Dear Straight Dope:
Can you give me the straight dope on who in fact was formally and/or morally responsible for the decision to execute Jesus? There's the traditional "blame the Jews" reading of the New Testament, which has fostered centuries of anti-Semitism, and there's the modern interpretation that says the version of the story given in the Gospels was a whitewash of the Roman authorities. How strong is the "blame the Romans" argument? This is a horrendously touchy subject, but I feel I can trust the Straight Dope to handle it objectively yet sensitively.
Don’t let it be said that we avoid the big questions.
We ran this by our experts representing Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant perspectives–Zev Steinhardt, tomndebb, and Pastor Allan, respectively–and thank them for their input and suggestions. We wanted to get the perspective of imperial Rome as well, but there weren’t any ancient Romans around.
We need to make three important points before we begin.
First, who killed Jesus is irrelevant. If you’re a devout Christian, Jesus would tell you not to blame but to forgive. If Jesus hadn’t died on the cross, you’d have no route to salvation. So in a way you should be thanking those who executed him, not blaming them.
Second, as you say, the question is politically sensitive, to say the least. The accusation of "Christ-killer" was used as justification for isolating, robbing, torturing, and murdering Jews. It’s only in recent times–the last fifty years, perhaps not that long–that leading Christian authorities have reviewed the circumstances and acknowledged the injustices of the past 2,000 years.
Third, there is no historical record of the condemnation of Jesus other than the New Testament. The different books of the New Testament give five slightly different accounts. Although the versions agree on the main points, the emphasis and details vary. Each author had his own biases and agenda. The authors of the gospels weren’t writing objective history; they were trying to convert a particular audience, and their words reflect that.
The first Christians were Jews who appealed to other Jews to accept Jesus as the Jewish Messiah. Their preaching thus did not condemn the Jews too harshly, laying most of the blame on the Romans. When the Jews rejected conversion, many early Christians turned against the Jews and looked for converts in the vast Roman Empire outside Judea. Their preaching therefore was careful not to condemn the Romans too harshly, but it was OK to blame Jews.
For example, John’s Gospel, which was written around 60 years after the death of Jesus, primarily addressed a Gentile community in Asia Minor. His audience almost certainly had no idea of the theological differences between Pharisees and Sadducees, or of the political tensions between the Hasmonean kings and the priests of the Temple. Therefore, John’s Gospel often refers to those who were involved with the death of Jesus as simply “the Jews”–an expression that was to have tragic consequences as later Christians took that phrase as "gospel” and began to refer to Jews as “Christ-killers.”
John Dominic Crossan wrote, “As long as Christians were the marginalized and disenfranchised ones, such passion fiction about Jewish responsibility and Roman innocence did nobody much harm. But once the Roman Empire became Christian, that fiction turned lethal.”
Joseph C. Hough, Jr., a Christian theologian, writing in the June 2002 issue of Bible Review, comments, “By the end of the second century, anti-Judaism and the Christ-killer myth had become prominent in the teachings of church leaders. The early church fathers perpetuated [this] . . . with even greater vehemence than John did in his gospel. By the fourth century, Augustine and John Chrysostom were among those who gave credence to the awful depiction of Jews as the enemies of God who crucified Christ. Although a long series of papal pronouncements tried to protect Jews against overt violence, the power of the ‘Christ-killer’ myth created a cultural climate in which hatred and killing of Jews occurred with impunity. What emerged was a relentless and continuing persecution of Jews . . ."
OK, with that as an introduction, let’s expand on the problem of non-Biblical historic sources for a bit.
Jesus looms so large in world history that it may come as a shock to realize his unimportance during his lifetime. The little surviving first-century literature was mostly written by members of the small, literate Roman elite. To them, Jesus (if they heard of him at all) was merely a troublesome rabble-rouser, perhaps a magician, in a very small, backward part of the world. Jesus’ trial was not news in Rome. If there ever were archives there, they have not survived. If records were kept in Jerusalem, they were lost in the wars of 66-70 AD when Jerusalem was destroyed by the Roman army.
Suetonius, a second-century historian writing about the reign of the emperor Claudius (41-54 AD), tells us someone named "Chrestus" had been causing tumult among the Jews in Rome. Chrestus is presumably a misspelling of Christos, the Greek translation of the Hebrew word for Messiah.
