Who were the responsible parties for the mock trial and condemnation of Jesus?
by Nathan McLatcher—
In Jesus’s crucifixion, there is more than enough blame to go around. Pilate is an obvious suspect in Jesus’ death. As the arm of Roman law in Judea, Pilate had ultimate authority over capital punishment (John 18:31). Yet, despite believing that Jesus was innocent, Pilate still handed him over to be crucified (John 19:16). Pilate’s reasons for crucifying Jesus are unclear, but Skinner provides a possible explanation in his book The Trial Narratives. Originally, Pilate planned to use Jesus as a pawn to leverage his power over the local aristocracy. He hoped, by releasing Jesus, to prove to the local leadership that he would not be used by them. However, the crowd’s outburst was so fierce that Pilate feared for his safety. Whereas Jesus remained focused on the divine, fearless to the danger Pilate posed, Pilate backed down before the crowd to avoid a riot (Skinner 82).
Pilate serves the broader scriptural purpose of showing how safety and material well-being can distract from the divine. Scripture draws a sharp distinction between the ways Pilate and Jesus faced danger. Jesus was defiant before his accusers, despite knowing that his defiance would lead to his death. Paul elaborates, “But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). Jesus had every intention of dying, and refused to save himself at the expense of his followers. In contrast, Pilate allowed Jesus to be crucified in order to protect his own rule. Matthew says “So when Pilate saw that he was gaining nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.’ (...) Then he released for them Barrabas, and having scourged Jesus, delivered him to be crucified” (Matthew 27:24, 26) Pilate allowed an innocent man to be crucified in order to preserve his hold on power. In contrast, Jesus allowed himself to be crucified for the benefit of others.
The divide between Jesus and Pilate couldn’t be clearer. By trying to wash his hands of the guilt of Jesus’ death, Pilate is washing his hands of Jesus’ divine kingdom and putting his faith in Earthly power rather than divine power. John quotes Jesus, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Yet when Pilate is confronted by Jesus, he retorts, “What is truth?” and storms away (John 18:38). Even when Pilate is face-to-face with truth itself, he is blinded by his concern for the power he has accumulated in Judea. Willfully ignorant of the greater drama unfolding around him, Pilate clings to the safety of earthly authority. Jesus warns against this way of thinking in Luke 9:24-25, “For whoever would save his life would lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?” Pilate is blind to the truth staring him in the face. He attempts to keep his grip on power, yet he loses it to the will of the crowd. By clinging to the power given by Rome, Pilate loses sight of an even greater kingdom.
But Pilate is far from alone in his guilt. The Jewish leadership shares an equal part of the blame in Jesus’ crucifixion. Jesus reserved his most biting words for those who twisted the words of the Old Testament prophets to gain power. Jesus condemns them, “But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, burdensome loads and lay them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them. All their deeds are done for men to see” (Matthew 23:3-5). The Old Testament law was intended to show that all people have sinned and no one is superior in the eyes of God, yet the religious elite had turned the law into a way to hold power over their fellow Israelites. The Sanhedrin had become like the people in Genesis 11, who tried to build a tower to reach the heavens so they could “make a name” for themselves. Both they and the Sanhedrin tried to get to God through their own actions, and both failed spectacularly. Whereas Pilate’s downfall was his love of power and safety, the religious leadership’s downfall was their pride. By an unearned moral smugness, their religion blinded them to God.
The conflict between Jesus and the Sanhedrin was inevitable. Not only did Jesus reject their teaching, but his own teaching was a threat to their doctrine. Mark’s gospel shows the first instance of the religious leadership taking offense at Jesus’ teachings, “Now some teachers of the law were sitting there, thinking to themselves ‘why does this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?’” (Mark 2:6-7). Ironically, the teachers are so enraged by Jesus’ words that they miss the fact that Jesus is himself the son of God (Mark 1:1). Jesus displayed such authority that the leadership believed he would eventually convert all of Judea, leading the people away from their teaching, rob them of their power and invite the wrath of the Romans.
