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Question 16.5:
Did the Jews kill Jesus?

Answer:

Official Christian doctrine no longer holds that Jews killed Jesus, although it once spread that lie. Where did the notion come from? In the "New Testament", Jews are held in part responsible for Jesus' death. Some of this position comes from the fact that the disciples were Jewish, and it was a disciple, Judas, who betrayed him to the Roman authorities. Some Christian sources depict a scene in which "the Jews," given the choice of saving Barrabas or Jesus from crucifixion, chose Barrabas. However, the text doesn't tell us who :"the Jews" were; further, assuming this took place (which is historically unlikely given the Roman's behavior), they all couldn't have been gathered in one place. So, again, there is only indirect responsibility. Finally, politically, we know that some Jewish leaders (who were appointed by Roman Government) may have seen Jesus as a political threat. However, the threat was more to the Romans, and the Jewish leaders may have been pressured to silence him. The final decision lay with the Romans, who alone used crucifixion as a means of killing criminals and who alone had authority to impose the death penalty.

The New Testament accounts do not agree on the story of who killed Jesus. The Encylopedia Judaica summarizes this as follows. In the first three books, the Pharisees are not mentioned in connection with the trial, and in John, only once (18:3). Only Mark (14:53-65; followed by Matt. 26:59-68) records a formal, Jewish, "night" trial with accusations, witnesses, and a sentence. Luke records a morning hearing before the Sanhedrin (Luke 22:66-71) without formal sentencing, and John has separate appearances before Annas (at night) and Caiaphas (in the morning) who conducts an interrogation (18:12- 24). In the entire book of Luke (not just in his description of the Passion) there is no mention of the Sanhedrin's verdict against Jesus, and John records nothing about an assembly of the Sanhedrin before which Jesus appeared. Hence, it seems very probable that no session of the Sanhedrin took place in the house of the high priest where Jesus was in custody, and that the "chief priests and elders and scribes" who assembled there were members of the Temple committee (see also Luke 20:1): the elders were apparently the elders of the Temple and the scribes were the Temple secretaries. The deliverance of Jesus into the hands of the Romans was, it seems, the work of the Sadducean "high priests," who are often mentioned alone in the story. A man suspected of being a messianic pretender could be delivered to the Romans without a verdict of the Jewish high court. In addition, the high priests were interested in getting rid of Jesus, who had spoken against them and had predicted the destruction of the Temple. Mark offers some clues to the historical situation. The public reason given in the placard on the cross (Mark 15:26), recorded in all four Gospels, was that Jesus claimed to be a king, which for the Romans was tantamount to sedition. Those crucified with Jesus are called "revolutionary bandits". Jesus teaching on the kingdom, his association with marginal groups in his society, and his attacks on abuses associated with the Temple made him suspect to both Romans and the Jerusalem aristocracy. Though some interrogation may have taken place before Jewish authorities, the Romans bear the responsibility for any formal trial. All the texts agree that the Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate (a.d. 26- 36), ordered the execution (also attested by the Roman historian Tacitus, Annals 15.44). The execution was in the Roman way, by crucifixion. All the books indicate that on the third day after the crucifixion Jesus' tomb was found empty. According to Mark an angel announced that Jesus had risen, and the other books state that Jesus appeared before his believers after his death.

Jewish laws on capital trials are found in texts almost two centuries after the death of Jesus (M. Sanh. 4-11), so it is not known whether they reflect first-century practice. By these norms the trial in Mark is not legal, since according to the Mishnah capital trials could not be held at night or on the eve of a Sabbath or feast day (M. Sanh. 4:1). The sentence of death could not be pronounced on the same day as the trial (M. Sanh. 4:1); prior examination of witnesses, as well as independent agreement of their testimony, was required (M. Sanh. 4:5; cf. Deut. 19:15-18); the charge of blasphemy required the explicit pronouncing of the divine name (M. Sanh. 7:5); and trials were to be held in the official chamber, not in the house of the high priest (M. Sanh. 11:2; cf. Mark 14:54). Also uncertain is whether the Sanhedrin had the power to execute for capital offenses during Roman occupation (see John 18:31). If so, Jesus should have been stoned, which was the Jewish penalty for blasphemy.

We also know that the early Christians who wrote the story wanted to make the Romans appear less guilty.

Another factor to consider: It was Jesus' resurrection that began Christianity. If the Roman's hadn't killed Christ, he wouldn't have had the opportunity to rise (if you hold with the resurrection). In fact, in the texts, Jesus claims all responsibility, and is explicitly the "willing Suffering Servant" Christian theology is that Jesus' entire purpose was to come to die.


The FAQ is a collection of documents that is an attempt to answer questions that are continually asked on the soc.culture.jewish family of newsgroups. It was written by cooperating laypeople from the various Judaic movements. You should not make any assumption as to accuracy and/or authoritativeness of the answers provided herein. In all cases, it is always best to consult a competent authority--your local rabbi is a good place to start.

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