Who Killed Jesus?

The Gospels provide a detailed portrait of Jesus Christ’s last twenty-four hours, including his execution (Matthew 26-27, Mark 14-15, Luke 22-23 and John 18-20). Scholars are nearly unanimous in their interpretation that the Synoptic Gospels indicate that a Roman execution squad killed Jesus on Passover in Jerusalem sometime around AD 30.

However, the authors of the Gospels highlight a conspiracy to arrest Jesus that included some Jewish leaders in Jerusalem (Matthew 26:3-4); at least one of Jesus’ own disciples, Judas Iscariot (Matthew 26:14-16); and Pontus Pilate, the Roman governor. The New Testament contains additional references to Pilate’s involvement (see Acts 3:13; 4:27: 13:28; 1 Timothy 6:13).

Beginning with His arrest in Gethsemane, the Gospels note how Jesus was handed over to various parties again and again and eventually handed over to those that physically put him to death.

From at least the Middle Ages, European Christians, now virtually one hundred percent non-Jewish, began to demonize all Jews, past and present, for the death of Jesus as they focused on a few particular passages in the New Testament that they read as anti-Jewish, if not anti-Semitic.

These interpreters seemingly forgot that Jesus was a Jew as were all of his disciples. The New Testament text, unlike portrayals on stage and screen, reveal a complex response to Jesus by His own people to His mission; some believed He was the long-promised Messiah, others accepted him as a holy man, a prophet, healer and teacher. Some were ambivalent to his message and a few were openly hostile.

However, this rather small, but powerful group were often afraid of the “people” (Matthew 26:5), suggesting most Jews living in Jewish-Palestine were at least somewhat sympathetic to Jesus. Other Jews, living in the Mediterranean Basin and the Middle East, obviously had little knowledge, if any, of His activities and the events surrounding His arrest and execution until well after the events.

It seems that no one person or group was solely and completely responsible for Jesus Christ’s death but that many individuals and various groups were involved in the terrible events on that fateful Passover that ended in the cruel crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth.

“After a messianic entry into Jerusalem just before Pesah in 30 CE, he was arrested as a potential revolutionary and executed (by crucifixion) by order of the Roman procurator Pontius Pilate, probably at the instigation of Jewish circles who feared the Roman reactions to messianic agitation.”

R. J. Zwi Weblowsky and Geoffrey Widoder, eds. , The Oxford Dictionary of the Jewish Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), p. 368

“It is sometimes asserted that even if ‘the Jews’ killed Jesus (as described in John’s gospel), that must be a good thing, since it led to the resurrection. But whether any effect is good or bad, responsibility for the crucifixion’s cause must be assessed honestly. Further, may post-Vatican II Catholics and liberal Protestants understand ‘the Jews’ as standing in for ‘all of us.’ As we will see below, there is profound truth in that corporate responsibility interpretation, but it can never excuse incarnating such universal accountability in any specific group, and certainly not in “the Jews.”

John Dominic Crossan, emeritus professor at DePaul University, a founding member of the Jesus Seminar