Gospels; it is clear that the religious authorities are the primary drivers. But as Jesus’s crucifixion grows near, Pilate is increasingly frightened by how restless the crowd is getting. 

In this account, Pilate is more sympathetic to Jesus in this account. As he washes his hands, he says, “See, I am innocent of this man’s blood” (Matthew 27:24). The crowd then answers, “His blood be on us and on our children!” (27:25). It’s a horrifying line, one that the Guardian (in analyzing some of Sarah Palin’s ugly rhetoric) has called “the most notorious verse in the Bible.” There are good reasons to read this line in the context of Matthew’s Jewishness and see an author embroiled in a struggle about the direction of his own religious community, but the effects this verse has had are undeniable. For centuries, this was the verse that the Church used to justify persecution and murder of Jewish people.

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Mel Gibson stepped in the same controversy with his film “The Passion of the Christ.” While the screenplay was cobbled together from a variety of sources, the initial cut of the film included the crowd shouting this line from Matthew. Word that the scene had been included got out, and — after initially saying he would cut the scene — Gibson included the dialogue, but left it unsubtitled. I imagine the intent was to obscure the ugliness of the line while still remaining true to what he thought his Gospel source demanded, but I worry that it just makes the line serve as a dog whistle. Viewers who are prone to antisemitic interpretations understand perfectly well what line has been left without an English translation. (There are plenty of other problems with the film’s depictions of Judaism — a few examples are here.) Gibson had four Gospel sources to work with, and had to make choices about what to include and what to leave out. He chose to include this line, in spite of its terrible history of being used to justify antisemitic violence.

Greene makes a similar choice. While she might have you believe that her interpretation is “the Gospel,” it’s really just one way to read these accounts — and a particularly dangerous one. The Roman Catholic Church renounced the idea of Jewish responsibility for Jesus’ death in an official 1960 document, and most of mainline Christianity has been in agreement in the wake of the Holocaust. (Institutions can take a long time to get on the right side of history.) MTG’s use of “the Gospel” would have us believe that the basic tenets of Christianity are under threat, when the bill simply acknowledges that antisemitic tropes can do harm. Her use of this one indicates that she is, in fact, already well aware of antisemitism — aware enough to be a highly accomplished practitioner. For Greene, this is just the latest outburst in a long line of outlandish statements that indicate she has no interest in a serious reading of the texts she claims to hold in such high esteem, or in building relationships with anyone outside the MAGA tent.

By Brandon R. Grafius

Brandon R. Grafius is associate professor of biblical studies and academic dean at Ecumenical Theological Seminary, Detroit, where he teaches biblical interpretation and Hebrew. His most recent book is "Lurking Under the Surface: Horror, Religion, and the Questions that Haunt Us." Find him on X at @brgrafius.

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