Who killed Jesus?

Religion, spirituality, and sacrilege.
Sept. 17 2003 1:12 PM

Passion Misplay

Who killed Jesus? Time for both Jews and Christians to fess up.

You probably won't find many Jews conceding the point that, biblically speaking, Jewish leaders were complicit in the death of Jesus. In fact, given the history of this topic—with the Christ-killer charge having helped provide the justification and fuel for European anti-Semitism—it's no surprise that it is nearly impossible to have a constructive interfaith conversation about the Crucifixion.


This is already evident in the reaction to Mel Gibson's new movie, The Passion. Not due out until next year, it's so far stirred up much emotion but disappointingly little productive discussion. One example: Abraham Foxman, the National Director of the Anti-Defamation League, criticized the film because it "unambiguously portrays Jewish authorities and the Jewish mob as the ones responsible for the decision to crucify Jesus."

The problem with the tone of his statement is that, as best we can tell, Jews did kill Jesus. Or, more precisely, according to the four Gospels of the New Testament, Jews prodded the Romans into doing it. Mr. Foxman might as well have said that The Passion "unambiguously portrays Jewish authorities and the Jewish mob just like the Bible does."

In the interest of disrupting the already-off-on-the-wrong-foot public discussion of Gibson's movie—and with curiosity about whether I can alienate both my Christian and Jewish relatives in one article—I propose the following:

1) Jews should admit that some of their forefathers probably helped get Jesus killed. The four Gospels say Jewish priests demanded Jesus' crucifixion. For me, the most interesting account is the Gospel of Mark. Scholars now believe that the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, and possibly John, were based in part on Mark or on the same source that Mark used. Mark's Gospel is thought to have been written before the others, circa A.D. 70, * and, perhaps because it was written within a generation after Jesus' death, is widely considered freer of ahistorical embellishments. Yet Mark clearly says:

But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release for them Barab'bas instead.

And Pilate again said to them, "Then what shall I do with the man whom you call the King of the Jews?"

And they cried out again, "Crucify him."

And Pilate said to them, "Why, what evil has he done?" But they shouted all the more, "Crucify him." Chapter 15: 11-15

In Luke, Matthew, and John, Jewish leaders look even worse.

To say that films should not be made depicting an important Jewish role in the death of Jesus is to say that films should not be made based on the Bible. The idea that influential Jews wanted Jesus killed is not a distortion of Christianity; it is, for better or worse, an accurate depiction of the New Testament.

What's more, one of the only non-biblical discussions of Jesus' life, from the Jewish historian Josephus, also indicates that at least some important Jewish authorities wanted Jesus convicted. In Jewish Antiquities, he writes that Pilate condemned Jesus "upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing amongst us."

2) There is a strong possibility that the Bible itself, in effect, distorted the history of the "Jewish" role. In other words, the argument from Mel Gibson and his defenders that his movie can't possibly be insensitive because it is based on the Bible ignores the probability that the New Testament itself may have offered inaccurate history.



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