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The Death of Christ as a Historical Event

General Audience — September 28, 1988

We profess our belief in the central truth of Jesus Christ's messianic mission: he is the Redeemer of the world through his death on the cross. We profess it in the words of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, according to which Jesus Christ "for our sake was crucified under Pontius Pilate, suffered death and was buried." In professing this faith we commemorate Christ's death as an historical event, which, like his life, is made known to us by sure and authoritative historical sources. On the basis of these sources we can and we desire to know and understand the historical circumstances of that death, which we believe to have been "the price" of human redemption in all ages.

First of all, what were the circumstances that led to the death of Jesus of Nazareth? How does one explain the fact that he was handed over to death by the representatives of his nation, who delivered him to the Roman procurator, whose name, recorded by the Gospels, is mentioned in the creeds of the faith? For the present let us seek to recall the circumstances which, humanly speaking, explain the death of Jesus. The evangelist Mark, describing Jesus' trial before Pontius Pilate, notes that he was delivered by the chief priests "out of envy," and that Pilate was aware of the fact: "For he perceived that it was out of envy that the chief priests had delivered him up" (Mk 15:10). We may ask: why this envy? We can find its roots in their resentment not only for what Jesus taught, but also for the manner in which he did so. If as Mark says, he taught "as one having authority, and not as the scribes" (Mk 1:22), this must have made him appear to the latter as a threat to their prestige.

We know that there was conflict already at the beginning of Jesus' teaching in his native town. Speaking in the synagogue, the thirty-year-old Nazarene indicated that he was the one in whom Isaiah's announcement of the Messiah was fulfilled. This caused a sense of wonder in his hearers, and later provoked them to wrath. They wished to throw him down headlong from the brow of the hill "on which their city was built...but passing through the midst of them he went away" (Lk 4:29-30).

This incident was only the beginning; it was the first signal of subsequent hostility. Let us recall the principal examples. When Jesus claimed to have the power to forgive sins, the scribes regarded this as blasphemy, because only God has such power (cf. Mk 2:6). When he worked miracles on the sabbath day, asserting that "the Son of Man is lord of the sabbath" (Mt 12:8), the reaction was similar. Already from that time their intention to kill Jesus was evident (cf. Mk 3:6). "They sought to kill him...because he not only broke the sabbath, but also called God his Father, making himself equal with God" (Jn 5:18). What else could be the meaning of the words, "Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I Am" (Jn 8:58)? His hearers knew very well the meaning of that "I Am." Therefore Jesus again ran the risk of being stoned. This time, however, Jesus "hid himself, and went out of the temple" (Jn 8:59).

The fact that eventually brought things to a head and led to the decision to kill Jesus was the raising of Lazarus from the dead in Bethany. John's Gospel informs us that at the subsequent meeting of the Sanhedrin it was stated: "This man performs many signs. If we let him go on thus, every one will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation." In view of these forecasts and fears Caiaphas, the high priest, said to them, "It is evident that one man should die for the people and that the whole nation should not perish" (Jn 11:47-50). The evangelist adds, "He did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus should die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the children of God, who are scattered abroad." And he concludes, "So from that day on they took counsel how to put him to death" (Jn 11:51-53).

In this way John informs us of the twofold aspect of the position adopted by Caiaphas. From the human point of view, which could be more accurately described as opportunist, it was an attempt to justify the elimination of a man regarded as politically dangerous, without caring about his innocence. From a higher point of view, made his own and noted by the evangelist, Caiaphas' words, independently of his intention, had a truly prophetic content regarding the mystery of Christ's death according to God's salvific plan.

Here let us consider the human development of the events. In that meeting of the Sanhedrin a decision was taken to kill Jesus of Nazareth. They took advantage of his presence in Jerusalem during the paschal feasts. One of the Twelve, Judas, betrayed Jesus for thirty pieces of silver, by indicating the place where he could be arrested. They seized Jesus and brought him before the Sanhedrin. To the vital question of the high priest, "I adjure you by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God," Jesus replied, "You have said so" (Mt 25:63-64; cf. Mk 14:62; Lk 22:70). In this statement the Sanhedrin saw an evident blasphemy, and decreed that Jesus was "guilty of death" (Mk 14:64).

The Sanhedrin, however, could not carry out the sentence without the consent of the Roman procurator. Pilate was personally convinced that Jesus was innocent, and indicated that several times. After having opposed an uncertain resistance to the pressures of the Sanhedrin, he at last gave in for fear of risking the disapproval of Caesar. He did this all the more so because the crowd also, urged on by those in favor of Jesus' elimination, now cried out for his crucifixion. "Crucify him!" Thus Jesus was condemned to death by crucifixion.

Historical responsibility for Christ's crucifixion rests with those mentioned in the Gospels, at least in part, by name. Jesus himself said so when he told Pilate during the trial, "He who delivered me to you has the greater sin" (Jn 19:11). Another passage also says, "The Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that man if he had not been born" (Mk 14:21; Mt 26:24; Lk 22:22). Jesus alluded to various persons who, in different ways would be responsible for his death: Judas, the representatives of the Sanhedrin, Pilate and the others. In his discourse after Pentecost, Simon Peter will also charge the leaders of the Sanhedrin with the killing of Jesus: "You crucified and killed him by the hands of lawless men" (Acts 2:23).

However, this accusation cannot be extended beyond the circle of people really responsible. We read in a document of the Second Vatican Council: "True, the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ; still, what happened in his passion cannot be charged against all Jews without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today" (NA 4).

As for the consciences of those individuals who were responsible, we must remember Christ's words on the cross: "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do" (Lk 23:34). There is an echo of these words in another of Peter's discourses after Pentecost: "And now, brethren, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers" (Acts 3:17). What a sense of reserve before the mystery of the human conscience, even in the case of the greatest crime committed in history, the killing of Christ!

Following the example of Jesus and Peter, even though it is difficult to deny the responsibility of those who deliberately brought about the death of Christ, we too shall view things in the light of God's eternal plan. God asked from his beloved Son the offering of himself as a victim for the sins of all humanity. In this higher perspective we realize that, because of our sins, we are all responsible for Christ's death on the cross: all of us, to the extent that through sin we have contributed to causing Christ's death for us as a victim of expiation. In this sense also we can understand Jesus' words, "The Son of Man is to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him, and he will be raised on the third day" (Mt 17:22).

Christ's cross is for all, therefore, a realistic reminder of the fact expressed by the Apostle John in the words: "The blood of Jesus, his Son, cleanses us from all sin. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us." (1 Jn 1:7-8). Christ's cross is a call to each one of us that is both merciful and demanding. It is a call to recognize and confess our guilt and to live in the truth.