Both Christians and Jews have misunderstood what the New Testament actually teaches about human responsibility for the death of Jesus. That makes it essential to examine what the Bible truly does teach. We will begin by first looking at how Jesus predicted His coming crucifixion and then how the early church looked back at human responsibility for the death of Jesus. After that, we will look at some biblical passages used to mistakenly cast blame on the Jewish people.
A TRILOGY OF GUILT (Mk. 10:33-34)
The Lord Jesus predicted His coming passion and mentioned three specific areas of guilt (Mk. 10:33- 34). He said:
We are going up to Jerusalem . . . and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and teachers of the law. They will condemn Him to death and will hand Him over to the Gentiles, who will mock Him and spit on Him, flog Him and kill Him. Three days later He will rise.”
In this passage, Jesus foresaw a trilogy of guilt. First, speaking in the passive voice, Jesus spoke of one who would betray Him to the chief priests and teachers of the law, later identified in the gospel as Judas. This is the very same Judas who had been with Jesus for 3 years, who had served Jesus, and who had been well-respected by the other disciples. This follower of Jesus was the one who betrayed Him to His enemies and incurred the first part in this trilogy of guilt in the death of Jesus.
Second, Jesus named “the chief priests and the teachers of the law,” who would condemn Him and hand Him over to the Gentiles. Jesus was referring to the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council in the New Testament period. The Sanhedrin did indeed have a trial or “grand jury” type investigation in the middle of the night, without all their members present. The council ignored the objections of some of their members, both Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, who did not concur with the majority present. Nevertheless, the chief priests and the scribes did indeed participate in the decision to condemn Jesus. Deeming Him a threat to their power and authority, they used trumped-up charges, false testimony, and charges of blasphemy to condemn Him.
The Gentiles are the third part of Jesus’ prediction of a trilogy of guilt. He was referring to the Romans. After the Sanhedrin turned Jesus over to the Roman authorities, Pontius Pilate and his Roman soldiers callously murdered yet one more Jew. In their minds, Jesus was nothing special. He was just another troublemaking Jew from a nation of troublemakers—a nation that had not willingly submitted to Rome despite being under Roman rule since 63 BC (some 90 years of occupation at that point). The Romans considered Jewish people to be so problematic that during the first century they crucified between 50,000 and 100,000. To them, Jesus was only one of a vast number.
In anticipating the cross, Jesus did not fix blame on the Jewish people alone. Instead, He predicted that one of His followers, some Jewish leaders, and some Romans would bring about His death. Did the profile of guilt shift after the crucifixion? Did the early church change its opinion so that the Jewish people alone were deemed guilty for the death of Jesus? The answer is found in the book of Acts.
A CONSPIRACY OF GUILT (Acts 4:27)
In Acts 4:27, the events of the cross and those guilty of Jesus’ death are reviewed in a prayer for boldness. It states:
Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against Your holy servant Jesus, whom You anointed.
This verse identifies a conspiracy of guilt. The Greek word used here for “to conspire against” literally means “gathered together.” But it was a common idiom for a conspiracy. So, who conspired together to put Jesus to death?
Herod Antipas. The first-named conspirator was Herod Antipas, the pro- Roman half-Jewish king. His family was from Idumea and had converted to Judaism. He was the son of the infamous Herod the Great, who had enlarged the temple in Jerusalem and was ruling Israel at the time Jesus was born.
Herod Antipas married a Jewish woman and ruled as the tetrarch of Galilee (4 BC to AD 39), presiding over a much smaller area than his famous father had ruled.
Herod Antipas was known as a selfish, cunning ruler, whom Jesus called “that fox” (Lk. 13:32). He was a man driven by his appetites and characterized by scandalous behavior. John the Baptist had reproved Herod for marrying his own sister-inlaw, Herodias. She, in turn, demanded that Herod behead John the Baptist. And he did (Mt. 14:1-13).
