When Pilate saw that he was not succeeding at all, but that a riot was breaking out instead, he took water and washed his hands in the sight of the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood. Look to it yourselves.”
And the whole people said in reply, “His blood be upon us and upon our children.”
Then he released Barabbas to them, but after he had Jesus scourged, he handed him over to be crucified.
These short lines have, through the fallen nature of humanity, caused their fair share of trouble over the centuries. The gospel message, through primarily one of hope and redemption, contains one dark undertone: Christ died for our sins. The one truly perfect being suffered horrifically because of our too clear imperfection.
It is in our nature to shy away from that which is unpleasant, and so it is perhaps no surprise that throughout history some Christians have attempted to assuage their own consciences by pointing the finger of blame at an obvious target: the Jews.
The fact, clearly stated in the gospel accounts, that it was the Jews who turned Christ over to be killed, and that Jews in Europe lived as a people set apart from the rest of the population, made them a good target against which to shift any blame one might feel for Christ’s suffering. Or perhaps the gospel account simply provided a good excuse for the all too universal desire to cultures to treat minorities badly.
Either way, there is unquestionably a history in Christianity of the thousand years or more of Christians at times treating Jews badly and using the above statement of accountability as an excuse.
In recent times, rightly seeking to avoid any anti-Semitism, some have found a new scapegoat for the crucifixion: the Roman authorities. According to this narrative, which seems popular both with those who like to think of themselves as wise enough to know what is really going on between the lines of scripture and those who consider themselves particularly adept at critiquing civil authority from a religious perspective, the real motive force behind Christ’s execution was the civil authorities. Christ preached a message of radical liberation, and this threatened the political and economic status quo, so the Roman authorities killed him. However, by the time the Gospel writers sat down to write their accounts, they found it expedient to gloss over the fault of the Roman authorities and lay blame on the Jews — thus making nice with the Romans and scapegoating a people already on the outs with the empire.
Since I had run across this latter view several times this year, but on articles in the press and in online conversations, I had it in mind as I was re-reading the Passion narratives during Holy Week this year. That one can find no basis for it in the Gospels themselves is, of course, accounted for by the theory itself, yet it struck me with renewed force that this approach to the question, “Who killed Christ?” is really no different in its failures that the anti-Semitic one.
In both cases, the answer is effectively stated as: the other. The Jews. The oppressive authorities. Anyone but me.
The real answer to the question, “Who killed Christ?” is: We did.
As the Gospel accounts tell us, a mob of Jews gathered in Jerusalem for the Passover were stirred up by the Temple elders to call for Jesus’ death, until the Roman authorities gave in to avoid a riot. Yet the meaning of this is not to be found in identifying some particular ethnic group or power structure to blame. Rather, we must think about who the Jews were, God’s chosen people. The people who called out, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” were the only people in the world to whom God’s law and prophesies had been revealed.
As Christians we believe that we now possess the fullness of God’s revelation. We are God’s people. Pius XI wrote, “Spiritually we are all Semites.” And it should serve as a reminder to us of how right belief is no guarantee against pride or evil action. The leaders who called for the crucifixion were, like us, people who were the keepers of God’s revelation on earth.