Tacitus, writing around the year 100 AD, reports that during the reign of Nero (54-68 AD) Christians in Rome were viewed as dangerous enough to be persecuted. Romans knew about the strange "superstitions" of Christians and of their devotion to a man who had "suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus" (Annals, 15:44). (We’ll mention this again later.) But knowledge of Jesus was limited to knowledge of Christianity. Tacitus and other non-Christian writers offer no evidence about Jesus, his life, or his death–only about the religion of his followers.
The primary non-biblical resource concerning Israel at that time is Josephus. Josephus was born in 37 AD, a few years after Jesus’ death, and wrote Antiquities of the Jews in the 90s. (I get a kick out of writing "the 90s," meaning not the 1890s or 1990s, but the just plain 90s.) But Josephus is of dubious reliability. During the Jewish revolts against Rome in 66 AD, he switched sides to join the Romans, sucking up shamelessly to his new Roman patrons. By the standards of his day, Josephus was a good historian, but he was also a sycophant, flattering Roman generals and politicians at the expense of historical accuracy.
Another problem is that we have no originals of Josephus’ work. We have copies preserved (and edited) by Christian scribes. Thus, passages in Josephus proclaiming that Jesus "was the Messiah" who "taught the truth" and was "restored to life" after his death are viewed by almost all scholars as later edits. Josephus never converted to Christianity and would not have described Jesus in that way. Barring some miraculous future discovery (similar to the Dead Sea Scrolls), we will never know what Josephus really wrote. Nonetheless, flawed though our copies of his work may be, Josephus is our only outside evidence of Jesus’ life and death.
THE POLITICAL STRUCTURE OF JUDEA AT THE TIME OF JESUS’ DEATH
Now that we’re clear on sources, let’s start with the political and judicial structure of Judea, around 30 AD, specifically focused on Jerusalem. Our work here is largely taken from The Historical Figure of Jesus, by E.P. Sanders.
Judea, including Jerusalem, had been under Roman rule since Pompey conquered the area around 67 BC. Judea and Galilee were remote outposts, of minimal concern to Rome. Rome ruled indirectly through client (puppet) kings like Herod, and then through resident governors who, in turn, utilized local aristocrats, especially the high priest.
The resident governor was called a "prefect" from about 6 AD to about 41 AD, and later called a "procurator." He was appointed from the equestrian class (lower aristocracy) and lived in Caesarea, on the Mediterranean coast, in one of the luxurious palaces built by Herod the Great. (ASIDE: If you visit Israel today, don’t miss the excavated ruins at Caesarea.) The prefect commanded roughly 3,000 troops, a small police force rather than a major presence. There were also some small Roman garrisons at several fortresses around the country.
The prefect reported to the legate of Syria, who did have large military forces at his command to control any significant disturbances in the region. The main goals of Roman rule in the boonies seem to have been to collect taxes and to put down revolts.
Except during major festivals the prefect stayed away from Jerusalem, because the Jews were very sensitive about offenses against their religion in their holy city. At festival time the prefect usually brought additional troops to Jerusalem to control the crowds. Festivals in Jerusalem were considered risky and the Romans kept a close eye on them. In the century or so before Jesus’ death, we know of at least four major riots that began during a festival, even though both Jewish and Roman rulers were prepared for trouble.
Very little of the famous Roman "justice" made its way to Judea. The prefect had the exclusive and absolute right to sentence anyone to death. (ASIDE: There was one minor exception to this: the priests could summarily execute anyone who transgressed Temple grounds, in violation of posted warnings.) He could even execute a Roman citizen, without regard for the formal charges that would have been needed in a court in Rome.
Most prefects were reasonably judicious and did not wantonly sentence people to death. However, if a prefect condemned you, there was little means of appeal. You could beg the prefect for lenience. You could petition the Roman legate in Syria, who could intervene and send the prefect to Rome to answer for his actions. Or you could send a delegation directly to Rome, probably with the legate’s permission, as a sort of grievance committee.
Complaining to Rome was surprisingly effective. The Roman emperors wanted peace and quiet and the unimpeded collection of taxes, not riots or rebellions. The emperors (well, the sane ones) knew unrest was the consequence of overly harsh local rulers. During the forty years or so under discussion, Rome dismissed two native rulers (Archelaus and Antipas) and two Roman governors, including Pilate, after popular delegations complained about them.