When Pilate discovered that Jesus was from Galilee, he sent Him to this Jewish king for judgment because Jesus lived under his jurisdiction. Perhaps Herod was worried by Jesus, thinking that possibly John had risen from the dead (Mk. 6:14). Or perhaps Herod merely wanted to meet Jesus, for he had heard about Him and wanted to see some sign or trick (Lk. 23:8).
When Jesus refused to perform for Herod or even reply to his many questions, Herod and his soldiers treated Jesus with contempt, mocked Him, dressed Him in a robe, and sent Him back to Pilate (Lk. 23:8-11). Herod incurred his own guilt by remanding Jesus to Pilate when he could have set Him free.
Pontius Pilate. The second conspirator was Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor of Judea from AD 26-36. Pilate was one of the most brutal governors in the history of violent Roman officials. History records that, in defiance of all precedent, Pilate set up standards bearing the image of Emperor Tiberias right in the temple area. Later he hung golden shields inscribed with the names of Roman deities on Mt. Zion, which he removed only by order of the emperor to avoid an insurrection. Another time, he appropriated the revenue of the temple to build an aqueduct, again almost causing a riot.
In Luke 13:1 we’re told that Pilate slaughtered Galileans as they presented their offerings in the temple, mixing their blood with their sacrifices. Pilate saw his Jewish subjects as troublesome and was quick to murder them.
Ultimately, even the Roman government considered Pilate too ruthless and violent. It recalled him to Rome in AD 36 for his brutality to the Jewish community, confirming his legacy as one of Rome’s most callous and vicious governors.
The following historical background of Pilate’s rule confirms the biblical text and highlights Pilate’s great guilt. Tiberias came to power at the age of 55 after years of military command. He reigned as Caesar from AD 14–37. He is mentioned in Luke 3:1 as being in his 15th year when Jesus was baptized. As Caesar, Tiberias lived a life of inactivity, sloth, selfindulgence, and personal study on the Isle of Capri. He wanted time for himself, so he appointed Sejanus, a trusted administrator, as commander of the Praetorian Guard in AD 16.
Sejanus rapidly rose to power due to his excellent administrative ability. Tiberias even ordered a statue in honor of Sejanus erected at the site of the theater in Pompeii. As commander of the Praetorian Guard, Sejanus was second-in-command to Caesar but virtually ruled the empire while Caesar withdrew himself from public office. Tiberias made it clear that he regarded Sejanus as his exclusive representative in Rome.
Soon Sejanus began to consolidate his power over the Roman armies in foreign lands. He replaced many of the commanders with men loyal to him. It was Sejanus, not Tiberias, who appointed Pilate as proconsul of Judea. Eventually, Sejanus began to plot a revolt to overthrow Tiberias and make himself Caesar.
Tiberias may have been an inactive ruler, but he was not a fool. When he saw what Sejanus was planning, he deposed him from leadership. Tiberias had Sejanus arrested, condemned, and executed for treason on the same day, along with his whole family.
At this point, Tiberias became suspicious of every person Sejanus had placed in office. As a result, Pontius Pilate came under suspicion for treason. When the Jewish leadership said t o Pilate, “If you let this Man go, you are no friend of Caesar” (Jn. 19:12), they were using a technical phrase. Any traitor was deemed “no friend of Caesar.” In effect, they were saying they would report Pilate as a traitor to Rome, a charge that might stand up because of his association with Sejanus.
Pilate was not indecisive out of concern for Jesus or out of a desire to be just. It was only because he cared about preserving his own position. So, fearful for his own life and desirous of saving his own office, Pilate decided to crucify a man he knew was innocent.
Pilate was guilty. Jesus recognized Pilate’s culpability when He spoke to him, saying, “The one who handed Me over to you is guilty of a greater sin” (Jn. 19:11). Greater sin implies lesser sin; therefore, Jesus did place responsibility on Pilate for his decision. Likewise, the prayer that was recorded in Acts 4:27 included Pontius Pilate in the list of those guilty for the death of Jesus.
Some Of The Gentiles. The third participant in the conspiracy against Jesus was “the Gentiles,” referring to the Roman soldiers who brutally beat and crucified Jesus. They mocked Him, flogged Him, tore His flesh with a Roman whip embedded with bits of iron and broken glass, and then crucified Him. It was nothing for the Romans to crucify a Jew. As far as they were concerned, the whole population could have been put to death.
