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Who Killed Jesus?
April 2, 1995

MARK 15:1-15, MATTHEW 27:1-2, 11-26

Who killed Jesus? Theologians, beginning notably with Paul, have expanded the answer to include all of us. They have developed the doctrine of the Atonement, where, through his death, Jesus atoned (compensated) for the sins of humankind. Through Jesus' sacrificial death, you and I are made right with God, and may enter into a personal relationship with God.

However, what I am asking this morning is the historical question: who in fact and in deed killed Jesus? Throughout history, Christians have pointed their fingers at the Jews and have decisively, and often violently, accused Jews of killing Jesus. Good Friday has not been one of the Jewish favorite days of the year. In his book, The Source, James Michener tells how an Irish Catholic archaeologist, Dr. Cullinane, changed his childhood views of Jews.

He had grown up in a Catholic neighborhood whose popular sport had been the seeking out of Jewish schoolchildren during the tedious afternoons. He and his friends would lurk behind fences, rock in fist, waiting for the occasional Jew in the district to come furtively home. With yells they would spring upon him, pummeling him harshly and shouting:

"Jew boy? Jew boy!

Gonna crucify a goy."

Once the truant officer had come to the Cullinane home with a warning: "Mike, your boy has got to quit picking on the Ginsberg kids."

"A fine thing," his father had stormed. "An officer of the law wastin' his time over such a matter."

"Mike, it's gotta stop. The Jews is makin' protests to the mayor."

"Over what? They crucified Jesus, didn't they?"

Why did we do it? Cullinane sometimes asked himself in later years, and he found no difficulty in determining the answer. As each Easter season approached, the priest in his parish launched a series of sermons recounting the crucifixion of our Saviour, and his Irish brogue would hang almost longingly upon the terrible mystery of our Lords' passion. Young Cullinane and his friends would listen in growing anger as they heard of the manner in which the Jews betrayed Jesus, forced a crown of thorns upon His brow, nailed Him to the cross, pierced His side, mocked Him in His agony and even bargained in selling His clothes. It was almost more than the boys could bear, and it infuriated them to think that descendants of those same Jews were roaming the streets of Gary, Indiana, that day.

It was not till Cullinane reached college that he discovered that it had not been the Jews who had done these things to Jesus; it had been Roman soldiers. He also discovered that no Catholic dignitary who had advanced beyond the stage of parish priest any longer proclaimed such views, but by then it did not matter. On his own recognizance he had discovered that an instinctive hatred of the Jew made no sense, and that rational dislike could be supported by no evidence whatever.

At the synagogue in Palo Alto, I heard a fascinating lecture by Dr. Michael Cook, a Jew who is Professor of Intertestamental and Early Christian Writings at Hebrew Union College in New York. He is a Jewish New Testament scholar. It is his contention that by a careful comparative study of the gospel accounts of the death of Jesus, you can see an evolution in the exoneration of the Romans and the indictment of the Jews. Remember that the gospels were written over a period of decades, beginning with Mark which was probably written in Rome some forty years after the crucifixion and resurrection. Mark was written approximately 70 A.D., when Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed by the Roman army. Matthew was probably next, then Luke, and finally John, written approximately 120 A.D.

All of the gospels were written in Gentile territory. None of them were written in Israel. And, during this time, Rome was becoming increasingly hostile toward the Christians, and openly persecuting them. It is Dr. Cook's contention that the gospel writers were subtly trying to soften the role of Rome in the death of Jesus. In order to pacify Rome, and to win sympathy from Rome rather than persecution, the gospel writers put the blame on the Jews. The gospel writers are attempting to dispel Rome's suspicion of Christians, by subtly showing that Christians do not blame Pontius Pilate for killing Jesus, but blame the Jews.

I included two accounts of Jesus' trial in the Scripture lessons read this morning. At your leisure, compare the two and see if you can see a change in how Pilate is excused and Jews blamed. For example, the last sentence of Mark in our lesson reads, So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified. In Matthew's account we read of Pilate's wife urging him to release the innocent man, the crowd is more vehement in shouting, "Let him be crucified!", Pilate washes his hands of any responsibility, and the people (notice, not the leaders, but the Jewish people) take responsibility for Jesus' death by shouting, "His blood be on us and on our children!"

Dr. Cook explains that by exonerating the Romans of responsibility, the effect of putting the entire blame on Jews has had disastrous consequences. Throughout Christian history, Jews have been persecuted, driven out of their homes and businesses, murdered, and systematically, brutally with malice aforethought, massacred by the Nazis. The eventual establishment of their own nation has been the salvation of many Jews.

Travel for me has been a broadening experience. One thing I have learned through my three years experience as a missionary to Japan, my travel to Jordan, Egypt, and Israel is tolerance for other religions. We Christians have little right to claim superiority over other religions. Look at how Christians have fought terrible wars with one another and against other religions. Look how we decimated the Native American population. Every religion has its ups and downs, its glories and its shames, its high ideals and its sorry misdeeds.

For 1,000 years, the so-called civilized nations of Europe kept its people in what is called the dark ages. During this dark time, education, art, and culture were preserved in Muslim centers of education that rival any the western world has ever produced. Christian monks and nuns preserved the Bible. Through all the centuries, the Jews quietly lived in their own communities, maintaining their identity, worshiping God, and trying to avoid attention and persecution. Alex Awad, a Palestinian Christian missionary, told our group in Jerusalem that Arab Muslims rarely persecuted the Jews. Christians have been the persecutors. Christians have no right to feel superior, or to feel we have a monopoly on truth or God.

What is our relationship with other religions? Do we not evangelize? What God calls Christians to do is to witness, to witness through acts of love by building schools, hospitals and farms to improve the quality of life throughout the world, and to do it in the name of Jesus. We are called to witness, to proclaim that through our experience of Jesus Christ, we have found meaning, joy, salvation, and we wish to share the good news with you. Never do we have the right to say, "Ours is better."

Who killed Jesus? Roman soldiers killed Jesus, acting on the orders of a weak, incompetent Roman governor named Pontius Pilate who acquiesced to the pressure of Jewish leaders. But, whoever did it is immaterial to us today. What is important is for us to repent of any violence or intolerance in which we have participated, and realize again, through the death of Jesus and his resurrection, the love of God in all its fullness, the love of God for everyone, perpetrator as well as victim.

© 1995 Douglas I. Norris