Good Friday: Assigning Blame for Jesus’ Death

A Modern Depiction of the Execution of Christ

On this, the saddest of days in the Christian calendar, I will cut to the chase.  There are two claims that I wish to dispel.  One, the Jews killed Jesus.  Two, our sins killed Jesus.

The first is fairly simple.  The Romans killed Jesus.  Whatever Pilate may have done to “wash his hands” of the mess of Jesus, he ordered the torture and execution of Jesus.  I find it remarkable how Pilate feigns this innocence when he, indeed, had the final word.  But, of course, this was the Roman Empire: killing was second nature.

We have consistently lifted up the beauty of the Roman Empire throughout the history of the Western world–its poetry, plays, political systems, military heroes, mythology, philosophy, and science. Yet, despite all its advancements, the Roman Empire slaughtered thousands of Jews around the time of Christ for acts of rebellion, treason, and not complying with Roman law.  Jesus was born into a time of cruelty and injustice.  The “Pax Romana” that was kept through executions of rebels by the thousands, including many in and around Jerusalem (not to mention Rome’s other territories).  Jesus grew up in this debilitating system of rebellion and execution.  Indeed, there is little doubt that Jesus himself witnessed many crucifixions and brutalities before his own.  There is little doubt he knew what was about to happen.

Of course, as Christians, we are far more comfortable blaming the 1st century Jewish authorities.  We think of ancient Jewish culture and we hear the “woe to you” phrases of Jesus and Jesus’ “trial” at the Sanhedrin.  Jesus, besides being Jewish himself, had many Jewish friends and many Jewish enemies.  All of Jesus’ apostles and most of Jesus’ followers were Jews at the time of his death.  The crowd that ordered Jesus’ execution was not a band of select infiltrators hand-picked by the evil Sanhedrin, but a crowd of common everyday people.  The vox populi called for Jesus’ execution, and the Roman government carried out the call.

To put this in perspective, I’m sure a few yelled for Jesus’ survival (Mary Magdalene was present at the crucifixion and was likely there at the sentencing), but the crowd as a whole saw the danger of this rebellious religious leader from Galilee.  Pilate didn’t seem to appreciate feeling compelled to condemn Jesus, but there is no talk of his holiness in the Gospels.  Pilate bends to the will of the people, to the unjust cry of the mob.

To claim that the Jews killed Christ is to miss the inherent psychology of a repressed people.  We balk that only a demonic crowd of hateful Jews could have chosen to free Barabbas over Jesus (the Gospels remark that Barabbas’ crimes were of a violent nature: murder and insurrection), but taking into account the persecution and repression of the entire state of Israel under Roman occupation, who is more terrifying?  Barabbas, a violent man arrested in an uprising against Rome, or Jesus, a peaceful man with a huge following who openly speaks against the Jewish authorities (thus also the Roman) and claims allegiance only to God (not to Caesar)?  Which man has a greater chance of bringing down the wrath of Rome on all of Israel?  Out of fear, despair, pain, anger, and frustration, the crowd calls for Jesus to be killed and the Romans happily oblige.

How different are we from this crowd?

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Second, the theological claim that “our sins killed Christ” is to remove us from our inherent culpability.  We cry out “crucify him!” during the Passion narrative on Palm Sunday because we are no different than the angry crowd that called for Jesus’ death.  Our leaders are no different than Pilate, maligning that they have to do such acts, but carrying out wars and executions nonetheless.  We look out for our religious leaders, but would likely turn them over to the authorities–like Judas–if we felt they were endangering the safety and stability of our way of life.  To separate our personhood from our sinfulness in our description of who killed Jesus (i.e., 1st century Jews physically killed him but our sins theologically killed him), allows us to seek revenge against the perpetrators while still being conceptually remorseful that the death happened.

Simply put, to claim that “our sins killed Jesus” separates, wrongly, our personhood from our state of sinfulness and allows us to blame the Jews.  We cried out to crucify Christ.  We still perpetuate a culture of fear, anger, repression, and violence in which Jesus’ teachings and actions remain a threat.  Jesus’ death was not a private affair, but was called for by all involved–instigated by the Jewish aristocracy, echoed by the mobs of people, carried out mercilessly by Pilate and the Romans.  Even his apostles fell victim to the fear of the mob, remaining absent from the scene of Jesus’ public trial.  Their absence condemned Jesus; their fear condemned Jesus.  In every sense of the word, we killed Jesus. We are at fault just as much as those physically involved in the execution in the 1st century.

This statement–this indictment–allows us to truly mourn on this day, on Good Friday.  If others were truly guilty of Jesus’ death, our sadness would always be mixed with thoughts of anger and vengeance–thoughts that led millions of Germans to join Hitler in perpetrating actions of genocide against the “killers of Jesus.”  But when we can finally accept that we are no different from the crowds who shouted for Jesus’ death, the politicians who executed Christ to keep the peace, the apostles who fearfully hid, the friends who betrayed, then and only then can we mourn the day He died. Then and only then our mourning can be true repentance and our sadness a means to our own forgiveness instead of a cause to anger and violence.

