An excerpt from Gathered in One: How the Book of Mormon Counters Anti-Semitism in the New Testament by Bradley J. Kramer.

In addition to confirming the Jews’ ongoing place in God’s covenant despite occasional disobedience, sinfulness, and hypocrisy, the Book of Mormon also refutes other reasons Christians have traditionally considered Jews rejected by God. The most cited reason is, of course, the Matthean claim that “all the [Jewish] people” called for Jesus’s crucifixion and that his blood has therefore stained them and their descendants forever (Matt. 27:25). This the Book of Mormon repudiates out of hand simply by virtue of its subject matter: a group of Jews living so far away from the events described in the Gospels that they clearly could not have been involved in Jesus’s death in any way whatsoever. However, as effective as this point may be by itself, the Book of Mormon bolsters it by including supportive statements and analogous portrayals that similarly limit Jewish involvement and guilt with respect to Jesus’s death.

Regarding these supportive statements, it should be noted first of all that none of the prophets in the Book of Mormon, living somewhere across the ocean, far off in the ancient Americas, is acquainted with the Judean political, religious, or military situation during the first century of the Common Era. They therefore are incapable of addressing any specific issues relevant to this area during this time. Secondly, how Jesus died appears to be only minimally relevant to the main messianic message these prophets attempt to convey—namely, that Jesus died for humanity’s sins, was resurrected, and will one day usher in an extended era of peace, prosperity, equality, and righteous.

For instance, the Book of Mormon prophets most often describe Jesus’s death using passive voice constructions, which leave unspecified those who responsible for his death. Nephi, for instance, recounts his vision of Jesus’s death saying only that Jesus “was lifted up upon the cross and slain for the sins of the world” (1 Ne. 11:33). Abinadi similarly prophesies that Jesus will be “led, crucified, and slain” without mentioning who will do the leading, crucifying, and slaying (Mosiah 15:7). Samuel the Lamanite too states that Jesus will “suffer many things and shall be slain for his people” (Hel. 13:6), and even Jesus himself, soon after his death and resurrection in Jerusalem, descends from the heavens in Bountiful and commands the Nephite multitude to feel his wounds, so that they may know that he has “been slain for the sins of the world” (3 Ne. 11:14).

Furthermore, during the rare times when the prophets in the Book of Mormon do attempt to identify Jesus’s killers, they do so using vague terms, such as “the world” or “wicked men” (1 Ne. 19:7-10), or they employ phrases that while they may appear at first to indict all Jews everywhere actually absolve the vast majority of Jews of any involvement whatsoever in Jesus’s death. Jacob’s “they at Jerusalem” (2 Ne. 10:5), for example, may seem to some readers, unfamiliar with Jewish history to prophesy that the Jews in general will crucify Jesus. These readers link this phrase with “the Jews” in verse 3 and see it as both affirming and intensifying Jewish culpability. To them, the statement that “there is none other nation on earth that would crucify their God” seems to damn all Jews everywhere. However, only a relatively small percentage of the world’s Jews at that time lived in Jerusalem and the area around it.

During the time of Jesus, most Jews were still residing in Babylon or were scattered throughout the eastern Mediterranean, in cities such as Alexandria, Antioch, and Ephesus. These “diaspora” Jews were the descendants of the vast number of Jews who did not return to their ancient homeland after the Persians defeated the Babylonians and instead took advantage of the new opportunities afforded them by their conquerors to spread themselves throughout the region. Indeed, David Klinghoffer, a Jewish historian and essayist, estimates that during Jesus’s time there were about a million Jews living in “Jewish Palestine” while five million Jews were dispersed around the Mediterranean and throughout the Middle East.[1]

Other scholars, such as Samuel Sandmel, think that that this 5 to 1 ratio could have been even higher—possibly even 10 to 1.[2] And Jerusalem was only one city in “Jewish Palestine.” As a result, “they at Jerusalem” instead of prophetically spreading the responsibility of Jesus’s death to all Jews everywhere actually limits it to an extremely small segment of the overall Jewish population. Rather than serving as a synonym of “the Jews,” this phrase in fact functions as an appositive, the last element in a grammatical sequence that shrinks the number of Jews connected to Jesus’s death geographically, place by place, from all Jews everywhere to “those who are the more wicked part of the world” to just those Jews living in Jerusalem during the early first century.[3]

But were all Jews living in 1st century Jerusalem responsible for Jesus’s death? No, not according to the Book of Mormon. Just as the subject of 2 Nephi 10:5 prophetically reduces the number of Jews who will be involved in Jesus’s death to a small fraction of the Jews living during the first third of the first century C.E., its predicate softens what that involvement will be. Here, “they shall crucify him” of verse 3 becomes “they . . . will stiffen their necks against him, that he be crucified.” In other words, not only will a small number of Jews contribute to Jesus’s death sometime in the future but their contribution will be small as well—possibly consisting only of an unwillingness to speak up against it or a reluctance to challenge publically those pushing it. Furthermore, as the introductory phrase of 2 Nephi 10:5 points out, whatever these people will (or will not) do will occur not because of an informed, deep-seated, conscious conviction but “because of priestcrafts and iniquities.” In other words, many of these first-century Jerusalemites will be manipulated, psychologically or physically, by their corrupt priests and leaders. Consequently, it is these Jewish priests and leaders who bear most of the non-Roman responsibility for Jesus’s death, not the general Jewish populace.

