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Who Among the Jewish Leadership Opposed the Execution of Jesus?


Did some of the Jewish leaders oppose having Jesus crucified?  Although the great majority of the Jewish leadership itself favored executing Jesus for perceived blasphemy, not everyone was onboard. 


For example, Nicodemus, who visited Jesus by night and discussed being “born again,” was opposed to His execution, saying to his fellow Jewish leaders, “Our Law does not judge a man, unless it first hears from him and knows what he is doing, does it?” (John 7:50).  He also brought spices to wrap the body of Jesus in also (John 19:39).  Another Jewish leader opposed to the execution of Jesus, but he didn’t do it publicly, was Joseph of Arimathea, “being a disciple of Jesus, but a secret one, for fear of the Jews” (John 19:38).  He asked Pontius Pilate, the Roman procurator (i.e., governor) for the body of Jesus, and it was given to him.  Then he interred it in his family’s tomb (Luke 24:50-53).  An interesting hint that more members of the Sanhedrin (Jewish council of leaders in Judea under Roman control) occurs in Nicodemus’ night visit to Jesus.  Notice his use of “we” in this statement:  “Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him”  (John 3:2).  That implies that at least two men in the Jewish leadership council believed that Jesus was at least a prophet, and perhaps more.


By contrast, the top Roman leader in the area, Pontius Pilate, only very reluctantly gave into executing Jesus at the request of the Jewish leadership and the crowd before him when he was about to release Jesus.  He tried to duck making a decision by sending Jesus over to Herod to be judged (Luke 23:6-12) and also tried to release Him by offering to the assembled crowd to release Jesus as part of a custom of pardoning one criminal each year during the Passover festival (Mark 23:17; John 18:39-4).  Pilate believed that Jesus was innocent while on trial before him.  Early on, he soon perceived that the Jewish leadership had delivered Him up to him out of envy (Matthew 27:18).  For example, after questioning Him, Pilate said, “Behold, I am bringing Him out to you, that you may know that I find now guilt in Him.” (John 19:4).  He told the Jews demanding that He be executed, “Take Him yourselves, and crucify Him, for I find no guilt in Him” (John 19:6).  After giving in to the crowd baying for Jesus’ blood, Pilate went through the motions of washing his hands with water and proclaimed, “I am innocent of this Man’s blood; see to that yourselves” (Matthew 27:24).  This was really a farce, since Pilate had the might of a Roman legion behind him to put down any rebellion among the Jews, but he nonetheless gave in “to satisfy the multitude” (Mark 15:15). 


Although it’s true that Pontius Pilate was a cruel, bloodthirsty man who deliberately provoked the Jews about their religious sensibilities in other situations, the Gospels' portray a vacillating, merciful Pilate at Christ's trial.  Now the cruel Pilate does make a brief appearance in the Gospels, once leading Jesus to make a statement with interesting theodical implications (Luke 13:1-3): 


          Now on the same occasion there were some present who reported to Him about the Galileans, whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.  And He answered and said to them, "Do you suppose that these Galileans were greater sinners than all other Galileans, because they suffered this fate?  I tell you no, but, unless you repent, you will all likewise perish."


But if the New Testament portrays Pilate as out of character in a single but crucial incident, as a reluctant executioner during Christ’s passion, why should the New Testament be believed here instead of (say) Josephus?  First, note that Josephus and others don't describe how Pilate acted at Jesus' trial, but other times during his procuratorship.  The primary sources don't directly contradict one another about Pilate in the same incident.  Second, the Old Testament itself shows that a man with great power can act out of character, and do things not easily predicted from his earlier actions.  Like Pilate, King Nebuchadnezzar (c. 630-562 b.c.) of the Babylonian Empire was undoubtedly generally an idolater (Dan. 3:1-19) and a wrathful tyrant when his will was thwarted (Dan. 2:9-18).  Yet the Book of Daniel describes him humbly acknowledging the one true God (Dan. 4:34-37) after being punished for his arrogance by suffering seven years of insanity (vs. 28-33).  Third, when under pressure, Pilate had shown he was willing to fold rather than enforce his will.  For example, early in his rule, Pilate sent the imperial standards into Jerusalem.  The Jews objected violently against the planting of these idolatrous symbols of foreign rule in their capital.  After threatening to execute a delegation sent to his seat of government at Caesarea to petition for the standards' removal, he backed down. Similarly, as already noted above, "when Pilate saw that he was accomplishing nothing [by trying to persuade the mob to ask for Jesus' release] but rather a riot was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the multitude, saying, 'I am innocent of this Man's blood; see to that yourselves'" (Matt. 27:24).  Since Pilate had the military power and political authority to quell any riot the Jews could start, his attempt to shift the blame entirely onto them was a farce.  Nevertheless, like many a politician under pressure since his time, when confronted with the dilemma of the moral choice being unpopular, and the popular choice being immoral, he opted for the second.  Finally, when the New Testament has so often shown itself reliable elsewhere after having been questioned, it's reasonable to accept its version of events even when it's controversial.  If contemporary classical historians were asked to choose between the historical accuracy of Luke and Josephus, it's by no means clear Luke would lose. 


