This question has probably drawn more illogical answers than any other query in church history. For many unhappy centuries, anti-Semitism prompted the reply: “The Jews—as a people—then and now.” In 1966, Vatican Council II rejected that view and relieved the Jewish people of any blanket charge of “deicide” (the term, however, is unsuitable, since God cannot be killed, and it was not included in the final document). Now the understandable revulsion against the change of collective Jewish guilt for Good Friday has led to an opposite trend among some theologians, both Christian and Jewish: the gospel narratives of the Passion are historically inaccurate, they claim, for anti-Semitic prejudice has colored their portrayal of a Jewish prosecution of Jesus.

The most extreme statement came in 1971 with the publication of The Trial and Death of Jesus (Harper & Row), in which Haim Cohn argues that Annas and Caiaphas, far from being antagonists of Jesus, were actually his sympathetic co-religionists who “did all that they possibly and humanly could to save Jesus, whom they dearly loved and cherished as one of their own.” Other scholars, while not faulting the gospel writers for outright anti-Semitism, suggest that they were merely tampering with the truth for political purposes: unless a reluctant Pilate were made to appear pressured by Jewish authorities, how could Romans be converted to believe in someone who was crucified by a Roman governor?

The discussion reached the popular level a year ago when Newsweek (April 23, 1973) and other journals reported on this reappraisal of the Passion story, fueled largely by Jeffrey Sobosan’s article in the Journal of Ecumenical Studies (Winter, 1973). The trend was perhaps best summarized when Rosemary Ruether claimed that Christians have yet to admit that anti-Semitism “is deeply rooted in the Gospel itself.… It is now fairly well established that the New Testament account [of the Crucifixion] is an apologetic reworking of history to shift the blame from the Roman to the Jewish authorities” (The Christian Century, February, 1968).

Dr. Ruether proceeded with her challenge on a theological rather than historical basis. I shall do the opposite, for Judeo-Christian theology is rooted in history. This article, then, will not deal with the larger theological answers to who was responsible for Good Friday, true as they are—“All people, for all sinned,” or “God, in saving us.” Nor will it deny that Pontius Pilate had the final, juridical responsibility for the trial and death of Jesus, for he unquestionably did. Instead, it will focus on whether the gospel accounts of Jesus’ trial and death are historically accurate in their portraits of a reluctant Pilate being pressured by Jewish authorities in Jerusalem.

Article continues below
Sources Outside The Gospels

Nearly all who challenge the New Testament record offer some variations on this argument: The Gospels are inconsistent in reporting the Passion story; the later evangelists play down Roman involvement and magnify that of the Jews, and the latest Gospel, John, is the most anti-Semitic of the four. The matter is supposedly chronological and situational: the Fourth Gospel was written, toward the close of the first century, almost as ammunition for Christians in the struggle between church and synagogue.

It is Luke, however, who offers the very first commentary on Roman versus Jewish responsibility for Good Friday in what purports to be the earliest history of the church, the Book of Acts: “Men of Israel,” he quotes Peter, “you delivered up and denied Jesus in the presence of Pilate, when he had decided to release him” (Acts 3:13 f.). There are fully eight other passages in similar vein in Acts.

Luke is late too and therefore prone to anti-Semitic bias, it may be argued. Even Mark, the earliest evangelist, had to sweeten Pilate’s role if Roman Gentiles were to be converted.

All right, then, what about a document that was written much earlier than even Mark—in fact, only seventeen years after the first Good Friday? In First Thessalonians (the very earliest writing in the New Testament) Paul states that Jews “killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets” (2:15; cp. Acts 13:28). And, of course, much of Paul’s missionary activity drew hostility from the synagogue, which would hardly be intelligible if the previously mentioned trend in current theology were correct.

The chronological argument, accordingly, is faulty, since the very earliest proclamation of the Church stands in full accord with the proceedings of Jesus’ trial as reported later in the Gospels. The opposition to that proclamation is also consistent, from the judgment of Caiaphas to the stoning of Stephen to the beatings of Paul.