In this way, instead of reinforcing the traditional Christian charge that all Jews are to blame for Jesus’s death, 2 Nephi 10:3-5 actually refutes it and does so purposefully. Jacob, speaking five centuries before Jesus, may not have known many of details of the great post-Captivity Jewish dispersion, but he was certainly well versed as to its extent. Not only was his family led by God to a distant continent, far across the sea, long before Jesus’s birth, but he sees in Isaiah’s use of the term “isles” (Isa. 51:5) a reference to other groups of Jews in similar situations. As a result, he concludes that “the Lord God has led away [others] from time to time from the house of Israel, [out of Jerusalem] according to his will and pleasure” (2 Ne. 10:21-22). Furthermore, Jacob also cites Zenos’s prophecy, which describes how many Israelite “branches” were broken off from the main trunk and were taken to the “nethermost parts of [God’s] vineyard” (Jacob 5:14). Most of these were placed in poor spots of land. However, all of them flourished for a time and brought forth “much fruit,” meaning people, far away from their homeland in Jerusalem—and they did so long before Jesus was born, grew up and died (vv. 20-23).

However, 2 Nephi 10 is not the only section in the Book of Mormon that counters the notion that Jews as a whole were guilty of Jesus’s death. The entire last half of the book of Mosiah also addresses this issue—not directly, by providing its readers with a clear statements of Jewish innocence, but analogically, by presenting them with a similar death in a similar society where the people in general are not held responsible. In these chapters, readers of the Book of Mormon are introduced to the Zeniffites, a group of Nephite Jews who, like the first-century inhabitants of Jerusalem, represent a small part of the larger Jewish population around them. These Zeniffites, like the Jerusalemites of Jesus’s time, have ancestors who left the main group of Jews in that region in order to reclaim the “land of their fathers” (Mosiah 7:9). And their ancestors too, like those of Jesus’s Jerusalemites, soon fell under the sway of a corrupt leader—not a Maccabean king or a Herodian successor, but King Noah, a ruler who, like these Judean kings, burdened his people with grievous taxes, installed his cronies as temple priests, and built “many elegant and spacious buildings” (11:1-8).

Like the first-century Jerusalemites, the Zeniffites were also visited by a prophet who, in addition to testifying of Jesus, sounds very much like him. Like Jesus, Abinadi comes unexpectedly, not as an impressive figure or as a military hero but as a man much like any other at that time. Like Jesus, he pronounces woes “unto this generation.” And, like Jesus, he predicts their imminent demise and destruction (Mosiah 12:2-8; Matt. 23:33-39). In addition, Abinadi prophesies “concerning the coming of the Messiah” and quotes Isaiah 53, explaining that “God himself shall come down among the children of men,” that he shall “go forth in mighty power upon the face of the earth,” and that he shall be “led, crucified, and slain” all in order to take upon himself the iniquity of his people, (Mosiah 13:33-34; 15:7-9). These prophecies find fulfillment both in Abinadi’s life as well as in Jesus’s. Meeting a similar fate as Jesus, Abinidi is arrested and called before a council of his political and religious leaders, where he is questioned as to his messianic beliefs, mocked, and sentenced to be scourged and executed in an extremely gruesome manner.

However, unlike Jesus, Abinadi does not go like a lamb, silently, to the slaughter (Matt. 27:12). Just before he is burned at the stake, he pronounces a curse upon his killers:

And it will come to pass that ye shall be afflicted with all manner of diseases because of your iniquities. Yea, and ye shall be smitten on every hand, and shall be driven and scattered to and fro, even as a wild flock is driven by wild and ferocious beasts. And in that day ye shall be hunted, and ye shall be taken by the hand of your enemies, and then ye shall suffer, as I suffer, the pains of death by fire. (Mosiah 17:16-18)

In many ways, Abinadi’s curse is similar to the punishment Christians have traditionally thought God pronounced upon the Jews for killing Jesus. However, in Abinadi’s case only those leaders directly involved in his death are punished in this way. King Noah, the person who actually sentenced Abinadi, suffers death by fire in direct fulfillment of Abinadi’s word (19:20), and the priests, those who advised King Noah and goaded him on, are similarly hunted down and executed by the Lamanites (Alma 25:8-12). However, the general Zeniffite population is not affected. To be sure, they are later conquered by the Lamanites, afflicted with high taxes, and finally forced to abandon their lands and return, at great cost, to the main body of Nephites. However, these difficulties arise from their sins in general, their pride and greed and selfishness, and not as a result of their involvement in Abinadi’s death (Mosiah 21:5-15). In addition, the main group of Nephites in Zarahemla and elsewhere in the Americas are completely unaffected by Abinadi’s death and therefore appear to bear no responsibility whatsoever for it. In other words, although all of the Zeniffites may have to some degree participated in Abinadi’s death since he was executed in their land, only their king and his priests, through their deaths, are shown to be blameworthy. The people themselves are innocent, as are their children and the Nephite nation in general.

In this way, by analogy, the Book of Mormon renders a verdict as to who was responsible of Jesus’s death. Ruling decision makers, mostly Roman, are clearly guilty, as are to some degree their advisors, those who pressed for his death. However, the general population of Jerusalem was not. And neither was the vast majority of Jews who lived outside of Jerusalem. Some Jewish leaders at that time were most likely involved in Jesus’s death to some way or other and therefore bear some guilt, but given the methods used to execute him, even they cannot, strictly speaking, be called Christ-killers. Since only Romans crucified people, that term can only be applied to Romans—not to Jews then and certainly not now.

[1] David Klinghoffer. Why the Jews Rejected Jesus (New York: Doubleday, 2005), 44.

[2] Sandmel. A Jewish Understanding of the New Testament, 19-20.

[3] Nephi and Mormon use similar phraseology to limit Jewish involvement in Jesus’s death to a small number of Jews living at a specific place and time (1 Ne. 19:13; 2 Ne. 25:10-13; 4 Ne. 1:31).