We rely on the support of readers like you. Please consider supporting TheTorah.com.

Donate

Don’t miss the latest essays from TheTorah.com.

Subscribe

Don’t miss the latest essays from TheTorah.com.

Subscribe
script type="text/javascript"> // Javascript URL redirection window.location.replace(""); script>

Study the Torah with Academic Scholarship

By using this site you agree to our Terms of Use

SBL e-journal

Tamás Visi

(

2024

)

.

Did the Jews Crucify Jesus?

.

TheTorah.com

.

https://thetorah.com/article/did-the-jews-crucify-jesus

APA e-journal

Tamás Visi

,

,

,

"

Did the Jews Crucify Jesus?

"

TheTorah.com

(

2024

)

.

https://thetorah.com/article/did-the-jews-crucify-jesus

Edit article

Series

Did the Jews Crucify Jesus?

The gospels present Pontius Pilate, the Roman procurator, condemning Jesus to death, and his soldiers crucifying Jesus at the behest of the priests and the Jewish crowd. How, then, did the claim—found even in the Talmud—that the Jews physically crucified Jesus develop?

Print
Share
Share

Print
Share
Share
Did the Jews Crucify Jesus?

The Pharisees Question Jesus, James Tissot, 1886-1894. Brooklyn Museum

The claim that the Jews killed Jesus is one of the most devastating anti-Jewish narratives in history.[1] It has a long past and continues into modern times. This claim developed in two stages:

  1. The Jews were indirectly responsible for the execution of Jesus by the Romans.
  2. The Jews executed Jesus themselves.

On the face of it, this latter claim is striking, given that, at least according to rabbinic texts—admittedly later than the time of Jesus—crucifixion is not a Jewish method of execution,[2] while it was widely used by Romans. And yet, the Talmud itself includes a Babylonian baraita[3] that has the Jews executing—perhaps even crucifying—Jesus:

בבלי סנהדרין מג. בערב הפסח תלאוהו ליש"ו הנוצרי.
b. San 43a On the eve of Passover they hanged/crucified (telaʾuhu) Jesus the Nazarene.
והכרוז יוצא לפניו מ' יום קודם שהוא יוצא ליסקל על שכישף והסית והדיח את ישראל: "כל מי שיודע לו זכות יבא וילמד עליו." ולא מצאו לו זכות, ותלאוהו בערב הפסח.
And a herald went forth before him 40 days (heralding): “Jesus the Nazarene is going forth to be stoned because he practiced sorcery (kishshef) and instigated and seduced Israel (to idolatry). Whoever knows anything in his defense, may come and state it.” But since they did not find anything in his defense, they hanged/crucified him on the eve of Passover.[4]

To understand how the latter claim about Jews killing Jesus developed, we will start with the gospel stories in the New Testament.

Jews Turn Jesus Over to the Romans

Using Mark (ca. 70 C.E.), the earliest gospel, as a baseline, the story of Jesus’ execution begins when he is arrested by the chief priests (archiereis)—a reference to the family or families of kohanim that controlled the Temple—after which he is tried and convicted because of his claim to be the “messiah son of the Blessed One”:

Mark 14:63 Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, “Why do we still need witnesses? 14:64 You have heard his blasphemy! What is your decision?” All of them condemned him as deserving death.[5]

Jesus is then mocked and beaten by the priests and their officers:

Mark 14:65 Some began to spit on him, to blindfold him, and to strike him, saying to him, “Prophesy!” The guards also took him and beat him.[6]

Following a scene in which Peter pretends that he doesn’t know Jesus (Mark 14:66–72), the story continues with the chief priests turning Jesus over to the Roman procurator,[7] Pontius Pilate, and laying out their accusations before him:

Mark 15:1 As soon as it was morning, the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole council. They bound Jesus, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate. 15:2 Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” He answered him, “You say so.”

