It is the season for Passover and Easter. I tremble when I think that on Easter Sunday preachers around the world will stand in their pulpits and blame the Jews for killing Jesus. In times past, this false teaching inflamed the ignorant masses of European Church goers who left their pews to kill the Jews in their community because they “killed Christ.” Thankfully Christians are more enlightened in our world today, still the erroneous teaching will be preached from millions of pulpits by well-meaning but misinformed preachers. May God forgive them because they know not what they do.
So who really killed Jesus? There is the theological answer and the human answer. Christians certainly understand the theological answer; it is the human answer that we have misunderstood that has caused much suffering for the Jewish people throughout history. In this article, I am clarifying the human answer.
There are two human parties involved in the death of Jesus. They can both be summed up in two words, “the Establishment.” The establishment, the people in power, always kills the prophets and revolutionaries of their day. Jesus was both a prophet and a revolutionary. He threatened their position of power, position and wealth. So they had to get rid of Him.
The first of the two establishment’s responsibility for the death of Jesus was Rome. By Rome, I mean the government of Rome, not the people of Rome. The Roman people had never even heard of Jesus. The Roman people lived in Italy and throughout the Roman Empire. They certainly didn’t live in Israel where Jesus lived and died. Even though the Roman government in Israel crucified Jesus by the hands of Pilate and a few Roman soldiers, we cannot hold the Roman people responsible for the death of Jesus. Modern Italians did not kill Jesus. They were not part of the crowd in Jerusalem shouting, “Crucify Him.”
The New Testament is clear that Pilate took it upon himself to put Jesus to death. Luke reads, “So Pilate gave sentence that it should be as they requested” (Luke 23:24).
The second human establishment that killed Jesus was Jerusalem. By Jerusalem, I mean the Jewish religious and political leaders in Jerusalem. As a citizen of the United States, I often use the word “Washington” to speak of the political center of the USA. When I say “Washington” I am not referring to the American people but the American government. Likewise, when the New Testament says that the “Jews” killed Jesus, it is not referring to the ordinary Jew who lived in Israel and Jerusalem. It is referring to the Jewish political and religious leaders over the Jewish people, that is, the Jewish government operating under Roman rule.
In the time of Jesus, there were over 20 Jewish sects in Israel. They all had different views about the Messiah and constantly argued among themselves. There was not “one voice” that spoke for the Jews. Jews who lived in the north were called “Galileans.” They were hard working country folk who talked with a country twang. Peter’s Galilean ascent gave him away as a disciple of Jesus (Luke 23:59). The establishment in Jerusalem considered the Galileans uncultured and unsophisticated.
The Jews who lived in the south were called “Judeans.” There was no love lost between the Galileans in the north and the Judeans in the south. The Judeans were more cosmopolitan than the Galileans. They considered themselves to be high-bred, sophisticated and cultured. They were well-educated and looked down their nose at the Galileans.
When the New Testament talks about the Jews killing Jesus, it is referring to the Judeans, specifically the Jewish establishment in Jerusalem who owed their allegiance, position, power and influence to the Romans. While there were some influential Pharisees at the highest level, the Jewish establishment consisted primarily of the Sadducees.
The Sadducees represented a very small group of powerful religious leaders. They were the priests who oversaw the activities at the Temple and greatly profited from the merchandising at the Temple. It is this group that desired to crucify Jesus because they were jealous of His fame and was afraid He would upset their comfortable relationship with the Roman government ruling over them. Matthew 27:18 says that Pilate knew that the Sadducees handed Jesus over to him because they were envious of Jesus. The high priest and his followers handed Jesus over to Pilate because it was the “politically correct” thing for them to do.
John 11 reads, “Then the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered a council and said, ‘What shall we do? For this man works many signs. If we let Him along like this, everyone will believe in Him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.’ And one of them, Caiaphas, being the high priest that year, said to them, ‘You know nothing at all, nor do you understand that it is expedient for us that one man should die for the people, and not that the whole nation should perish’ ” (John 11:47-50).
When the high priest had Jesus arrested at night, the ordinary Jerusalemites were in their homes preparing for Passover meals and sleeping. They did not know what was happening. They would have surely protested because many of them believed in Jesus. In fact, Jesus had so many followers in Jerusalem that the Sadducees had to wait until night to arrest Jesus for fear of an uproar by the people. While most Jews in our world today say you can’t be Jewish and believe in Jesus, all the first century followers of Jesus were Jewish. And there were many thousands of them.
Matthew writes, “ ‘You know that after two days is the Passover, and the Son of Man will be delivered up to be crucified.’ Then the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders of the people assembled at the palace of the high priest, who was called Caiaphas, and plotted to take Jesus by trickery and kill Him. But they said, ‘Not during the feast, lest there be an uproar among the people’ ” (Matthew 26:2-5).
The high priest did what politicians do today. He rented a crowd. He instructed and coerced his own followers, all with a vested interest in the establishment, to get a crowd and assemble them. These people are the “multitude” mentioned in the New Testament story. Matthew writes, “But the chief priests and elders persuaded the multitudes that they should ask for Barabbas and destroy Jesus” (Matthew 27:20). At the right moment, they were instructed to cry out, “Give us Barabbas, crucify Jesus” (Matthew 27:21-22).
This was a completely different crowd of people who earlier greeted and cheered Jesus when He rode into Jerusalem. Their response to Him was, “… Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD! Hosanna in the highest” (Matthew 21:9)!
When Pilate pretended to absolve himself from being responsible for the death of Jesus, the “rent a crowd” said, “…Let His blood be on us and our children” (Matthew 27:25). Because of this statement, Church leaders have erroneously believed that the Jews, as a collective group of people, pronounced a curse on themselves forever. Therefore, they are the “Christ killers.”
But as we have just learned, this was the Sadducees and a small mob crowd they assembled in order to influence Pilate. Their self-curse was fulfilled 40 years later when Titus burned the Temple and destroyed Jerusalem. Since the Sadducees were the priests administering the Temple, they and their families and their power, position, privilege and fortune came to an end.
Most Jews did not live in Israel during the time of Jesus. They were scattered throughout the Roman Empire. They had never heard of Jesus so they were certainly not guilty of killing Him. Furthermore, as we have just read, many of the Jews in Jerusalem believed in Jesus, they certainly didn’t kill Him.
After Jesus was resurrected He appeared to two of His followers on the Road to Emmaus. They had been in Jerusalem and were eye witnesses to the events surrounding Jesus. Here is what they said, “and how the chief priests and our rulers delivered Him to be condemned to death, and crucified Him” (Luke 24:20).
Jesus suffered and died for our sins. God could have used any ethnic group to carry out the execution. In His redemptive plans and purposes and time, it was a petty Roman bureaucrat and a small handful of corrupt priests who actually put Jesus to death. Christians should continuously thank God for His redemptive love demonstrated through the death of Jesus as our Passover Lamb. We should also ask forgiveness from our Jewish friends for blaming them for His death.