Roman Evidence?

“We should not too readily accept the idea of a mob shouting at Pilate during the Passion,” argues Jesuit scholar Dominic M. Crossan in his otherwise careful study, “Anti-Semitism and the Gospel” (Theological Studies, June, 1965). For it is unlikely that Pilate would have allowed such a mob to gather, Crossan says; or if it did, Pilate would simply have dispersed the people as at other times. Unfortunately, the scene of Pilate being pressured by Judean crowds is common among his experiences in Palestine, and pressures also from Rome that might easily have led him to react as defensively at Jesus’ trial as reported in the New Testament have been described in detail (see my book on Pilate and other articles, as in Church History, March, 1968).

Article continues below

Aside from this, there is no solid evidence from Roman history in the matter, other than that the trial of Jesus seems to have been conducted exactly as Roman law would dictate in the case of a provincial coming under the personal cognitio (investigation) of a Roman governor. In other words, nothing from the vast resources of Roman history and law contradicts any aspect of the events of Good Friday, as traditionally reported in the Gospels.

Jewish Evidence

Whether or not there was a formal trial of Jesus before the Sanhedrin or merely a hearing is something that the Gospels do not make clear. The matter has been debated for centuries. All arguments, however, that claim there were too many violations of Jewish law for Jesus’ appearances before Annas and Caiaphas to be historical founder, for several reasons: (1) no ranking scholar today is sure that later Talmudic law for Sanhedral court procedure applied at the time of the trial of Jesus; (2) even if it did, what if that law itself were disregarded or compromised on the basis of civil emergency? Unhappily, lynchings—judicial or otherwise—take place in the most ordered societies. The stoning of Stephen (the apparent absence of Pontius Pilate should be noted) would be a case in point.

More directly, there is important though little known support for the New Testament accounts from a surprising source: even purely Jewish rabbinical sources in the Talmud agree substantially with the Gospels in their portrayals of Annas and the priestly aristocracy of Jerusalem at the time of Jesus. “Woe to the family of Annas! Woe to their serpent-like hisses!” warns the Talmud (Pesachim 57a). There is, however, some resonance for their opinion of Jesus, since the Talmud too requires the death penalty for one Yeshu Hannosri (Jesus of Nazareth): “He shall be stoned because he has practiced sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy” (Sanhedrin 43a). Early Jewish traditions about Jesus were later gathered also in a fifth-century compilation called the Toledoth Jeshu, which freely assigns all responsibility for Jesus’ conviction to the Jerusalem priests, hardly even mentioning Pontius Pilate.

Article continues below

Admittedly, such evidence may well be too late for any true significance in the present discussion, but that of Josephus is not. Beyond any debate, the Jewish historian records a stunning near-parallel that occurred in A.D. 62, only twenty-nine years after the Crucifixion: the high priest and the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem stoned to death James, the half brother (or relative) of Jesus and first Christian bishop of Jerusalem in the absence of the Roman governor Albinus, who was later so angry at this execution that the high priest (Ananus, son of the New Testament Annas) was deposed (Antiq., xx, 9, 1). Against this background, is it likely that the Gospels falsely shifted moral responsibility for the crucifixion of James’ half-brother Jesus from Pilate to the priests?

If all the evidence is weighed fairly, the case for a distortion of the facts by the New Testament is seen to rest solely on a slender string of scholarly hypotheses that have often overlooked much of the surviving evidence. Such critical scholars, however well meaning, have also largely ignored the fact that if their strictures were accurate, vast sections of the Gospels and most of the early history of Christianity in Jerusalem—not to mention Paul’s troubles in Asia, Greece, and Rome—would also be hopelessly compromised as essentially meaningless historical distortions. There are better, more logical ways to achieve the laudable goal of renouncing anti-Semitism in any form than in censuring source documents.

