"It is vital that the Passion Play be continued at Oberammergau; for never has the menace of Jewry been so convincingly portrayed as in this presentation of what happened in the times of the Romans. There one sees in Pontius Pilate a Roman racially and intellectually so superior, that he stands out like a firm, clean rock in the middle of the whole muck and mire of Jewry."
Adolf Hitler (July 5, 1942)

It is sometimes asserted that even if `the Jews' killed Jesus (as described in John's gospel), that must be a good thing, since it led to the resurrection. But whether any effect is good or bad, responsibility for the crucifixion's cause must be assessed honestly. Further, many post-Vatican II Catholics and liberal Protestants understand "the Jews" as standing in for "all of us." As we will see below, there is profound truth in that corporate responsibility interpretation, but it can never excuse incarnating such universal accountability in any specific group, and certainly not in "the Jews."

Passion (from Latin passio or suffering) is the Christian name for the story of Jesus' execution, from Gethsemane to Golgotha and from Mark to John. Mark is the major source for that story used by Matthew and Luke (historical certitude level: A+). Second, those three gospels are the major source used by John (historical certitude level: B-). In other words, it is quite possible that Mark is the only consecutive source for the entire gospel tradition of Jesus' execution. That raises some obvious questions: Why is everyone so dependent on Mark? Why are there no independent accounts apart from Mark? Therefore, how much of Mark is actual history and how much is parable?

The Problem of Drama. My first faint glimpse of the "problem" of the historical Jesus occurred in 1960 when I saw the Oberammergau passion play in a version unchanged since Hitler saw it in 1930 and 1934. I knew the story, of course, but something happened when I saw it as drama rather than read it as text. At the start of the play, the stage is filled with children, women, and men shouting for Jesus (our Palm Sunday). But by early evening, that stage is filled with that same crowd shouting against Jesus (our Good Friday). No explanation was made for that change, and no reason was evident for why any people were against Jesus. Furthermore, when the story is staged or screened as drama rather than heard or read as text, that Jewish crowd shouting for the Jewish Jesus' crucifixion takes on a central focus in the narrative. They, rather than Caiaphas or Pilate, seem in charge of the proceedings, responsible for the events, guilty of the results. The anti-Jewish, if not anti-Semitic, potentials in that passion story are emphasized even more on stage or screen than in text or gospel.

The Problem of History. There are profound questions still to be asked about the historical accuracy of that basic passion story: about the shouting crowds, the reluctant Pilate, and the innocent Jesus (as victim rather than martyr). Here, I note just one item. In Mark 15:6-15, "the crowd" comes before Pilate to obtain amnesty for Barabbas and only turn against Jesus when Pilate tries to release him instead. But now watch what happens to that Markan source as the story progresses through the later Gospels. Matthew 27:15-26 first copies Mark's "the crowd" but then enlarges it to "the crowds" and finally to "all the people." Luke 23:13-15 changes Mark to "the chief priests, the leaders, and the people." Finally, John 18:37-40 speaks simply of "the Jews." Recall, of course, that those expansions do not represent independent knowledge but dependent development. "The crowd," in other words, grows exponentially before our eyes. Even if you accept Mark's "crowd" as history (I myself think it parable), it only tells us about that small group who are for Barabbas rather than against Jesus, those who want Barabbas freed and refuse Jesus as his replacement.

The Problem of Theology. Theology is the meaning of history as known by faith. There are three points to be considered in the Christian interpretation of Jesus' execution.

Sacrificial Death. When people give up their lives for others, either as fire-fighters and police officers or as protesters and martyrs, we term those deaths sacrifices. While all life and death is sacred, such deaths are considered particularly sacred. It is bad theology to imagine that God demands such sacrifices, as if, by divine decree, somebody had to die in that burning building, so if not the trapped child, then the heroic rescuer.

Vicarious Atonement. It was always possible for martyrs to offer their sacrificial deaths as atonement for the sins of their people. That presumed persecution was sin's divine punishment rather hate's human consequence. During the persecution that led to the Maccabean revolt, the martyr Eleazar asks God to "be merciful to your people, and let our punishment suffice for them. Make my blood their purification, and take my life in exchange for theirs" (4 Maccabees 6:28-29). It is bad theology to presume that persecution is a divine punishment for sin--but, granted that, the proper answer from God to Eleazar is "I accept your gift of martyrdom but reject your theology of retribution."