As Yeshua stood before Pontius Pilate, the crowd’s chants of “Crucify Him!” intensified:
When Pilate saw that he was accomplishing nothing, but rather that a riot was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this Man’s blood; see to that yourselves.” (Matthew 27:24)
Though his wife tried to dissuade him and his own superstitions made him hesitate, Pilate could not work up the moral backbone to prevent an innocent man from being crucified. He had sent many such men to their deaths before, and he would send many more before his term in Judea was over. Instead of pursuing justice, he appeased his superstitious suspicions by a hand-washing ritual in front of the crowd and disavowed responsibility. He said, “I am innocent of this Man’s blood; see to that yourselves” (Matthew 27:24).
From a Jewish perspective, ritual hand-washing sometimes symbolizes innocence:
I shall wash my hands in innocence. (Psalm 26:6)
Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure and washed my hands in innocence. (Psalm 73:13)
All the elders of that city which is nearest to the slain man shall wash their hands over the heifer whose neck was broken in the valley. (Deuteronomy 21:6)
Would the Roman governor have known or practiced a Jewish custom? As prefect over Judea for four years already, he may well have understood the symbolism of hand-washing in a Jewish context. Moreover, parallels exist in Greek and Roman literature that attest to similar ritual protests of innocence.
Some in the crowd replied, “Let his blood be on us and on our children!” (Matthew 27:25), a Hebrew idiom meaning, “Let the responsibility and punishment for his murder be upon us”:
In a capital case where a man is wrongfully put to death by the court, the blood of the accused and the blood of all those who were destined to be born to him are held against [the false witness] forever. For this is what we find in the case of Cain who slew his brother, as it says [in Genesis 4:10], “The bloods of your brother cry.” It does not say “the blood of your brother” but “the bloods of your brother”—both his blood and those who were destined to be born of him. (Mishnah)
Christians have sometimes taken an unhealthy and morbid delight in the self-imprecation of Matthew 27:25. Under the assumptions of replacement theology, the words are often invoked as an explanation for Jewish suffering and as a justification for brutalizing the Jewish people. Though the entire passion narrative has been used to justify Christian anti-Semitism, Matthew 27:25 has a special priority with those who hate Jews in the name of Jesus.
The small band of Zealots and the Sadducean cheerleaders from the ranks of the priest-politicians could not invoke an eternal curse upon all Jewish people for all time. Nonetheless, their words answered the Master’s own chilling prediction:
You are sons of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of the guilt of your fathers … you will kill and crucify … so that upon you may fall the guilt of all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah … Truly I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation. (Matthew 23:31-36)
The Jewish Revolt and war with Rome virtually erased the Zealots of Jerusalem and the elite Sadducean priesthood who sponsored the crucifixion. Both parties and their children suffered a terrible, agonizing bloodletting. Rabbi Yechiel Tzvi Lichtenstein explains that this admission of guilt and responsibility should not be assigned to the whole nation: “It is the Sadducees who cried, ‘Let his blood be on us and on our children!’ And actually, the whole sect of the Sadducees perished in the war that destroyed the Second Temple” (Commentary on the New Testament).
Both Jews and believers in Yeshua interpreted the disasters that befell Jerusalem and the Jewish people during the war with Rome as the divine wrath of God. Josephus repeatedly attributed the fall of Jerusalem to the savage brutalities the Zealots committed against other Jews. Likewise, rabbinic sources attribute the fall of Jerusalem to the baseless hatred rampant in that generation. From the perspective of the Gospel of Matthew, all these things befell the city because of the brutality and baseless hatred that the generation unleashed upon the Messiah.
Does the curse extend beyond that generation and their children? Yeshua Himself limited the duration of the coming time of punishment to His own generation:
Truly I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation. Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place. (Matthew 23:36, 24:34)