Who Killed Jesus?
Mel Gibson has touched off a passionate debate over who was responsible for Jesusí death. For many Jews, it is yet more insult to injury threatening to lead to new rounds of injustice against Jews over a centuries old injustice against a Jew named Jesus.
I canít blame Jews who are nervous about this weekís debut of a film, which by all accounts is a gripping retelling of Jesusí crucifixion. Jews have faced centuries of persecution, much of which was done by Christians angrily denouncing them as Christ killers. Particularly in the Middle Ages, but right up until our own day, a rousing sermon on Jesusí death has turned many Christians to hate Jews. This would have seemed unthinkable to Jesusí first followers who considered themselves to be faithful Jews on Easter morning and until the end of their lives.
They had a tough time understanding why their fellow Jews did not immediately understand that their crucified Rabbi Jesus was the promised Messiah, but they never stopped seeing themselves as Jews. The main issue in the early church was how Jewish a Gentile convert needed to become. It was never a question as to whether Jews who followed the way of Jesus were still Jews. So, I just canít see anti-Semitism in the Gospel accounts of Jesusí death, but I sure understand how centuries of persecution at the hands of Christians has caused faithful Jews to see it that way.
Raising the specter of anti-Semitism has furthered public interest and made the opening of Gibsonís Passion into media event. Certainly the film has received more notice than a movie in Aramaic in Latin would usually generate.
Now that the question of who killed Jesus is laid before us in the press coverage, why not look deeper at what we know from scripture. There are two main culprits named in the Gospel accounts of Jesusí deathóPontius Pilate and the Jewish Sanhedrin.
Pilate was the Roman Governor charged with keeping the peace of Rome in the little piece of the Empire that lay on an important trade route through Israel. Pilate ordered the crucifixion of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Jewish dissidents, so why not blame him? The Gospels present a fairly ambivalent picture of Pilate in Jesusí trial. He seems reluctant to kill Jesus. In one scene cut from Gibsonís movie, Pilate washes his hands of the matter, laying the blame on the Jewish crowd. However, can he completely wash his hands of the matter while ordering his soldiers to do the deed? Pilate may not be The One Who Killed Jesus, but he is not innocent in the matter either.
Then there is the Sanhedrin, the Jewish leadership of Jerusalem that included both the Temple priests, known as the Sadducees, and the reform-minded Jews called the Pharisees. There was no one Judaism in that time, but a complex mosaic of groups, of which these are two of the better known. Like any religious group in any time and place, both groups contained good and godly people as well those only interested in preserving the status quo. We know this from the scriptural accounts of Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimethea, as well as descriptions of the High priest and others. No matter what we think of the Sanhedrin, they could never order a crucifixion, so the blame can not rest with these Jewish leaders alone.
Certainly some Jews approved of Jesusí death, some even worked behind the scenes to engineer the torture and death of one they considered a dangerous heretic. On the other hand, an honest reading of the Gospels does not present a united Jewish front against Jesus. There would have been no such thing. While it would be impossible to say that no Jews were involved in Jesusí death, it would be similarly indefensible to say that Jews as a people killed the Christ.
To look unflinchingly at the Bible shows that it was one of Jesus own followers, Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus to those who wanted him dead. And before we start to label Judas as the only betrayer, we have to remember Peterís own account of the night before Jesus died includes his three emphatic betrayals that he even knew Jesus. Though they did not kill their teacher, the disciples did not stand unflinchingly by his side to the end.
Jesusí own people betrayed him into the hands of those who killed him. Yes, many of those people were Jews. So was Jesus. To take scripture seriously means to realize that it was his own who wanted him dead. Had God become incarnate in another place and time, it would have been another group of people who worked the system to get him killed.
A group of Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, or any other religious group in which he had grown up could have killed Jesus. Jesus certainly could have been killed by a group of Christians, for it was, in fact, the earliest Christians who scattered and ran that night in the garden.
The deeper truth of Good Friday is that I killed Jesus. For I have betrayed him as much as Peter or Judas. Every time I fail to follow where he led and chase after my other gods of status or power or money then I am no different from Pilate, or Herod, or Caiaphas. Every time I fail to stand up for the Truth and the Life that lived among us, then I am no different from Judas or Peter.
It is only those of us with no sin who can pick up the stones of anti-Semitism to throw at those God calls chosen. I canít blame anyone else for Jesusí death. I betray him now, I certainly could have done it then, and you might have helped me. If the Passion makes us passionate about anything, it certainly should not be hate.
Jesus looked out on those who killed him as they mocked him and all he could do is love and forgive. Jesus did not rise again on Easter to get his followers to avenge his death. Jesus rose from the dead to give life. The new commandment he gave on the night before he died was ďLove one another.Ē Now, that is something to get passionate about. I bet Mel would agree.
(The Rev. Frank Logue is pastor of King of Peace Episcopal Church in Kingsland.)
King of Peace Episcopal Church + P.O. Box 2526 + Kingsland, Georgia 31548-2526