Some Of The People Of Israel. Finally, “the people of Israel” are listed among the conspirators. They included the Jewish leaders in the Sanhedrin and the crowd of Jewish people who shouted, “Crucify Him!” The Jewish leaders condemned Jesus because they were concerned for maintaining their own position and place. The crowd turned on Him at the behest of the leadership. Indeed, there were some Jewish people who participated in the death of Jesus.
Nevertheless, not all the Jewish people were guilty. In fact, all of the following Jewish people disapproved of the crucifixion: Simon of Cyrene who carried the cross, all the disciples of Jesus, the crowds who had followed Jesus and believed in Him during His public ministry, the women who wept on the way to the cross, and even Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea of the Sanhedrin. Actually, all the early followers of Jesus were Jewish.
So, not all Jewish people participated in the crucifixion. Rather, it was some Jewish people, even as it was some Gentiles. According to the Scriptures, the crucifixion was not a uniquely Jewish crime but a universal one. As A. T. Robertson has said, “There is guilt enough for all the plotters in the greatest wrong of the ages.”
Although both Mark and Acts show that the New Testament does not limit guilt for Jesus’ death to the Jewish people, some still claim that other parts of Scripture do indeed support the view that the Jewish people are uniquely or perpetually guilty. Before concluding this section, let us look at these passages.
A MISUNDERSTANDING OF PERPETUAL JEWISH GUILT (Mt. 27:25)
Perhaps the most well-known New Testament verse cited to support the Christ-killer charge is Matthew 27:25. This passage records the words of the crowd assembled before Pilate. It says:
All the people answered, “Let His blood be on us and on our children!”
Does this verse truly indict all Jewish people for all ages? If so, it would contradict both God’s justice and His Word. A first principle for understanding Matthew 27:25 is that according to the Scriptures, the consequences for sin may affect later generations (Ex. 20:5), but guilt for sin belongs to the sinning person alone. The prophet Ezekiel wrote:
The soul who sins is the one who will die. The son will not share the guilt of the father, nor will the father share the guilt of the son. The righteousness of the righteous man will be credited to him, and the wickedness of the wicked will be charged against him (Ezek. 18:20).
If I were to fail to pay my income taxes, for example, the IRS could garnish my wages, take my home, or even throw me into prison, which could have serious consequences for my family. But the government could not touch my son’s bank account or imprison him. Likewise, only those Jewish people who called for the death of Jesus are guilty, not their descendants.
Second, the people who cried for Jesus’ blood did not constitute the entire Jewish nation. In fact, because the trial before Pilate was sometime before 6 a.m. (see Jn. 19:14), it is unlikely that many people were present. Those who were had most likely been specially selected and assembled by the chief priests (Mt. 27:20, Mk. 15:11). At the very least, the mob included plants, impostors, fakes. Moreover, no more than 100-200 people could have fit in the Praetorium of the Antonio Fortress. It is highly unlikely, therefore, that this cry recorded in Matthew 27:25 refers to the entire nation.
Third, although Matthew gave an accurate historical record of the words of the crowd, he did not give a theological confirmation of their guilt. It was no more possible for this crowd to curse its children with its cry than for Pilate to exonerate himself with a declaration of innocence. His public handwashing, which preceded the crowd’s cry in Matthew’s gospel, was as ineffective as Lady MacBeth’s attempt to cleanse herself of guilt.
Matthew gave an accurate historical record of what Pilate said, not a confirmation of his innocence. If Pilate’s words and actions did not relieve him of guilt (see Acts 4:27), the crowd’s acceptance of guilt for its children was just as useless. The crowd’s cry certainly did bring guilt on themselves, but it did not cause the blood of Jesus to fall upon all Jews then, nor upon succeeding generations.