The Illogic Of Anti-Semitism

Who, then, was responsible for crucifying Jesus? Once again, the Roman prefect of Judea, Pontius Pilate, clearly had the ultimate juridical and administrative responsibility for the trial, condemnation, and execution, but I have tried to show that he could indeed have been pressured in his decision, as the Gospels claim. Were “the Jews,” then, as prosecution, morally responsible?

Here the matter of precise definition is all-important. If “the Jews” refers to a comparatively small priestly aristocracy in one city, Jerusalem at one time in history, that fateful Passover then the historical answer must be yes.

But if “the Jews” somehow involves other Jews collectively at that time and since, the answer must be believed, taught, preached, and shouted, for it is categorical: No! Absolutely not! Medieval Christianity erred tragically in developing an anti-Semitic attitude from Jewish involvement in Jesus’ trial, which must stand as one of the supreme instances of illogic in Western history (and one thread for the string of horrors culminating in the ovens of Nazi Germany). Collective guilt is morally and juridically false. If some bigot wishes to make much of the people’s famous challenge before Pilate, “His blood be on us and on our children,” it should be noted that Matthew fails to record any sudden voice booming down from the sky in reply, “So be it!” (27:25). Collective guilt made no more sense then than when some fuzzy-minded cleric raised his voice after John F. Kennedy’s assassination and cried, “We’re all guilty!”

Article continues below

Collective guilt is especially illogical in this case because of the fractions involved. Jesus’ prosecutors (who were acting in good faith, let us not forget, for the priests believed Jesus to be a dangerous religious errorist and possible seditionist who might invite Roman reprisals) were only a small fraction of the Jewish populace at the time, and their specific responsibility is not transferable. Father Crossan’s study suggests that the shouting mob before Pilate was composed mainly of pro-Barabbas partisans—an attractive hypothesis, though it seems more likely that Annas, Caiaphas, and the Sadducean aristocracy could easily have marshalled the whole Temple staff and police, numbering in the thousands, for such a purpose.

We must never forget the vast numbers of contemporary Jews who favored Jesus both on Good Friday and since. His many Galilean followers, encamped for the Passover on the hills about Jerusalem, would not have known about his trial that early morning until it was over. And what about the “great crowd” of mourning Jerusalemites who lined the streets en route to Calvary lamenting Jesus’ fate? What about the large number of Jews who were converted after Pentecost, including a “great number” of Jewish priests? (Acts 6:7). So, in view of the fact that the founder and early membership of Christianity were predominantly Jewish, and that a great majority of his own countrymen either sympathized with Jesus or were at least neutral toward him, it is clearly ridiculous to pin any collective responsibility for Good Friday on “the Jews” then or since.

Accordingly, Christian preachers and teachers must be extremely careful in retelling the Passion story to specify who “the Jews” were that were involved in the prosecution before Pilate and not suggest that any sort of a majority of Jerusalemites condemned Jesus. We might frankly wish that the Fourth Gospel had been more specific in its use of the term “the Jews” because human beings are so prone to collectivizing and prejudice, but many such general references seem to be more echoes of Old Testament strictures on Israel. By far, the most “anti-Semitic” passages in the Bible are not in the New Testament at all but in the Old, written by Jewish prophets themselves in excoriating their countrymen for failing to live up to the divine standard. It was the lofty price Israel paid for being close to God as his “chosen people.”

Article continues below

Responsible Christian theology, of course, emphasizes that it was God—not any Jewish prosecution—who was ultimately responsible for the Crucifixion, since all mankind was involved in, and affected by, the events swirling around the cross, not just one or another ethnic group. In that sense, sermons that point out how both Jews and Gentiles condemned Jesus are directly on target.

This article, then, is a plea to oppose anti-Semitism on the basis of logic and fairness, not by trying to warp the source material. Some highly respected Jewish scholars also concur in this approach, with findings that are by no means antithetical to traditional accounts of the Passion. To be anti-Semitic because of Good Friday would be as preposterous as hating Italians today because Nero once threw Christians to the lions. The final blunder would be to try to claim that Nero never persecuted Christians, because the sources that say he did must be tainted with anti-Italian bias!

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.