As Good Friday comes upon us, one passage of Scripture that bothers many is as follows:
“Now, at the Feast, the Governor was accustomed to grant the people the release of any one prisoner whom they might choose. At that time they had a notorious prisoner called Barabbas. So, when the people had collected, Pilate said to them: “Which do you wish me to release for you? Barabbas? Or Jesus who is called ‘Christ’?” For he knew that it was out of jealousy that they had given Jesus up to him. While he was still on the Bench, his wife sent this message to him–“Do not have anything to do with that good man, for I have been very unhappy to-day in a dream on account of him.” But the Chief Priests and the Councillors persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas, and to kill Jesus. The Governor, however, said to them: “Which of these two do you wish me to release for you?” “Barabbas,” they answered. “What then,” Pilate asked, “shall I do with Jesus who is called ‘Christ’?” “Let him be crucified,” they all replied. “Why, what harm has he done?” he asked. But they kept shouting furiously: “Let him be crucified!” When Pilate saw that his efforts were unavailing, but that, on the contrary, a riot was beginning, he took some water, and washed his hands in the sight of the crowd, saying as he did so: “I am not answerable for this bloodshed; you must see to it yourselves.” And all the people answered: “His blood be on our heads and on our children’s!” The Pilate released Barabbas to them; but Jesus he scourged, and gave him up to be crucified.” (Matthew 27:15-26)
This passage has been used to impute the blame for Jesus’ crucifixion on the Jews. Didn’t they call for his blood to be on their heads? Since the Holocaust, it has become a sensitive subject. Or should it be?
From a purely theological standpoint, it shouldn’t. Jesus Christ died for all of our sins, thus each and every one of us had a hand in putting the nails through his hands and feet. (To solve this problem, click here.) But there is a more immediate explanation of the situation in front of us.
The arrest, conviction and execution of Jesus Christ was as much as political act on the part of the Jewish leadership as anything. To start with, they saw him as a power challenger–“For he (Pilate) knew that it was out of jealousy that they had given Jesus up to him.” In the Middle East, power challengers were and are to be crushed. Beyond that, they feared that he would destabilise the Jew’s complicated situation in the Roman Empire, something that even a political creature like Pilate came to realise wasn’t true: “…he went out to the Jews again, and said: ‘For my part, I find nothing with which he can be charged.’” (John 18:38b)
But the Jewish leadership wasn’t to be deterred, and so they whipped up the crowd, probably with a little money-favouring along the way (a tactic liberals still use.) But even with this degree of control, crowds take on a life of their own.
To illustrate this, a hundred years ago the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire was the “Sick Man of Europe,” and the consequences of its breakup were major subjects of diplomacy and war. (The Iraq War currently going on is one of them.) In 1908, a group of Turkish army officers staged a bloodless coup (that’s where we get our term “Young Turks.”) They forced the Sultan to reconvene a parliament and move towards a constitution. At a speech in Salonika, one of the supporters of this new order had the following interaction with the crowd:
…a speaker told them that “Constitution is such a great thing that those who do not know it are donkeys.” The crowd roared back, “We are donkeys.” When the speaker then said that their fathers had not known it either, the crowd roared again, “We are the sons of donkeys.” (David Pryce-Jones, The Closed Circle)
Besides identifying their political party, the Salonikans showed that, even in modern times, Middle Eastern crowds will say just about anything under the right circumstance. The Jews’ response to Pilate should be seen in that light. That also put Jesus’ words on the Cross in a new light: “Then Jesus said: ‘Father, forgive them; they do not know what they are doing.'” (Luke 23:34) They really didn’t!
Kemal Ataturk eventually managed to get the Turks to accept a constitution, although Turkish men still say that all a man needs to get through life is a horse, a gun and a woman. The Jewish leadership could not hold things together so well, as Jesus predicted. Their balance came unglued, the Temple was destroyed in 70 A.D., and the Jews were scattered without a homeland until 1947, something the State of Israel strives to avoid repeating.