by Joseph W
Who killed Jesus?
How you answer to this question might reveal the way you think about Jews, Christians, or religion in general.
This is my answer, based on the way I understand the New Testament narrative, the overall message of the Gospel accounts, and the wider political context of Jesus’ day.
For centuries, the “Christ-killer” tag has been attached to the Jewish people, as if all Jews throughout time conspired in the murder of Jesus. Some people still believe this.
The Christ-killer question comes up occasionally when we talk about items in the news. In Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ, it seemed like Jesus and his disciples were portrayed as beautiful dark Italians, whereas his religious enemies were painted as ugly, stereotypical Jews.
More recently, the Pope has hit the headlines for writing that the Jews did not kill Jesus. Really though, it should not have taken hundreds of years for the Catholic Church to acknowledge this. Much violence and intimidation has been carried out against Jews, under the pretext that Jews are eternally guilty of spilling the blood of Christ.
Naturally, people who are concerned about theological antisemitism will think that the gospels themselves are the root cause of the Christ-killer myth levelled against the Jews.
However, I think it would be wrong to say that the gospels pin the blame on all Jews, everywhere, for the death of Christ. I hope you will consider my argument, although you may well have very valid points and strong counter-arguments to raise in the comments box.
In John’s gospel, we frequently read about what “the Jews” did. The Greek word translated by the KJV as “the Jews” is Ἰουδαῖος – ioudaios. The word comes from Ἰούδας – Iudaea – Judea. I think in John’s gospel, he is referring to “the Judaeans” not “the Jews” as a people group, and with it, he is talking about the leadership of the Judaean nation. Just as you might talk about what “the Romans” did without referring to any Italian born at any time.
But was the leadership of the Judaean nation at the time representative of the Jewish people?
To understand this question is to give a full answer to those who accuse the Jewish people of collectively killing Jesus.
Herod’s High Priests
Herod the Great had put an end to the Hasmonean line of priests. He had married the beautiful Mariamne, born from a privileged Hasmonean family. Herod was enraptured by Mariamne’s charms. Mariamne begged Herod to make her teenage brother Aristobulus the high priest. Herod did so.
Herod went to Jerusalem to see Aristobulus officiate in the Temple for the first time. Aristobulus proved hugely popular with the crowds. Herod feared Aristobulus might win the hearts of the people. They might follow him as king instead. So Herod arranged for the young lad Aristobulus to be drowned. Aristobolus was the last of those in the priestly Hasmonean line. From then on, high priests were not popular Hasmonean heroes, but Herodian allies.
Herod was fearful of religious uprisings in Judaea and particularly around Jerusalem. He detested the Sanhedrin and did all he could to undermine its authority and curb its power. For this reason, many religious Jews were deeply suspicious of anything Herodian.
Herod, lest we forget, executed two young radicals with Pharisaic beliefs, for pulling down the Roman eagle placed by Herod outside the Temple. For Jerusalemites, the golden Roman eagle was symbolic of Jewish subservience to Rome.
It was expedient, then, for Judaeans to acquiesce to Roman rule.
I should say at this point, I do not consider the Herodian or pro-Roman Jews to be villainous. They were mostly pragmatists, concerned with their own security, and not wishing their nation to be destroyed or suppressed further. There is nothing wrong with this. The other option would have led to confrontation and conflict with Rome, putting families and communities at serious risk.
The point is though, that the religious leadership of Jerusalem was compromised, and the political pressure of their day influenced the way they made decisions.
|Quirinius’ High Priest: Joazar
Quirinius was the governor of Syria from 51 BC until 21 AD, of which Judaea became a suzerain state. Historian Jona Lendering writes:
Quirinius was ordered to organize the taxation of the new prefecture. Until then, taxes had been paid in kind. However, during the census which Quirinius organized, the inhabitants were required to declare their property in money. There are no indications that the Roman money taxes were higher than the taxes they replaced, but taxes in money were more onerous than taxes in kind, because a farmer had to borrow in case of a poor harvest. Besides, any Roman coin would bear an image of the goddess Roma or a legend saying that the man represented was the divine emperor: a violation of at least two of the ten commandments.
Not surprisingly, the Jewish peasants were unhappy. The high priest Joazar, however, was able to convince almost everyone to cooperate with the new authorities, since the alternative would be the return of the detested Herod Archelaus. But there remained some resistance. A Pharisee named Zadok and a scribe from Galilee named Judas of Gamala said that this taxation was equivalent to the introduction of slavery, and exhorted the Jews to assert their liberty. Their program was simple: God was Israel‘s only lord, and it was blasphemous to pay tribute to anyone else – including the Roman emperor. If they revolted, the Jews would find God as their zealous helper.
Here then, Quirinius uses his high priest Joazar to convince the Jewish people to acquiesce to Quirinius’ taxes.
Note, once again, the restlessness among certain Pharisaic groupings, to controversial and compromising rulings imposed on the Jews by the Roman authorities.
We must be aware of these tensions, if we want to fully comprehend the political climate in Jerusalem in the years leading up to the gospel events.