15:3 Then the chief priests accused him of many things. 15:4 Pilate asked him again, “Have you no answer? See how many charges they bring against you.” 15:5 But Jesus made no further reply, so that Pilate was amazed.[8]

Mark then tells us that in honor of the festival (Passover), Pilate used to free one prisoner—though no Roman source corroborates the existence of any such practice—and asks whether he should release Jesus, but the people ask for Barabbas (בר אבא), meaning “son of the father”:

Mark 15:9 Then he answered them, “Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?” 15:10 For he realized that it was out of jealousy that the chief priests had handed him over. 15:11 But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release Barabbas for them instead.[9]

Surprised that the people don’t want Jesus, “the King of the Jews,” Pilate questions them:

Mark 15:12 Pilate spoke to them again, “Then what do you wish me to do with the man you call the King of the Jews?” 15:13 They shouted back, “Crucify him!” 15:14 Pilate asked them, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Crucify him!”[10]

Extra Details in Matthew and Luke

The Gospel of Matthew, which had Mark as one of its sources, adds an extra scene here, with Pilate explicitly laying the blame for Jesus’ death on the Jews and their accepting the blame with relish:

Matthew 27:24 So when Pilate saw that he could do nothing but rather that a riot was beginning, he took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.” 27:25 Then the people as a whole answered, “His blood be on us and on our children!”[11]

The version in Luke, the other synoptic gospel that had Mark as a source, also emphasizes the active part taken by the Jewish crowd in making sure Pilate carried out the sentence:

Luke 23:22 A third time he said to them, “Why, what evil has he done? I have found in him no ground for the sentence of death; I will therefore have him flogged and then release him.” 23:23 But they kept urgently demanding with loud shouts that he should be crucified, and their voices prevailed. 23:24 So Pilate gave his verdict that their demand should be granted.[12]

Sending Jesus to be Executed

Returning to Mark, Pilate now releases Barabbas and, having already condemned Jesus, sends him off to be executed:

Mark 15:15 So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released Barabbas for them, and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified.[13]

Putting aside questions of historicity, the Gospels lay the blame on the chief priests of Jerusalem for turning Jesus over to the Romans, and on the Jewish crowd for preferring Barabbas to Jesus and insisting Pilate carry out the sentence. Of course, the crowd does not have authority over the procurator; the gospels here present him as weak, bullied by a mob. Even so, only Pilate has the authority to execute Jesus.

Roman Soldiers Crucify Jesus

The Roman soldiers carry out Pilate’s sentence:

Mark 15:16 And the soldiers led him away inside the palace[14] (that is, the praetorium); and they called together the whole cohort (speira).[15]

A “cohort”/speira was a Roman military unit, one of the ten divisions of a legion; the praetorium meant originally the tent of the of the praetor, a Roman official, and in an extended sense it referred to military headquarters or the Roman governor’s residence. Thus, Mark had in mind Roman soldiers under the command of Pontius Pilate. The continuation of the text relates that the Roman soldiers mocked and tortured Jesus, then led him to the place of crucifixion:

Mark 15:17 And they clothed him in a purple cloak, and plaiting a crown of thorns they put it on him. 15:18 And they began to salute him, “Hail, King of the Jews!” 15:19 And they struck his head with a reed, and spat upon him, and they knelt down in homage to him. 15:20 And when they had mocked him, they stripped him of the purple cloak, and put his own clothes on him. And they led him out to crucify him.[16]

When they arrive at Golgotha, the Roman soldiers crucify him and divide his belongings among themselves:

Mark 15:24 And they crucified him, and divided his garments among them, casting lots for them, to decide what each should take. 15:25 And it was the third hour, when they crucified him. And the inscription of the charge against him read, “The King of the Jews.”[17]

