Gaetz, Greene, and the cross they must bear

Gaetz, Greene, and the cross they must bear

“Some of my best friends are….”

Those words begin the classic defense offered by racists and others for the offensive things they say. As best as can be determined, this “defense” made its debut during the 1908 presidential campaign, when a third-party candidate for vice president viciously attacked the Republican nominee, William Howard Taft, while insisting that “some of my best friends are Republicans.”

By the mid-1930s, “some of my best friends are Jews” was so instantly identifiable as the mantra of antisemites that the journalist Robert Gessner used it as the title of his 1936 book on the plight of the Jews in Germany and Poland.

Two current members of the House of Representatives — Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) — have rewritten that defense, expressing it in just three simple words: “Antisemitism is wrong.” Both used those exact words on May 2 to defend their decision to vote against H.R. 6090, a bill the House overwhelmingly passed without their help (the vote was 320 to 91) but awaits an uncertain future in the Senate.

The full, long-winded title of the bill, which was introduced last October, is, “Antisemitism Awareness Act of 2023: An Act to provide for the consideration of a definition of antisemitism set forth by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance [IHRA] for the enforcement of Federal antidiscrimination laws concerning education programs or activities, and for other purposes.”

I, too, would have voted against H.R. 6090, because it has little to do with attacking antisemitism at its roots and — perhaps unintentionally — much to do with helping the Radical Right undermine many of our constitutionally guaranteed rights that we so cherish (or should cherish).

This column, however, is not meant as an analysis of H.R. 6090. It is about how Gaetz and Greene deliberately distorted what H.R. 6090 says in order to resurrect and promote the foundational belief of Christian antisemitism — that we Jews are all “Christ-killers.” It also is about how they used their “antisemitism is wrong” statement to provide them with the cover to perform this heinous resurrection — which, as of this writing 11 days after their posts, has yet to be condemned by anyone in the Republican Party’s congressional or political leadership, or in the Republican Jewish Coalition’s leadership.

Among the examples the IHRA gives as contemporary antisemitism is “making mendacious, dehumanizing, demonizing, or stereotypical allegations about Jews as a whole.” As Gaetz falsely claimed in his post on X, the former Twitter, “The Gospel itself would meet the definition of antisemitism under the terms of this bill!” That, he said, is because “the Gospel” distinctly asserts that the Jews killed Christ. “The Bible is clear,” Gaetz insisted — in bold letters, no less. “There is no myth or controversy on this.”

Greene, in her post on X, falsely asserted that H.R. 6090 could be used to “convict Christians of antisemitism for believing the Gospel that says Jesus was handed over to Herod to be crucified by the Jews.”

(It must be noted that neither Gaetz nor Greene said anything critical of the “Executive Order on Combating Anti-Semitism” that President Trump signed on December 11, 2019. That order required “all executive departments and agencies” to consider the IHRA definition and its accompanying examples in enforcing Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.)

Let me be clear about this: As flawed as H.R. 6090 is, it does not interfere with or criminalize the religious beliefs of Christians or anyone else. It does not restrict anyone’s freedom of religion.

In her post, Greene once again displayed her ignorance, this time by getting wrong what the Christian Bible actually says. The “Herod” she referred to was Herod’s son, Herod Antipas, the Roman puppet who ruled the Galilee region from which Jesus emerged. The Roman governor who had ordered Jesus’s arrest, Pontius Pilate, sent his prisoner to Antipas to be questioned. When the interrogation, such as it was, ended, Antipas sent Jesus back to Pilate, who promptly ordered his immediate execution. Jesus was crucified by the Romans, not “by the Jews.” (See Luke 23:7-12.)

Gaetz’s claim that the Christian Bible “is clear” that the Jews killed Jesus and that “[t]here is no myth or controversy on this” is either a sign of his ignorance or a deliberate distortion. There is nothing clear about Jesus’s execution in the Christian Bible, and it is the subject of much controversy.

The story in the Christian Bible that turned us into Christ-killers for the next 1,900 years — and brought about the deaths of untold numbers of Jews even before the Holocaust — involved an insincere amnesty offer made by Pontius Pilate to the Jews. As Mark 15:7-11 relates it, Pilate presented “the crowd” with two prisoners sentenced to death, Jesus and “a man called Barabbas [who] was in prison with the rebels who had committed murder during the insurrection,” an insurrection about which Mark otherwise says nothing. The “crowd” demanded that Barabbas be freed, and also demanded that Jesus be executed. So, “Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released Barabbas” and sent Jesus to his death.

