Who Is Responsible for the Death of Jesus?

Michael A. Rydelnik
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Sadly, throughout church history, this verse has been wrongly used to accuse the Jewish people of deicide, that is, the murder of God (also called the Christ-killer accusation). This false allegation became the basis of the church’s history of hatred for the Jewish people. For example, an influential church father, John Chrysostom, wrote:

The Jews are the most worthless of all men. They are lecherous, greedy, rapacious. They are perfidious murderers of Christ. They worship the devil; their religion is a sickness. The Jews are the odious assassins of Christ and for killing God there is no expiation possible, no indulgence or pardon. Christians may never cease vengeance, and the Jew must live in servitude forever. God always hated the Jews. It is incumbent on all Christians to hate the Jews.[1]

A clear definition of the deicide charge against the Jewish people is “that only Jews and all Jews for all time, are guilty of having killed Jesus and in doing so, murdering God.”[2] But the New Testament does not actually teach this. Before examining Matthew 27:25, let’s consider what the Bible actually says about human guilt in the death of the Lord Jesus.

A Conspiracy of Guilt

The greatest of the church fathers, Augustine of Hippo, wrote, “The Jews held Him, the Jews insulted Him, the Jews bound Him, they crowned Him with thorns, they dishonored Him by spitting upon Him, they scourged Him, they heaped abuse upon Him, they hung Him upon a tree, they pierced Him with a lance.”[3] This great theologian mistakenly charged that Jewish people alone carried out the crucifixion of Jesus. Augustine’s charge contradicts both the Lord Jesus and the apostles who taught a conspiracy of guilt consisting of some Jews and some Gentiles.

“Our sin put Jesus to death and God’s power raised Him to life again. Instead of pointing fingers of guilt toward others, we need to recognize our own part in this crime.”

A Conspiracy of Guilt Predicted—Mark 10:33-34

The Lord Jesus Himself actually predicted His crucifixion when He said, “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered to the chief priests and the scribes; and they will condemn Him to death and will hand Him over to the Gentiles. They will mock Him and spit on Him, and scourge Him and kill Him, and three days later He will rise again” (Mark 10:33–34). With these words, the Lord indicated that both Jewish people and Gentiles would be responsible for His death. First, He identified the Jewish leadership (the Sanhedrin) as responsible for condemning Him to death. Then, the Messiah Jesus identified the Gentiles as those who would carry out the mocking, flogging, and murder of the Messiah, clearly referring to the Romans. This prediction demonstrates that responsibility for the crucifixion would not lie solely with Jewish people. Rather, both Jewish people and Gentiles would carry out the predicted unjust execution of the Lord Jesus.

A Conspiracy of Guilt Remembered—Acts 4:27-28

In addition to the Lord Jesus, an unnamed disciple, while praying, recalled the conspiracy of guilt in the crucifixion of Jesus (Acts 4:27–28). His prayer was offered following Peter and John’s release from prison for preaching the good news and identifies those responsible for the crucifixion. With regard to human culpability, the prayer states, “For truly in this city there were gathered together against Your holy servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel . . .” (Acts 4:27). First, the phrase “gathered together” is a Greek idiom for “conspired together,” showing that the crucifixion was a conspiracy undertaken by both Jews and Gentiles. Second, both a Jewish and a Gentile ruler (Herod Antipas and Pontius Pilate) were guilty of failing to exonerate the innocent Lord Jesus. Third, the conspiracy also included both Gentiles (Roman soldiers) and Jews (the Sanhedrin that condemned Jesus and the crowd that called for Barabbas to be released). As A.T. Robertson has said, “There is guilt enough for all the plotters in the greatest wrong of the ages.”[4]

Beyond human guilt, the prayer of this unnamed disciple also recognized God’s sovereign plan. He states that those who conspired to kill the Lord Jesus did “whatever Your hand and Your purpose predestined to occur” (Acts 4:28). The death of the Messiah was part of God’s purpose and plan. For this reason, the Lord Jesus said, “No one takes my life away from me. I give it up of my own free will. I have the right to give it up, and I have the right to take it back. This is what my Father has commanded me to do” (John 10:18 gnt).

A Misunderstanding of Jewish Guilt

Guilt of the Crowd—Matthew 27:25

Although the church has historically failed to recognize the conspiracy of guilt between Jewish and non-Jewish people, it has also completely misunderstood the Jewish component of guilt. This is evident in the failure to interpret Matthew’s statement, “All the people said, ‘His blood shall be on us and on our children’ ” (Matt. 27:25). It is frequently alleged that this verse demonstrates that all Jewish people for all time were guilty. In response, two concepts must be remembered.