          Jesus' ability to perform miracles was especially threatening to the Jewish establishment.  Some members of the Sanhedrin (Jewish ruling council) were concerned about the activities of Jesus that they would bring the wrath of Rome down upon them (John 11:47):  “Therefore the chief priests and the Pharisees convened a council, and were saying, ‘What are we doing?  For this man is performing many signs.  If we let Him go on like this, all men will believe in Him and the Romans will take away both our place [i.e., the temple] and our nation.”  That power, along with His perfect character and the support of the multitudes, surely made them envious, indeed "haters of the good for being the good," which even the pagan Pontius Pilate perceived.  He asked the crowd while Jesus was on trial:  "'Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?'  For he was aware that the chief priests had delivered Him up because of envy" (Mark 15:10; cf. Matt. 27:18).  The Jewish religious establishment, or part of it, knew that Jesus was sent by God (note the use of "we" in John 3:1-2, which was already alluded to above).  He let the multitudes praise Him as David’s son, implying He was the Messiah, during the triumphal entry, which His Jewish enemies in the leadership knew was a claim that challenged their political and religious authority (see Matt. 21:15-16; cf. 22:41-45).  Nevertheless, they felt so threatened by Him they hurriedly sought to kill Him just before the Days of Unleavened Bread began.   Their desire for speed, to beat the first annual holy high day of the year (John 19:31; Mark 14:1-2), was a major reason why so much of Jesus' trial was illegal, over and above the problem of finding something to accuse Him of when He had lived a perfectly sinless life (Matthew 26:3-5):  "Then the chief priests and the elders of the people were gathered together in the court of the high priest, named Caiaphas; and they plotted together to seize Jesus by stealth, and kill Him.  But they were saying, 'Not during the festival, lest a riot occur among the people.'"  So amongst their envy of Jesus, such as over His ability to do miracles, their fear of how He threatened their positions of religious authority over the Jewish people, and their desires for a speedy trial to condemn Him before the first spring Holy Day began, it should not seem astonishing that they broke many of their own laws in order to convict Him under such extreme circumstances (cf. Paul's illegal mistreatment before the Sanhedrin by being struck (Acts 23:3)).


