Scholarly Research

Reference to “Jews” in the Death of Jesus
Research in a Lexicon by the Rev. Dr. Frederick W. Danker, 2001

For centuries, when Christians studied Gospel readings about Jesus’ final hours, they read that “the Jews” shouted out to Pontius Pilate, the Roman prefect of Judea, that Jesus should be crucified.

For much of modern history, Jewish people have been blamed because of the belief that Jews called for Jesus’ death, said The Rev. Frederick William Danker, a Lutheran Greek scholar who has written “A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature,” published by the University of Chicago in 2001.

Danker says that the word Jew is an inadequate translation. In using the word Jews, the nuance is gone. The word Judean is the accurate word, he says. He suggests the word Jew should be changed in most of the Gospel stories about Jesus’ sentencing to execution. Judean refers to people who lived in a particular region during Jesus’ death and not to all Jews.

For centuries, Bible scholars have taken the Greek word ioudaioe, pronounced you-day-oi, and translated the word as Jews. However, Danker says those who study how the word iudaioe was used in legal and other secular texts and tombstone inscriptions in the first century should avoid the religious and ethnic descriptive word Jew because it doesn’t accurately tell the story. Instead, translators should translate the word ioudaioe to be geographically specific, rather than ethnically or religiously specific.

Danker says that the term iudaioe is especially used in the Gospel of John, and it is closer to Judeans, which is a multifaceted, excellent term. The word Judeans was understood by the Romans as the proper name for the people who lived then in southern Palestine. This scholar declares that Judeans can be understood ethnically as people who lived under specific rules and regulations near Jerusalem. The hard-liners in Jesus’ time were in Judea, in Jerusalem. Some of the Jews, who didn’t go along with the Jerusalem chief priest and his hard-liners, were in the outlying areas.

No one should charge the first-century Jews who lived in Galilee, in distant Roman provinces around the Mediterranean world or along the great river networks of Europe where the Roman-Hellenistic culture prevailed with deciding and calling out that Jesus warranted the death sentence. John’s Gospel use of the word ioudaioe certainly does not include them, says Danker. Those Jews accustomed to Greek culture in the (Roman) provinces looked askance at the hard-liners trying to impose their laws on those outside Jerusalem, and that’s why St. Paul got into trouble.

Disagreements between the chief priest and Jews outside Jerusalem is one reason St. Paul was so successful in winning Jews in Greece and Rome to Christianity, Danker has said.

Danker notes that some Jews in Jerusalem also disapproved Jesus’ sentence of crucifixion. Nicodemus, the Pharisee, and Joseph of Arimathea are two examples. People forget that most of the early Christians were Jews.

Over the centuries, the word Jew in translations got so distorted and caused so much unnecessary acrimony, causing tragedies between Christians and Jews.

The 16th-century Greek scholars who translated the King James version of the Bible mostly used the classical Greek of Aristotle and other writers of Greece’s golden age, who wrote 300 years before the Gospel writers. Today, the King James Bible and the Revised Standard Version translations of the Bible are “so ingrained in us that we automatically think of their words in their form,” Danker said.

Danker graduated from Concordia (Lutheran) Seminary in the St. Louis area. He joined the Concordia faculty in 1954 and over the years, received a Ph.D. in Greek and Latin classics at the University of Chicago. He remained on the faculty of what became Christ Seminary Seminex and then the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago until 1988.

Information for this article comes from an original article in 2001 in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and reprinted by the journal of the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago that same year.