Matthew, in his version of the story, the plaintext of which also puts the blame for Jesus’s crucifixion entirely on the Jews (see Matthew 27:16-21), mentions nothing about an insurrection or of Barabbas’s role in it, but he does mention something of perhaps greater significance, although many versions of Matthew leave out this essential and totally authenticated detail:

“At that time, they [the Romans] had a notorious prisoner, called Jesus Barabbas. So after they [the Jews] had gathered, Pilate said to them, ‘Whom do you want me to release for you, Jesus Barabbas or Jesus who is called the Messiah…?’”

The man’s name was Jesus Barabbas, not just Barabbas. Barabbas is not even a name. It is a patronym. The man’s name was Jesus bar Abba, meaning Jesus, son of the father.

There are many reasons offered for why most versions of Matthew dropped Jesus from Barabbas’s given name. Among them is the claim that “Jesus” was an insertion made by some scribes in the ancient manuscripts of Matthew, although no one can explain why any scribe would have made such an insertion.

Because Barabbas is the only name used throughout most of the Christian Bible, what also cannot be explained is why Pontius Pilate did not simply say, “Whom do you want me to release for you, Barabbas or Jesus?” Why did he feel the need to distinguish between the two men by adding “who is called the Messiah”?

It should be obvious, then, that “Jesus Barabbas” was the man’s name and Pilate needed to distinguish between the two men because of that. He was asking the people to choose between Jesus No. 1 and Jesus No. 2.

Even more likely, however, is that there was no Jesus No. 1 and Jesus No. 2. There was just Jesus. Pilate was not presenting someone named Barabbas to the people. He was presenting someone named Jesus bar Abba — Jesus son of the father. In other words, Pilate was asking “the crowd” to choose between two aspects of the same person.

“Which Jesus do you want?” he was saying. “The one who thinks he’s the son of God — bar Abba — and thus is delusional, but poses no threat to Roman rule? Or the one who thinks he’s the Messiah, meaning that he claims to be king of Israel, and therefore is a threat to Roman rule?” (Messiah, mashiach, means the anointed one, and it was a title given to all the kings in Israel and to all its high priests. It is and always has been a political title, not a spiritual one.)

Buried beneath the plaintext of Matthew, however, we are being told that Pilate — whom Rome eventually recalled because he was known for his excessive cruelty — never intended to grant Jesus amnesty. Jesus was convicted of being a rebel. This is suggested by the vague references in the Gospels to an ongoing insurrection. Crucifixion was a unique form of execution used by Rome primarily for such serious crimes as rebellion and treason against the state. Someone with Pilate’s reputation for cruelty would never have even considered freeing Jesus.

One can only guess at why these Christian texts recrafted Pilate’s offer, but to claim, as Gaetz did, that the Christian Bible “is clear” that the Jews killed Jesus and that “[t]here is no myth or controversy on this” is as absurd as the claim by these two classic Jew-haters, Gaetz and Greene, that “antisemitism is wrong.” Only Jew-haters would resurrect the “Christ-killer” charge that Pope John XXIII and the Catholic Church repudiated at 1965’s Vatican Council II.

Lest anyone claim that I am deliberately reinterpreting the story of Jesus’s crucifixion to suit my supposed anti-Republican agenda (some of my best friends — and relatives — are Republicans, by the way) I am not the first to re-examine the Christian Bible’s account, nor am I the most authoritative person to do so.

In 2011, no less a personage than the late Pope Benedict XVI did so in Chapter 7 of his book “Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week: From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection,” published by Ignatius Press. Not only did he explicitly reject the idea of collective Jewish guilt for Jesus’s death, but he laboriously reinterpreted the words used by Mark, Matthew, and John on which the “Christ-killer” charge is based.

To repeat: There is nothing “clear” in the Christian Bible about the Jews having killed Jesus. What is clear, however, is that Matt Gaetz and Marjorie Taylor Greene are antisemites through and through.

Shammai Engelmayer is rabbi of Kehillat Torat Chayim v’Chesed–a virtual congregation, and an adult education teacher in Bergen County. He is the author of eight books and the winner of 10 awards for his commentaries. His website is

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