A MISUNDERSTANDING OF NATIONAL JEWISH GUILT (1 Th. 2:14-15)
Another verse that is commonly cited to show national Jewish guilt is 1 Thessalonians 2:14-15. In fact, when The Passion Of The Christ first premiered, a national news magazine ran a photograph of a sign in front of a church that quoted this passage: “The Jews . . . killed the Lord Jesus.” Unfortunately, for several reasons, only a superficial reading yields the interpretation that Paul believed all Jews were guilty of killing Jesus.
First, the passage is discussing an intra-national dispute. Paul told the Thessalonians that they had become “imitators of God’s churches in Judea, which are in Christ Jesus: You suffered from your own countrymen the same things those churches suffered from the Jews.”
Just as the Thessalonian Gentile believers suffered at the hands of some Gentiles, so the Jewish churches suffered at the hands of some Jews. So Paul’s words cannot mean that all Jewish people were guilty. How could they be? Jewish people composed the Judean churches.
Second, the phrase “the Jews” does not refer to all Jews but a specific group of Jews, namely the Jewish leaders. This is evident from the fact that, according to the Gospels, the Jewish leadership committed the very actions Paul described here. The Gospels make it clear that the Jewish leaders plotted Jesus’ death (Jn. 11:49-50), accused Him before Pilate (Lk. 23:2) and Herod (Lk. 23:10), and incited the crowd (Mt. 27:20; Mk. 15:11).
Furthermore, 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16 is clearly dependent on the parable of the vine-growers (Mk. 12:1-12; Mt. 21:33-46; Lk. 20:9-19) and the condemnation of the Pharisees (Mt. 23:29-36). These demonstrate that Paul was speaking of the leaders, because in each of these passages the same pattern is found.
In the parable, the vineowner sends slave after slave, each of whom the vine-growers murder. Finally the son is sent and he is murdered also. At the end of the parable it is said that the chief priests and Pharisees knew that Jesus was speaking of them (Mt. 21:45-46; Mk. 12:12; Lk. 20:19).
In the denunciations of Matthew 23, Jesus called the Pharisees “descendants of those who murdered the prophets” (Mt. 23:31) and said that they will persecute those whom He has yet to send (Mt. 23:34). The res ult would be the filling up of the full measure of their guilt (Mt. 23:32,35) and the destruction of Jerus alem in that generation (Lk. 19:43-44).
The same pattern is found in 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16. The Jews who persecuted the Judean churches also murdered the prophets and the Messiah and persecuted His messengers. In doing this, they filled up the full measure of their guilt, which resulted in judgment.
Since Jesus Himself specifically applied these things to the leaders of Israel, it is safe to say that Paul was following the same pattern. Therefore, the best explanation of 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16 is that Paul, much in the same way as John, used the words “the Jews” to refer not to the whole Jewish nation but to the leadership of the Jewish people.
A MISUNDERSTANDING OF JESUS’ FORGIVENESS (Lk. 23:34)
The church has also frequently misunderstood the words of Jesus from the cross when He said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
Recently, a professor at a major evangelical seminary told his class that Jesus’ words refer only to the Romans and not the Jewish people. Although challenged by fellow professors and students alike, he remained adamant in arguing that the Jewish people knew what they were doing. So they remain guilty.
In fact, Jesus was asking forgiveness for the Roman and the Jewish people. He spoke from the cross to the soldiers who were dividing up His garments, to the Jewish onlookers, and even to the rulers who were sneering at Him (Lk. 23:34- 38). Jesus’ prayer referred to all those who participated in the crucifixion, including the Jewish leaders.
Peter confirmed this with his words after the healing of the man at the temple in Acts 3. There, speaking to a group of Jewish people at the portico of Solomon in the temple compound, he said, “Brothers, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did your leaders” (Acts 3:17).
The assertion that the Jewish people knew that Jesus was the God-man is incorrect. The leadership, despite their complicity in the death of Jesus, did not recognize Him as Messiah. They honestly believed He had committed blasphemy by claiming equality with God. Paul wrote, “None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (1 Cor. 2:8).
Jesus said, “Father, forgive them,” and God the Father heard His prayer. Tragically, many of Jesus’ followers for the past 2,000 years have refused to hear that prayer.