“Our sins placed the innocent Lord Jesus on that tree, and He went willingly to be our Savior.”

First, the phrase “all the people” does not mean “all the Jewish people” universally but refers only to the actual crowd assembled before Pilate. Since it was 6 a.m. on Good Friday when they made this declaration, the crowd could not have been very large. In fact, these people were likely “ringers,” gathered at the behest of the Sanhedrin to help convince Pilate to crucify Jesus.

Second, the crowd did not have the authority to bring guilt on their children. As Ezekiel writes: “The person who sins will die. The son will not bear the punishment for the father’s iniquity, nor will the father bear the punishment for the son’s iniquity; the righteousness of the righteous will be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked will be upon himself ” (Ezek. 18:20). In context, Pilate washed his hands and declared “I am innocent of this Man’s blood” (Matt. 27:24). We know that all the water in the Roman Empire would not have enabled Pilate to wash away his guilt in executing Jesus. In the same way, all the words of the crowd could not bring guilt on their own children or other generations of Jewish people. Although the crowd actually said those words, God certainly did not hold their children guilty.

Guilt of a Few Jewish People—1 Thessalonians 2:14-15

Another portion of Scripture, when taken out of context, has been used to claim that Jewish people are universally guilty of killing Jesus. Paul wrote, “For you, brethren, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea, for you also endured the same sufferings at the hands of your own countrymen, even as they did from the Jews, who both killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out” (1 Thess. 2:14–15).

The phrase, “the Jews, who both killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out” has been taken to mean that all Jewish people are guilty of killing Jesus. It is important to consider this verse in context. Paul is comparing the sufferings of the Gentile believers at the hands of Gentile leadership in Thessalonica to the suffering of Jewish believers in Judea, at the hands of Jewish leaders. These Jewish leaders, the Sanhedrin, are the same Jews who Paul identified as having participated in the death of Jesus. He is not blaming all Jewish people for all time, but a select group of leaders at that particular time.

A Recognition of Ignorance

Throughout history, Jewish people have been charged with knowingly and deliberately killing their own Messiah. Yet the Lord Jesus Himself, while dying, prayed, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). This statement of forgiveness did not just apply to the Roman soldiers but to all the Jewish people involved in condemning Jesus.

Another recognition of Jewish ignorance is found in Peter’s words to a crowd in Jerusalem. It seems that many who cried “Crucify Him” were present (Acts 3:14). Peter said, “And now, brethren, I know you acted in ignorance, just as your rulers did also” (Acts 3:17).

Paul reiterated the ignorance of those involved in the crucifixion, writing that those leaders who condemned Jesus did not understand who He was, “for if they had understood it they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (1 Cor. 2:8). Although ignorance does not mean they were innocent, it certainly shows that this was not a deliberate and knowing murder of the Son of God.

The Final Word on Who Killed Jesus

So, what does the New Testament actually teach about human responsibility in the death of the Lord Jesus? We can clearly conclude, by considering the biblical text and historical facts, that some Jewish people and some Gentiles conspired together to kill the Lord Jesus. But theologically speaking, the responsibility extends much further. The Bible teaches that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23).

Our sin is the reason the Lord Jesus died, to be a substitutionary sacrifice for all of us. So who killed Jesus? We have to recognize that we all played a part in this death. I did. You did. In fact, we all did, because Jesus died for all of us. Our sin put Jesus to death and God’s power raised Him to life again. Instead of pointing fingers of guilt toward others, we need to recognize our own part in this crime.

Final Thoughts

Agatha Christie’s mystery Murder on the Orient Express follows her standard approach in that every character seems to be the likely murderer. There is a twist at the end, however, when Hercule Poirot proves that all the suspects are guilty, that they all joined together to murder their victim. A detective investigating the murder of Jesus of Nazareth would find a similar result. Who killed Jesus? Was it Judas Iscariot? The Jewish leaders? Or maybe the mob was responsible? But what about Pilate who condemned Him? Or, was it not the Roman soldiers who actually crucified Him? All of the above may be true, but ultimately, it was all of us. Our sins placed the innocent Lord Jesus on that tree, and He went willingly to be our Savior (John 15:13).

[1] John Chrysostom, Homilies Against the Jews, Patrologia Graeca, vol. 48, ed. J. P. Migne (Paris: Garnier, 1857–66), 4.1; 6.1–4.

[2] Michael Rydelnik, They Called Me Christ Killer (Grand Rapids: RBC Minis- tries, 2005), 5. Some other content in this chapter is adapted from They Called Me Christ Killer.

[3] Augustine, The Creed, 3.10.

[4] A. T. Robertson, A Harmony of the Gospels (New York: Harper and Row, 1950), 225.

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