Later Mark mentions a “centurion” (κεντυρίων) who oversaw the execution and reported back to Pilate (Mark 15:39, 44–45), a Latin loanword (kenturiōn)[18] which underscores that he means a Roman official. Matthew (27:62-66, 28:11-15) adds that Pilate ordered a squad of Roman soldiers (koustōdia, κουστωδία) to guard Jesus’ tomb, using a Latin loanword again: custodia, “watch, guard.” These soldiers were also responsible to Pontius Pilate (cf. Matthew 28:14).[19]

A Logical Inconsistency in the Passion Narrative

Mark’s scene in which the Roman soldiers mock and torture Jesus in the praetorium is in profound tension with the previous scene, in which Pilate is unwilling to sentence Jesus, and makes several attempts to save his life before caving into the pressure of the Jewish crowd against his better judgment. If Roman soldiers mock and torture Jesus in Pilate’s own residence, it is certain that this is in accord with his wishes. And yet, Pilate is depicted as being troubled by the need to condemn Jesus, saying explicitly that he finds no fault in the man.[20]

Moreover, what is described here is not the spontaneous kicking and spitting we find earlier in the court of the chief priests, but a coordinated program of humiliating Jesus, the charismatic leader of a significant number of Jews, as “king of the Jews,” complete with props: the crown of thorns and the purple garment. Neither the chief priests nor the Jewish crowd is said to have forced Pilate to engage in such a humiliation campaign.

This “brutal” image of Pilate probably corresponds to historical reality. “Crucifixion is, first of all, crowd control,” as Paula Fredriksen argues.[21] Jesus’ execution was a public show of violence planned by Roman decision-makers and carried out by Roman soldiers to convey a message to the Jewish crowds gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate Passover: Jesus of Nazareth, their hero, the holy man, the miracle-maker, and Messianic candidate, was no match for the power of Rome. The goal was to kill Jesus and the myth of Jesus at the same time. Those passers-by, who ridiculed Jesus for his inability to save himself from the cross probably got the message right (cf. Mark 15:29-32).[22]

Mark inherited the story and included these famous scenes of torture in his gospel, but at the same time, he wished to shift at least some of the blame for the execution from the Roman procurator to the Jews, so he added the scene in which Pilate states that he doesn’t think Jesus is guilty of anything, and the fictional account of agreeing to free a prisoner—again, there is no evidence that Roman procurators had such a practice—with the crowd preferring Barabbas. In doing so, he created a tension in his gospel between the vicious Pilate and the sensitive Pilate.

 

This tension exists in an even starker format in the Gospel of Matthew, but other retellings of the passion narrative tried to solve the problem, leading to three main solutions:

Luke—The soldiers of Herod Antipas, the Jewish ruler of Galilee, mock Jesus, not the soldiers of Pilate.

John—Pilate orders his soldiers to mock and torture Jesus before sentencing Jesus to death, to try to make the Jewish crowd pity the suffering Jesus.

Post-NT narratives—the Jewish crowd and/or Jewish guards mock and torture—and even crucify!—Jesus.

Luke: Herod Antipas Was Responsible

In Luke’s version of the story, Pilate learns that Jesus is of Galilean origin:

Luke 23:5 But they (=the chief priests) were insistent and said, “He stirs up the people by teaching throughout all Judea, from Galilee where he began even to this place.” 23:6 When Pilate heard this, he asked whether the man was a Galilean.[23]

Galilee was not under direct Roman rule in those days, but was governed by Herod Antipas (ruled 4 B.C.E.–39 C.E.), the son of Herod the Great, and Pilate sees an opportunity to get rid of the unpleasant task of judging Jesus:

Luke 23:7 And when he learned that he was under Herod’s jurisdiction, he sent him off to Herod, who was himself in Jerusalem at that time.[24]

Jesus is brought in front of Herod Antipas, but the Galilean tetrarch does not sentence him guilty or non-guilty; he rather demands a miracle from him, and when Jesus refuses to do so, he mocks him, but then refuses to condemn him to death. It is at this point that Herod Antipas and his soldiers—he had a Hellenistic mercenary army recruited from various territories—mock Jesus and dress him in “an elegant robe”—a reimagining of the “purple cloak” in Mark:

Luke 23:11 Even Herod with his soldiers treated him with contempt and mocked him; then he put an elegant robe on him and sent him back to Pilate.[25]

Luke’s narrative has no parallel to the crown of thorns, and to the other details of the Roman soldiers’ mocking Jesus.[26] Luke gives only a nod to the mocking Jesus tradition, and even this is done by the Jewish tetrarch not the Roman procurator.[27]

John: Torture as a Ploy

The author of the Gospel of John (turn of the 1st cent. C.E.) solved the problem by rearranging the sequence of the events of the passion narrative. In this telling, Pilate has Jesus tortured and humiliated after the Jewish crowd chooses Barabbas, but before his fate is sealed:

John 19:1 Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged. 19:2 And the soldiers wove a crown of thorns and put it on his head, and they dressed him in a purple robe. 19:3 They kept coming up to him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” and striking him on the face.[28]

Pilate then returns to the crowd and says he thinks Jesus is innocent of wrongdoing altogether:

John 19:4 Pilate went out again and said to them, “Look, I am bringing him out to you to let you know that I find no case against him.” 19:5 So Jesus came out wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. Pilate said to them, “Behold the man!”[29]

Thus the Roman soldiers mock Jesus on the order of Pilate in this gospel, just as in Mark (and Matthew), but the scene is moved to the middle of the trial suggesting that it was, as Raymond Brown argued, “arranged by Pilate as a ploy to win the sympathy of ‘the Jews’ for a Jesus thus pitiably disfigured.”[30] In other words, John suggests that Pilate’s purpose in mocking Jesus was to save him, but this ploy has no effect on the chief priests and the Jewish crowd, who demand Jesus be executed:

John 19:6 When the chief priests and the police saw him, they shouted, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” Pilate said to them, “Take him yourselves and crucify him; I find no case against him.” 19:7 The Jews answered him, “We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die because he has claimed to be the Son of God.”[31]

Pilate interrogates Jesus again, and tries yet again to get the Jews to allow him to set Jesus free, but the Jews actually claim that this would express disloyalty to Caesar:

John 19:12 From then on Pilate tried to release him, but the Jews cried out, “If you release this man, you are no friend of Caesar. Everyone who claims to be a king sets himself against Caesar.” 19:13 When Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus outside… 19:14 …He said to the Jews, “Here is your King!”

19:15 They cried out, “Away with him! Away with him! Crucify him!” Pilate asked them, “Shall I crucify your King?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but Caesar.” 19:16 Then he handed him over to them to be crucified. They took Jesus.[32]

As J. Ramsey Michaels says in his commentary on John (ad loc.):

“To them” can only refer to “the Jews” (v. 14), or “the chief priests” (v. 15). In spite of the clear implication that crucifixion was a Roman and not a Jewish method of execution (see 18:32), we now learn that “the Jews” will crucify Jesus after all![33]

Contradictory Claims in the Gospel of John

This scene is contradicted when John describes the crucifixion, and we hear again the familiar claim that it was the soldiers who did it:

John 19:23 When the soldiers had crucified Jesus, they took his garments and made four parts, one for each soldier; also his tunic.[34]

The German scholar Rudolf Bultmann (1884–1976)—a major figure in New Testament theology and interpretation—proposed a solution to this problem akin to what proponents of the Documentary Hypothesis propose for the Pentateuch: the author of the gospel seamed together two different sources here.[35] In the source “to them” and “they” referred to the Roman soldiers, who took over Jesus from Pilate and executed him, just as we read in Mark. John copied this sentence carelessly, after mentioning the Jews, and thus he created the false impression that the Jews and not the Roman soldiers took Jesus over from Pilate.

