Bloodguilt

Who killed Jesus?

As mentioned in the last post, many Christians through the ages have laid the guilt for Jesus’ crucifixion squarely at the feet of the Jews.  Passages like the following have been used to justify anti-semitic attitudes:

When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “It is your responsibility!”  All the people answered, “His blood is on us and on our children!” (Matt 27:24-25, NIV)

If my previous speculations about mob hysteria have any validity at all, then these are the words of people who literally don’t know what they’re saying.

It makes me think of the contemporary legal practice of polling the jury, in which the presiding judge asks each of the jurors individually if he or she agrees with the verdict that has already been delivered.  One can only guess what might have happened if Pilate had privately pulled aside each and every member of the crowd and asked, “What crime has Jesus committed that is deserving of death?” and “Are you personally willing to accept responsibility for the murder of this innocent man?”

We have to give Pilate credit for recognizing Jesus’ innocence.  He’s a savvy enough political operator to know that Jesus is the victim of jealousy.  He tries to effect Jesus’ release (his stance is more insistent in Luke 23:13-22), but to no avail.

None of this, however, makes Pilate innocent.  The decision is still his.  He gives in to the crowd for reasons of political expediency.  He’s less concerned with dispensing justice than with keeping things from boiling over; the last thing he wants is for the emperor to question his competence.

But doesn’t his hand-washing suggest a guilty conscience?  Perhaps.  But I would guess Pilate to be perfectly capable of turning his back on the whole matter as another troublesome day at the office.  Indeed, his hand-washing may have more to do with a little incident that only Matthew reports:

While Pilate was sitting on the judge’s seat, his wife sent him this message: “Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him.” (Matt 27:19, NIV)

It would have been unusual for Pilate’s wife to contact him in this way while he was engaged in important official business.  (Imagine a judge receiving a text from his wife when he’s about to pronounce sentence in a media-circus of a trial!)  The dream would have been an ill omen that Pilate would not likely have ignored, and the hand-washing may have been his attempt to appease whatever gods he feared offending.

More importantly overall, however, why would Christians be so concerned to apportion blame for something that was the will of the Father, as Jesus himself so clearly knew?  Yes, the people called bloodguilt upon their heads and upon the heads of their children (which we should probably take as referring more to the children in their household than all subsequent generations).  But it is the same blood of Christ that has cleansed us of sin and broken down the wall of hostility between Jew and Gentile (Eph 2:11-22).

Whatever the political and cultural twists and turns of the road leading to the cross, it is our own sin and hatred that made the cross necessary in the first place.

Who killed Jesus?  In a sense, we did.  And by an inexplicable act of grace, the sentence is life instead of death.