And the disciples asked him, "Then why do the scribes say that first Elijah must come?" He answered, "Elijah does come, and he will restore all things. But I tell you, Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but have done to him everything they wished. In the same way the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands." Then the disciples understood that he was talking to them about John the Baptist.
In his article, Whom does the author of the Book of Matthew blame for the death of John Baptist?, Gerald Sigal of Jews for Judaism claims that Matthew blames the Jews for John the Baptist's death. He says the pronoun "they" in Matthew 17:12 refers to the Jews, and that therefore Matthew places the blame for John's persecution and death on "the Jews as a whole".
If we look at Jesus' answer in the fuller context of Matthew 17:10-13, one possibility is that "they" refers to the scribes (or Jewish teachers and elders in general), not the entire Jewish nation. Jesus denounced the scribes, along with the Pharisees and Sadducees, multiple times during his ministry, so it could be that he was emphasizing their culpability.
Another possibility is that Jesus was referring to everyone involved, but that does not mean he was referring to the entire Jewish nation and not Gentiles. Further on in Matthew 17:22-23, Jesus foretold that he would be "delivered into the hands of men" who would kill him. Then in 20:17-19, Jesus specifically said that the chief priests and scribes would sentence him to death and the Gentiles would mock him, flog him and kill him. Clearly Jesus is talking about both Jews and Gentiles being involved in his persecution and death, as well as only specific Jews and not the entire nation.
Furthermore, Matthew (as well as Mark and Luke) clearly implicated Herod and his wife as the persecutors of John: Herod had John imprisoned and Herodias asked for him to be beheaded. If one of Matthew's goals in writing the words in 17:12, or his gospel as a whole, had been to blame the Jews, surely he would have included accounts of Jewish persecution of John rather than focusing on Herod's responsibility.
Sigal further claims that "they" refers solely to the Jews because Matthew supposedly claimed the Jews took full responsibility for Jesus' death in Matthew 27:25. Yet this is not true (see Is the New Testament anti-Semitic?).
1. For instance,
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2. Mt 14:3-11,
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