WHO WAS MORE RESPONSIBLE FOR JESUS’ DEATH, THE JEWS OR THE ROMANS?
by Shawn Brasseaux
Israel and the Romans were both liable for Jesus’ crucifixion, as per Psalm 2, King David writing about a millennium beforehand: “ Why do the heathen rage, and the people imagine a vain thing?  The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD, and against his anointed, saying,  Let us break their bands asunder, and cast away their cords from us.” Just to be sure we are interpreting this correctly, we appeal to Acts 4:25-28: “ Who by the mouth of thy servant David hast said, Why did the heathen rage, and the people imagine vain things?  The kings of the earth stood up, and the rulers were gathered together against the Lord, and against his Christ.  For of a truth against thy holy child Jesus, whom thou hast anointed, both Herod, and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles, and the people of Israel, were gathered together,  For to do whatsoever thy hand and thy counsel determined before to be done.”
“Heathen” are Gentiles, non-Jews, and they allied with the Jews (“the people”) against Jesus Christ. While they vehemently hated each other with a passion, they could agree in their rejection of God’s Son. Both Israel and Rome refused to have Him reign over them as universal King. Who was more responsible for Jesus’ death, the Jews or the Romans? If we look solely at these passages, it seems blame is equally divided between them. Yet, the Bible record contains other comments on the subject—and, as Berean Bible students, we should search the Scriptures to enhance our understanding here.
Although the Roman government—Judaean Governor Pontius Pilate representing it in Palestine—directly carried out Jesus’ death penalty itself, it was done so only due to Israel’s insistence. Pilate was determined to free Jesus, as he repeatedly pronounced His innocence (for example, see Matthew 27:23; Mark 15:14; Luke 23:4,14; John 18:38; and John 19:4,6). Yet, the Holy Spirit adds this salient fact: Israel, her apostate religious leaders encouraging her, demanded Pilate kill Christ anyway! The Jews compelled Pilate, going so far as to threaten him with blackmail. John 19:12 paraphrased: “We will report you to Roman Emperor Tiberius Caesar if you do not give us our way in putting ‘King’ Jesus to death!”
Luke 23:22-24: “ And he [Pilate] said unto them the third time, Why, what evil hath he done? I have found no cause of death in him: I will therefore chastise him, and let him go.  And they were instant with loud voices, requiring that he might be crucified. And the voices of them and of the chief priests prevailed.  And Pilate gave sentence that it should be as they required.”
Matthew 27:20-24: “ But the chief priests and elders persuaded the multitude that they should ask Barabbas, and destroy Jesus.  The governor answered and said unto them, Whether of the twain will ye that I release unto you? They said, Barabbas.  Pilate saith unto them, What shall I do then with Jesus which is called Christ? They all say unto him, Let him be crucified.  And the governor said, Why, what evil hath he done? But they cried out the more, saying, Let him be crucified.  When Pilate saw that he could prevail nothing, but that rather a tumult was made, he took water, and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this just person: see ye to it.”
Mark 15:8-15: “ And the multitude crying aloud began to desire him to do as he had ever done unto them.  But Pilate answered them, saying, Will ye that I release unto you the King of the Jews?  For he knew that the chief priests had delivered him for envy.  But the chief priests moved the people, that he should rather release Barabbas unto them.  And Pilate answered and said again unto them, What will ye then that I shall do unto him whom ye call the King of the Jews?  And they cried out again, Crucify him.  Then Pilate said unto them, Why, what evil hath he done? And they cried out the more exceedingly, Crucify him.  And so Pilate, willing to content the people, released Barabbas unto them, and delivered Jesus, when he had scourged him, to be crucified.”
When we consider the sermons of early Acts, the underscoring is on Israel’s killing of Messiah as opposed to Rome’s guilt in the matter. Remember, this is the apostles and preachers speaking as the Holy Spirit gives them utterance.
The Apostle Peter to Israel in Acts 2:22-24,36: “ Ye men of Israel, hear these words; Jesus of Nazareth, a man approved of God among you by miracles and wonders and signs, which God did by him in the midst of you, as ye yourselves also know:  Him, being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain:  Whom God hath raised up, having loosed the pains of death: because it was not possible that he should be holden of it….  Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly, that God hath made the same Jesus, whom ye have crucified, both Lord and Christ.”
