“In telling their foundational story, the evangelists sought Rome’s favor by portraying Pilate and Roman authorities in a more benevolent light, thus representing Jews as the real culprits in Jesus’ death.”
oly Week makes for a fine occasion to revisit a question that lies at the heart of Western Civilization: Who killed Jesus? If you read the gospels (the only account of Jesus’ arrest, trial, and execution), the answer appears straightforward. Jewish authorities arrested Jesus, and the high priest Caiaphas interrogated him. Jesus acknowledged that he was the Messiah. This was blasphemous, so Jewish authorities wanted him dead. But, as per Roman law, they did not have the power to execute him, so they turned Jesus over to the Roman prefect of Judea, Pontius Pilate. Pilate found no fault in Jesus and was hesitant to execute him. But, under pressure, he was forced to liberate Barabbas. Then, finally, he acquiesced to the Jewish popular demand to crucify Jesus.
This story is probably the main foundation for the long history of anti-Semitism in the West. In this telling, the Romans finished the job, but they were only the useful idiots who were duped by ever-manipulating Jews. This trope has been a major cause of innumerable pogroms and discrimination. But, the fact that a story leads to all sorts of bigotry does not make it false. So, we should not be too quick to suppress historical facts—simply because some groups are offended. That political correctness is sadly on the rise, and we must avoid it.
Nevertheless, more than a century of sound scholarship has provided very strong reasons to cast doubt on the gospel narrative. Here is what most likely happened. Jesus had probably never been to Jerusalem, and, in Galilee, he had been preaching that the end of the world would come soon. He then decided that he would go to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover, perhaps expecting that the apocalyptic events would happen there. During Passover, huge crowds of Jews from all over would go to the city to celebrate how the Israelites moved out of Egypt. Given the themes of national liberation in that particular story, Roman authorities would be on the watch for potential revolutionary activity.
Once in Jerusalem, it appears that Jesus was at the center of some disturbance at the Temple. We do not really know his motives, but perhaps he was angry at the corruption of the priestly class. This disturbance must not have been too significant, for he was not arrested at the time. But, it must have been significant enough for Jewish authorities to take notice of him. These authorities were reluctant collaborators with the Roman occupation, and they feared that if the Romans perceived agitation in Jewish crowds, they would tighten their oppressive rule. Perhaps they would abolish the Temple cult altogether. So, as a preemptive measure, the Sanhedrin (the Jewish council) decided to arrest Jesus so as to prevent any trouble.
In the gospel narrative, Judas led the Temple guard to Jesus, identifying him with the infamous kiss. This may or may not have happened. The fact that the traitor’s name is Judas seems a bit suspicious. Judah is the ancestor of the whole Jewish tribe, so this may actually be a ploy by evangelists to blame all Jews for Jesus’ death. The kiss is also suspicious, given that in an Old Testament story, Joab kills Amasa while kissing him; the evangelists recurrently told Jesus’ story by appealing to Old Testament themes. As such, perhaps the whole detail about the kiss is a fabrication.
Be that as it may, Jesus was arrested. But, what happened afterwards is very confusing—largely because the gospels themselves do not agree. Mark implies there was a trial in Caiaphas’ palace the very same night of the arrest, but Luke says it was the morning after. John says Jesus was first taken to Annas’ house, and then he was taken to Caiaphas’ palace.
It seems very unlikely that this trial even took place. Jewish law was very clear about how trial proceedings were to unfold, and they do not match the events narrated in the gospels. The Sanhedrin was not allowed to gather at night, yet in Mark, Matthew and John’s version, that is exactly what happened. The Sanhedrin was to meet in the Hall of Hewn Stones (adjacent to the Temple), but, in the gospels, they met in Caiaphas’ house. Nobody was allowed to come out of their homes on the night of Passover, yet according to Mark, Matthew and Luke, the trial took place that very same night.
But, even if there was a trial, it is extremely hard to believe that Jesus was charged with blasphemy. According to the gospel narrative, Jesus was asked if he was the Messiah, the son of the Blessed One. Jesus said “yes.” Caiaphas tore his garments in indignation, and, upon hearing Jesus’ confession, the Sanhedrin sentenced him to death. This is extremely strange because claiming to be the Messiah was not blasphemy. Claiming divine status was indeed blasphemous; but claiming to be the son of the Blessed One (huios tou eulogetou) was not blasphemy, inasmuch as this was a Messianic title and not divine status. Therefore, claiming to be the Messiah was not a crime under Jewish law.