Quirinius’ High Priests: Annas and Caiaphas
The high priest during Jesus’ lifetime was Joseph ben Caiaphas, the son-in-law of Annas. Annas was appointed as high priest by the emperor Quirinius, and used his office to carry out unsanctioned executions.
Annas, then, was feared by locals for the way he would take the law into his own hands, and gained a reputation for brutality.
Yet after he was removed in AD 15, Annas continued to exert political influence over the priestly leadership.
Annas the high priest was there, and so were Caiaphas, John, Alexander and the other men of the high priest’s family.
Consider Josephus’ words on Annas:
“It is said that the elder Ananus was extremely fortunate. For he had five sons, all of whom, after he himself had previously enjoyed the office for a very long period, became high priests of God – a thing that had never happened to any other of our high priests.” (Jewish Antiquities XX, 9.1)
Josephus observes that Annas had consolidated his power base in Jerusalem.
Josephus implies what Luke states outright: the office of high priest was orientated around the family of Annas, rather than any other factors. Annas was pragmatic yet cynical, wanting to ensure his family line prospered in Jerusalem.
The Talmud on the High Priests
To summarise, Herod had been so fearful of messianic-religious fervour in Judaea that he had Aristobolus eliminated, in order to prevent the people from rising up against Rome with Aristobolus as a priestly Hasmonean-style hero.
By contrast, Annas and his sons were hand-picked by Rome as essentially political appointments.
This helps explain why the Talmud has such a negative view of Annas and Caiaphas. We read in Pesachim 57a:
“Woe to the house of Annas!
Woe to their serpent’s hiss!
They are high priests;
their sons are keepers of the treasury,
their sons-in-law are guardians of the temple,
and their servants beat people with staves.”
Here is clear condemnation and curses upon Annas and Caiaphas. Clearly, Annas and Caiaphas are very unpopular in Judaism, just as they are in Christianity. They are condemned as hypocrites who use their holy office to oppress their own people and beat them. These condemnations are found in a key text of Jewish religious literature.
So it is a huge mistake for people to link Annas and Caiaphas with some kind of overall will of the Jewish people to crucify Jesus.
Yet, if they were indeed so unpopular, how did Annas and Caiaphas gain the support to have Jesus put to death?
The Plot to Kill Jesus
It is John’s gospel particularly that it seen as blaming Jews for killing Jesus. However, in the other gospels, the moment in John’s gospel where the decision is taken to kill Jesus is worth considering. In John 11 we read about the plot to kill Jesus. Verses 47-48 read:
Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin. “What are we accomplishing?” they asked. “Here is this man performing many miraculous signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.”
At this point, Caiaphas decides:
“You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.”
The issue, then, is not that Jews want to kill Jesus. Rather, too many Jews are believing in Jesus, and that is a problem for Annas and Caiaphas.
Caiaphas and his allies are worried about the messianic fervour this is generating. They fear a political uprising from the Jesus movement, and the inevitable put-down of the revolution by Rome.
Caiaphas’ thinking goes like this:
Unless those whom Rome trusted as leaders of the Jews can keep Judaea in order, Rome will subdue Judaea completely, and that will be the end of Annas’ privileged position in Jerusalem. If Annas falls, then so will many of his allies in the Sanhedrin.
That is why Caiaphas’ religious and Herodian allies try to trap Jesus by asking him whether it is lawful for Jews to pay taxes to Caesar (Mark 12:14-17). If Jesus says “no”, then Caiaphas can alert Rome to Jesus, and paint him as a dangerous, revolutionary rebel leader. Instead, Jesus’ reply – give to God what is God’s and give to Caesar what is Caesar’s – reveals Jesus to be someone who complies with the law, whilst seeing beyond it.
Compare this with the politic attitude of Joazar, and the revolutionary approach of Judah the Zealot, to the issue of taxation. Jesus is positioning himself outside and beyond of this issue, which infuriates those who oppose him here.
Whilst some high-ranking Pharisees allied themselves with Annas’ approach to Rome, it is also worth bearing in mind that not all Pharisees (or Sanhedrin members) side with Annas and Caiaphas.
Indeed, we have already mentioned the Pharisees who opposed certain aspects of Roman authority, policies and religious dictates. They would not likely have much sympathy for Annas, whom they would consider cynical and corrupted.
Luke records Pharisees coming to Jesus, warning of a Herodian plot to kill him. Furthermore, John records a Pharisee acknowledging Jesus as God’s messenger on Earth, and Mark records a member of the Sanhedrin taking Jesus’ body away. Luke later notes that Gamaliel and other Pharisees are compassionate and tolerant towards Jesus’ disciples.
Ultimately, different Pharisees had different attitudes towards Jesus, depending on their personal interests, political ties, spiritual beliefs and inner convictions.
So it would be wrong to imagine all religious Jews conspiring together to kill Jesus and allying with Annas and Caiaphas. After all, huge crowds of Jerusalemite Jews welcomed Jesus into the city with palm branches and rejoicing.
The gospels present Jesus’ popularity as dividing the Pharisees, between admiring Jesus, scheming with Annas and Caiaphas, or generally not having made up their minds about Jesus.
“No King But Caesar”
Before being sentenced, Jesus is taken before Annas.
