Who killed Jesus? Pontius Pilate, with the cooperation of some Jewish leaders in Jerusalem. What killed Jesus? History points to the sinful social structures of first-century Palestine and a spiral of violence, while theology says it was the result of human sinfulness.

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Who Killed Jesus?

by Daniel J. Harrington, S.J.

Who killed Jesus? This simple question needs and deserves a careful answer. Throughout the centuries some have responded that the Jews killed Jesus, and therefore they are a "deicide" people. The word "deicide" means to kill God. Since Jesus is divine and since the Jews killed Jesus, therefore they must be a deicide people. This "logic" sometimes gave Christians a rationale and a motive for killing Jews. One result of this tradition was the Nazi Holocaust or Shoah. The hideous results of a careless answer to a simple question prove the need for taking the issue with utmost seriousness.

The Sources

The only ancient sources that we have for who killed Jesus are the passion narratives in the four Gospels: Mark 14—15, Matthew 26—27, Luke 22—23, and John 18—19. The four accounts 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 the cross. Mark's account seems to have been the earliest; indeed, large blocks of it may have existed even before the Gospel's composition around a.d. 70. Matthew followed Mark closely, though he did add some (perhaps traditional) material. Luke too used Mark as a source but included more material. John represents a separate tradition, while agreeing with Mark on many matters.

None of the Evangelists set out to write a detailed chronicle of the day Jesus died. All of them provide some reliable historical details. But 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 Scriptures.

A modern historian who sets out to determine who killed Jesus is like a detective. To solve a case, a good detective needs to assemble the evidence and look for details that may provide a window into what really happened. By sifting the evidence and noticing especially what does not fit, a historian/detective can arrive at a reasonable hypothesis on which to build a case.

Historical Responsibilities

The best clue toward determining who killed Jesus is the mode of Jesus' death—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 (see Acts 7:54-60). Crucifixion was a cruel and public way to die. As a public punishment, it was meant to shame the one being executed and to deter the onlookers from doing what he had done.

The official who had the power to execute Jesus by crucifixion was the Roman governor or prefect. In Jesus' time the prefect was Pontius Pilate, who held that position between a.d. 26 and 36. Jesus was put to death "under Pontius Pilate" around a.d. 30. 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 him as "inflexible, merciless, and obstinate."

All four Gospels recount a proceeding or hearing in which Jesus appeared before Pontius Pilate. According to Mark 15:1-15 (see also Matt 27:11-26; Luke 23:1-25), the Roman governor questioned Jesus and offered the crowd a choice between Barabbas and Jesus. The crowd at the urging of the chief priests called for Barabbas to be released and for Jesus to be crucified. Pilate bows to pressure, and "after he had Jesus scourged, handed him over to be crucified" (Mark 15:15). John's elaborate account of Jesus' trial before Pilate (John 18:28—19:16) ends in the same way, with Pilate handing Jesus over to be crucified (John 19:16).

The official charge against Jesus appears in the inscription placed on the cross: "The King of the Jews" (Mark 15:26; John 19:19). To Christian readers, this title ironically expresses the truth that Jesus really was the Messiah of Jewish expectations—the anointed one who is king, priest, and prophet. To Pilate and his Jewish collaborators, however, Jesus was one in a series of Jewish religious-political rebels bent on destroying the Roman empire and the status quo at Jerusalem in the name of the kingdom of God. These Jewish messiah-figures described by the Jewish historian Josephus in his Jewish Antiquities (especially in Books 17, 18 and 20) often used religious symbols and traditions to gain a popular following and to begin an uprising. The Roman governors dealt with them swiftly and brutally.

Jesus did not die alone. Rather, he was crucified along with two men described in various translations as "thieves," "bandits," "rebels," or "revolutionaries." The Greek term being translated in each case is lestes—the word applied to Barabbas who was "in prison along with the rebels who had committed murder in a rebellion" (Mark 15:7). It apparently referred not so much to petty thieves as to social bandits or revolutionaries of a "Robin Hood" type who resisted the Roman officials and their Jewish collaborators. While the Evangelists are careful to assert that Jesus was not a lestes ("Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs, to seize me?" Mark 14:48), the fact that Pilate offered a choice between Barabbas and Jesus, and then had Jesus crucified as "the King of the Jews" along with two lestai indicates that Pilate viewed Jesus as another Jewish religious-political troublemaker.

And so the mode of death (crucifixion), the legal system in force (with Pilate as having ultimate authority in capital cases), the official charge against Jesus ("the King of the Jews"), and the identity of those crucified with Jesus (lestai) all point in the same direction. The ultimate legal and moral responsibility for Jesus' death lay with Pontius Pilate, the Roman prefect of Judea between a.d. 26 and 36. Pontius Pilate killed Jesus.

The Role of "the Jews"

How Pilate came to be governor or prefect of Judea is important for assessing Jewish responsibilites 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 protect the Maccabean dynasty from its foreign enemies but also to resolve internal and even family disputes. Herod the Great (an Idumean) married into the Jewish high priestly/ruling family and served as a client king to the Romans from 40 to 4 b.c. On Herod's death, the region of Judea was assigned to one of his sons, Herod Archelaus. After ten years of turmoil and rebellion, the Romans decided in a.d. 6 to take more direct control of Judea by appointing a Roman prefect or governor. The most famous of these prefects was Pontius Pilate (a.d. 26 to 36).