In John 11:45-53, the Sanhedrin first plot to kill Jesus, fearing that he would erode their power and eventually invite the wrath of the Romans. After Jesus overturns the money-changing tables at the Jerusalem temple, the teachers see their opportunity. They arrest Jesus and bring him to a kangaroo court, where Caiaphas, the high priest, asks him directly, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” (Mark 14:61). When Jesus answers, “I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power,” Caiaphas is so enraged that he rips his clothing as others begin to beat and spit on Jesus (Mark 14:62-65). The council recognized Jesus for what he was: a dagger aimed at the heart of the established religious order. Jesus posed a threat to the teachers’ power in society, and so just like Pilate they planned to kill him in order to preserve the current order.
Jesus’ condemnation of the Jewish leadership has led to the view that the Gospels are anti-Semitic (Skinner 88). In Matthew 27:24-25, Pilate warns the Jewish crowd that he will not take responsibility for Jesus’ death. They answer, “His blood be on us and our children!” For two millenia, Christian anti-Semites have interpreted this verse to mean that the Jewish people are to blame for Christ’s death, because they rejected him. In 1215, the Catholic Church mandated that Jews wear special dress in order to set them apart from Christians, leading to mockery from Christian communities (Gottheil, Vogelstein). Under the Russian Empire, Jewish boys were kidnapped to be used as child soldiers (Derman). This was just one example of the systematic campaign of ethnic cleansing perpetrated by ostensibly Orthodox Christians against the Jewish community in the Russian Empire. And the worst genocide in history, the Nazi’s Holocaust, was an attempt by a majority-Lutheran nation achieve “The annihilation of the Jews” (Hitler, as quoted in Fleming).
But anti-Semitism requires Christians to throw out the entire Old Testament, along with most of the New. The Israeli people play a key role in the story of the Bible. Beginning in Genesis 3:15, God promises that a descendant of Adam and Eve, the first humans, will destroy the power of sin over humanity. The nation of Israel serves two purposes: First, to show the world the burden of their sin. God accomplished this by revealing the Old Testament law to the nation of Israel. Complex and burdensome, the law was not meant to make the Israelites perfect. Rather, as Paul explains in Romans 7:7, “Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin.” Second, the Israeli nation brought salvation into the world through Jesus. God pledges to Abraham, the patriarch of the Jews, “and in your offspring shall all the nations of the Earth be blessed” (Genesis 22:18). Matthew 1:1 links Jesus to Abraham through his genealogy, writing “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” Anti-Semites may draw from misinterpreted passages of scripture, but their objectives are anything but Christian. Rather, their goal is to cast all the problems of their world onto the nearest scapegoat.
Matthew 27:25 has been used as evidence of Jewish responsibility for Jesus’ death, Yet this verse is meant to convict the reader. When the Jewish crowd takes responsibility for Jesus’ crucifixion, they are accepting the blame on behalf of all of humanity. Paul warns in Romans 3:9, “What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin,” The crowd is not convicting the Jewish people, but all people. Ironically, those who take this verse to mean the Jews are exclusively guilty are, like the Sanhedrin, twisting the Bible to hide their own guilt.
The trial of Jesus shows the ways in which humanity rejects Jesus. The Sanhedrin serve as a warning to allowing religion to create a sense of self-righteousness. Through their pride, they conspired against the very God they claimed to worship. Pilate was blinded by his cowardice and love of power. Even when the truth of God was right in front of him, he was blinded to anything beyond the material world. And when the crowd accepts the blood of Jesus on their own hands, they are accepting it on behalf of all humanity. Although anti-Semites have tried to pass off this guilt to the Jewish people, they are simply looking for a convenient way to pass off their guilt to another. The Bible makes it clear that just as we are all equal in our sins, Jesus’ death was for the sake of us all.
Derman, Ushi. “The Hatfoim are Coming.” Museum of the Jewish People at Beit Hatfutsot. https://www.bh.org.il/blog-items/hatfonim-coming-kidnapping-jewish-children-tsarist-russia/. Accessed 16 Nov 2019.
Fleming, Gerald. Hitler and the Final Solution. Los Angeles, University of California Press, 1984.
Gottheil, Richard and Vogelstein, Hermann. “Church Councils.” Jewish Encyclopedia. http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/4379-church-councils. Accessed 16 Nov 2019.
Skinner, Matthew L. The Trial Narratives. Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 2010.
The Bible. English Standard Version, Crossway Bibles, 2008