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Tomorrow: Easter Sunday: The Resurrection was not a Victory March

6 responses to “Good Friday: Assigning Blame for Jesus’ Death

  1. Thanks for the post!
    Could we say that the structural sins that go along with pride, empire, and power killed Jesus? How are we participating and perpetuating in those very same structures today?

    • I would agree to a point, but I’d still be cautious of separating certain sins that killed Jesus from our full culpability. Naming the structural/systemic sins as of prime importance allows us to see the lingering dangers of pride, empire, and power, and as such is very valuable–especially in looking at political systems. I would still posit that the essence of our sinful human nature condemned and crucified Jesus, regardless of the structure or system. While this may be more a difference of semantics than anything else (is there any culture or system that escapes pride, empire, and power?), it forces one to admit wrongdoing despite whatever systemic sins of which he or she may claim to be innocent.

      Of course, this leaves open bigger questions of theological anthropology, but I’m ok with that. Thank you for the comment!

  2. John, I had never truly considered this aspect of “the crowd” before: “To claim that the Jews killed Christ is to miss the inherent psychology of a repressed people.” Thank you for giving me a new perspective. Looking forward to tomorrow’s post–great title!

  3. John, I would add one qualification to your remarks about Jews and Jesus. Certainly the prevailing view among Catholic NT scholars is that the acrimonious demands to “Crucify him! Crucify him!” likely reflect the conflicts between early devotees of Jesus and their fellow Jews. The same may be said for gospel conflicts between scribes and Pharisees in general. And as E. P. Sanders wrote in “Jesus and Judaism,” we can’t be sure of too many details of supposed Jewish “trials” of Jesus.

    All this being said, this does not take away from the likelihood that Caiaphas turned Jesus over to Pilate, and perhaps his father-in-law (a previous High Priest) and other chief priests probably had some sort of hearings, and are implicated in Jesus’ death. For more on Caiaphas and Pilate see Helen Bond’s ‘Caiaphas: Friend of Rome and Judge of Jesus?” and “Pontius Pilate in History and Interpretation.” And it is a reasonable hypothesis that other Jews whose lives were very engaged with the Temple would be have supportive, even if they were not publicly vocal.

    Certainly this is no defense for anti-Semitism, but our wishes to do well by our Jewish brethren should not lead us to eliminate facts (or historical probabilities). i doubt they would want us to follow in the footsteps of Holocaust deniers by denying the obvious conflict between Jesus and Temple authority. This is all the more important if Gerd Theissen is correct in his suggestion that the “Last Supper” tradition reflects an informal “quasi-alternative” to the Temple cult, and considering the practices of Jesus’ mentor, John.

    • Steve, thank you very much for this helpful comment. I admit that I am not up to date with the most recent literature regarding historical accounts of the death of Jesus. So, firstly, thanks for some excellent references on places to go for both myself and our readers!

      As regards my blog post, I think my general comments remain the same. Whatever the relationship between Jesus, the general Jewish population, and the Jewish authorities, whoever precisely brought him to Pilate and procured his execution, I believe our culpability remains intact. Even if we leave out the crowd chanting “crucify him,” we are still left with Jewish leaders who handed Jesus over to the Roman government, whether or not Pilate was overly influenced. We are still left standing side by side with the apostles who were afraid to be close to Jesus while he died and with Judas who betrayed him for reasons likely forever unknown.

      Generally, I stand closer to Luke Timothy Johnson in understanding the historical Jesus as something to be taken only alongside a Jesus of faith and tradition. Given the large amounts of knowledge we do not and likely will not ever know concerning the details of Jesus’ life, I can find resonance in the theological tradition of chanting “crucify him!” and the depictions of the trial in the Gospels when I see them as realistic metaphors for the decent of human nature in very real people that brought about the end of Jesus’ life.

  4. John, I appreciate your take on this; of course it fits with the longstanding Catholic practice of having the congregation read the “crowd’s” part of the Passion in John’s gospel on Good Friday. And I confess that I’m frequently looking for something to knock me out of the grooves that have been cut by so many years of hearing the gospels at Mass. I acknowledge that not everyone needs to take such a “contrarian” approach.

    That being said, Johnson doesn’t have have the chops to get into the ring with people like Rev. John P. Meier (whom he attacks); for that matter, some of the most formidable scripture scholars of our time, like Harry Attridge and John and Adela Collins participated in the Jesus Seminar. Bernard Brandon Scott, unquestionably the most respected parable scholar of our time, took Johnson to task in the Jesuit journal, “America,” and I think, rightly so. (Scott is also a member of the Jesus Seminar). Certainly most practicing Christians exposed to Jesus studies will not to work out how to synthesize it with a more traditional Christology, but I don’t think Johnson is the best guide; he has too big an axe of his own to grind.

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