Which brings us to Pontius Pilate. The New Testament describes him as prefect over Judea at the time of Jesus’ death, and we have outside corroboration for this from several sources. As noted, Tacitus mentions Pilate but only incidentally, saying nothing about his character. However, the major Jewish historians of the period, Josephus and Philo, discuss Pilate at length. Philo, who was Pilate’s contemporary, wrote an appeal to the emperor Caligula that included a description of Pilate. Philo wrote of "the briberies, the insults, the robberies, the outrages and wanton injustices, the executions without trial constantly repeated, the endless and supremely grievous cruelty" of Pilate’s rule. Pilate was eventually dismissed from office because of complaints of his widespread and injudicious executions. We’ll return to Pilate’s role later.
Although the prefect was responsible for the region, the towns and villages were run as they had been for centuries, by small groups of elders. Religious leaders played an important and often dominant role. In Jerusalem, local government was headed by the Jewish high priest and his council, sometimes consulting with "the powerful" or "the elders"–that is, the local Jewish elite. Rome relied heavily on the high priest, because the Jews respected the office.
There was also a Jewish council (called the Sanhedrin), but there is considerable debate amongst scholars as to how much governing power rested with the Sanhedrin.
The high priest in Jesus’ time was Joseph Caiaphas. He ruled for 17 years, longer than any other high priest under Roman rule. Most scholars take this as an indication that he was capable and acceptable to both Rome and the Jews. For ten of those years, Pilate was prefect, so presumably the two worked well together, co-operating in the interest of preserving the peace.
The high priest had a delicate task. He was responsible for keeping order in Jerusalem. If he failed, the Roman prefect would intervene militarily. Riots and revolts were dealt with harshly by Roman authorities. To keep his job and protect his people, the high priest had to keep things under control. He also needed to represent the Jews before the prefect, and to stand up for Jewish customs and traditions. He was the man in the middle.
The Temple guards, acting on the high priest’s orders, arrested troublemakers. The high priest judged their cases, although he could not sentence them to death. His goal was to see that traditional Jewish law was followed, at least superficially, to keep the population happy.
The Jews were frequently at odds with their Roman overseers, although most protests were non-violent. We have already noted the letters of Philo to Rome, complaining about Pilate’s brutality. One other story may be indicative. When Pilate marched Roman standards through Jerusalem, the Jews considered this an offensive display of "graven images." A large number of people went to Caesarea to protest. Pilate ordered his troops to surround them. The Jews reportedly bared their necks and said they preferred death to a violation of God’s Law. Pilate backed down.
A bit after our story, the emperor Caligula ordered a statue of himself (well, OK, of Zeus with Caligula’s face) erected in the Temple in Jerusalem. The Jews threatened revolt, including a farmers’ strike, and a large delegation pleaded with the Roman legate in Syria, again preferring death to idolatry. The legate delayed carrying out the orders, and the situation was resolved to everyone’s satisfaction (except Caligula’s) when Caligula was assassinated.
SO MUCH FOR THE POLITICAL BACKGROUND. ON WITH THE STORY
Around 30 AD, Jesus and many of his followers came to Jerusalem for Passover. This was the biggest holiday of the year, when Jewish families traveled to Jerusalem from all around the country to celebrate. As usual, the Roman prefect also came to Jerusalem with extra troops to keep a lid on the crowds.
The bare bones story, according to the gospels, goes like this: Jesus entered Jerusalem and was welcomed by his followers as "son of David" or "king." In the course of his preaching he prophesied that the Temple would be destroyed. He went to the Temple and scourged the moneychangers. The high priest Caiaphas ordered Jesus’ arrest. Witnesses accused Jesus of having threatened to destroy the Temple, but their testimony did not agree, and he was not convicted. Caiaphas questioned Jesus and sent him to Pilate, who interrogated him and ordered that he be crucified for claiming to be "king of the Jews."
