Who Killed Jesus?

Christian tradition says Jesus Christ was crucified this Passover week, sometime around 30 AD, and ever since the argument has raged:  who caused his death?

Read the four Gospels—Mark, Luke, Matthew and John—and the answer is clear.  Jesus was killed by “the Jews,” but what is interesting is that these Gospels, all written at different times, differ in the degree to which the Jews are responsible.

Mark, the earliest Gospel, written some 30 years after Jesus died, says the Sanhedrin (the Jewish leadership) in Jerusalem brought Jesus to the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, demanding his death because Jesus claimed he was the “King of the Jews.” Pilate was happy to comply, thereby eliminating a potential troublemaker whose claim to be ruler of the Jews threatened Roman control.  Indeed, Passover—especially in Jerusalem—was a time when the Jews were particularly restless because they were celebrating their freedom from one oppressor, Egypt, knowing full well that they were ruled by another oppressor, Rome.

Luke, written about 10 years later, writes that Pilate declared Jesus innocent of the Sanhedrin’s charges three times and tried to free Jesus, but the large Jewish crowd demanded his death.

Matthew, written just after Luke, echoes Luke’s version but adds that when the Jewish crowd demanded Jesus’ death, Pilate washed his hands in a basin of water and declared, “I wash my hands of responsibility for this man’s death.”  At which point the crowd responded, “His blood be upon us and our children,” thereby not only taking responsibility for killing Jesus, but also making their descendants responsible.

John, written about 60 years after Jesus died, echoes the others but adds that when Pilate expressed his reluctance to kill Jesus, the Jewish crowd threatened to inform the Roman emperor, Tiberius—a man famously sensitive to threats to Rome’s rule—that Pilate had freed a man who claimed he was King of the Jews.  Foreseeing Tiberius’ reaction, Pilate acquiesced, but John then writes that Pilate handed Jesus over to the Jews and they did the crucifying.

In other words, the further the distance from Jesus’ actual crucifixion, the more the Christian writers claim that the Jews are responsible, which from a historical standpoint makes sense.  In the years after Jesus’ death Christians and Jews increasingly argued over everything from theology to religious legitimacy to Christian attempts to convert Jews to Christianity.

In truth, the historical evidence says Mark is closest to the mark.  The Sanhedrin saw Jesus as a threat to their authority and brought him to Pilate, who quickly condemned him to death.  Thus one small group of Jewish leaders—not “the Jews” in general—with the full compliance of Roman authority, was responsible for Jesus’ death.