Each issue carries an imprimatur from
the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. Reprinting prohibited
The Death of Jesus: Then and Now
When we Christians make our profession of faith every Sunday, we say: “For our sake
he [Jesus] was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered, died and was buried.” This statement,
so familiar to us, raises questions that are pivotal in our historical portrait of Jesus:
1. What circumstances led to Jesus’ death? 2. Who killed Jesus? 3. Why did Jesus die?
The accounts of Jesus’ passion and death in the four Gospels agree on many basic points.
They tell us that Jesus was arrested, underwent two hearings or trials, was sentenced to
death by crucifixion and died on a cross. Mark’s passion narrative seems to have been the
earliest; indeed, large blocks of it may have existed even before he completed his Gospel
around 70 A.D. Matthew and Luke both used Mark as a source and included material from
other traditions as well. John’s Gospel represents a separate tradition, while agreeing with
Mark on many points.
None of the four evangelists set out to write a detailed chronicle of the day on which
Jesus died, though each of them provides some reliable historical details. Their real interest
lay in the theological significance of Jesus’ death for us and for our sins, and how his death
took place according to the Old Testament prophecies.
A form of Roman punishment
The best clue toward determining who killed Jesus is found in the way he died—by crucifixion. In Jesus’ time, crucifixion was a Roman punishment inflicted mainly on slaves and revolutionaries. The usual Jewish mode of execution was stoning, as in the case of Stephen (Acts 7:54-60). Crucifixion was a cruel and public way to die. It was meant to shame the one being executed and to deter onlookers from doing what he had done.
The official who had the power to
execute Jesus by crucifixion was the
Roman governor or prefect of Judea,
Pontius Pilate. Jesus was put to death
“under Pontius Pilate” around the year
30 A.D. Although the Gospels present
Pilate as indecisive and somewhat
concerned for justice in Jesus’ case,
the Alexandrian Jewish writer Philo,
a contemporary of Jesus, described Pilate
as “inflexible, merciless and obstinate.”
All four Gospels recount a proceeding
or hearing in which Jesus appears before
Pontius Pilate. In the Gospels of Matthew,
Mark and Luke, Pilate questions Jesus
and offers the crowd a choice between
Barabbas, a convicted criminal, and Jesus.
At the urging of the chief priests, the
crowd calls for Barabbas to be released
and for Jesus to be crucified. Pilate bows
to their pressure and has Jesus scourged
and handed over to be put to death.
John’s elaborate account of Jesus’ trial
before Pilate also ends with Pilate
handing over Jesus to be executed.
King or rebel?
The official charge leveled against Jesus
appears in the inscription placed on
the cross: “the King of the Jews.” To
Christians, this title ironically expresses
the truth that Jesus really was the
Messiah of Jewish expectations. To Pilate
and the Jewish leaders, however, Jesus
was one in a series of Jewish religious-political
troublemakers intent on
destroying the Roman Empire and the
status quo at Jerusalem in the name
of the Kingdom of God.
Josephus described some of these
Jewish Messiah figures in his Jewish
Antiquities. They often used religious
symbols and traditions to gain a popular
following and to begin an uprising. The
Roman officials dealt with them swiftly
Jesus did not die alone. Rather, he was
crucified along with two men described
in various translations as “thieves,”
“bandits,” “rebels” or “revolutionaries”—the same Greek word Mark applied to
Barabbas (15:7). While the evangelists
were quick to deny that Jesus was one
of them, it is likely that Pilate viewed
him as another one of those Jewish
So the manner of Jesus’ death
(crucifixion), the legal system in force
(with Pilate having ultimate authority
in capital cases), the official charge
against Jesus (“the King of the Jews”)
and the type of persons crucified along
with him (thieves, bandits, rebels,
revolutionaries) all point to the conclusion
that the ultimate legal and moral
responsibility for Jesus’ death lay with
the Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate.
‘…suffered and died under Pontius Pilate’
How Pilate came to be prefect of
Judea is important in assessing Jewish
responsibility for Jesus’ death. With the
success of the Maccabean revolt in the
mid-second century B.C., Judea gained
political independence as well as a
powerful protector in Rome. The Romans
were called upon not only to defend
the Maccabean dynasty from its foreign
enemies but also to resolve internal
and even family disputes.
Herod the Great married into the
Maccabean priestly/ruling family and
served as a king in the service of the
Romans from 40 to 4 B.C. Upon Herod’s
death, the region of Judea was assigned to one of his sons, Herod Archelaus.
After 10 years of turmoil and rebellion,
the Romans decided to take direct
control of Judea by appointing a Roman
prefect or governor in 6 A.D. The most
famous of these was Pontius Pilate.
It was Roman policy to work with local
peoples. When things got out of hand, the
Roman armies would intervene with brutal
force. In normal times, however, the
Romans relied on local officials to collect
taxes and keep the peace. So in Judea it
was natural that there would be Jews who
were willing to do the Romans’ bidding.
Jerusalem: destination of pilgrims
Jerusalem was a pilgrimage center for Jews
living in Jerusalem and beyond. Three
times a year—at the feasts of Passover,
Weeks/Pentecost and Tabernacles—Jews
came in large numbers to worship at the
Temple. The pilgrimage trade was a
major industry in Jerusalem.
The restoration and expansion of
the Temple, begun as part of Herod the
Great’s ambitious building program,
was likewise a major industry. To a great
extent, the chief priests and elders in
Jerusalem oversaw this project.
