"We Are All Responsible for Jesus' Death"
ROME, 30 MARCH 2007 (ZENIT)
Here is a translation of a commentary by
the Pontifical Household preacher, Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa,
on the readings for this Sunday's liturgy.
* * *
A Historical Look at the Passion of Christ
Isaiah 50:4-7; Philippians 2:6-11; Luke 22:14-23, 56
On Palm Sunday we will hear in its entirety St. Luke's account of the
Passion. Let us pose the crucial question, that question which the
Gospels were written to answer: How is it that a man like this ended up
on the cross? What were the motives of those responsible for Jesus'
According to a theory that began to circulate last century, after the
tragedy of the Shoah, the responsibility for Christ's death falls
indeed perhaps even exclusively
on Pilate and the Roman authorities, whose motivation was of a more
political than religious nature. The Gospels supposedly vindicated
Pilate and accused the Jewish leaders of Christ's death in order to
reassure the Roman authorities about the Christians and to court their
This thesis was born from a concern which today we all share: to
eradicate every pretext for the anti-Semitism that has caused much
suffering for the Jewish people at the hands of Christians. But the
gravest mistake that can be made for a just cause is to defend it with
erroneous arguments. The fight against anti-Semitism should be put on a
more solid foundation than a debatable (and debated) interpretation of
the Gospel accounts of the Passion.
That the Jewish people as such are innocent of Christ's death rests on a
biblical certainty that Christians have in common with Jews but that for
centuries was strangely forgotten. "The son shall not be charged with
the guilt of his father, nor shall the father be charged with the guilt
of his son" (Ezekiel 18:20). Church teaching knows only one sin that is
transmitted from father to son, original sin, no other.
Having made it clear that I reject anti-Semitism, I would like to
explain why it is not possible to accept the complete innocence of the
Jewish authorities in Christ's death and along with it the claim about
the purely political nature of Christ's condemnation.
Paul, in the earliest of his letters, written around the year 50,
basically gives the same version of Christ's condemnation as that given
in the Gospels. He says that "the Jews put Jesus to death" (1
Thessalonians 2:15). Of the events that took place in Jerusalem shortly
before his arrival, Paul must have been better informed than we moderns,
having at one time tenaciously approved and defended the condemnation of
The accounts of the Passion cannot be read ignoring everything that
preceded them. The four Gospels attest
on nearly every page, we can say
growing religious difference between Jesus and an influential group of
Jews (Pharisees, doctors of the law, scribes) over the observance of the
Sabbath, the attitude toward sinners and tax collectors, and the clean
Once the existence of this contrast is demonstrated, how can one think
that it had no role to play in the end and that the Jewish leaders
decided to denounce Jesus to Pilate
almost against their will
solely out of fear of a Roman military intervention?
Pilate was not a person who was so concerned with justice as to be
worried about the fate of an unknown Jew; he was a hard, cruel type,
ready to shed blood at the smallest hint of rebellion. All of that is
quite true. He did not, however, try to save Jesus out of compassion for
the victim, but only to score a point against Jesus' accusers, with whom
he had been in conflict since his arrival in Judea. Naturally, this does
not diminish Pilate's responsibility in Christ's condemnation, a
responsibility which he shares with the Jewish leaders.
It is not at all a case of wanting to be "more Jewish than the Jews."
From the reports about Jesus' death present in the Talmud and in other
Jewish sources (however late and historically contradictory), one thing
emerges: The Jewish tradition never denied the participation of the
religious leaders of the time in Christ's condemnation. They did not
defend themselves by denying the deed, but, if anything, they denied
that the deed, from the Jewish perspective, constituted a crime and that
Christ's condemnation was an unjust condemnation.
So, to the question, "Why was Jesus condemned to death?" after all the
studies and proposed alternatives, we must give the same answer that the
Gospels do. He was condemned for religious reasons, which, however, were
ably put into political terms to better convince the Roman procurator.
The title of "Messiah," which the accusation of the Sanhedrin focused
on, becomes in the trial before Pilate, "King of the Jews," and this
will be the title of condemnation that will be affixed to the cross:
"Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews." Jesus had struggled all his life
to avoid this confusion, but in the end it is this confusion that will
decide his fate.
This leaves open the discussion about the use that is made of the
accounts of the Passion. In the past they have often been used (in the
theatric representations of the Passion, for example) in an
inappropriate manner, with a forced anti-Semitism.
This is something that everyone today firmly rejects, even if something
still remains to be done about eliminating from the Christian
celebration of the Passion everything that could still offend the
sensibility of our Jewish brothers. Jesus was and remains, despite
everything, the greatest gift of Judaism to the world, a gift for which
the Jews have paid a high price ...
The conclusion that we can draw from these historical considerations,
then, is that religious authorities and political authorities, the heads
of the Sanhedrin and the Roman procurator, both participated, for
different reasons, in Christ's condemnation.
We must immediately add to this that history does not say everything and
not even what is essential on this point. By faith we know that we are
all responsible for Jesus' death with our sins.
Let us leave aside historical questions now and dedicate a moment to
contemplating him. How did Jesus act during the Passion? Superhuman
dignity, infinite patience. Not a single gesture or word that negated
what he preached in his Gospel, especially the beatitudes. He dies
asking for the forgiveness of those who crucified him.
And yet nothing in him resembles the stoic's prideful disdain of
suffering. His reaction to suffering and cruelty is entirely human: he
trembles and sweats blood in Gethsemane, he wants this chalice to pass
from him, he seeks the support of his disciples, he cries out his
desolation on the cross: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"
There is one among the traits of this superhuman greatness of Christ
that fascinates me: his silence. "Jesus was silent" (Matthew 26:63). He
is silent before Caiaphas, he is silent before Pilate, he is silent
before Herod, who hoped to see Jesus perform a miracle (cf. Luke 23:8).
"When he was reviled he did not revile in return," the First Letter of
Peter says of him (2:23).
The silence is broken only for a single moment before death
the "loud cry" from the cross after which Jesus yields up his spirit.
This draws from the Roman centurion the confession: "Truly this man was
the Son of God." ZE07033028