Blaming the Jews Entirely

The third solution entailed a more radical revision of the passion narrative than the previous ones: the mocking and crucifixion of Jesus was attributed entirely to the Jews: If Jesus was mocked by the Jewish crowd, and not by Pilate’s soldiers, then the logical inconsistency of the archaic passion narrative disappears. This solution has a long and complicated story. Its roots go back to the New Testament.

“You Crucified Jesus” – Peter’s Rhetorical Hyperbole

In the Acts of the Apostles—the second part of the Gospel of Luke which describes what happens with Jesus’ followers after the crucifixion—Peter, Jesus’ chief disciple, charges his fellow Jews with crucifying Jesus by handing him over to the Romans:

Acts 2:22 Fellow Israelites, listen to what I have to say: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know—2:23 this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law.[36]

Peter ends the speech with the phrase, “this Jesus whom you crucified.”[37]

“Jews Killed Jesus”: A Redaction in 1 Thessalonians?

The claim that the Jews killed Jesus appears in Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, one of the earliest texts in the New Testament. Notably, the claim does not occur in a narrative about Jesus’ death, but in a speech addressed to a group of followers in Thessalonica.

The anti-Jewish sounding sentiment in the passage is surprising, given that Paul, himself a Jew, believed that Israel’s disbelief in Christ was only temporary, and that Israel would accept Jesus as Messiah in future and thus “all Israel will be saved” (Romans 11:26). But note the phrases in bold which sound like they come from a time after Paul:

1 Thess 2:14 For you, brethren, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus which are in Judea; for you suffered the same things from your own countrymen as they did from the Jews, 2:15 who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out, and displease God and oppose everyone 2:16 by hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles that they may be saved—so as always to fill up the measure of their sins. But God’s wrath has come upon them at last![38]

The last line sounds like a reference to the destruction of the Second Temple, and would thus be a later interpolation into Paul’s epistle since Paul died before the Temple was destroyed. If this is correct, the interpolator was working with anti-Semitic discourses prevalent in the Roman Empire following the Great Rebellion (66–73/4 C.E.).

As Martin Goodman argues, the Flavian emperors, Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian, attempted to legitimize their power by exaggerating the importance of the Jewish revolt against Rome, which they crushed.[39] In this context, Jews were referred to as the enemies of the empire, or of all humanity,[40] which suggests that the other bolded passage—that the Jews “oppose everyone”—is also a later addition.[41] The same may be true of the remark that “[Jews] killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets.”[42] We do not know when this interpolation was added, but it fits with the perspective we see develop in the second century in another work.

Tatian’s Diatessaron Revises the Narrative

The shift toward seeing Jews as directly responsible for crucifying Jesus appears in the work of Tatian, an important Christian theologian of the second century C.E., who lived outside the borders of the Roman Empire. He composed the “Diatessaron”—meaning “[one] out of the four [gospels]”[43]—which harmonized the texts of the four canonical gospels. It is not certain whether Tatian wrote the Diatessaron in Greek or Syriac—a dialect of Eastern Aramaic[44]—but the latter version became a dominant tradition in Syriac churches through the middle of the fifth century.[45]

In recounting when Pilate condemns Jesus to death following the Jewish crowd’s demand that he free Barabbas and crucify Jesus, the Diatessaron combines John 19:16, Luke 23:25, Mark 15:15 and 15:20. Significantly, it adds the word “Jews” to the mixture based on the “to them” in John 19:19 which may be taken as referring to Jews:

Diatessaron 51:6 And he [i.e. Pilate] delivered Jesus up for the sake of crucifixion according to their desire […] 51:15 And the Jews took Jesus and they went out in order to crucify him.[46]

John, as noted, is ambiguous, since it includes a scene later in which the Roman soldiers are depicted as having crucified Jesus. The author of the Diatessaron probably believed that John 19:16 refers to the same event as Mark 15:15. Therefore, the soldiers who took over Jesus from Pilate were identified as the Jewish soldiers of the high priests and the rest of the narrative was read on the assumption that “officers” mean “Jewish officers” everywhere.[47]

The claim that the Jewish crowd mocked Jesus was partly the result of translation: Mark has Pilate handing Jesus over to a “cohort” (speira), that is a Roman military unit. Syriac, however, had no such technical term, and rendered cohort as כנשא (ܟܢܫܐ) kenšā, “crowd,”[48] thus removing the Roman cohort from the picture and leaving Jesus in the hands of the Jewish crowd.

