Who crucified Jesus? The Romans or the Jews? In the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) it is clearly Pilate who ordered Jesus to be crucified, for instance Mark 15.16-20, though in all three cases blame is made to rest with the Jews. But in John 19.16 we are told outright that, “Then he [Pilate] handed him [Jesus] to them [the Jews] to be crucified.” In John, the Jews literally killed Christ.
Kevin Sorbo, in talking about his new film “God’s Not Dead” talked to Jerry Newcombe on “Vocal Point” about Mel Gibson’s film “The Passion of the Christ” and the accusations that it was anti-Semitic. Sorbo said he didn’t get Jewish anger over the film. “He [Gibson] got attacked when he was shooting ‘The Passion’ from the Jewish community, saying ‘look at the way you’re portraying us.’ News bulletin: you did kill Jesus!”
Yes, he did go there. And thus we will go there. Did the Jews kill Jesus?
Sadly, the Gospels are not a lot of help. As in so many things, the accounts are contradictory and confused. Mark says that “he [Pilate] delivered him to be crucified” (15.15) which S.G.F. Brandon feels could be “due to Mark’s reluctance to admit that Pilate actually ordered the execution of Jesus” but the episode which follows at 16.20 and the mention of the centurion commanding the detail in both Mark and Matthew (Matthew 27.54; Mark 15.39) demonstrate that it was indeed Pilate who ordered it and the Romans who carried it out.
In fact the greatest contradiction is within John itself, where Pilate tells Jesus that he has the power to free him or crucify him and Jesus acknowledges this (John 19.10) yet John portrays Pilate as having no power at all, making such power lie with the Jewish people who decide his fate, which is downright silly. A final contradiction in John is that it is Pilate who places the titulus on the cross (John 19.19), indicating the sentence, which is odd indeed if the Jews crucified him as John asserts. And it is this titulus, marking Jesus as King of the Jews, which tells us who is true executioners were.
There are problems with the idea that the Jews killed Jesus. Pontius Pilate makes sense. For example, we cannot ignore the picture we have of Jesus’ trial before Pontius Pilate, the praefectus iudaeae , or Prefect of the province of Judaea, where the Galilean preacher is accused of sedition. The charge of sedition means that Jesus had disturbed the ‘quies provinciae,’ or “peace of the province.” If a Roman governor had one thing expected of him by the emperor, it was maintaining the peace of the province. But one of the specific charges against Jesus in the Gospels is that he advocated not paying taxes (Luke 23.2). Neither of these is a crime Jewish authorities would concern themselves with.
In fact, the Jewish authorities did not have the right to execute anyone. The death penalty to reserved for use by the Roman authorities in the person of the provincial prefect. The only instance known of in which the Jews were allowed to exercise the ultimate sanction was in the case of a Gentile, even a Roman citizen, crossing the barrier delimiting the Court of the Gentiles on the Temple Mount.
Not convinced? For what did the Jews supposedly order Jesus’ execution? Calling himself the messiah? It has been pointed out by Gunther Bornkamm (1971) and Johannes Weiss (1989) is that there was no law in Judaism against belief in a messiah. After all, there had been Messianic claimants before without executions and persecutions ensuing.
Some scholars, such as Arlan J. Hultgren attempts to make sense of the conflicting accounts by supposing the fact of Jesus’ death on the cross as meriting some special response from Judaism. But even this does not overcome the objections raised with regard to the Sanhedrin’s powers. Even if they had wished, as Hultgren maintains, to mete out some special punishment in Jesus’ case, they would have been unable to due to the limitations placed upon them by the Roman authorities. Nor is the argument itself altogether convincing.
One problem with Hultgren’s solution is that it depends upon the fact of Judaism’s persecution of the early church and as we will see below, this is problematic; we simply have no good evidence that such a persecution took place.
The idea the Jewish authorities persecuted the early church after Jesus’ execution is just as silly as the idea of the Jews killing Jesus. Even the Romans had not taken Jesus seriously enough – alive or dead – to hunt down or persecute his followers. Why would the Sanhedrin, given that calling oneself the messiah wasn’t illegal in Jewish law, even if it had it the authority? This is the stuff of persecution myth. The Jews did not persecute Jesus, and they did not persecute his followers any more than Americans are persecuting them today.
The weaknesses inherent in our conflicting accounts become evident almost at once, with Act’s claim that before his conversion Paul was working for the Sanhedrin – at Acts 26:10 he even votes for the death penalty for Christians. But is there not something odd about Paul being some sort of priestly special agent assigned to persecute the early church? He talks about his role as a prosecutor in only three places (1 Cor. 15:9; Gal. 1:13, 23; Phil. 3:6). Here Paul himself speaks only of “persecuting” the Christians but gives no details beyond this.
