Romans are to blame for death of Jesus

Mel Gibson's new movie stirs religious controversy

The soon to be released Mel Gibson movie “The Passion of The Christ” is creating quite a stir among religious experts, as well as lay people. Many say the movie has anti-Semitic overtones. But according to Frank K. Flinn, Ph.D., professor of religious studies at Washington University in St. Louis, the Jews had nothing to do with killing Jesus — the Romans are actually to blame.

Frank Flinn
Frank Flinn

“Had the Jewish authorities been directly involved, Jesus would have been stoned, as Stephen was in Acts 7,” Flinn said. “Only Roman authorities could authorize crucifixions and they often did so on a gruesome, massive scale.”

Flinn, an expert on Catholicism, said Gibson’s movie seems to merge all of the gospel stories about the Passion into one epic, a made-for-the-big screen story that fails to show how opinions about the Jews’ role in the crucifixion have changed dramatically over time. He notes that our earliest accounts of the crucifixion, such as the Gospel of Mark written circa 60-70 C.E., make clear that it was Pilate who had Christ crucified. Gospels written much later, such as those of Matthew and Luke, reflect different interests and viewpoints, and each places more and more blame on the Jews.

“Matthew, probably because of intra-Jewish rivalry, puts the ultimate blame squarely on the shoulders of the Jewish authorities,” Flinn said. “In Luke, the “whitewash” of the Romans becomes nearly complete. By the Middle Ages, the epithet ‘Christ-killers’ became the verbal club to justify the ghettoization, persecution, and murder of Jews. We all know the end-term of this lamentable history.”

Who Killed Jesus?
A Guide to Viewing Mel Gibson’s Movie

By Frank K. Flinn

Romans killed Jesus as a political threat, as they had killed many other prophets, brigands, rebels during the first century. Josephus the Jewish historian recounts many examples in his Jewish War and Jewish Antiquities. Had the Jewish authorities been directly involved, Jesus would have been stoned, as Stephen was in Acts 7. Only Roman authorities could authorize crucifixions and they often did so on a gruesome, massive scale. The rebellion and crucifixion of Sparticus’ army is witness to their ruthless power.

Jesus was seen by his earliest Galilean followers as a prophet like Elijah, who roamed the Galilean hills healing the sick and raising the dead. Like all the prophets of earlier times, Jesus called for a renewal of the terms of the covenant (Leviticus 19), a return of the land to the original tribal owners (law of Jubilee), and often spoke out against the compromised leadership in Jerusalem.

Some (note “some’) Jewish leaders (Sadducees and Pharisees) owed their positions to their patron/client relation to the Roman authorities. The emperor appointed the procurator of Judea who appointed the High Priest. Other Jewish parties, including teachers and prophets in rural Galilee and the Dead Sea Scrolls community of Qumran, either rejected or rebelled against the Jerusalem leaders’ tainted relationship with Rome. Julius Caesar had earlier exempted Jews from offering imperial worship by having them pay a special tax to Rome. Temple authorities, via tax farmers, collected this tax for Rome along with the Temple tax. Poor farmers in Galilee wound up having to mortgage their ancestral lands to the powers that be in Jerusalem. The wealthy in Jerusalem should have returned this land to the original tribes by the periodic law of Jubilee, but failed to do so.

Like the prophets of old, Jesus preached kingdom of God. “Render unto Caesar” means, give back to Caesar his own coin with his image on it (according to Leviticus 19: 4, a blasphemy to the pious Jew!) and to God what is God’s, namely, the land itself which God ultimately owns and which God gave directly to Israel in the covenant (Joshua 24:13)! Jesus’ message was both spiritually and politically threatening first to the Roman authorities and secondarily to their client appointees in Jerusalem.

Mark, the earliest Gospel we have, was written ca. 60-70 CE. He shows Jesus’ death as a collusion between the compromised leaders and Pilate, kind of 50/50, but Mark 15:15 makes it clear that it was Pilate who had him crucified.

