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Responsibility for the death of Jesus

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The responsibility for the death of Jesus has, in Christianity, both historical and theological aspects. In addition, the deicide charge against Jews is among the cornerstones of antisemitism.

Historical sources

The primary sources for both inquiries are the Gospel accounts of the events leading up to the Crucifixion of Jesus, commonly called The Passion. In the Gospel accounts, Jesus is critical of the Pharisees, and causes a disturbance in the Temple, and is eventually arrested and brought before the Sanhedrin. There he is charged and convicted of blasphemy, and they decided to take him to the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate, asking him for Jesus' death. Pilate, after some debate, rejects their religious justifications, but accepts the political ones, see INRI, and sentences Jesus to death by crucifixion.

The historical inquiry is aided by other sources from antiquity which explain the cultural and political environment in which Jesus lived. Historical analyses of Jesus' death generally assigned responsibility to either:

  1. The Roman-appointed government of the Roman province of Iudaea[1]
  2. The Jewish leadership in Jerusalem at the time.

The theological question can be understood in the light of other New Testament writings such as the Letters of Paul.

Theological analyses of who is responsible for Jesus' death have included:

  1. All humanity through their sinfulness,
  2. Jews in particular through their manipulation of the Roman authorities
  3. God, for the benefit of people in general,
  4. God, for the benefit of the Elect in particular.
  5. The Roman authorities in Judea

The Jewish authorities and Roman government

According to the New Testament accounts, the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem charged Jesus with blasphemy, a capital crime under biblical law, and sought his execution, see Sanhedrin Trial of Jesus. However, the Jewish authorities lacked the authority to have Jesus put to death, according to John 18:31 yet Acts 6:12 records them ordering the stoning of Saint Stephen and also James the Just according to Antiquities of the Jews 20.9.1. The Jesus Seminar's Scholars Version translation notes for John 18:31: "it's illegal for us: The accuracy of this claim is doubtful." They brought Jesus to Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor of Iudaea Province, who "consented" to Jesus' execution. According to the Bible, Pontius Pilate ordered Jesus to be flogged. Washing his hands, Pilate said he would not take the blame for Jesus' death. The crowd replied, "His blood be upon us and upon our children."[2] See Blood curse.

Pilate is portrayed in the Gospel accounts as a reluctant accomplice to Jesus' death. Critical scholars have questioned the historical accuracy of such a portrayal. They note that a Roman Governor such as Pilate would not have hesitated to execute any leader whose followers posed a potential threat to Roman rule. However, the Gospel accounts indicate that there could be hesitation on the part of both Jewish and Roman authorities to act immediately or needlessly in the face of potential popular opposition (Matt 26:4-5; Mk 15:12-15; Lk 22:1-2). These scholars also suggest that the Gospel accounts may have downplayed the role of the Romans in Jesus' death during a time when Christianity was struggling to gain acceptance in the Roman world. Yet the four Gospel accounts uniformly portray the Roman Governor Pilate as partly responsible for Jesus' execution, rather than completely exonerating him, and it is not clear that blaming Pilate completely, decades after his reign, would have diminished Christian acceptance.

Jesus's death as deicide

Until the middle of the 20th century most Christian churches included references to deicide in their hymns and liturgy. The following, for example, is a verse from a hymn written in 1892 for use in the Church of England to call upon God to convert the Jews to Christianity:

Though the Blood betrayed and spilt, On the race entailed a doom, Let its virtue cleanse the guilt, Melt the hardness, chase the gloom; Lift the veil from off their heart, Make them Israelites indeed, Meet once more for lot and part With Thy household's genuine seed.[3]

Several theological explanations have been offered. These explanations are not all mutually exclusive. Various Christian denominations have taught that God is ultimately responsible for the death of Jesus, as part of the divine plan of salvation (cf. Acts 2:22-23).

The Catholic church and other Protestants churches' dogma suggests that Jesus' death was necessary to take away the effects of sin, and in order for the process to work, see Substitutionary atonement, the human has to accept it that he was forgiven, so Christians believe that all of humanity bears some responsibility for Jesus' death. Thus, the crucifixion is seen as an example of Jesus' eternal love for mankind and his divine ability to forgive.

Alternatively, the Gnostic "gospel of Judas" discovered in the 1970s contends that Jesus commanded Judas Iscariot to set in motion the chain of events that would lead to his death.[4]

See also


  1. H.H. Ben-Sasson, A History of the Jewish People, Harvard University Press, 1976, ISBN 0674397312, page 246: "When Archelaus was deposed from the ethnarchy in 6 CE [i.e. 6 AD], Judea proper, Samaria and Idumea were converted into a Roman province under the name Iudaea."
  2. Matthew 27:24-25
  3. ("Thou, the Christ Forever One", words by William Bright, from Supplemental Hymns to Hymns Ancient and Modern, 1889)
  4. Associated Press, "Ancient Manuscript Suggests Jesus Asked Judas to Betray Him," Fox News Website, Thursday, April 06, 2006

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