If the Romans Killed Jesus Should We Blame Italians?
On a recent walk, I ventured into a church to rest. Sitting quietly in the nave, I admired the large stained-glass windows glowing in the midday sun. Conspicuously positioned beneath the windows to attract light and attention were sculpted statues of the fourteen stations of the cross depicting Jesus from his trial to his tomb. The large and prominent sculptures lined the outer isles’ walls – seven on each side of the nave – just a little above eye level. They were hard to miss.
As I looked closer – squinting in the bright light from the windows mixed with shadow and hue – a grey foreboding filled my soul. The Roman soldiers were leading Jesus through the streets of Jerusalem, each dressed in red uniforms with gold helmets distinguishing them from the angry mob in the processional beating Jesus with their clenched fists. The violent crowd was depicted with hooked noses and eyes filled with violence. A few even had horns. Others had long white beards and held scrolls. These were obviously Jews. In a few of the scenes, the Roman soldiers are actually protecting Jesus from the Jewish throng. Jesus is depicted with light skin and blonde hair, making him look like, well, a Christian.
As I stood motionless in the afternoon sun viewing the antisemitic scenes plastered – literally – on the church walls, I had the sudden inclination that here I was in a Roman Catholic Church pinning the murder of Jesus on Jews for a crime Rome committed. I thought, “This has to be the greatest deflection of guilt in the history of the world.”
Since the 2nd century, when church father, Justin Martyr announced that Jews would be perpetually and collectively culpable for crucifying Jesus, the accusation of deicide (the murder of God) has been charged against Jews, causing continual persecution by Christians – think of the crusades, pogroms, expulsions, Inquisitions, and ultimately the Holocaust. Since the days of Justin Martyr, a perpetual misinformation campaign has ensued in both Catholicism and Protestantism, making Jews the scapegoats for the sins of Christians – go figure.
If it wasn’t Jews, who would be responsible for killing Jesus? The killing of Jesus is not a murder mystery. It was Rome that controlled capital punishment. At the time of Jesus, Israel was under the occupation of the Imperial Roman authority and had relinquished the ability to pass down death sentences.
Rome was also weary of Jewish uprisings, especially those inspired by the hope of a Jewish messiah, and used violent force to squash any threat against its occupation of Israel. Jesus’ popularity posed a threat to the Jewish nation, and the concern was the Roman army would act accordingly and, at some point, use violent force – even possibly destroying the temple (See John 11:47-48). This fear was warranted because in 70 A.D., the Romans destroyed the temple and drove most of the Jews from the land.
In some Christian traditions, Pilate and his wife are beatified as saints. Also, the Christian theologian Augustine declared Pilate to have converted to Christianity. In mid-fourth-century Christian art, Pilate is included in paintings with Abraham and the prophet Daniel. But Pilate was no saint. Neither was he an innocent victim – a notion in some Christian circles that Jews somehow coerced him into crucifying Jesus. On the contrary, Pilate was a bloodthirsty sociopath who murdered Jews with reckless abandon. The Jewish philosopher Philo said this about Pilate’s treatment of Jews: “…the briberies, the insults, the robberies, the outrages, and wanton injuries, the executions without trial constantly repeated, the ceaseless and supremely grievous cruelty” (Philo, Embassy to Gaius 10.302). After ten years of causing horror and bloodshed in Israel, Pilate was deposed by the Roman Emperor Vitellius for his reckless cruelty.
So, who do we blame for killing Jesus? According to all the New Testament accounts, Jesus was crucified on a Roman cross – Rome’s preferred method of capital punishment. It was the fifth governor of the Roman province of Judea, serving under Emperor Tiberius, who passed down the sentence of death upon Jesus. His name was Pontius Pilate. It was Roman soldiers who carried out Pilate’s orders by nailing Jesus to a Roman cross. The fact is, the Italians killed Jesus.
But blaming Italians perpetually for deicide is just as ridiculous as blaming Jews. Should we hold Italians guilty for all generations – past, present, and future – for the brutality of Pilate? No. This is because in Jesus’ own testimony, he said, “No one takes it (my life) from me, but I lay it down of my own accord” (John 10:18). As well, the Christian story of redemption is founded on the belief the death of Jesus on a Roman cross was to atone for the sin of humanity. So, we cannot hold Jews responsible for the death of Jesus. Neither can we blame Italians. This is because Christian doctrine – the kind not influenced by Antisemitic church fathers and theologians – places collective responsibility on humanity as a whole. We all, like sheep, have gone astray.
For Christians to deflect their collective guilt upon Jews for killing Jesus makes Jesus a non-Jew, like the one I saw depicted in the sculptures in the church nave just under the stained glass windows. By deflecting blame on Jews for Jesus’ death, he becomes a Christian in solidarity with other Christians who oppose Judaism and Jews. In reality, Jesus was killed by the Romans because he was a Jew.
The church where I viewed the sculptures illustrating the fourteen stations of the cross was built in the early 20th century – long before Vatican II and Nostra Aetate, which declared in part: “What happened in (Jesus’) passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive nor against the Jews of today….The Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures.”
Nostra Aetate has had some success in healing the age-long festering wound caused by a false Christian doctrine that has pinned the death of Jesus on Jews. However, the antisemitic sculptures are still on the church walls influencing one generation after the next to hold Jews in contempt for killing Jesus. Art is a powerful weapon.