By John W. Welch
Of the numerous things that could be said about the so-called trial and the death of Jesus, I want to emphasize ten personal reﬂections. These ten points center around two perplexing questions: Why was Jesus killed? and Who was responsible? As the world marks this year’s Easter season, it would seem especially appropriate to think about his death, since “for this cause came [he] into the world” (John 18:37).
Reflection 1. Latter-day Saints, and all people, should approach this subject with humility and cautiousness. It will long remain impossible to give a deﬁnitive description of the so-called “trial of Jesus.” Too little is known today about the laws and legal procedures that would have been followed in Jerusalem during the second quarter of the ﬁrst century A.D., and too little is known about all that was done so long ago for any modern person to speak with any degree of certainty about the legal technicalities of this case. As Elder Bruce R. McConkie has written, “There is no divine ipse dixit, no voice from an archangel, and as yet no revealed latter-day account of all that transpired when God’s own Son suffered himself to be judged by men so that he could voluntarily give up his life upon the cross” (Bruce R. McConkie, The Mortal Messiah [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1981], 4:142). We are usually more glib about this subject than we intellectually or spiritually ought to be.
Reflection 2. What is it that makes it so hard to be deﬁnitive about the trial of Jesus? Many things contribute to our perplexities. As just one example, we would like to know more about the legal rules followed by the Sanhedrin in Jesus’ day. Of course, we know much about Rabbinic law from the Talmud, but the Talmud was written later, from the second to the ﬁfth centuries A.D., by the Pharisees or their successors, and so the Talmud presumably reﬂects the rules preferred by the late Pharisaic movement. Moreover, the Pharisees were not in control of the Sanhedrin at the time of Jesus; the Sadducees were decidedly in the majority. And we know that the Sadducees and Pharisees differed on a number of points of law.
We also wonder: Did they or didn’t they really have the authority to execute someone in a case like that of Jesus? The chief priests said to Pilate, “To us is not allowed to kill no one,” as the Greek reads in John 18:31, but we do not know why they lacked such authorization or why they would say this. Many possibilities come to mind. Perhaps they said this because no valid conviction had been reached allowing execution under their own law. Perhaps they were showing voluntary deference to Pilate. Or perhaps they simply needed Pilate’s ratiﬁcation. In any event, it would appear that Jewish people under Roman governance did have power, or at least took the power, to execute people on some occasions, as we see in attempts to kill Jesus in Nazareth or in the case of the woman taken in adultery, or in the deaths of Stephen or John the Baptist, none of which involved Roman authorities.
For reasons like these, it is hard to speak with any degree of certitude about the technicalities, especially any alleged illegalities, in the proceedings involving Jesus. Parenthetically, Protestants in the late nineteenth century so exaggerated the alleged illegalities that their analyses backﬁred, and many people concluded that such a ﬁasco or travesty of justice simply had to be a myth.
More difﬁculties arise from the signiﬁcant differences between the four Gospels. John’s account is very different from the accounts in the synoptic Gospels, and even between the three synoptics signiﬁcant legal differences exist. For example, did the council meet at night, as Matthew and Mark say (which probably would have been illegal), or did they meet only when day came, as in Luke (where that alleged illegality does not arise)? Or what about John, who mentions the council only before the triumphal entry and at least a week before the arrest, but not as a body after the arrest? Matthew and Mark seem to place the ultimate burden on the Romans, since it must have been Roman soldiers who led Jesus away into the Praetorium (Mark 15:16); but in John, Pilate gives Jesus back to the Jews “and they [the Jews it would seem] took Jesus” (John 19:16) and directed the cruciﬁxion with Pilate’s acquiescence.
Harmonizing these four Gospel accounts is possible, but only if one is willing to ignore their different purposes and irreconcilable jurisprudential details. Latter-day Saints are usually not troubled by the technical differences between these four New Testament accounts, but some people are. Jews, especially, are interested in how these texts are interpreted, because the trial of Jesus has been a major cause of antisemitism over the ages. In direct response to that antisemitism, which fueled the Holocaust, Jewish scholars especially have passionately argued that the Jews had nothing to do with the cruciﬁxion of Jesus but that the Romans were completely responsible.
Latter-day Saints accept various versions of important events that do not always agree with each other. We live with four accounts of the Creation, three versions of the Sermon on the Mount, and several accounts of the First Vision. Latter-day Saints also appreciate that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John each had different purposes and various audiences. For example, when writing to the Greeks, Luke never mentions any accusation of blasphemy, which to a Greek would not be consequential. (Indeed, in Greek, blasphemy can simply mean rude speech, and, thus, interestingly, in Luke it is the captors who blaspheme, that is, speak insolently to Jesus.) Matthew, whose purpose is often to show how Jesus prevailed over the Pharisees, is the only Gospel writer to tell the story of the chief priests and Pharisees asking Pilate to secure the tomb in which Jesus was buried, but to no avail.