          What undermines a standard liberal interpretation of Jesus' trial was that Jesus was put to death for violating Jewish law, not Roman.  The Jewish leadership even avoided stating a specific charge at times (John 19:29-30) or they tried to dress it up that Jesus was guilty of violating Roman law in order to engineer His execution (Luke 23:2).  Conspicuously, religious liberals and skeptics would deny that the Messiah ever affirmed or implied His Deity, they never would analyze in connection with Christ's trial the divine implications of the term "Son of God “ (Consider, in the immediate context of Jesus’ demonstrating His miraculous ability to control the weather in Matt. 14:33, that His disciples worshipped Him while using the title, “the Son of God” (NKJV), which shows having this title implies the holder is Divine).  Jesus affirmed He was the Son of God, not just the Messiah, when on trial, which brought immediate condemnation upon Him.  Note that the high priest actually asked about two titles, not just one:  "I adjure You by the living God, that You tell us whether You are the Christ, the son of God" (Matt. 26:63).  But when the first-century Jewish leadership charged Jesus with violating Roman law, they were lying through their teeth (Luke 23:2):  "'We found this man misleading our nation and forbidding to pay taxes to Caesar, and saying that He Himself is Christ, a King.'"  Pilate himself said to "the chief priests and the rulers and the people" that "You brought this man to me as one who incites the people to rebellion, and behold, having examined Him before you, I have found no guilt in this man regarding the charges which you make against Him.  No, nor has Herod, for he sent Him back to us . . ." (Luke 23:13-15).  After all, Jesus said taxes should be paid to the Roman authorities, following His principle of rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar's and unto God what is God's (Matt. 22:17-22).  It’s hardly a stirring nationalist/zealot call to arms for Jesus to recommend paying taxes to the Roman occupation authorities and their agents, the hated tax collectors.  Jesus avoided getting involved in the worldly politics of ancient Judea.  He refused to let the crowd that He had fed miraculously to make Him king (John 6:15):  "Jesus therefore perceiving that they were intending to come and take Him by force, to make Him king, withdrew again to the mountain by Himself alone."  Jesus, although He was a king, made it clear to Pilate that His kingdom was not derived from this world (John 18:36-37).[1]  (Although Maccoby would dismiss the historicity of the Gospel of John since he believes it expresses Hellenistic religious conceptions, the Dead Sea Scrolls have proven otherwise, as explained in Chapter Six below).  Jesus simply was not going to set up the kingdom of God on earth at that time, so charging Him with political subversion against the Roman state was simply absurd.  He corrected the common expectation of many Jews that He was the Conquering Messiah who was going to set up God's kingdom at that time with His parable of the minas (Luke 19:11):  "He was near Jerusalem, and they supposed that the kingdom of God was going to appear immediately."  The Jewish leadership really wanted Jesus executed for saying He was God, the Son of God, and/or the Messiah (John 8:58-59; 5:18; 10:30-33; 19:7; Mark 14:61-64; Matt. 26:63-66; Luke 22:70-71).  Later on, during the proceedings before Pilate, they even admitted to their real motive for wanting Him dead (John 19:7):  "The Jews answered him, 'We have a law, and by that law He ought to die because He made Himself out to be the Son of God.'"  Had this been the initial official charge, Pilate probably would have dismissed it as of no concern since it concerned Jewish law, not Roman. 



          It’s been reasoned that the New Testament couldn't be right in saying the Jewish leadership handed over Jesus on a religious charge, since Pilate had written "King of the Jews" for a sign nailed above Jesus' head on His cross.  So why did Pilate charge Jesus with a crime if he believed Him to be innocent?  Now Pilate, as Archer describes (“Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties,” 345), had written the atia, or formal criminal charge, and then affixed it as a titulus, or placard, over Jesus' head.  But the way he expressed the charge was ambiguous enough to provoke objections from observers:  "And so the chief priests of the Jews were saying to Pilate:  'Do not write, "The King of the Jews'; but that He said, "I am King of the Jews."'  Pilate answered, 'What I have written I have written'" (John 19:21-22).  Obviously, the charge wasn't derogatory enough for their tastes!  For all his bloodthirsty practices and brutal ways, Pilate knew Jesus had been railroaded and only reluctantly consented to His execution in order to prevent a riot (Matthew 27:20-26; Mark 14:9-15; Luke 23:20-25).  Standing in the vortex of the most crucial event in the history of the universe, even Pilate, the pagan foreigner sent east to administer the authority of the mighty Roman Empire over a despised subject race well known for rebellious tendencies connected with their fidelity to a peculiar religion, dimly sensed more lay here than first met the eye.  Jesus of Nazareth wasn't just any old accused common criminal, which His bearing and manner while on trial indicated (Mark 15:2-5; Matt. 27:11-14).  Pilate's wife warned him:  "Have nothing to do with that righteous Man; for last night I suffered greatly in a dream because of Him" (Matt. 27:19).  After being told that Jesus had been handed over for claiming to be the Son of God, Pilate became "the more afraid [superstitiously?]; and he entered into the Praetorium again, and said to Jesus, 'Where are you from?'  But Jesus gave him no answer" (John 19:8-9).  Given these circumstances, Pilate wrote up the formal legal charge against Jesus in a way that indicated he didn't believe in its truth, at least in the way Jesus' accusers intended.  Levine maintains it's absurd to believe Pilate feared losing his job if he cracked down on the Jews harshly again.  But according to Josephus (Antiquities, 18.4.1-2 (85-89), The Works of Josephus, trans. Whiston, 482) Pilate's immediate superior, Vitellius, the governor of Syria, had Pilate removed after Samaritans complained about an atrocity Pilate committed on their holy place, Mount Gerizim.  He had many of them slaughtered after they had gathered on the mountain because they believed Moses had hidden sacred treasures there.


