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Deicide: The execution of Jesus

Who is/was responsible, according to liberal Christians?

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Liberal theologians' interpretation of Jesus' death:

Religious liberals generally reject the belief that God inspired its the biblical authors to write material that was inerrant. They view the Bible as written by a group of very human individuals, with limited scientific and historical knowledge, who were motivated by a desire to promote their own theological beliefs and those of their religious tradition. The Gospels were not first-hand accounts; they were written in the last quarter of the 1st century CE by Christians who never knew Jesus personally. Liberal theologians study extra-canonical books in addition to the Christian Scriptures. The former are gospels, epistles and other early Christian writings that were never accepted into the official canon. The Gospel of Peter is one example. It also contains a section which deals with the trial and execution of Jesus.

Theologians note that there are many conflicts among the gospels, starting at the point of  Jesus' trial by the Jewish religious court -- the Sanhedrin. There are also conflicts between the gospels and Jewish practice:
bullet The Sanhedrin never met at night.
bullet The idea that they would meet and discuss a capital murder case at the time of Passover is ludicrous.
bullet It was not a Jewish religious offense for an individual to claim to be a messiah. There were a number of Jews in 1st century CE Palestine who announced that they were messiahs without raising the wrath of the court.

One leading liberal theologian, John Dominic Crossan, regards the trials before the Sanhedrin and Pilate as fictional events that never happened. Many of the events connected with Jesus' trial, death and resurrection are seen to be adaptations of passages from the Hebrew Scriptures. He believes that much of the story is not derived from "history remembered" i.e. accurate recollections of speeches and actions by the individuals involved. Some of it was Christian propaganda, which indicated the anger and friction being experienced between various Christian movements and Jewish religious leaders at the time that the gospels were being written. Some was a reflection of developing Christian tradition that was not present in the earliest years of Christianity. A lot of it was "prophecy historicized." This is the technique of taking prophetic passages from the Hebrew Scriptures (a.k.a. Old Testament), spinning a story around them, and inserting them it into a gospel passage. 1

Crossan speculates that after Jesus attacked the moneychangers' tables in the Temple, he was arrested, quickly tried, and quickly executed. There was no group of Jewish leaders inflaming a mob of Jews, demanding that Barabbas be freed and that Jesus be crucified. Pilate would not have been involved; the affair would have been handled at a much lower level by a Roman army officer. There would have been standing orders to routinely execute anyone found causing a major disturbance in Jerusalem near Passover.

The various negative portrayals of the Jews, such as the infamous cry "Let his blood be on us and on our children!" is simply fantasy. It never happened. It is simply Christian propaganda. The passages in the Gospels and Epistles which criticize Jews are primarily a reflection of the conflicts between the emerging Christian movement and the two dozen or so established Jewish traditions -- the Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes, Zealots, followers of John the Baptist, etc. Portraying Pilate as innocent of Jesus' death was a useful ploy, aimed at improving relationships between the various Christian traditions and the Roman empire.

As long as Christianity remained a struggling sect, a reform movement within Judaism, the anti-Judaic passages in the Christian Scriptures were of little importance. They were simply fairly typical examples of inter-faith squabbling. 9 But when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in the late 4th century CE, these same verses developed a sinister character. Christianity was now in a position of power. The passages supplied the theological justification for the persecution of the Jews. And the rest was history.

With no acceptance of responsibility by the Jewish leaders and public in Jesus' death, and with the execution handled solely by the Roman army garrison, there is no logical reason why any 1st century Jews in Jerusalem should be blamed for the death of Jesus. And of course, there is no reason why their children and later descendents should be assessed any responsibility in the act. Nor can any blame be assessed on the present-day Italians, many of whose ancestors were Romans -- the people who were actually responsible for Jesus' death.

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References used:

  1. J.D. Crossan, "Who Killed Jesus: Exposing the roots of Anti-Semitism in the Gospel Story of the Death of Jesus," Harper Collins, (1995) Order from
  2. Steve Schroeder, Review of J.D. Crossan's book "Who Killed Jesus," Booklist, American Library Association, 1995-MAR-1

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 Home > World religions > Judaism > Jesus death > here

or Home > Christianity > Personalities > Jesus > Jesus death > here

or Home > Christianity > Relations with other religions > Jesus death > here

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Copyright 1998, 1999, 2001 & 2003 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 1998-JUN-23
Last update: 2003-SEP-15
Author: B.A. Robinson

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