The pilgrimages brought many people
to Jerusalem. The themes of the great
festivals, especially Passover with its
commemoration of ancient Israel’s liberation
from slavery in Egypt, could easily
incite nationalistic fervor and rebellion.
So it was customary that the Roman
prefect, whose official residence was in
Caesarea Maritima on the Mediterranean
seacoast, would come to Jerusalem to
work with the local Jewish leaders to
keep matters under control. They all
had the same goal—to keep the peace.
Jesus takes the stand
Each Gospel recounts Jesus appearing at
a trial or hearing before the Jewish council
presided over by the high priest. The Jews
who took the initiative in this proceeding
were not the Pharisees, opponents of
Jesus during his public ministry, but those
who had the most stake in the smooth
running of the Temple and the peace of
Jerusalem: the chief priests and elders.
According to Mark, there were two
charges made against Jesus: He threatened
to destroy the Temple and in three
days to “build another, not made with
hands” (14:58), and he claimed to be
“the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed
One” (14:61). There was surely some
historical basis for these allegations.
Jesus’ threat against the Temple fits
with his symbolic prophetic action in
“cleansing” the Temple (Mk 11:15-19)
and his prophecy about its destruction
(Mk 13:1-2). For the Jewish leaders,
merchants and construction workers
whose livelihood depended on the
smooth running of the Temple, the
slightest threat against the Temple—even a symbolic one—would have been
taken very seriously.
Talk about Jesus as “the Messiah, the
Son of the Blessed One” surely would
have set off alarms, not only among the
Romans but also among the Jewish leaders.
Both viewed Jesus as another religious-political
messianic pretender who had
to be dealt with quickly. The kind of
language being used about Jesus in
some circles alerted them to the danger
that he might pose to their power and
to the status quo.
Degree of Jewish responsibility
The Gospels suggest that the Jewish
leaders were the prime movers in
getting Jesus executed and that the
Romans only ratified their decision. At the other end of the spectrum,
however, some scholars argue that no
Jewish authority was involved in any
way. Between these two extremes there
are mediating positions. Some scholars
say that the Romans were the prime
movers and that the Jewish authorities
reluctantly gave in to pressure from
them. Others state that, even though
Jewish leaders were actively involved,
the Romans carried out the main
Two important points emerge:
Jesus was executed “under Pontius
Pilate,” and the Jewish authorities at
Jerusalem very likely played some role
in getting Jesus killed. Whatever Jewish
responsibility there may have been
lay with a small group (the chief
priests and elders) in a specific place
(Jerusalem) and at a specific time
(Passover of 30 A.D.). The response in
Matthew 27:25—“His blood be on us
and on our children!”—is best taken
as referring to the crowd (“us”)
manipulated by their leaders and
to the destruction of Jerusalem in
70 A.D. (“our children”), not to the
whole Jewish people for all ages.
The Christian perspective
The official position of the Catholic
Church is clearly stated in Vatican II’s
Declaration on the Relation of the Church
to Non-Christian Religions (Nostra Aetate):
“Even though the Jewish authorities and
those who followed their lead pressed
for the death of Christ (see Jn 19:6),
neither all Jews indiscriminately at
that time, nor Jews today, can be
charged with the crimes committed
during his passion” (#4).
Christians today need to be
sensitive to the tendency in the Gospels
to emphasize the responsibility of
the Jewish leaders in Jesus’ death and
to play down the role of the Romans.
One can get the impression that the
Jewish leaders simply manipulated
Pilate to pass sentence on Jesus, and
that he turned Jesus over to them to
The impression grows as one moves
from Mark to Matthew and Luke, who both
used Mark as their main source. Moreover,
John’s Gospel lumps all of Jesus’ opponents
under the title “the Jews,” thus
apparently extending Jewish responsibility
beyond the chief priests and elders.
Such passages need to be read in
their late first-century historical context
when Jerusalem had been destroyed
and Christians were accommodating
themselves to life within the Roman
Empire. When removed from that
historical context, these texts can
contribute to anti-Semitism and
obscure the Jewishness of Jesus as
well as the Jewish character of early
We began by raising three pivotal
questions about the death of Jesus.
Now we can better answer them.
1. What circumstances led to Jesus’
death? On the historical level, one can
point to the sinful social structures in
first-century Palestine and the spiral of
violence that led Pilate to view Jesus
as a dangerous Jewish rebel. On the
theological level, one can say that Jesus’
death on the cross was the result of our
2. Who killed Jesus? Pontius Pilate,
with cooperation from some Jewish
leaders in Jerusalem, killed Jesus.
3. Why did Jesus die? The New
Testament writers give several profound
theological responses: Jesus died in accord
with God’s will as expressed in the
Scriptures (Matthew). Jesus died a sacrificial
death for us and for our sins (Mark,
Paul, Hebrews). In his death Jesus gave
us an example of fidelity in suffering
(Luke). Jesus’ death was part of his work
in revealing God, his glorious return to
the Father (John) and the pledge of his
second coming (Revelation).
When you look at a crucifix, do
you consider the emotional and
physical agony of Jesus’ death?
Why do you think Jesus had to
die in such a humiliating and
There is still a great deal of
lingering anti-Semitism, much
of it related to the Jews’
perceived role in Jesus’ death.
How does Fr. Harrington’s
explanation of their role help
you? Does it change any of
your own prejudices?
How does Jesus’ death make
a difference in your life?
Take some time this week to
share your response with him
Next: The Resurrection: High Point of History
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