A number of questions need to be answered:
1. Why did the high priest have Jesus arrested?
We don’t know exactly; we can only speculate. First let’s deal with two common theories.
a) The high priest thought Jesus was preaching armed revolt against the Romans. This view derives from John 18:33-38, a discussion about what kind of "king" Jesus claimed to be. From a historical perspective, however, it seems unlikely. If Caiaphas and Pilate thought that Jesus was trying to lead an armed revolt, they would also have arrested and executed all his followers and co-conspirators. We have evidence that they did this with at least two other threatened armed rebellions, those of Theudas and "the Egyptian," mentioned in both Josephus and Acts. Since Jesus’ followers were not executed, it is unlikely that the high priest thought Jesus was urging armed rebellion.
(b) Jesus had theological differences with the Pharisees. This popular view is based on a misunderstanding of the beliefs of the Pharisees. Without going into the Pharisaic sect, however, the very notion of a theological dispute leading to execution is silly. Jews certainly did sometimes kill each other, but not over legalistic disagreements. The disputes between Jesus and the Pharisees were within the bounds of normal debates, such as happened frequently during Talmudic and rabbinic times. Jesus opposed the Pharisees’ views of what foods should be tithed. Such criticisms are not matters of life and death.
As additional indication is that the last chapters of the gospels do not even mention the Pharisees. They are conspicuously absent from the stories of Jesus’ arrest and trial. If the reason for Jesus’ arrest was the dispute with the Pharisees, surely they would have appeared at the trial. The conclusion of most scholars is that the Pharisees had nothing to do with Jesus’ arrest and execution.
Now that we’ve excluded the most commonly held rationales for Jesus’ arrest, what’s left?
Remember, an important part of the high priest’s job was to keep the peace. Passover was a prime time for troublemakers to incite the crowds, and both the high priest and Roman prefect were alert to any sign of danger. From the perspective of the high priest, then:
1. When Jesus entered Jerusalem, there was a large crowd who called him "king." The high priest would have viewed this as politically inflammatory.
In support of this idea, Mark, Matthew, and Luke all record that, at the trial, Caiaphas asked Jesus whether he was the Messiah. The three gospels each report a different response by Jesus. Regardless of Jesus’ response, the fact that Caiaphas asked the question in the first place indicates he knew claims or at least of the shouts of his followers as he entered the city.
Solomon Zeitlin remarks, “It is quite clear that Jesus was arrested and brought before Pilate as a political offender against the Roman state. The accusation made against him was that he claimed himself king of the Jews.”
2. Jesus threatened the Temple, both by his words and by his actions against the moneychangers.
The gospels imply that this was a false accusation; that Jesus had merely predicted that sometime or other God would destroy the Temple, and that Jesus’ enemies swore falsely about what Jesus said. These enemies thus agreed to lie about Jesus’ words, but didn’t agree on what lie they would tell. This seems pretty stupid of them. A more likely interpretation is that Jesus said something that onlookers honestly perceived to be a threat, and were genuinely alarmed. A prophet or preacher saying that God would overthrow the Temple could certainly be viewed, by many listeners, as threatening. They reported it to the authorities, but when they were examined in court, they gave slightly different accounts, like eyewitnesses even today.
Regardless of his exact words, certainly Jesus’ actions in the Temple would have aroused suspicion on the part of the high priest.
Let’s look at this from the point of view of the high priest. It’s Passover, a time when he is particularly concerned that there be no riots or disruptions. Onto the scene comes a man hailed by his followers as "king" who threatens the Temple–ample grounds, in light of the times, for the high priest to take action.
For comparison, we can find a few other examples of justice in Josephus. About the year 62 AD, Jeshua the son of Ananias went to the Temple and began to shout that destruction was at hand. He was arrested by the Jewish authorities and taken before the Roman procurator. During interrogation, he kept repeating the same mantra over and over. He was finally released as a madman.
The comparison is telling. Jeshua stood alone, while Jesus had a following–a small one, but a following nonetheless. Jeshua merely shouted in the Temple, while Jesus had attacked the money changers. Jeshua was a madman, who responded incoherently under interrogation, while Jesus was not mad and responded calmly to questions. Jesus would have thus been viewed as politically far more dangerous than Jeshua. If Jeshua was arrested for merely shouting, surely Jesus would have been arrested for overturning the tables. And if Jeshua were flogged, more severe action would have been needed for Jesus.