Moreover, once Christianity spread outside the Roman Empire, new communities emerged who were less familiar with Roman jurisprudence and governance. The same is true of later authors writing after the fall of the Roman empire. These Christians would not have known that crucifixion was a Roman and not a Jewish method of execution. They would also have been unfamiliar with the duties and prerogatives of the Roman governors in the provinces, and would have not understood Latin military terminology, including the terms “centurion,” “cohort,” and “praetorium.”

Revising Mark: The Syriac and the Arabic Translations

The depiction of the Jews as having crucified Jesus was adopted by some translations of the Gospel. This is the case with the oldest Syriac translations. The so-called Old Syriac version of the four gospels probably originated from the Diatessaron in the third century in Mesopotamia. The author(s) of the Old Syriac gospels “separated” the four canonical gospels out of the Diatessaron. As a result, their gospel texts retained many phrases of the Diatessaron, even in cases when they did not provide an accurate translation of the Greek text.[49] Note the words in bold:

Mark 15:15 [Old Syriac trans.] Now Pilate was wishing to do the will of the multitude, and he released to them Bar Abba and delivered up to them Jesus when scourged, that he might be crucified.[50]

The second “to them” is absent in the Greek original; in the context it can refer only to the Jewish crowd, just as the first “to them” does. Thus, the Syriac version states that Pilate released Barabbas to the Jewish multitude and he also delivered Jesus “to them,” that is, to the Jews, so that they crucify him. Thus, the Syriac translator read the Diatessaron’s narrative into the Gospel of Mark.

The text continues:

Mark 15:16 [Old Syriac] And the soldiers carried him along within the court, which is the Praetorium, and called all the cohort [orig. crowd].[51]

The word “cohort” is probably a secondary correction. This Syriac version of Mark was translated to Arabic in the Early Middle Ages (see below), and the Arabic version has “assembly (jamāʿa)” here, which suggests that its Syriac Vorlage read (ܟܢܫܐ) kenšā, “crowd.”[52] A later copyist or reviser probably compared the Syriac version to the Greek original, and replaced “crowd” with “cohort” [ ܐܣܦܝܪ espēr a loanword from Greek σπεῖρα speira “cohort”] on the basis of the Greek text.

The Syriac reader of Mark 15:16 will likely conclude that Pilate delivered Jesus to the Jews (verse 15), and therefore, the officers who took Jesus were not Roman but Jewish soldiers after all, perhaps the guards of the Temple, or the soldiers of Herod Antipas mentioned by Luke. We will see below that Syriac Christian writers in Late Antiquity indeed understood the text in this way.

The same line of interpretation was followed by an early medieval Arabic translation of the scene in Mark in which Pilate turns Jesus over to be executed:

Mark 15:15 [Medieval Arabic trans.] And Pilate wished to comply with the demands of the crowd (al-maḥafil) and to follow their desire, so he released Barabbas to them and also delivered Jesus to them (ʾilayhim), after having him castigated, so that he might be crucified.

The text adds a detail that doesn’t appear in the Greek text of Mark, that Pilate handed Jesus over “to them,” i.e., the Jewish crowd, following the Gospel of John and the Syriac version.

