During Lent, we have been leading a weekly Bible Study for members of the congregation, following the sequence of Gospel stories from John’s Gospel, where Jesus encounters a Judean man (Nicodemus), a Samaritan woman (anonymous), a man born blind (with his parents and neighbours, and the local religious leaders), and then a family in Bethany who were mourning a death (Martha, Mary, and Lazarus).
In the course of these discussions, the question arose as to the reason for the death of Jesus; and the oft-made statement was repeated, “the Jews killed Jesus”. This was actually taking the study along a different road from what we intended; so with the agreement of the group, we decided to schedule an additional study meeting during Holy Week where we could look at the matter in more detail. We particularly wanted to examine this claim and demonstrate why it cannot be sustained—it is a misunderstanding of the story which has been fed by decades (centuries, even) of intolerance, dislike, and even hatred for Jews and their religion.
Our study set out a number of key historical questions. What can be said about what actually happened? When did Jesus die? Where did he die? How did he die? Who killed him? Why did he die? In the first few decades of the early church, these questions were becoming increasingly important. Not many followers of Jesus had been present when Jesus was arrested and crucified. As more people joined the church, they wished to know what had happened. Eventually, some people wrote down accounts of what took place. They most likely had not been eyewitnesses to the death of Jesus; perhaps they retold, and expanded, stories from people who had been present.
In the New Testament, there are four attempts to answer just these kinds of questions. (Other accounts that tell a similar story can be found outside the New Testament.) The four canonical accounts, known as passion narratives, come towards the end of each gospel story (Mark 14–15; Matt 26–27; Luke 22–23; John 18–19). They reveal how the early church dealt with these historical questions. Answers to the questions are not given in a direct and systematic manner in the passion narrative; rather, as the story unfolds through the narrative, the answers emerge.
The story follows a familiar pattern in each biblical account. Jesus is arrested at night in a garden; tried before the Jewish Sanhedrin (the council of priests and scribes); sent to the Roman governor, Pilate; sentenced to death as “King of the Jews”; crucified on a hillside with two others; and then buried in a private tomb.
Each account also contains some distinctive material, such as Pilate’s wife’s dream, and the raising of the saints (in Matthew); the hearing before King Herod, and Jesus’ conversations on the cross (in Luke); and details of the conversation between Pilate and Jesus (in John). Given these particular differences between the four accounts, the general story still retains the same shape in all four biblical accounts.
A central historical issue in these accounts is, who killed Jesus? In Christian tradition, the claim has often been made that “the Jews killed Jesus”. Certainly, it is clear from the passion narratives, that there was Jewish involvement in the arrest and sentencing of Jesus. The high priest and the Sanhedrin (the council of priests and scribes) are clearly identified as making decisions about Jesus’ fate.
However, other ancient evidence raises doubts that the Sanhedrin actually had the power to act as it did in the gospel accounts. The way it proceeded appears to contradict rules that were established to ensure that justice was done. As the trial was dealing with a crime which could be punished by death (namely, blasphemy), it ought not to have met at night, as it apparently did; nor did it have the authority to meet on the eve of Passover. In order to bring a verdict of “guilty” in a capital case, the Sanhedrin ought to have left a day between the verdict and the conviction; yet no gospel accounts indicate that this was done. The trial is said to have taken place in the home of the high priest, yet this was probably not allowed in Jewish tradition. Although the record of these rules is known only from the third century, it is highly likely that they were in force in the first century. For these reasons, then, historians express some degree of scepticism about the accuracy of the story at this point.
The claim that “the Jews killed Jesus” overlooks the fact that he died as a result of a Roman punishment. The Roman governor, Pilate, was ultimately responsible for sentencing Jesus to death. Jesus was crucified (a Roman punishment) rather than stoned (a Jewish punishment). Jesus was sentenced to death on a political charge (under Roman jurisdiction), not the religious charge of blasphemy (under Jewish jurisdiction).
Jesus was put to death with two other men, described as “criminals” (a better translation would be “bandits” or “rebels”), reflecting the way the Romans kept order in the province of Judea. The charge against Jesus, “King of the Jews”, was a Roman description of how Jesus was seen, not a Jewish description. (The Jews would more likely have described Jesus as “King of Israel”.)