Reflection 3. Even more problematical is the difﬁculty of determining intent. Why did any of them do it? Why was Jesus killed? Even today, the greatest challenge in modern courts of law is trying to prove a person’s intent. Scholarly prudence and Christian charity behoove us to withhold casting any aspersions and to follow a more cautious, sensitive approach as we attempt to ferret out the motives of Caiaphas, the chief priests, or Pilate.
Actually, one may scan the four New Testament Gospels and ﬁnd precious few explicit indications of what actually motivated any of these people. We may guess, of course, but our guesses are speculations. We may attribute to these people a wide range of political, commercial, social, personal, religious, or legalistic motives; but in most cases the motives that seem the most plausible to us stem from our own retrojections. Thus, it should not surprise us that scholars of the 1970s were quite conﬁdent that Jesus was executed as some kind of supposed guerrilla warrior, while some post-Holocaust Jewish scholars of the 1950s argued that Caiaphas and his temple guards actually took Jesus kindly into protective custody to warn him about the Romans who were out to get him. Obviously, such theories are in tune with the sources of angst of the people who have propounded them.
Latter-day Saints are not immune from such inclinations. According to Ernest L. Wilkinson in 1966, the cause of the atrocious death of Jesus was none other than the concentration of “legislative, executive and judicial powers … in one unit, … in the Great Sanhedrin,” in which Wilkinson expressly saw the ominous specter of Communism.
More commonly, Latter-day Saints assert that Israel’s judges were motivated by hate. In 1915 the work of James E. Talmage portrayed the Sanhedrists as being galvanized against Jesus by “malignant,” “inherent and undying hatred” (James E. Talmage, Jesus the Christ [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1976], 627, 637). But the word hate is not found in any of the trial narratives per se.
Speciﬁcally regarding the motives of these Jews, Matthew and Mark only say that Pilate could tell “that the chief priests had delivered [Jesus to him] out of envy” (Mark 15:10); but notice that this is hearsay. And how did anyone know what Pilate was thinking? In any event, the word envy is not particularly antagonistic. It connotes jealous resentment of someone else’s wisdom or good fortune, but scarcely does this common human emotion amount to lethal hatred.
Pilate’s motivations are equally obscure. Some people see Pilate as a weak, incompetent, middle-management functionary who had recently lost his power base in Rome, who was easily intimidated, and who was manipulated by his wife. But this same Pilate, who usually resided in Caesarea and may have been cautious in handling Jesus in Jerusalem, still held in his hands the highest legal power of Rome in the area. He had not hesitated on other occasions to assert himself, even with military force. Having tried in several ways to get the chief priests to drop their complaint against Jesus, Pilate saw that nothing was working but “that rather a tumult was made” (Matt. 27:24). Physical violence—a riot—was erupting. When he tried to placate the crowd by giving them Barabbas as a “secure pledge,” Pilate may have acted out of desperation, fear for his own safety, or equally out of hope that the crowd would disperse and leave Jesus alone. In fact, in the Joseph Smith Translation, Pilate tells the Jews to leave Jesus alone.
Returning to the point about hate, the Gospel of John makes it clear that the world (not just Pilate or the chief priests) would misunderstand, reject, and hate Jesus, just as it would also hate all of his true disciples. Jesus said: “But me [the world] hateth, because I testify of it, that the works thereof are evil” (John 7:7); “If the world hate you, ye know that it hated me before it hated you” (John 15:18), for “I am not of the world” (John 17:14). In the cosmic conﬂict presented in the Gospel of John, this worldly hate of truth is the theological opposite of divine love; but that antipathy would seem to be too broad to provide a specific legal motive for killing Jesus, for these statements apply to all people, both then and now, who reject Jesus in any way, personally as well as legally.
In response to the question Of what crime was Jesus accused?, there also is no simple answer. Blasphemy, sedition, encouraging tax protesters, and declaring himself a king are all mentioned, but none of these charges really stuck. But then, we are told that Jesus was arrested as a robber, and such outlaws were given no legal rights, let alone a warning or a formal arraignment. Even Pilate had to ask, “What is it these men accuse you of?” No one ever gave a straight answer. The Gospels in the end simply say that he was accused of “many things” (Matthew 27:13; Mark 15:3–4), leaving the legal issue intentionally vague, reminding us that precise, modern pleading practices were not necessarily followed in the ancient world.
