Summing Up One Jewish Perspective
In the last five posts I’ve been examining “one” Jewish perspective on the necessity of Jesus’ death. Let me briefly summarize my findings, adding some observations along the way.
1. It’s more accurate to speak of “one” Jewish perspective on the necessity of Jesus’ death than to speak of “the” Jewish perspective because not all Jews agreed with the viewpoint of those who conspired to have Jesus crucified. Only a tiny percentage of Jews in Jerusalem were actually involved in the effort to persuade Pilate to execute Jesus. Moreover, the New Testament Gospels attest to the widespread popularity of Jesus among his Jewish contemporaries. “A great number” of those in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus’ death were horrified by what had happened to him (Luke 23:27). Thus, if anything, the numerically dominant Jewish perspective would have supported Jesus. But those who held power in Jerusalem we able to do what the masses would not have wanted.
2. Some of the leading Jews in Jerusalem, including Caiaphas, the High Priest, sought to have Jesus crucified. Evidence for this comes not only from all four New Testament Gospels, but also from the Jewish historian Josephus.
3. The Jewish leaders who sought to have Jesus crucified believed that his death was necessary for the following reasons:
a. By stirring up the people, Jesus was threatening the peace and life of the Jewish people, thus increasing the likelihood that Rome would destroy both Jerusalem and the temple. The death of Jesus would be preferable to the destruction of the nation.
b. Jesus “seduced Israel and led them astray from God” (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 43a). His message and ministry lessened the people’s commitment to living out their Judaism in the way approved of by the Jewish leaders (priests, Pharisees).
c. Jesus interrupted the orderly system of sacrifices in the Jerusalem temple, speaking against the temple and its leaders, thus opposing not only the core of Judaism, but God himself. Jesus’ quotation from Jeremiah 7 (“den of robbers”) combined with other things he had said during his ministry clarified his condemnation of the temple – a blasphemous offense. Moreover, he insisted that God was on his side, thus adding blasphemy to blasphemy.
d. Jesus presented himself as the Messiah, the one anointed by God to bring divine salvation to Israel. But he failed to do what the Messiah was supposed to do, notably, lead a successful revolt against Rome. Instead, Jesus turned his judgment against God’s own temple. Thus Jesus was a false messiah. This fact alone might not have warranted his crucifixion. But, when combined with his other offenses, his false claim to messiahship increased further the chances that his actions would bring devastation upon Judea.
4. The efforts of Jewish leaders to silence Jesus by physical violence were consistent with what other Jewish leaders did in similar situations (vs. the prophet Jeremiah in Jer 26 and vs. Jesus ben Hananiah in Josephus, Jewish War, 6.5.3). This consistency greatly increases the probability that the Gospel accounts accurately portray the role of Jewish leaders. Caiaphas and company did exactly what Jewish leaders in their position thought they had to do when someone insulted or threatened the temple.
Implications for the Current Debate
Given this picture of “one” Jewish perspective on the necessity of Jesus’ death, I want to draw out two implications.
First, it is historically irresponsible to say, “The Jews killed Christ.” Yes, I’m aware that the Gospel of John uses “the Jews” in a way that seems to lay blame for Jesus’ death upon “the Jews.” But, when read in context, “the Jews” means “some Jewish leaders.” Ultimate and legal blame for Jesus’ death fell upon the shoulders of Pontius Pilate, no matter how he might have tried to wriggle out of it. Moreover, many, and quite probably the vast majority of Jews in the time of Jesus, did not want him killed, and were horrified when it happened. Given the tragic history of Christian anti-Semitism, we Christians must speak carefully and accurately about Jewish involvement in his death. The truth: some influential Jews believed Jesus had to die and sought to convince Pilate to crucify him.
Second, it is historically irresponsible to deny all Jewish involvement in the death of Jesus. Some scholars, no doubt responding to the horrors of anti-Semitism, have applied their critical scalpels to the New Testament records, cutting from them any implication of Jewish complicity in the death of Jesus. In their surgery, however, they bleed historical probability to death. In fact two ancient Jewish sources, Josephus and the Talmud, indicate that some Jews were involved in the death of Jesus and help us to understand why they would have been. Plus, the picture of Caiaphas and his associates in the Gospels makes historical and logical sense. These leaders were protecting that which they believed to be essential, including both the temple and their own civic/religious position. The actions of other leaders in similar situations confirm the conclusion that the New Testament Gospels paint an historical reliable picture of Jewish involvement in the death of Jesus.
Finally, there was another Jewish perspective on the necessity of Jesus’ death, a perspective I haven’t yet mentioned. It was the most important Jewish perspective of all, that of Jesus himself. To the question of why Jesus believed he had to die I’ll turn in my next post in this series.