To say that “the Jews killed Jesus” is a broad, sweeping statement. Throughout history it has been used to charge all Jews, from all times, and in all places, with being responsible for the death of Jesus. One verse, Matthew 27:25, is often quoted to support this view. In this verse, the people cry out: “His blood be upon us and our children!” Throughout Christian history, this verse has been the catchcry used to validate widespread and indiscriminate attacks upon the Jews.
It is certainly clear that the specific Jewish leaders of the time, in first century Jerusalem, did plot Jesus’ death. However, this does not mean that all the Jews who were present in the crowds during the festival were responsible. Nor does it mean that all Jews of all subsequent times and places are responsible for Jesus’ death. Jewish responsibility for the death of Jesus can be placed only on a specific, limited group of leaders—most likely acting out of their own sense of political power in the particular context.
Furthermore, historians doubt that it would have been likely, or possible, for a massive crowd of Jewish pilgrims to have been given the opportunity to cry out for the death of Jesus, and the release of Barabbas, as the gospels report. There is no evidence that such a custom was known at the time, and it would have been a dangerous (indeed, foolhardy) custom for the Romans to allow.
Tragically, in the history of the church, the statement that “the Jews killed Jesus” has often been transposed into a stronger claim: “the Jews killed God”. This claim depends upon the traditional Christian claim that Jesus, the Son of God, is one person of the Trinity. It is a claim that derives from traditional theology. However, such a stark claim is never made in the biblical texts. To claim that “the Jews killed Jesus”, or that “the Jews killed God”, is to misread the evidence of the gospels, and to perpetuate a stereotype which arose long after Jesus had died. To use the story of Jesus’ death as a justification for anti-semitic attitudes and actions can no longer be tolerated.
As well as this inclination to blame the Jews, the gospels show a tendency towards excusing the Roman governor, Pilate, from ultimate responsibility for Jesus’ death. In the earliest gospel, Mark, Pilate asks a series of questions which indicate his puzzlement (Mark 15:2, 4, 9, 12, 14); he acts only “to satisfy the crowd” (Mark 15:15). In Luke, Pilate makes three clear declarations that Jesus is innocent (Luke 23:4, 14, 22). In Matthew, Pilate’s wife declares Jesus to be innocent (Matt 27:19), and Pilate himself washes his hands of the decision (Matt 27:24).
In John, Pilate declares that he can find no case against Jesus (John 18:38; 19:6), but when he is pressed to sentence Jesus to death, he does so out of fear (John 19:8) and under duress (John 19:12). Other contemporary accounts of Pilate indicate that this kind of behaviour would have been most unlikely. Pilate had a reputation for harsh rule; he did not hesitate to use his troops to squash potential uprisings. It is quite improbable that he would bow to the wishes of the Jewish crowd out of fear, or to release a known terrorist (Barabbas), as the gospels indicate.
The tendencies we find in the story of Jesus’ death, to excuse Pilate and to blame the Jews, can be understood by considering the setting in which the gospels were written. When these accounts were written, Roman authorities still held power. It is likely that at least three of the gospels were written after the Romans had defeated the Jews in the war of 66–74 (and destroyed the Temple). This helps to explain the way the Roman governor is excused in these accounts.
The gospels were also written at a time when the followers of Jesus (by then, known as the Christians) were becoming increasingly alienated from the Jewish authorities (represented by the Pharisees, and later to become the rabbis who shaped the Judaism that we know today). It is quite likely that some followers had been expelled from the synagogue for claiming that Jesus was the Messiah (John 9:22; 12:42; 16:2). In such a context, bitterness between the two groups escalated.
So, when the story of Jesus was told in the Gospels, the tendency to excuse the Romans went hand-in-hand with the temptation to place more blame on the Jews. In this way, the biblical accounts show evidence of a developing hostility towards “the Jews”—even though many of the early Christians were themselves originally Jewish. Many biblical scholars and historians now recognise this as a major factor that shaped the way the stories of Jesus’ death were written.
Our own context is different from the context in which the gospels were written. When we read them, and especially when we preach from them, we need to be sensitive to the differences in context. These differences become crucial when we read the passion narrative. To claim that “the Jews killed Jesus” is to misread the evidence of the gospels, and to perpetuate a stereotype that arose long after the death of Jesus. To use the passion narrative as a justification for anti-semitic attitudes and actions can no longer be tolerated.