Annas – appointed by Quirinius and forced to step down, as he was too bloodthirsty – accuses Jesus.
Annas admonishes Jesus for disrespecting a high priest. Annas then sends Jesus to his s0n-in-law Caiaphas, before finally Jesus appears before Pilate. Yet Pilate does not have the same concerns as Annas, and simply cannot comprehend what he is dealing with. A baffled Pilate asks Annas and his allies whether they really want to kill their “king”. They respond,
“We have no king but Caesar!”
It would be difficult to imagine most Jews of the time speaking such a line. But it fits in with Annas’ attitude. Indeed, this line only makes sense if uttered by those already allied to Caesar, that is, those who benefited politically from the Roman Occupation, the Herodian-aligned priests and officials.
Jesus’ disciples, by contrast, eagerly ask him when he will “restore the kingdom to Israel” (Acts 1:8).
The gospels present the plot against Jesus to be a plot concerned with self-interest of a small group of religious individuals, rather than a national conspiracy.
Pilate, I think, comes across as wishing to be deliberately ignorant. He feigns a conversation with a crowd that he knows has been assembled by his allies, a crowd which reflects the desires of the house of Annas, and not the Jewish national will.
I should say, the word used in Matthew’s gospel for the crowd calling for Barabbas (ochlus) only means a fair-sized crowd or mob, whereas the usual word for a crowd is (plethos), a ‘large multitude.’ JD Crossan considers the ochlus to have only been a few dozen, at best.
So, this crowd cannot be the same as the crowd that welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. I mention this, as a charge I have heard sometimes, is that the Jews were fickle for welcoming Jesus into the city with palm branches and shouts of “Hosanna!”, then crucifying him five days later. But these are evidently not the same crowds.
Annas’ local support group calls for Barabbas, and not Jesus to be released. That the crowd calls for Barabbas rather than Jesus, shows only that Annas considers Barabbas less of a real revolutionary threat than Jesus.
Pilate probably senses that Barabbas is more likely to be a danger to his rule, given the fact he is most likely a revolutionary. Conversely, Jesus has said nothing that Pilate perceives to challenge Roman rule in Jerusalem.
Pilate sees things differently. Pilate is more worried about the violent criminal Barabbas than Jesus, who is not violent and not a criminal.
This is to be expected – Pilate is less likely to be sensitive to contemporary Jewish messianism, and so he doesn’t pick up on what Annas perceives.
Pilate cannot pin down a law by which he can have Jesus killed easily, and he has no real desire to kill Jesus. This is not because Pilate is a fair man. Rather, he just does not perceive Jesus in the same way that Annas and Caiaphas do.
In the end, Pilate accepts the judgements of Annas and his allies.
The verse Matthew 27:25 is spoken by members of a crowd:
“may his blood be upon us and our children!”
But these, again, are the crowd affiliated with Annas, rather than the Jewish nation. In any case, the Gospels do not encourage its readers to actually carry this out, or to listen to the crowd. If believers should not listen to the crowd calling for Jesus’ blood, then why listen to the crowd talking about their own blood?
In any case, Jesus’ last words are to forgive those who sought his death (“Father forgive them for they know not what they do”), and so it is not for his followers to try and blame someone or seek vengeance for this. In any case, New Testament theology holds that human sinners are collectively responsible for Jesus’ death, rather than one particular group of people.
If one were to use Matthew 27:25 to blame Jews collectively for killing Jesus, one would also have to use Luke 18:32 to blame Gentiles collectively for killing Jesus. The point is, if you’re a believer, then it was God’s will for Jesus to die in the first place.
Annas and sons were widely considered corrupt, out-of-touch, cynical, violent and self-interested. The Hasmonean priesthood and nation was not going to be restored, and the Judaean leadership under Annas was a crude parody of what the people actually desired.
That is why the Judaeans looked for messianic heroes, to deliver Israel once and for all from Rome. Given the way he won people’s hearts, Jesus seemed to fit this role, and that is what the house of Annas feared.
I think Annas wanted rid of Jesus for many of the same reasons that Herod wanted rid of Aristobolus. I think there are even parallels between the way Herod’s henchmen drowned Aristobolus at Herod’s palace at night, and the way Annas’ henchmen arrested Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane at night.
In order to oust Jesus, Annas did not gain grassroots support from the Jewish people, as that would have been impossible. Instead, he twisted Pilate’s arm and engineered a very dramatic situation.
Since then, Judaism has remembered Annas as an evil man.
I don’t think Christians should have any reason to blame the Jews wholesale for the death of Jesus. Rather, Jesus’ death should be seen as a consequence of his popularity amongst the Judaeans of his day.
Ultimately, Jesus was put death by a Roman means of killing prisoners. He was mocked by Roman soldiers from across the empire, for being a Judaean, and for being perceived as a kingly figure by many.
The soldiers who mocked Jesus and spat at him would have assumed that he was just another hot-headed revolutionary, an antagonist who couldn’t accept Roman rule, another Judaean criminal.
This Easter, we should make sure we do not fall into the same trap as those soldiers, and harshly judge and condemn entire people groups.