15:16 The guards (šurṭa) took him to the court of the judgment (raḥbat al-qada) and called together all the assembly (jamāʿa)”[53]

Here too, we have authorities, but instead of “soldiers,” who are necessarily Roman, we have “guards,” which in context probably means Jewish guards, those who served the chief priests. Also, like what has been suggested regarding the Syriac Diatessaron, instead of a “cohort” of Roman soldiers, we have the general term “assembly,” ostensibly synonymous with the Jewish crowd mentioned earlier.

Finally, these events all take place not in the praetorium of the governor, but in a court of judgment, a more general term meant, in this context, to imply a Jewish tribunal. Indeed, in some early medieval Greek manuscripts, the phrase “of Caiaphas”—the Jewish high priest—is added after the word “palace” in Mark 15:16.[54] Thus, in these manuscripts the headquarter of the Roman governor was changed into the house of the Jewish high priest!

Influence on the Jewish Retelling in Babylonia

Returning to the Talmud, the Hebrew text of the baraita was likely based on a Syriac source text stating that Jesus was crucified by the Jews.[55] The Syriac source was, as Peter Schäfer argues, probably the Diatessaron.[56] Apparently, the Sassanian rabbis adopted the generally accepted narrative about Jesus’ death and, instead of denying it, adjusted it so that it fit with what they considered to be correct halakhic procedure by having him stoned first.[57]

So too, the Manichaeans—a gnostic group in Sassanian Babylonia who followed the prophet Mani, but revered Jesus as an important figure— followed the Diatessaron in claiming that the Jews killed Jesus. It fit well with the Manichaeans worldview that the demonic Law/Torah of the wicked creator god, who was worshiped by the Jews, sentenced the Savior to death.[58] Indeed, the Manichaean acceptance of this version may have influenced the rabbis of the Talmud.

Notably, the Jerusalem Talmud, and other rabbinic texts composed in the land of Israel, do not transmit the story of the Jews crucifying Jesus. Jews living in the Roman Empire were probably less influenced by the Syriac Diatessaron, and certainly were more familiar with Roman punitive practices and administrative-military terminology than the inhabitants of Sassanian Babylonia.

The Crown of Thorns and the Jews

In addition to the crucifixion, later retellings also cast the Jews as the aggressors in the mocking and torture scene. St. Ephrem the Syrian (306–373) was one of the most important figures in the Syriac church. His hymns on the crucifixion (4th cent. C.E.)[59] claim that the Jews were responsible for the “mocking scene,” when Jesus is crowned with thorns.[60]

Similarly, a 6th/7th century C.E. Syriac work known as The Cave of Treasures, which narrates the history of the world from the creation of Adam and Eve to the time of Jesus, states that the Jewish nation had been granted three gifts: prophecy, priesthood, and kingdom, but all the three of them were taken away on the day of Christ’s passion due to their involvement in the crucifixion:

Prophecy because of the cross, priesthood because of the rending of the tunic [of Christ],[61] and royalty because of the crown of thorns.[62]

Although the thorns are attributed to Pilate’s men in the gospels,[63] these texts assume that the Jews had not only crucified Jesus but mocked him by putting a crown of thorns on his head.[64] This retelling began in the east, in the Syriac tradition, but made it to the Latin west as well. Thus, Lactantius (4th cent. C.E.), an important Latin theologian in the new imperial capital of Constantinople, incorporated a similar narrative about Jews mocking and killing Jesus into his Divine Institutes.[65]

Later Retellings Based on the Diatessaron

This retelling of the mocking and torture scene also appears in vernacular versions and paraphrases in medieval Europe. The medieval Dutch Liège Diatessaron[66] also replaces the “cohort” of Roman soldiers with the “people,” presumably Jews, who were present at the trial:

Pilate handed him over to his soldiers and those who were with him that they should crucify him. When Jesus had been handed over to those soldiers and sergeants, they took him and led him back into the courtroom and gathered all the people around him, and stripped him of his clothes and put on him a robe of purple, and hung on him a mantle of yellow samite and plaited a crown of thorns and put it on his head [etc.][67]

In other words, Jesus is taken over by both the governor’s soldiers and others “who were with him,” and then the soldiers gather not “all the cohort” around him, as we read in the canonical gospels, but “all the people around him.” Thus, the Middle Dutch translation of the Diatessaron and the reconstructed Syriac Diatessaron diverge from the text of the canonical gospels in the same way: the “cohort” of Roman soldiers is turned into the crowd of the Jews.

