Each issue carries an
Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
Who Killed Jesus?
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 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.
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
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
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
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.