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Stories of Jesus

Chapter 4: The Stories

Part One: Jesus before Easter

A perplexing Jesus story: “Crucify him!”


This story puzzled the apostles as it puzzles us, but for us there are two perplexities:

  1. What does Jesus’ death mean? This question we share with the apostles. As they came to grips with this enigma with help from their Scriptures, so later in this chapter I will use stories from the Older Testament. But first there’s the historical question....
  2. How did Jesus’ death on the cross come about? This is our problem for two reasons. First, we are interested in history and want to get it right, especially for what it might tell us about God. But second, telling this story wrong has been a factor in a 2000-year history of persecution of the Jews. I need to take a detour from the main point about Jesus and God to get the question of the Jews and Jesus’ death straightened out.

On Good Friday I stood with the congregation in church playing my part in the dramatization of the Passion story according to the Gospel of John. No need to identify the year; it was the same every year on Good Friday. We get to the part where Pilate presents Jesus to the crowd and I cry out along with everyone in the pews, “Crucify him, Crucify him!” just as that gospel of John says the Jews cried out on the first Good Friday.

In 1965 the Second Vatican Council declared that the Jews, whether of our time or of Jesus’ time, cannot be held responsible for Jesus’ death. Pope Benedict XVI repeated that teaching in his trilogy Jesus of Nazareth. But every Good Friday we represent the Jews as ordering Pilate to crucify Jesus. As a Catholic, I think, we need to get to the point where we can say in church openly and not just in scholarly tomes and lectures in universities:That episode in the Gospel of John didn’t happen. Until we do, as a Church we’re not only ignoring the best biblical scholarship, we’re contradicting ourselves and, worse, making it just a little easier for some to justify their continuing hatred of and violence toward Jews.

Scholars don’t just decide on personal preference whether something the Bible records did or didn’t happen. There’s a process to go through. It begins with understanding the situation of the Christian community when a particular gospel was written? The Pontifical Biblical Commission has said that, as Raymond Brown reports it, “in the course of apostolic preaching and of Gospel writing, the memory of what happened in Jesus’ lifetime was affected by the life-situations of local Christian communities.” (A Crucified Christ in Holy Week, p. 11) So this attempt to be true to the history of Jesus’ crucifixion has to begin with a story about the early Church:

Relations between the majority of Jews and the new Christian sect within Judaism were troubled. There were lots of sects in the Judaism in the first century. They disagreed with but tolerated each other. But when Christians started singing hymns to Jesus (“as to a God” in the words of a Roman governor in the second century), it was blasphemy to the majority of Jews. Belief in one God was a marker of Jewish identity, a hard-won concept and one for which Jews of the vividly remembered past suffered and died. That was a line that no sect could cross, especially not one intent on winning other Jews over, as Jesus’ followers were. Eventually the Christians, who had been participating in Jewish public worship as well as having services in their own homes, were excluded from Synagogue. That was a severe blow because the early followers of Jesus were Jews. They had no intention of starting a new religion.

This conflict was one factor influencing the perceptions of the first Christians, the way they told Jesus’ story to each other, and the way Jesus’ encounters with his critics in those stories eventually got written down, especially that last, fatal encounter that led to death by crucifixion. Another factor was the need to get along in the Roman Empire:

Jews were the only group that Rome exempted from laws requiring everyone to participate in Roman-style worship. To the Romans it didn’t matter what you believed as long as you bowed down at the right times in the right places. That was the way to be patriotic. Jews obstinately refused to do that, and Romans, being practical above all else, decided it wasn’t worth a fight. Besides, the whole world at that time felt a great deal of reverence for anything ancient, and the Jewish religion did have that going for it. For Christians, however, it was another story. If they were no longer considered Jews, then they had lost their Jewish exemption; and they certainly weren’t an ancient sect. Their place in the Empire was delicate and dangerous. It was important not to antagonize their Roman overlords.

In combination, the conflict with the Jews and need to live with Rome led, as stories got told and retold, to a gradual shifting of blame for Jesus’ death from the Romans to the Jews. Some of the stories even depicted Pilate, whom the rest of the world knew to be a murderous tyrant, as trying without success to release Jesus, washing his hands of responsibility for Jesus’ blood while the Jewish crowds shouted, “His blood be on us and on our children!” (Matthew 27:24-25) The truth is Pilate needed no encouragement at all to dispose of even the vaguest potential threat to stability in his realm. Very few Jews had any deliberate hand in Jesus’ death.

The most reasonable interpretations of that first “Good Friday” place the primary responsibility for Jesus’ execution on the Romans with some cooperation by Jewish authorities. There was no role at all for the general Jewish public except perhaps for a bit too much enthusiasm when they got their hopes up for a messiah in Jesus. Crowds always made the Romans nervous; and there were huge crowds around big feast days. Jesus may have brought on some of that edginess himself by causing a disturbance in the temple.

Besides sharing the Romans’ desire to keep order, Jewish priests, scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees would have had theological concerns as well.  In their eyes Jesus’ words and actions teetered on the edge of blasphemy, an offense for which the Jewish Law prescribed death. The Gospels report a trial before the Sanhedrin, acting as a court of law. Was Jesus a blasphemer or not? Apparently the witnesses called could not agree, so it seems somebody must have been acting as defense attorney. Probably these Jewish leaders wanted to get Jesus out of the way. They thought they had good reasons within their own Law and were at least trying to follow that Law’s procedures. In the end it seems they gave up. It was a hung jury. Then comes what must be judged a moral failure. They decided to send Jesus to Pilate. Knowing Pilate, they would have known they were sending Jesus to his death. There was no need to stir up any crowds to ask for Barabbas to be freed instead of Jesus.

This way of describing Jesus’ trial is one of many attempts to answer the historical question, Why did Jesus die? One thing is clear: Blaming the Jews in general for Jesus’ death is without any historical justification. Discovering the exact causes of Jesus’ death, however, is less important to Christians than knowing what it means.  That’s the question the apostles struggled with. I’ll do the same in the next major part of this essay, and I’ll try to do it the way the apostles might have, by looking at their Scriptures.

On to Easter Jesus in the Old Stories, Introduction