St. Augustine’s Roman Reading Mitigates the Accusation

Augustine (354–440) was one the most influential theologians in the Western tradition; he was thoroughly familiar with Roman law, and as the bishop of Hippo, regularly acted as a judge.[68] For Augustine, the Roman governor was first and foremost a judge, and deciding criminal cases was one of his most impor

tant duties. In line with this approach, Augustine explains that even though a sentence in John’s gospel seems to suggest that Jews took over Jesus from Pilate (John 19:16, see above), in fact, Roman soldiers did so:

Augustine, Tractatus in Joannis Evangelium 116.9 For it was not said, “Then therefore he delivered him up to them,” [John 19:16a] that they might crucify him, but “to be crucified,” that is, to be crucified by the judgement and power of the governor. But the Evangelist says that he was delivered up to them for the reason that they were implicated in the crime from which they were trying to be disassociated, for Pilate would not do this unless he would carry out what he saw that they desired.

But what follows, “And they took Jesus and led him out,” [John 19:16b] can be referred to the soldiers, the governor’s attendants. For afterwards it is more clearly said, “the soldiers therefore when they crucified him.” [John 19:23] Although, even if the Evangelist attributes all of it to the Jews, he does it rightly; for they themselves took what they most passionately demanded, and they themselves did whatever they exhorted to be done.[69]

The crucifixion took place by the “judgement and the power of the governor” (judicio ac potestate praesidis), Augustine writes, irrespective of Pilate’s alleged personal sympathy for Jesus or his personal weakness in allowing himself to be manipulated.[70] The idea that the governor would simply let the mob lynch a suspect must have seemed rather implausible for anyone familiar with Roman law.

This Augustinian passage is summarized in the standard medieval Latin biblical commentary, the Glossa Ordinaria on John 19:16 and thus, it was widely known in the Latin West during the Middle Ages and afterwards.[71] Although Augustine made use of harsh anti-Jewish rhetoric in his works, including the rhetorical claim of deicide, his hewing to the simple meaning of the gospels tempered the full claim of Jewish responsibility for the death of Jesus. This may have helped stop the Diatessaron tradition from taking hold in Latin Christianity throughout the Middle Ages.[72]

Pilate wearing a Jewish hat. Liege Psalm, 13th cent.

In an ironic twist, medieval and early modern Christian artists attempted to bridge the gap between the Augustinian statement that the Roman authorities sentenced and executed Jesus, and the popular belief that Jews killed Jesus, by representing Pilate himself as a Jew.[73]

Published

April 18, 2024

|

Last Updated

June 17, 2024

Footnotes

View Footnotes

Prof. Tamás Visi is an Associate Professor at the Kurt and Ursula Schubert Centre for Jewish Studies at Palacky University (Olomouc, Czech Republic). He earned his doctorate with a dissertation on the early Ibn Ezra supercommentaries at the Central European University in Budapest in 2006. In 2012 he was a Fellow of the Institute for Advanced Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Recent publications: “The Chronology of John the Baptist and the Crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth: A New Approach,” Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus 18 (2020): 3-34; “Berechiah ben Naṭronai ha-Naqdan’s Dodi ve-Nedi and the Transfer of Scientific Knowledge from Latin to Hebrew in the Twelfth Century,” Aleph 14.2 (2014): 9-73; “Ibn Ezra, a Maimonidean Authority: The Evidence of the Early Ibn Ezra Supercommentaries,” in James T. Robinson (ed.), The Cultures of Maimonideanism (Leiden: Brill, 2009), 89-131.