It was Roman policy to work with local people. When things got out of hand, the Roman armies would intervene with brutal force. But in normal times the Romans relied on local officials to collect taxes and to help keep the peace. And so in Judea it was was natural that there would be Jews who did the Romans' bidding.

Jerusalem was a pilgrimage site, indeed the pilgrimage center for Jews in the land of Israel and in the Diaspora. Three times a year—at Passover, Weeks/Pentecost and Tabernacles—Jews came in large numbers to worship at the Temple in the Holy City. 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 prgram was likewise a major industry. To a great extent, all this was overseen by the chief priest and elders of the people in Jerusalem.

The pilgrimages brought many people to Jerusalem, and the themes of the great festivals, especially Passover with its commemoration of Israel's liberation from slavery in Egypt, could incite nationalistic fervor and even rebellion. And so it was natural that the Roman prefect, whose official residence was in Caesarea Maritima, would come to Jerusalem at Passover, and work with the local officials such as the chief priests and elders to keep things under control. Pilate and the local Jewish leaders had the same goal—to keep the peace.

The four Gospels (see Mark 14:53-65; Matt 26:57-68; Luke 22:66-71; John 18:12-14, 19-24) recount 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 opponents of Jesus during his public ministry (the Pharisees) but rather the high priest, the chief priests and the elders—those who had most at stake in the smooth running of the Temple and the peace of Jerusalem.

According to Mark 14:53-65, there were two charges made against Jesus: He threatened to destroy the Temple (14:58) and claimed to be "the Messiah, the son of the Blessed One" (14:61). Although the first charge is denied and the second charge is given an interpretation (see 14:57, 59, 62), there was surely something to these charges.

Jesus' threat against the Temple fits with his symbolic prophetic action in "cleansing" the Temple (see Mark 11:15-19) and his prophecies about the Temple's destruction (see Mark 13:1-2). For the Jewish leaders, merchants and construction workers whose livelihood depended on the smooth running of the Jerusalem Temple, the slightest (even symbolic) threat against the Temple would have been taken very seriously. Moreover, talk about Jesus as "the Messiah, the son of the Blessed One" would surely 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.

How effective were the Jewish leaders in getting Jesus killed? The Gospels suggest that the Jewish leaders were the prime movers, and that the Romans only ratified their decision. There are, however, scholars who argue that no Jewish authority was involved in any way. Between these extremes there are mediating positions. One view says that the Romans were the prime movers and that the Jewish authorities reluctantly gave in to pressure from them. The other views states that, even though Jewish leaders were actively involved, the main legal formalities were carried out by the Romans.

Two important points emerge: Jesus was killed "under Pontius Pilate," and the Jewish authorities at Jerusalem probably played some role in getting Jesus killed. Whatever Jewish responsibility there may have been, it lay with a small group (the chief priests and elders) in a specific place (Jerusalem) and at a specific time (Passover of a.d. 30). Even the saying in Matthew 27:25 ("His blood be upon us and upon our children") is best taken as referring to the crowd ("us") manipulated by the leaders and to the destruction of Jerusalem in a.d. 70 ("our children"), not to the whole Jewish people for all ages.

The official position of the Catholic Church on this matter was clearly stated in Vatican II's Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions (1965): "Even though the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ (cf. Jn 19:16), neither all Jews indiscrimately 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 manifest tendency in the Gospels to emphasize the responsibility of the Jewish leaders and to play down the Romans' role. One can get the impression that the Jewish leaders manipulated Pilate to pass sentence on Jesus, and that he turned Jesus over to them to be executed. This impression grows as one moves from Mark to Matthew and Luke (who both used Mark as a source). Moreover, John's Gospel lumps all 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 context when Jerusalem had been destroyed and Christians were accommodating themselves to life within the Roman empire. When taken out of that context, these texts can contribute to anti-Judaism and obscure the Jewishness of Jesus and the Jewish character of earliest Christianity.

Who killed Jesus?

Pontius Pilate, with cooperation from some Jewish leaders in Jerusalem, killed Jesus. What killed Jesus? On the historical level one can point to the sinful social structures of 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 human sinfulness.

Why did Jesus die? The New Testament writers give several theological responses. Jesus died in accord with the Scriptures as the expression of God's will (Matthew). Jesus died a sacrificial death for us and for our sins (Mark, Paul, and Hebrews). Jesus in his death gave us an example of fidelity in suffering (Luke). Jesus' death was part of his revelation of God and of his glorious return to the Father (John), and the pledge of his second coming (Revelation).

Daniel J. Harrington, S.J., is professor of New Testament at Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge, Mass. He has been general editor of New Testament Abstracts since 1972 and is a past president of the Catholic Biblical Association (1985-86). He has written extensively on the Jewish world of the New Testament and its implications for Christian-Jewish relations today. His recent books include The Gospel of Matthew, Paul on the Mystery of Israel, and Wisdom Texts from Qumran.

Living the Scriptures

Consider what impact Jesus' kingship might have on your attitudes and actions as an individual and as part of God's people.



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