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In 1965, as part of the Vatican II council, the Catholic Church published a long-anticipated declaration entitled Nostra Aetate, offering a new approach to the question of Jewish responsibility for the crucifixion of Jesus. The document argued that modern-day Jews could not be held accountable for Jesus’ crucifixion and that not all Jews alive at the time of the crucifixion were guilty of the crime. This was a remarkable step forward in the history of Christian attitudes toward Jews.
Nevertheless, many Jews were disappointed. They had hoped that the Church might say that the Jews had in fact played no role in Jesus’ death.
Indeed, according to most historians, it would be more logical to blame the Romans for Jesus’ death. Crucifixion was a customary punishment among Romans, not Jews. At the time of Jesus’ death, the Romans were imposing a harsh and brutal occupation on the Land of Israel, and the Jews were occasionally unruly. The Romans would have had reason to want to silence Jesus, who had been called by some of his followers “King of the Jews,” and was known as a Jewish upstart miracle-worker.
Jews, on the other hand, lacked a motive for killing Jesus. The different factions of the Jewish community at the time–Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, and others–had many disagreements with each other, but that did not lead any of the groups to arrange the execution of the other allegedly heretical groups’ leaders. It is therefore unlikely they would have targeted Jesus.
But the belief that Jews killed Jesus has been found in Christian foundational literature from the earliest days of the Jesus movement, and would not be easily abandoned just because of historians’ arguments.
The New Testament Account
In the letters of Paul, which are regarded by historians to be the oldest works of the New Testament (written 10 to 20 years after Jesus’ death), Paul mentions, almost in passing, “the Jews who killed the Lord, Jesus” (I Thessalonians 2:14-15). While probably not central to Paul’s understanding of Jesus’ life and death, the idea that the Jews bear primary responsibility for the death of Jesus figures more prominently in the four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, which have slightly different accounts of Jesus’ life.
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