Matthew and Luke were written much later, ca. 80-95, and reflect different interests and viewpoints. Matthew portrays Jesus as a Super Teacher or Rabbi on the model of Moses. Being a Jewish follower of Jesus (the word “Christian” first occurs in Antioch), Matthew also reflects a period after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE when conflicts broke out between rabbinic Yavneh Jews and the Jewish followers of Jesus. Surviving rabbis at the Council Yavhneh (ca. 90) tried to exclude “Nazoreans” (followers of the man from Nazareth) from partaking in the synagogue. The rabbis may not have been too successful. Recent archeological research indicates that later Jewish Christians partook in the synagogue until the 7th century! (I always point out to my students that a Christian can go to any Jewish Sabbath service and say all the prayers with full religious sincerity.) Matthew goes to some length to remove blame from the Roman authorities. He has Pilate’s wife interceding for Jesus (many emperor’s wives interceded for Christians in Rome) and Pilate washing his hands as a sign of innocence. Probably because of intra-Jewish rivalry, puts the ultimate blame squarely on the shoulders of the Jewish authorities by adding the verse “His blood be upon us and our children” (Matthew 24:25).

In Luke, the “whitewash” of the Romans becomes nearly complete. The Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts should be read as one work. Luke/Acts is unfolds in ascending dyptychs and was written for a Roman audience, probably a noble audience. We can now use the word “Christian” which occurs at Acts 11:26 for the first time, but the term was almost certainly a pejorative epithet in origin. Luke/Acts unfolds according to the following pattern: from John Baptist to Jesus, from Galilee to Jerusalem, from Peter to Paul, and from Jerusalem to Rome. Luke is trying to justify Christianity in the face of criticism by the Romans who accused it of being “superstition.” Luke goes beyond Matthew to establish Roman innocence. The crowning with thorns and mocking of Jesus passages are removed. Then three times Pilate declares Jesus’ innocence to the crowd. Luke finesses Pilate’s responsibility: “But Jesus he [Pilate] delivered up to their [the crowd’s] will” (Luke 23:26). Perhaps I should say “Romanwash” instead of “whitewash.” Other souces tell us that Pontius Pilate was a particularly cruel govenor who brooked no opposition.

The Gospel of John, as most scholars maintain, stands by itself but one of the signs of its lateness in its present form (ca. 100-110 CE) is that John does not lay Jesus’ death so much on Pilate, or Pilate Jewish authorities, or even the Jewish authorities alone, but “Jews” as a whole (John 19:12). The break with Judaism is nigh complete. The stereotype is set for the later, fateful charge that “the Jews killed Jesus” although John does not say this.

In the next centuries Christian apologists portrayed the “Jews” as a “stiff-necked people” who refused the light of salvation. It was not until after Constantine brought about a full breach with Judaism as such that the phrase “Christ-killers” was put to use. Even in this case, there is an interesting subtext. John Chrysostom, bishop of Constantinople (ca. 398-407), was the first to accuse Jews of being “Christ-killers” but his reason for doing so was that his Christian congregants were continuing to attend the local synagogue, no doubt because the rabbis were more learned than many priests and were better biblical preachers!

By the Middle Ages the epithet “Christ-killers” became the verbal club justifying the ghettoization, persecution, and murder of Jews. We all know the end-term of this lamentable history.

My discussion lays out a sequence of who was responsible for Jesus’ death and the appropriate terms for each stage:

• Romans

• Romans /Jewish leaders

• High Priest, Scribes, Elders/Romans

• Chief Priest, Scribes, Elders, Crowd/Pilate (sort of)

• Jews (in general)

• “Stiff-necked People”

• “Christ-killers…”

From what I can gather about Mel Gibson’s movie in published reports, is that like many past movies about Jesus it merges all the gospel stories about the passion together. As I show above, the different gospels say very different things. Secondly the Gibson movie, by his own admission, is bloody and gory and stresses the role of Mary way beyond any of the gospels. This makes it sound like the notorious traditional Catholic Oberammergau Passion Play in Germany which in its original form was blatantly stereotypical and anti-Semitic. Most importantly, the tendency in almost all Christian views of Jesus’ death is to assume, not the first term in the sequence I give above but the last, as one’s frame of reference. But to be fair, we have to wait until the movie comes out.