The Romans, Not the Jews, Killed Jesus

By Rabbi Shmuley Boteach
November 28, 2003

The following was recently posted by Ricardo Ben-Safed on Shamash: The Jewish Network, at

Date: Fri, November 28, 2003

Last week the conservative Right in the United States demonstrated its considerable muscle when CBS Television bowed to pressure from outraged Republicans and decided to cancel its controversial TV miniseries about Ronald Reagan. By contrast, American Jews - long accused of controlling the world - can't stop a movie from coming out that says they killed God.

Mel Gibson's movie the The Passion brings to the big screen the New Testament allegation that Jews are possessed of such dark power that they orchestrated the murder of the Creator, something that even Satan was too weak to achieve. Incredibly, many high-profile American Jews have rushed to Gibson's defense, most notably radio host Michael Medved who defends the film because "Gibson emphasizes the Hebraic identity of the Man from Nazareth, a welcome change from the Nordic Messiahs in many previous films."

But I question whether the fact that Gibson's Jesus has dark skin and a big nose is enough to offset the portrayal of Jews as sadistic, deity-murdering devils. But whether or not The Passion will excite anti-Semitism, the film should be opposed because it is a lie. Not the innocent, harmless fiction of the Star Wars variety. No, this is analogous to a movie being based on Thomas of Monmouth's Life of the Martyr William from Norwich which began the blood libel back in the 12th century.

THE ARGUMENT that the Jews, rather than the Romans, killed Jesus, rests on one central, absurd premise, namely that Pontius Pilate tried to save Jesus's life but the Jews demanded that he be executed.

"Pilate said to [the Jews], 'Then what shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?' They all said, 'Let him be crucified.' . so Pilate took water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, 'I am innocent of this man's blood; see to it yourselves.' And all the people answered, 'His blood be on us and on our children' (Matthew 27:22).

These verses are cheap forgeries, contradicted by all serious history of the time and by other verses in the New Testament itself. Pilate was known to be one of the cruelest Roman proconsuls ever. He killed thousands of people on an absolute whim. Philo wrote that Pilate was an "unbending and recklessly hard character. Corruptibility, violence, robberies, ill treatment of the people, grievances, continuous executions without even the form of a trial, endless and intolerable cruelties" were what he was famous for.

In Antiquities, Josephus relates that Pilate's excessive murders and brutality eventually got him recalled to Rome. One can only imagine how villainous a ruler he would have to be for even the brutal Romans to consider him too harsh. The idea that he fought to spare the life of a Jew who allowed himself to be called King of the Jews (Matt. 27:11, Mark 15:2, Luke 23:3) and who was rebelling against Roman authority is not just unreasonable but ridiculous. The further idea that Pilate would take orders from the Jews about who should live and who should die is not just implausible but laughable.

HYAM MACCOBY'S brilliant book The Mythmaker demonstrates how shortly after the death of Jesus a concerted effort was made to curry favor with the Roman authorities by implicating the Jews and exonerating the Romans in Jesus's and his disciples' deaths. But the haphazard and unprofessional editing effort left much of the original and authentic story intact in the New Testament, like the fact that the Pharisees had earlier saved Jesus's life (Luke 13:31), and that the leader of all the Pharisees, Gamliel, saved Peter and the rest of the Apostles from execution by the corrupt High Priest, an appointee and agent of Rome (Acts 5:33-40).

The deliberate effort on the part of New Testament editors to slander the Jews by accusing them of the murderous intentions of others is further evidenced by Paul's story of how the Syrian King Aretus, an ally of Rome, tried to kill him for proselytizing in Damascus and how he was saved by being lowered in a basket (II Corinthians 11:32-33). Amazingly, when the exact same story is retold in the book of Acts (9:22-25), it is now the Jews who are trying to kill Paul.

The great underlying secret of the New Testament, and what its later anti-Semitic falsifiers tried so desperately to bury, was that Jesus hated not the Jews, but the Romans. He tried to overthrow the authority not of the rabbis - among whose number he counted himself - but the Romans, whom he detested and despised for their cruelty and paganism.

In this respect, movies like The Passion that perpetuate the lie that the Jews killed Jesus are worse for Christians than for Jews because they continue to poison Jews against Jesus and Christianity. But by understanding that the Jesus who is depicted as a mutineer who hated his own people is a forgery, and that he never claimed to be a deity but rather an earthly king of the Jews who tried to throw off Roman oppression so as to deliver his people, Jews and Christians might yet meet through the personality of Jesus of Nazareth, even as they both understand him in completely different ways.

The writer, an Orthodox rabbi, is a broadcaster and author of The Private Adam: Becoming a Hero in a Selfish Age.

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