Peter to Israel in Acts 3:13-15: “ The God of Abraham, and of Isaac, and of Jacob, the God of our fathers, hath glorified his Son Jesus; whom ye delivered up, and denied him in the presence of Pilate, when he was determined to let him go.  But ye denied the Holy One and the Just, and desired a murderer to be granted unto you;  And killed the Prince of life, whom God hath raised from the dead; whereof we are witnesses.”
Again, Peter in Acts 4:10: “Be it known unto you all, and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom ye crucified, whom God raised from the dead, even by him doth this man stand here before you whole.”
The 12 Apostles to Israel’s apostate religious leaders in Acts 5:27-33: “ And when they had brought them, they set them before the council: and the high priest asked them,  Saying, Did not we straitly command you that ye should not teach in this name? and, behold, ye have filled Jerusalem with your doctrine, and intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.  Then Peter and the other apostles answered and said, We ought to obey God rather than men.  The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom ye slew and hanged on a tree.  Him hath God exalted with his right hand to be a Prince and a Saviour, for to give repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins.  And we are his witnesses of these things; and so is also the Holy Ghost, whom God hath given to them that obey him.  When they heard that, they were cut to the heart, and took counsel to slay them.”
The Prophet Stephen to Israel’s apostate religious leaders in Acts 7:51-54: “ Ye stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Ghost: as your fathers did, so do ye.  Which of the prophets have not your fathers persecuted? and they have slain them which shewed before of the coming of the Just One; of whom ye have been now the betrayers and murderers:  Who have received the law by the disposition of angels, and have not kept it.  When they heard these things, they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed on him with their teeth.” (As the succeeding verses testify, they killed Stephen!)
We recall the Apostle Paul’s sermon in Acts 13:27-29, spoken in the synagogue of Antioch of Pisidia: “ For they that dwell at Jerusalem, and their rulers, because they knew him not, nor yet the voices of the prophets which are read every sabbath day, they have fulfilled them in condemning him.  And though they found no cause of death in him, yet desired they Pilate that he should be slain.  And when they had fulfilled all that was written of him, they took him down from the tree, and laid him in a sepulchre.”
THE FACTOR OF THE AMOUNT OF SPIRITUAL LIGHT REJECTED
In determining whether Israel or Rome was most responsible for Christ’s death, we need to bear in mind a prominent theme in Scripture. The amount of spiritual light rejected is one of the criteria God uses to judge sinners. For instance, read the words of the Lord Jesus Christ in Matthew 11:20-24: “ Then began he to upbraid the cities wherein most of his mighty works were done, because they repented not:  Woe unto thee, Chorazin! woe unto thee, Bethsaida! for if the mighty works, which were done in you, had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.  But I say unto you, It shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon at the day of judgment, than for you.  And thou, Capernaum, which art exalted unto heaven, shalt be brought down to hell: for if the mighty works, which have been done in thee, had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day.  But I say unto you, That it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for thee.”
At the Great White Throne Judgment (Revelation 20:11-15), the unbelieving Gentiles who did not have Christ ministering in their land will have a lesser penalty in the Lake of Fire than the unbelieving Jews who did have Christ preaching and performing miracles in their land. In the case of Christ’s rejection and crucifixion, who had the greater spiritual light? Was it the Jews or the Gentiles? The Hebrew Bible—God’s revelation—was given to Israel not the nations. If anyone should have seen Jesus as fulfillment of the Messianic prophecies contained therein, it should have been the Jews not the Romans. The Romans, like all other Gentiles, had been given over to Satan’s darkness at the Tower of Babel millennia earlier (see Romans 1:18-32; cf. Genesis chapter 11).
“What advantage then hath the Jew? or what profit is there of circumcision? Much every way: chiefly, because that unto them were committed the oracles of God” (Romans 3:1-2). “Who are Israelites; to whom pertaineth the adoption, and the glory, and the covenants, and the giving of the law, and the service of God, and the promises; Whose are the fathers, and of whom as concerning the flesh Christ came, who is over all, God blessed for ever. Amen” (Romans 9:4-5).
“And saying, Sirs, why do ye these things? We also are men of like passions with you, and preach unto you that ye should turn from these vanities unto the living God, which made heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are therein: Who in times past suffered all nations to walk in their own ways. Nevertheless he left not himself without witness, in that he did good, and gave us rain from heaven, and fruitful seasons, filling our hearts with food and gladness” (Acts 14:15-17).
“God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands; Neither is worshipped with men’s hands, as though he needed any thing, seeing he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things; And hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation; That they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him, though he be not far from every one of us: For in him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain also of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring. Forasmuch then as we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art and man’s device. And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men every where to repent: Because he hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead” (Acts 17:24-31).
