"It is vital that the Passion Play be continued at Oberammergau; for never has the menace of Jewry been so convincingly portrayed as in this presentation of what happened in the times of the Romans. There one sees in Pontius Pilate a Roman racially and intellectually so superior, that he stands out like a firm, clean rock in the middle of the whole muck and mire of Jewry." Adolf Hitler (July 5, 1942)
It is sometimes asserted that even if "the Jews" killed Jesus (as described in John's gospel), that must be a good thing, since it led to the resurrection. But whether any effect is good or bad, responsibility for the crucifixion's cause must be assessed honestly. Further, many post-Vatican II Catholics and liberal Protestants understand "the Jews" as standing in for "all of us." As we will see below, there is profound truth in that corporate responsibility interpretation, but it can never excuse incarnating such universal accountability in any specific group, and certainly not in "the Jews."
Passion (from Latin passio or suffering) is the Christian name for the story of Jesus' execution, from Gethsemane to Golgotha and from Mark to John. Mark is the major source for that story used by Matthew and Luke (historical certitude level: A+). Second, those three gospels are the major source used by John (historical certitude level: B-). In other words, it is quite possible that Mark is the only consecutive source for the entire gospel tradition of Jesus' execution. That raises some obvious questions: Why is everyone so dependent on Mark? Why are there no independent accounts apart from Mark? Therefore, how much of Mark is actual history and how much is parable?
The Problem of Drama
My first faint glimpse of the "problem" of the historical Jesus occurred in 1960 when I saw the Oberammergau passion play in a version unchanged since Hitler saw it in 1930 and 1934. I knew the story, of course, but something happened when I saw it as drama rather than read it as text. At the start of the play, the stage is filled with children, women, and men shouting for Jesus (our Palm Sunday). But by early evening, that stage is filled with that same crowd shouting against Jesus (our Good Friday). No explanation was made for that change, and no reason was evident for why any people were against Jesus.
Furthermore, when the story is staged or screened as drama rather than heard or read as text, that Jewish crowd shouting for the Jewish Jesus; crucifixion takes on a central focus in the narrative. They, rather than Caiaphas or Pilate, seem in charge of the proceedings, responsible for the events, guilty of the results. The anti-Jewish, if not anti-Semitic, potentials in that passion story are emphasized even more on stage or screen than in text or gospel.
The Problem of History
There are profound questions still to be asked about the historical accuracy of that basic passion story: about the shouting crowds, the reluctant Pilate, and the innocent Jesus (as victim rather than martyr). Here, I note just one item. In Mark 15:6-15, "the crowd" comes before Pilate to obtain amnesty for Barabbas and only turn against Jesus when Pilate tries to release him instead. But now watch what happens to that Markan source as the story progresses through the later Gospels. Matthew 27:15-26 first copies Mark's "the crowd" but then enlarges it to "the crowds" and finally to "all the people." Luke 23:13-15 changes Mark to "the chief priests, the leaders, and the people." Finally, John 18:37-40 speaks simply of "the Jews." Recall, of course, that those expansions do not represent independent knowledge but dependent development. "The crowd," in other words, grows exponentially before our eyes. Even if you accept Mark's "crowd" as history (I myself think it parable), it only tells us about that small group who are for Barabbas rather than against Jesus, those who want Barabbas freed and refuse Jesus as his replacement.
The Problem of Theology
Theology is the meaning of history as known by faith. There are three points to be considered in the Christian interpretation of Jesus' execution.
Sacrificial Death. When people give up their lives for others, either as fire-fighters and police officers or as protesters and martyrs, we term those deaths sacrifices. While all life and death is sacred, such deaths are considered particularly sacred. It is bad theology to imagine that God demands such sacrifices, as if, by divine decree.
Vicarious Atonement. It was always possible for martyrs to offer their sacrificial deaths as atonement for the sins of their people. That presumed persecution was sin's divine punishment rather hate's human consequence. During the persecution that led to the Maccabean revolt, the martyr Eleazar asks God to "be merciful to your people, and let our punishment suffice for them. Make my blood their purification, and take my life in exchange for theirs" (4 Maccabees 6:28-29). It is bad theology to presume that persecution is a divine punishment for sin — but, granted that, the proper answer from God to Eleazar is "I accept your gift of martyrdom but reject your theology of retribution."
Divine Retribution. St. Anselm of Canterbury, the medieval theologian, suggested human sinfulness required divine punishment, but since we are inadequate to repay our offenses, only a divine Son of God could substitute for us. In other words, it was not just that humans might offer vicarious atonement but that God demanded it — and demanded it from Jesus. It is bad if not obscene theology to claim that God demands victims rather than permanently offering forgiveness, a gift as consistently present as the air that surrounds us or the gravity that supports us.
The Problem of Reality
There is, however, one very profound reason for maintaining those two preceding solutions. If, historically, it was "the Jews" who forced Pilate to execute a dissident Jewish theologian rather than crucify a religio-political anti-Roman activist, we Christians do not have to face what actually happened.
If, theologically, it was a divine plan where all protagonists, however, are not personally responsible, then we Christians do not have to face what actually happened.
But the reality is that Jesus was officially, legally, and publicly executed by Roman authority — that is, by at least the normalcy and maybe even the cutting edge of civilization in his time. Pilate knew Jesus was not a violent threat, or he would have rounded up and executed many of his closest followers. But Pilate also knew that Jesus was a religio-political opponent of Roman imperialism who had announced the Kingdom of God for this earth in subversive opposition to the Kingdom of Rome. Theologically, then, if we Christians believe that Jesus was the incarnation of God, we must accept that at least the normalcy of civilization and maybe even its cutting edge (then incarnate in the Roman Empire) legally executed him.
We Christians belong to the only world religion whose founder was legally executed. But to avoid facing that, we speak about suffering, as if Jesus had been run over by a chariot and died in accidental agony.
It is surely easier to blame "the Jews" or even God or to emphasize suffering than to face the possibility that the Kingdom of God is on a collision course, not just with the Roman Empire on a bad day, but with the normalcy of civilization on a good day.
In the powerful parable of Matthew 27:19, Pilate's wife sent him this message as he sat in judgment on Jesus: "Have nothing to do with that innocent man, for today I have suffered a great deal because of a dream about him." To continue in parabolic style, I imagine what might have happened when Pilate returned to his private quarters. He told his wife that he had received her advice but had condemned Jesus to death in any case. But, he said, he could not understand.
"Why do these people oppose us? We have brought them law and order. We have brought them peace and prosperity. We have brought them culture and civilization. We have brought them free trade and international commerce. Why do they hate us so?" And his wife said: "Yes dear, it is a puzzlement. But let's have dinner and forget all about it."