In fact, if the Sanhedrin wanted to execute Jesus on blasphemy charges, they could have. The gospel of John claims that the Sanhedrin did not have the power to execute anybody, and that is why Jewish authorities turned Jesus to the Romans. But, again, there are good reasons to cast doubt on this version of the events. The New Testament itself claims that Stephen was stoned to death by Jews, and the Romans did not seem to care. That story may or may not have happened, but it still reflects that Jews did have the power to execute people. If they did not execute Jesus, it was probably because they were simply not interested in doing so. As far as the Sanhedrin members were concerned, Jesus was a troublemaker, but he was no blasphemer.
So, as historian Géza Vermes phrased it, Caiaphas simply “passed the buck” and delivered Jesus to Pilate, so that he could decide what to do with this agitator. According to Jewish authors Josephus and Philo, Pilate was a brutal man, who did not hesitate to execute potential agitators. It is hard to believe that Pilate would not have done the same with Jesus, especially during the hectic scenario of Passover in Jerusalem.
Yet, the gospels go to great lengths in order to portray Pilate as an essentially good-natured administrator, who only hesitantly ordered Jesus’ execution, as a result of unbearable Jewish pressure. The gospels were written after the Roman empire crushed a Jewish revolt and destroyed the Temple. In that chaos, Christians (who were still perceived as a sect within Judaism) wanted little association with the defeated Jews. So, in telling their foundational story, the evangelists sought Rome’s favor by portraying Pilate and Roman authorities in a more benevolent light, thus representing Jews as the real culprits in Jesus’ death.
In this endeavor, even more spurious details were added. The gospels narrate that Pilate appeals to a Jewish custom in which—during Passover—one prisoner would be released, as per the crowd’s request. This seems to be entirely a fabrication, as there is no record of this tradition in Jewish sources. Pilate displays Jesus and Barabbas to the Jewish crowd, and they choose the latter for liberation. Just as with Judas, the name of this character adds suspicion to the whole story. Barabbas means “son of the father.” One cannot help but wonder if this is some sort of irony in the gospel narrative, given Jesus’ previous admission to being the son of the Blessed One. This strange name casts doubts on the very existence of this character.
In the gospels’ narrative, Pilate liberates Barabbas and then asks the crowd what he should do with Jesus. The crowd furiously demands his crucifixion, and Pilate has no option but to accept. In so doing, he publicly washes his hands so as to signal his lack of responsibility in the whole affair. In Matthew’s telling, the Jews respond, “his blood is on us and our children!” This is surely one of the most unfortunate passages in the whole New Testament, as it ultimately laid the blame of Jesus’ death on the entire Jewish people, for generations and generations to come. It’s no wonder that Mel Gibson, the same guy who went on an antisemitic rant while drunk included the phrase in Aramaic in The Passion of the Christ, but chose not to include subtitles in English for those words: a nasty way to blow the antisemitic whistle. In that film, again, Pilate is a good (if weak) character, and Jews maliciously pull the strings.
Ever since Gibson made his film (a form of torture porn, some would say), he has taken some heat for his seemingly antisemitic attitudes. We live in a post-Holocaust world, so one can no longer exhibit the bigotry of previous epochs and accuse Jews of being Christ-killers. Even the Catholic Church has asked for forgiveness for this. But, Gibson does deserve a defense—to the extent that in his film, he was basically depicting what the gospels narrate. If there is antisemitism in the Passion of the Christ, it is only because there is antisemitism in the gospels. Thanks to rigorous historical research, we now know that the Jews probably had nothing to do with Jesus’ death. This should be an occasion not just to stop blaming Jews with an absurd accusation but to come to terms with an uncomfortable fact: the gospels are very human, imperfect, and biased texts. And, only irrational dogmatism can lead people to think that they are divinely inspired.
Dr. Gabriel Andrade is a university professor. He has previously contributed to Areo Magazine and DePauw University’s The Prindle Post. His twitter is @gandrade80