          The Romans often were indifferent to doctrinal disputes among the Jews.  Under other circumstances, Pilate's response might have resembled Gallio's, proconsul of Achaia, when the local Jews hauled Paul before him.   He dismissed the case from his court, saying (Acts 18:14-15):  "If it were a matter of wrong or of vicious crime, O Jews, it would be reasonable for me to put up with you; but if there are questions about words and names and your own law, look after it yourselves; I am unwilling to be a judge of these matters."  Similarly, consider Festus's characterization of the charges against the Apostle Paul when on trial (Acts 25:18-19, 25, 27): 


          “And when the accusers stood up, they began bringing charges against him not of such crimes as I was expecting; but they simply had some points of disagreement with him about their own religion and about a certain dead man, Jesus, whom Paul asserted to be alive. . . .  But I found that he had committed nothing worthy of death; and since he himself appealed to the Emperor, I decided to send him.  Yet I have nothing definite about him to write to my lord. . . .  For it seems absurd to me in sending a prisoner, not to indicate also the charges against him.”


          The pagan Romans simply were not concerned about what they perceived as intramural doctrinal disputes between different factions within some recently conquered subject race's strange alien religion near their frontier.  Threats against their continued ability to tax and rule over some province of their empire were what mattered most to them.  The Roman commander who had Paul delivered over to Felix under a large armed guard had a similar attitude (Acts 23:28-29).  The Romans simply couldn't have cared less if Jesus called himself God or the Son of God, especially when they sometimes worshiped emperors who called themselves gods, or who allowed themselves to be so called, such as Augustus, Caligula, and Tiberius.  So long as Jesus lead no group in open revolt against Roman rule, like Theudas or Judas of Galilee (Acts 5:36-37), they would have had few concerns about Jesus calling Himself the Messiah.  The pagan Romans, having little familiarity with Jewish religious nomenclature, wouldn’t have cared who called himself what, until somebody acted or threatened to act subversively.  Furthermore, they had a typically polytheistic attitude of live and let live about others worshiping other gods.  The claim that Jesus was hauled up before Pilate on charges of political subversion is an old higher critic viewpoint, but it lacks any solid foundation when considering the words and actions of Jesus Himself as recorded in the New Testament, rather than editing it to fit a preconceived theory.


 Despite the foregoing, it should be remembered always that the Jews as a race or nation weren't specifically responsible for Jesus' death (the old "Christ-killers" charge of anti-Semitic lore).  But after a certain section of their top leadership in the first century condemned Jesus in kangaroo court proceedings, these leaders incited the crowd before Pilate to demand Jesus’ execution (Matt. 27:20, 24-26).  The pagan Romans, including the common soldiers who drove the nails through Jesus' wrists and ankles (v. 35), bore their share of responsibility for Jesus' death as well (Luke 23:33-34).  Since Jesus had to die for all the sins of mankind in order to redeem humanity (John 3:16), Jew and gentile, all people past and present share responsibility for His death. Hence, it's wrong to affix blame especially to the Jews for the Messiah's death, especially when He was a Jew Himself (Heb. 7:14; John 18:35; cf. Rom. 9:3-5).  For as Paul noted, despite their rejection of Jesus, all of Israel, including those of the tribe of Judah, are still God's chosen people:  "I say then, God has not rejected His people, has He?  May it never be!" (Rom. 11:1).


So a few Jewish leaders were opposed to Jesus’ execution and clearly the top Roman leader was.  Nevertheless, it happened in order to fulfill prophecy and to redeem us from sin.


Eric Snow



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Why does God Allow Evil? Click here: /Apologeticshtml/Why Does God Allow Evil 0908.htm

May Christians work on Saturdays? Click here: /doctrinalhtml/Protestant Rhetoric vs Sabbath Refuted.htm

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