Dear Straight Dope:
Can you give me the straight dope on who in fact was formally and/or morally responsible for the decision to execute Jesus? There’s the traditional “blame the Jews” reading of the New Testament, which has fostered centuries of anti-Semitism, and there’s the modern interpretation that says the version of the story given in the Gospels was a whitewash of the Roman authorities. How strong is the “blame the Romans” argument? This is a horrendously touchy subject, but I feel I can trust the Straight Dope to handle it objectively yet sensitively.
Margaret Levin Phillips, assistant professor, University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center
You can read it yourself but “Cecil” gives every excuse and benefit of the doubt to the Jews, which is his goal here, to smear the early Christians as smearing the Jews. Look, you can go back to God wanted Jesus’ sacrifice, it was prophesized and all the world was leading to it, no matter what men did, but the Sanhedrin were the proximate cause of Jesus’ death, Pilate, by any reading of Scripture and history, was reluctant but the Jews were insistent. He also bases it on the risible claim Jesus clearing the temple left no doubt he was a violent madman who might incite revolution or singlehandedly tear down the temple himself.
Cecil’s assertions about Pilate’s indecisiveness and “Christian white-washing” in denying the Jewish mobs part and Pilate’s mind-set seem like latter-day white-washing to me. He offers no real evidence of this, and expects us to believe the rest of the Gospels as support for his answer, while gainsaying the sections which are inconvenient to his thesis.
I always found the narrative about Pilate petitioning the crowd on who to pardon, a supposed tradition during the holiday, to smack of verisimilitude. The mob is always impatient and mercurial, and when Jesus failed to deliver what the Zealots expected to be a heavenly army to deliver them from Rome, they turned on him and told Pilate to go ahead and crucify him.
Now, this is quite far from condemning the entire mass of humanity known as the Jews as Christ-killers, but it is an integral and quite believable part of the story, and I don’t believe Cecil did much but muddy up the water here. I’ll take the gospels over a decidedly mixed bag of wish-casting and tea-leaves reading on which the Straight Dope relied. Sometimes we can bend over backward trying to right old wrongs (the historical persecution of the Jews as Christkillers) and do history no good service.
The High Priest seems to have initiated the arrest and trial, he and his associates sent Jesus to Pilate for execution, Pilate, as the gospels tell, was aware he was dealing with no average felon or malefactor, was given pause in a way which was not typical in his dealings with criminals. Saying that Pilate’s treatment of Jesus as described in the Gospels is out of character with descriptions of Pilates other dealings assumes Jesus was just another man, which, whatever your beliefs, was obviously not the case. He was a quite extraordinary individual, by all accounts, and Pilate may have acted different _in this one case_.
Looking for a way out, perhaps thinking Jesus’ popularity with the masses would give him a reason to pardon him and avoid the guilt of executing him, miscalculated the fickleness of the mob and after they exhorted him to kill Jesus, was left with no choice but to carry out the execution, reluctantly. After all, killing someone doesn’t always end their power amongst their followers (as Jesus proved with a vengeance!) and Pilate risked making Jesus a martyr and a rallying point for other rebels.
So, to my lights, it seems very reasonable Pilate would have tried to find a way to avoid killing Jesus if possible, but his hand was forced.
Who deserves blame? If you follow Scriptures, everyone’s path was foretold thousands of years before and they all seemed to be mere pawns in God’s game, and only Jesus knew how it would all shake out beforehand. Judas, Caiaphas, Pilate, the mob, his Apostles and everyone else were merely players acting out parts laid out for them long since.
God killed Jesus, or Adam and Eve did, with their actions, goaded by Satan? The rest were merely agents, no more in control of their actions and fate nor more guilty than the tree that furnished the cross nor the ore from which the nails were forged.