In summary, the gospels’ descriptions of the actions of the high priest and his council in arresting Jesus agree with Josephus’ description of how Jerusalem was governed at the time. The evidence is consistent with the interpretation that Caiaphas had Jesus arrested because he was a troublemaker. Jesus alarmed some people because of his attack on the Temple and his remark about its pending destruction. Caiaphas was concerned that Jesus would incite a riot, and so sent armed guards to arrest him, gave him a hearing, and then recommended execution to Pilate, who promptly complied. This is the way the synoptic gospels describe the event, and this is the way things happened in other cases as several stories by Josephus show.
Caiaphas’ actions were political. He had the official and moral responsibility to preserve the peace and to prevent riots and bloodshed. If he even thought about it as a choice, he was obliged to choose between having Jesus killed or letting Jesus live and preach, inciting riot and leading to massacre of the population and of Jesus’ followers by Roman troops. So he decided that the best political move was to preserve the peace by arresting Jesus and having him executed.
But Caiaphas could not order the execution himself. The high priest could recommend executions but could not order them. Only the prefect could do that.
Crucifixion was not a punishment permitted under Jewish law. Jewish law permitted capital punishment, but the legal requirements were extremely stringent, so that the death penalty was very rarely (if ever) enforced during Second Temple times. Jewish Law allowed only four kinds of execution, and none involved anything as lingering and tortuous as crucifixion. On the other hand, the Romans executed people for minor infractions, and crucifixion as a method of execution was a popular Roman entertainment.
So Caiaphas followed the rules of the Roman governmental system, and the requirements of his position, and sent Jesus to Pilate.
2. Why did Pilate order Jesus’ execution?
This is pretty straightforward. First, because the high priest recommended it, and second, because the accusation was serious. Jesus was being called king of the Jews, an intolerable political offense. Pilate presumably understood that Jesus was a would-be king with no army, and therefore made no effort to arrest and execute Jesus’ followers. He may have regarded Jesus as a religious fanatic, a dangerous extremist, but the title “king” he understood in a political context as a threat to the Roman state. The notion of freedom of speech was still 1700-some years in the future.
The gospels, especially Matthew and John, want Jesus to have been condemned by Jewish mobs, against Pilate’s better judgment. These gospels were being written at a time when the early Christians were trying to get along with Rome, so we find a little whitewashing of Roman authorities. Thus, the gospels report that Pilate was worried, that his wife told him to take no action, that he consulted the (mostly Jewish) mob and pleaded on Jesus’ behalf, and finally, that he caved in to public pressure and ordered Jesus’ execution.
This seems unlikely. The gospels’ portrayal of Pilate as wishy-washy, reluctant, and weak-willed is incompatible with the descriptions of him in Josephus and Philo. He had served as prefect of Judea for over a decade; he would not have survived long in that political climate if he were as indecisive as the gospels depict. We can probably best explain this as Christian propaganda a few decades later–an excuse for Pilate’s action to reduce tension between the growing Christian movement and Roman authority.
Weddig Fricke says, "Despite all the efforts to make the Jews look primarily responsible and to cast the Roman procurator in the role of an unwitting instrument . . . the biblical accounts make it quite clear that Pontius Pilate pronounced the death sentence . . . which was carried out by his legionnaires.”
The most likely story is that Jesus was sent to Pilate by Caiaphas, flogged and briefly interrogated. Then, when Jesus’ answers were not completely satisfactory, Pilate had him crucified without a second thought.
SO, WHO KILLED JESUS, ALREADY?
In summary, Jesus was killed because the Roman empire mercilessly put down any possible source of rebellion or riot. The empire’s agents included the Roman prefect Pilate who ordered the execution, and the Jewish high priest Caiaphus and his council who initiated the process. Assigning responsibility to an entire group of people, whether the Jews or the Romans, is stereotyping, oversimplifying, and false.
There are lots, but we found these most helpful:
Crossan, John Dominic, Who Killed Jesus? San Francisco, Harper Press, 1995
Fricke, Weddig, The Court Martial of Jesus, NY, Grove Weinfield Press, 1990
Meier, John P., Rethinking the Historical Jesus, NY, Doubleday, 1994
Sanders, E.P., The Historical Figure of Jesus, England, Penguin Books, 1993
Zeitlin, Solomon, Who Crucified Jesus? NY, Bloch Publishing Company, 1964.
Send questions to Cecil via firstname.lastname@example.org.