WHO WAS ISRAEL’S CHIEF RELIGIOUS LEADER?
Thus far, we have discovered that Israel was more responsible for Christ’s death than the Romans. Yet, we can pinpoint one particular person within Israel as leading her rebellion against Him. Read John 19:11: “Jesus answered [Pontius Pilate], Thou couldest have no power at all against me, except it were given thee from above: therefore he that delivered me unto thee hath the greater sin.”
While someone would say this is Judas Iscariot, this does not seem to be the case. True, Judas delivered or betrayed Jesus to the Jewish religious leaders (Matthew 26:14-16,45-50; Matthew 27:3-4; Mark 14:10-11,41-46; Luke 22:1-6,47-48). However, it was the Jewish religious leaders who in turn betrayed Jesus to Roman Governor of Judaea, Pontius Pilate (Matthew 27:1-2; Mark 15:1; Luke 23:1-5,13). “Pilate answered, Am I a Jew? Thine own nation and the chief priests have delivered thee unto me: what hast thou done?” (John 18:35).
Who was the chief religious leader of Israel at the time? It was Caiaphas, the High Priest, the President of the Sanhedrin (Jewish Supreme Court). It was the Sanhedrin that condemned Jesus to death, but since the Jews were subject to Rome, they had to appeal to Roman Governor of Judaea, Pontius Pilate, to carry out the capital punishment of crucifixion.
We gather from chapter 11 of John: “ But some of them went their ways to the Pharisees, and told them what things Jesus had done.  Then gathered the chief priests and the Pharisees a council, and said, What do we? for this man doeth many miracles.  If we let him thus alone, all men will believe on him: and the Romans shall come and take away both our place and nation.  And one of them, named Caiaphas, being the high priest that same year, said unto them, Ye know nothing at all,  Nor consider that it is expedient for us, that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not.  And this spake he not of himself: but being high priest that year, he prophesied that Jesus should die for that nation;  And not for that nation only, but that also he should gather together in one the children of God that were scattered abroad.  Then from that day forth they took counsel together for to put him to death.”
Also, we survey chapter 18 of John: “ Then led they Jesus from Caiaphas unto the hall of judgment: and it was early; and they themselves went not into the judgment hall, lest they should be defiled; but that they might eat the passover.  Pilate then went out unto them, and said, What accusation bring ye against this man?  They answered and said unto him, If he were not a malefactor, we would not have delivered him up unto thee.  Then said Pilate unto them, Take ye him, and judge him according to your law. The Jews therefore said unto him, It is not lawful for us to put any man to death:  That the saying of Jesus might be fulfilled, which he spake, signifying what death he should die.”
Seeing as to Israel had the revelation from the one true God—that is, the Hebrew Bible or our Old Testament Scriptures—the Jews are more accountable for Christ’s death than the Romans. Pagan Rome (Pilate) put Jesus to death, but only after Israel pressured him to do so. While some blame falls on Judas Iscariot the traitor, the chief spiritual leader in Israel was Caiaphas the High Priest. Caiaphas was president of the Sanhedrin, and it was the Sanhedrin that sentenced Christ to death and delivered Him to Pontius Pilate for final condemning and ultimate execution by crucifixion.
SUPPLEMENTAL: GOD SET CHRIST FORTH AS A PROPITIATION
While sinful man (Israel and Rome united) was working with the hope of permanently getting rid of Jesus by killing Him, they were in fact fulfilling what the triune Godhead had decreed long before creation: “Ye men of Israel, hear these words; Jesus of Nazareth, a man approved of God among you by miracles and wonders and signs, which God did by him in the midst of you, as ye yourselves also know: Him, being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain:…” (Acts 2:22-23).
According to Romans 3:25, the Pauline revelation, what sinful man did in unbelief, was God allowing rebellious creatures to afford Him the opportunity to offer His only begotten Son as a fully satisfying payment or sacrifice for our sins: “Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God….”
At this point, another important question arises, and we dare not ignore it. If they were fulfilling Bible prophecy, how could God fault Christ’s murderers at all? Were they not accomplishing His will? This is a very interesting inquiry, and we will consider it in the companion study linked below.
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» If they were fulfilling Bible prophecy, how are Christ’s murderers culpable of wrongdoing?
» What is a “propitiation?”
» How could Jesus say His killers knew not what they were doing?
» What are the “sins that are past” in Romans 3:25?
» Why did Jesus offer Himself to Israel if He knew they would reject Him?