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Questions & Answers

Why was Jesus condemned to death?

Francisco Varo

Tags: Doctrine, Holy Week
Jesus of Nazareth was becoming a more and more controversial figure as his public ministry progressed. The religious leaders in Jerusalem were uneasy about the commotion that had been aroused among the people by the arrival of this teacher from Galilee for the Paschal feast.

The Roman rulers were also uneasy, since at that time there were constant stirrings of rebellion against the Roman occupation, headed by local leaders who appealed to the Jewish sense of identity. The news that had reached them about this new teacher who spoke of preparing for the “kingdom of God” was disturbing.

So both groups were wary of Jesus, though for different reasons.
Jesus was arrested and his case was examined before the Sanhedrin.
It was not a formal trial, and did not follow the requirements later set out in the Mishnah (Sanhedrin IV, 1) which included the rule that proceedings should be held in the daytime. Instead, it was an enquiry held in private houses to examine the accusations received or the suspicions felt about his teaching. Specifically, the enquiry turned on his critical attitude towards the Temple, the messianic reputation that had arisen from his words and deeds, and above all, his reported claims of being equal with God. Rather than the doctrinal questions themselves, perhaps, what the religious leaders were more concerned about was the uprising that all this might provoke against the established authorities. It could give rise to a popular rebellion, which would not be tolerated by the Romans and which could make the political situation even worse than it was at present.

At this stage of the enquiry they handed the case over to Pilate, and the legal dispute over Jesus was brought before the authority of Rome. In Pilate’s presence the Jewish religious leaders raised the fear that anyone who talked about a “kingdom” could be a danger to Rome. The Procurator had two possible resources for dealing with the situation. One of them was coercitio (“punishment, forceful measures”), the authority to take the necessary steps to maintain public order. He could invoke this as authorization to inflict an exemplary punishment on Jesus or even condemn him to death as a warning to others. Or else he could set up a cognitio (“investigation”), a formal process in which an accusation was drawn up, an interrogation was held, and sentence was passed in accordance with the law.

It seems that Pilate hesitated about which procedure to adopt, although finally he opted for the most usual system in the Roman provinces, known as cognitio extra ordinem, or trial in which the Prefect himself determined the proceedings and himself pronounced sentence. This is clear from some apparently incidental details related in the accounts we have: Pilate received the accusations, conducted the interrogation, sat on the judgement-seat to give the sentence (Jn 19:13; Mt 27:19), and condemned Jesus to death on the cross for a formal crime: he was judged and punished as “king of the Jews”, as written on the notice on his cross.

Historical evaluations about Jesus’ trial and condemnation need to be very careful not to fall into hasty generalizations producing unfair conclusions. Specifically, it is always important to note the obvious fact that the Jews are not collectively responsible for the death of Jesus.

“Taking into account the fact that our sins affect Christ himself (cf. Mt 25:45; Acts 9:4-5), the Church does not hesitate to impute to Christians the gravest responsibility for the torments inflicted upon Jesus, a responsibility with which all too often they have burdened the Jews alone”. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 598).

- Simon Legasse, The Trial of Jesus, SCM Press, 1997.
- Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth part 2, Ignatius Press, 2011.