EWTN Catholic Q&A
Not the Jews' affair?
Question from R. Hodulik on 07-24-2003:

A certain Jewish historian is claiming that the arrest, torture, and Crucifixion of Christ was totally a Roman matter with the Jews practically blameless. The main thrust of his argument is the old line of Christ as political agitator and the Romans treating Him as an enemy of the state. He further states that the apostles changed their story - concerning blame- after the Crucifixion in order to appease Roman authorities while spreading the Gospels.

As an historian have you ever come across any credible sources - Jewish or otherwise - that lends any credence to these charges?

Thank you for your time.

R. Hodulik

Answer by Matthew Bunson on 08-01-2003:

This is perhaps best addressed by the Scripture forum, so please feel free to re-post there if my answer is not considered definitive.

Biblical scholars from both the Christian and Jewish traditions have long examined this particular question. The Gospel accounts are quite explicit in their descriptions of the legal proceedings undertaken by the Sanhedrin. All four Gospels record at least something of the proceedings, both from the perspective of the Jewish and Roman authorities. However, because of their relatively brief narratives, the precise sequence of events is difficult to know with certainty.

It is clear that after his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus was taken before the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem. John tells us that he was first dragged before Annas, the former high priest. Jesus was then sent to the palace of Caiaphas where members of the Sanhedrin had gathered; great irregularities attended the proceedings. A second trial was held in the morning to provide a better claim to legality, with the thrust of the questioning centered on the issues of messianic claims by Jesus. Details of Jewish trials from the 1st century are not extant, so it is difficult to know exactly what the trial before the Sanhedrin entailed.The Gospels are clear, though, that a trial of some form took place.

Scholars are uncertain as to the exact degree of authority given to the Sanhedrin by the Romans, but it is apparent that the death sentence was not part of it. Thus, the Sanhedrin was compelled to go to the procurator (in this case Pontius Pilate) to request such a condemnation.

What followed was the famous trial of Jesus before Pilate, including the interlude before Herod Antipas (Lk. 23: 2-12). The trial ended with Pilate’s decision to hand Jesus over for execution. Several important need to be made, then. While it is correct that the Gospels attest to the trial of Jesus before the Sanhedrin, the decision to crucify him was in the hands solely of Pontius Pilate. The chief reasons for Pilate’s sentence are the source of other discussions, especially as they pertained to Roman law.

The sentence nevertheless was made by the Romans and carried out by the Romans, regardless of whatever pressures might have been exerted on the local level (pressures to which the Romans were rarely willing to acquiesce). It is thus incorrect to blame the Jews for the death of Jesus. While the initial trial of Jesus was undertaken by some Jewish authorities in Jerusalem, we must be very careful in not making any kind of a claim that Jewish authorities were solely responsible for his crucifixion;they had a part in the events, but a full understanding of the legal and historical questions involved is required.