These activities are also chronicled in Acts (8:13; 9:1-2; 22:4-5, 26:9-11) which add the assertion that he was working for the High Priest Caiaphas himself. But Acts was not written until nearly thirty years after Paul’s death and as I have pointed out before is not very reliable where its assertions can be compared against Paul’s own claims. What is passing strange about all this is that there is no evidence that the other Jewish sects or factions, however much they disagreed, were persecuted by the powers that be – that is, the High Priest and the Sanhedrin. Why then the followers of Jesus?
We know from the New Testament accounts that they remained Jews and continued to worship in the Temple (Acts 3:1; 4:22; 5:12,14; 5:42; 21-23-26) and this is more than can be said for the Essenes, for whom one would think the priestly class would bear special hostility. But the Essenes were also not persecuted and remained free to practice their beliefs on the fringes of Jewish society until the Romans destroyed them during the Jewish Revolt of 66 CE.
An added complication is that Paul was a Jew of the Dispersion (Diaspora) and if the high priest had no real authority in Jerusalem, how much less likely is it that he had any sort of control or influence over Jewish communities outside of Judaea? This discrepancy might be explained away by the supposed fact of Paul’s Jerusalem upbringing, but the claims that the High Priest exerted control even over Judaea betrays a post-Jewish War origin.
Before the destruction of the Temple the Sanhedrin simply did not have this sort of power and afterwards it had ceased to exist. Indeed, during Roman rule it served as an advisory or Privy Council for the High Priest. It is true that the Talmud speaks of the sort of Sanhedrin Acts posits – a sort of Jewish parliament – but this sort of body was true only of the Rabbinic Era following 70 CE, after Paul’s death.
Steven Katz argues against a long-standing Jewish persecution such as that proposed by Wright and Frend: “The only evidence of any sort supporting this claim is the suspect testimony of Acts 9:1 ff (repeated in Acts 22:5 and 26:12). Whatever its historical accuracy, it speaks of Damascus only and gives no grounds for the suggestion of a pre-70 worldwide Jewish activity against emerging Christianity. Indeed, there is no evidence that the Jewish leadership of Jerusalem ever engaged in such behavior before the destruction of the Temple.”
As E.P. Sanders points out, “there is a long-standing custom of attributing too much of a governing role to the council, in Hebrew called the Sanhedrin…and its supposed legislating and judicial authority.” Bart Ehrman finds the assertion in Acts that Paul received authorization from the High Priest in Jerusalem to drag Christians off to prison “historically implausible” as the High Priest “had no jurisdiction over Jews living in other parts of the empire and Paul himself says nothing about it.”
The period from 73-135 CE did not see the end of Jewish influence upon Christianity but the failure of the Second Jewish Revolt in 135 marks a swing in Christianity against Judaism in Christian thought. Ehrman calls the second century “the period in which Christian anti-Judaism began to assert itself with particular vigor. One by-product of this increased animosity is that Christians began to exonerate Pilate for Jesus’ death and to blame Jews – all Jews – more and more.” We can already see this development beginning at the end of the first century when Matthew (written sometime between 75-90 CE) places the blame upon the Jews (Matt.27.25) whereas Mark, written c. 65-70 indicts Pilate (Mark 15.1-15).
 S.G.F. Brandon, The Trial of Jesus of Nazareth (Dorset Press, 1988), 191, n. 124.
 Gunther Bornkamm, Paul (NY: Harper & Row, 1971); Johannes Weiss, Earliest Christianity (NY: Harper & Row, 1959).
 Arland J. Hultgren, “Paul’s Pre-Christian Persecutions of the Church: Their Purpose, Locale, and Nature” JBL 95 (1976), 103.
 cf. 9:1; 22:4-6; 2 Cor. 11:24)
 W.H.C. Frend, Martyrdom and Persecution in the Early Church (Oxford: Blackwell, 1965), 146.
 Steven T. Katz, “Issues in the Separation of Judaism and Christianity after 70 C.E.: A Reconsideration” JBL 103 (1984), 45.
 E.P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus (London: Penguin Books, 1993), 25.
 Bart D. Ehrman, Peter, Paul and Mary Magdalene (New York, Oxford University Press, 2006), 109.
 Bart D. Ehrman, Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew (NY: Oxford University Press, 2003), 20.
Hrafnkell Haraldsson, a social liberal with leanings toward centrist politics has degrees in history and philosophy. His interests include, besides history and philosophy, human rights issues, freedom of choice, religion, and the precarious dichotomy of freedom of speech and intolerance. He brings a slightly different perspective to his writing, being that he is neither a follower of an Abrahamic faith nor an atheist but a polytheist, a modern-day Heathen who follows the customs and traditions of his Norse ancestors. He maintains his own blog, A Heathen’s Day, which deals with Heathen and Pagan matters, and Mos Maiorum Foundation www.mosmaiorum.org, dedicated to ethnic religion. He has also contributed to NewsJunkiePost, GodsOwnParty and Pagan+Politics.