Why Good Friday was dangerous for Jews in the Middle Ages and how that changed

As Christians observe Good Friday they will remember, with devotion and prayer, the death of Jesus on the Cross. It is a day of solemnity in which Christians give thanks for their salvation made possible by the suffering of Jesus. They prepare for rejoicing on Easter Sunday, when the resurrection of Jesus is celebrated.

In the Middle Ages, however, Good Friday was a dangerous time for Jews.

Good Friday in the Middle Ages

As a scholar of Jewish-Christian relations, I teach a course called “Undoing Anti-Judaism” at my seminary with a local rabbi. What I have found is that since at least the fourth century, Christians have traditionally read the Gospel of John’s version of the trial and death of Jesus during Good Friday services. This gospel persistently uses the phrase “the Jews” to describe those who conspired to kill Jesus.

This language shifted the blame for the death of Jesus in medieval Christianity from Roman authorities to the Jewish people as a whole.

During the medieval Good Friday service, Christians prayed for the “perfidious” – or deceitful – Jews that God might “remove the veil from their hearts so that they would know Jesus Christ.” In another part of the service, a crucifix was placed in front of the congregation so people could venerate the crucified body of Jesus.

During this time, a chant known as “the Reproaches” was sung. In this piece, the voice of God accused the Jewish people of faithlessness in rejecting Jesus as their Messiah and crucifying him instead.

Medieval Christians thus received the message on Good Friday that the Jews who lived in their midst were the enemies of Christians who killed their savior and needed to either convert to Christianity or face divine punishment.

Good Friday and medieval Jews

This language about Jews in the medieval Good Friday liturgy often carried over into physical violence toward local Jewish communities.

It was common for Jewish houses to be attacked with stones. Often these attacks were led by the clergy. David Nirenberg, a scholar of medieval Jewish-Christian relations, argues that this violence reenacted the violence of Jesus’ suffering and death.

Another scholar of this history, Lester Little, argues that the attack on the Jewish community was meant to be a revenge for the death of Jesus and a ritual act that reinforced the boundary between Jews and Christians.

Local clergy who encouraged and participated in the violence against Jews were in violation of the rules of their own church. Church law sought to protect Jews and required them to stay inside on Good Friday. Historically, the western church took responsibility for the safeguarding of Jewish communities because they viewed Jews as preservers of the Old Testament, and thus of the prophecies concerning Jesus. Official positions were, however, often ignored locally as many Christians sought to assert their power over the Jewish community.

Civil authorities protected Jews by setting up armed guards and not permitting Christians under 16 years to throw stones. But this could not always prevent bloodshed and violence.

What changed after World War II

Although violence against Jews on Good Friday receded after the medieval period, the language about Jews in the Good Friday service did not go away until the 20th century. After the Holocaust, Christian churches realized that their own teachings and practices had contributed to the Nazi genocide against the Jewish people.