Who Really Killed Jesus?
by Fr. William P. Saunders
I recently heard on the radio a program sponsored by the McLean Bible Church which stated that "the Catholic Church believes that the Jews killed Jesus." I know this is not true. But what good answer do I give about what we believe?
Much controversy has arisen over the question, "Who killed Jesus?" due to the tremendous impact of Mel Gibsonís movie, "The Passion of the Christ." (Just as an aside, please go see the movie. It will change the way you pray the Stations of the Cross or the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary. Please note that the movie is not recommended for children younger than age 12.)
First, we need to approach this issue from history, namely, what happened and who did it. The Gospels indicate that the religious leaders of the Jewish people plotted the death of Our Lord. For instance, after Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, the Gospel reads, "At that time, the chief priests and elders of the people were assembled in the palace of the high priest, whose name was Caiaphas. They plotted to arrest Jesus by some trick and kill him" (Mt 26:3-4). At the meeting of the Sanhedrin, some of the Pharisees expressed fear: "What are we to do with this man performing all sorts of signs? If we let Him go on like this, the whole world will believe in Him. Then the Romans will come in and sweep away our sanctuary and our nation" (Jn 11:47-48). At the same meeting, Caiaphas stated, "Can you not see that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed?" (Jn 11:50). Yes, certain Jewish authorities were responsible for the death of Our Lord; however, no one can justly blame the whole Jewish nation or their descendants.
Pilate, the Roman Procurator, held the power over life and death. While the Jewish authorities condemned Our Lord to death for blasphemy, they had no power to execute and admit to Pilate, "We may not put anyone to death" (Jn 18:31). So, they changed the charge when He is brought before Pilate: "We found this man subverting our nation, opposing the payment of taxes to Caesar, and calling Himself the Messiah, a king" (Lk 23:2). To claim to be a king and incite rebellion was to set oneself in opposition to Caesar, a crime punishable by crucifixion. In the end, Pilate feared rebellion, succumbed to the yells of the crowd ó "Crucify Him, crucify Him" ó and ignored his wifeís as well as his own belief in Christís innocence. He ordered the crucifixion. Therefore, Pilate too was responsible for the death of Our Lord; however, no one can justly blame the whole Roman nation or its descendants, i.e. the Gentiles.
Judas, too, played a role in the death of our Lord, betraying Him and handing Him over for thirty pieces of silver (cf. Mt 26:14-16). Would we extend the blame to all of the apostles, since Judas was one of them? Of course not.
Indeed, the historical evidence indicts certain individuals. However, from the theological perspective, the vision of faith, Jesus suffered, died and rose in accord with the plan of salvation of God. After Pentecost, St. Peter and St. John proclaimed, "Indeed, they gathered in this very city against your holy Servant, Jesus, whom you anointed ó Herod and Pontius Pilate in league with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel. They have brought about the very things, which in your powerful providence you planned long ago" (Acts 4:27-28). Our Lordís passion and death fulfilled the prophecy of the suffering servant Messiah proclaimed by Isaiah: "Yet it was our infirmities that he bore, our suffering that he endured. While we thought of him as stricken, as one smitten by God and afflicted. But he was pierced for our offenses, crushed for our sins, upon him was the chastisement that makes us whole, by his stripes we were healed. We had all gone astray like sheep, each following his own way; but the Lord laid upon him the guilt of us all" (53:4-6). Christ freely took upon Himself the burden of our sins, and as priest offered Himself as the perfect sacrifice for our sins. Through his passion, death and resurrection, Christ conquered sin and death, opening the gates of Heaven to give us the hope of everlasting life.
So who do we blame? Actually, the official Church teaching is clear that we do not blame all the Jews at the time of the Lord or all of the Jews to this day. The Second Vatican Council in its "Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions" ("Nostra Aetate") stated, "Even though the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ, neither all Jews indiscriminately at that time, nor Jews today, can be charged with the crimes committed during His passion. It is true that the Church is the new people of God, yet the Jews should not be spoken of as rejected or accursed as if this followed from Holy Scripture" (No. 4). The decree condemned persecution and anti-Semitism not only because of the common heritage shared between Christians and Jews, but also because such acts violate Christian charity.
So then, do we blame anyone? Yes. We blame ourselves. We crucified Christ through our sins. As cited in our present Catechism of the Catholic Church (No. 598), the Roman Catechism of the Council of Trent taught clearly that "sinners were the authors and the ministers of all the sufferings that the divine Redeemer endured: We must regard as guilty all those who continue to relapse into their sins. Since our sins made the Lord Christ suffer the torment of the cross, those who plunge themselves into disorders and crimes crucify the Son of God anew in their hearts (for He is in them) and hold Him up to contempt. And it can be seen that our crime in this case is greater in us than in the Jews. As for them, according to the witness of the Apostles, ĎNone of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.í We however, profess to know Him. And when we deny Him by our deeds, we in some way seem to lay violent hands on Him" (I, 5, 11).
As we enter Holy Week, may we reflect on our own complicity in the passion of the Lord. Take time for prayer, especially the Stations of the Cross and the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary. Take time for self-examination and a good sacramental confession. Take time to not only see the movie The Passion of the Christ — again, if you've seen it already, but also to read the passion accounts in the gospels. Then by Godís grace, we will be renewed in faith and ready to celebrate the glory of Easter.
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'Straight Answers' reproduced with permission from Arlington Catholic Herald
. Copyright © 1993-2005 Fr. William P. Saunders. All rights reserved. 100 articles of this column have been compiled in a book, Straight Answers, and another 100 articles in Straight Answers II. These books are available by calling 703/256-5994 (fax 703/256-8593). All proceeds benefit the building fund of Our Lady of Hope Church.