The situation is very complicated. It is no wonder that uncertainty was a common reaction of the people to Jesus. At the conclusion of his temple speech on the Feast of Tabernacles, John says, “There was a division among the people because of him” (John 7:43). “Some said, He is a good man: others said, Nay; but he deceiveth the people. Howbeit no man spake openly of him for fear of the Jews” (John 7:12–13).
Reflection 4. When people get confused, they often become afraid. When they become afraid, they act irrationally. Although the factor of fear is rarely mentioned by commentators, fear provides the driving undercurrent that best explains the irregularities and vagaries of the so-called trial of Jesus. It would seem that his trial was not a rational affair. Fear played a much larger role than we have stopped to realize. Sooner or later, everyone is afraid.
People who were sympathetic to Jesus were afraid of the Jewish leaders. The disciples ﬂed from the scene of the arrest out of great fear. Even the powerful Joseph of Arimathaea kept his loyalty to Jesus secret “for fear of the Jews” (John 19:38).
The chief priests also were deeply afraid. They worried that if Jesus became too popular, the Romans would come and take away “our place [the holy city, the temple, or the land] and nation” (John 11:48). But more than that, they feared Jesus. Mark 11:18 clearly states that after Jesus denounced the temple as a den of robbers, they “sought how they might destroy him: for they feared him.”
Their scheme to destroy him, however, seems to have gone quickly awry. After he was arrested, Jesus was treated like a hot potato, being passed spasmodically from one hand to another—hands “of frightened subordinates whose plans had gone astray,” as law professor Dallin H. Oaks wrote in 1969—with no one wanting to take the rap for either his death or his release.
They were not the only ones who were frightened of Jesus. When Pilate heard the words “he has made himself the son of God,” his reaction was fear. John states that Pilate “was the more afraid” (John 19:8). Even Herod the fox was said to fear the crowd.
Moreover, Golgotha, that scene of gruesome death, was a theater of fear. The centurion and those with him, when they felt the earth quake, “feared exceedingly” about what they had done. Phobias are everywhere in this story—far more than people usually think.
Reflection 5. What were these people so afraid of? Above all, they were deeply afraid of the supernatural. Although the followers of Jesus accepted his miracles as manifestations of divine power, those who did not believe that Jesus was the Son of God found those wondrous works disturbing. A common reaction to the miracles of Jesus was fear, for if Jesus worked not by the power of God, he must have been possessed by “Beelzebub, and by the prince of the devils casteth he out devils” (Mark 3:22).
In Matthew 9 we read that Jesus healed a man who had been paralyzed by some kind of stroke. The King James Version of the Bible says that when the people saw this “they marvelled”; but the original Greek says that “they were afraid” (Matt. 9:8). When the multitude saw Jesus raise the son of the widow in Nain and heard the young man speak, their reaction again was sheer terror: “And there came a fear on all,” reads Luke 7:16. Fear of the extraordinary powers of Jesus, which nonbelievers saw as coming from the realm of the occult, explains much that transpired in his trials.
Personal manifestations of miracles or the glorious appearance of supernatural beings would probably evoke fear in most of us. The ﬁrst words of an angel to Zacharias were, “Fear not.” Mary was told by Gabriel, “Fear not” (Luke 1:30), as were the shepherds in the ﬁelds. Even the apostles ran from the angel at the tomb, trembling, “for they were afraid” (Mark 16:8). When those disciples had assembled, the resurrected Lord’s ﬁrst words to them were, “Be not afraid” (Matthew 28:10).
Imagine trying to arrest Jesus. The chief priests could not have undertaken this venture lightly and must have steeled themselves against the unexpected. Jesus was known to have amazing powers. He was a new Moses, and the chief priests were well aware of what Moses had done to Pharaoh and his army. Some of the chief priests had been involved in the attempt to stone Jesus when he “hid himself . . . , going right through the midst of them,” and escaped undetected (John 8:59). With Jesus known as something of an escape artist, people had their hands full trying to take him at the height of his power. It is no wonder they needed to enlist the assistance of one of his closest followers.
If Jesus had the power to command loaves and ﬁshes, to still the waves, to wither ﬁg trees, and to order evil spirits, what powers might he use in defense of himself and his apostles? The raising of Lazarus, only a few days earlier, just over the hill from Jerusalem, brought Jesus’ powers too close to the Holy City. It was then that the chief priests and Pharisees gathered in a council and said, “What do we [do]? for this man doeth many miracles” (John 11:47). This disclosure tells us that the deep root of their concerns was the fact that Jesus worked many miracles. If they were not miracles from God, then Jesus had to be some kind of trickster or sorcerer. Coupling these powers with what they considered to be his incantation against the temple (Mark 14:58) yields a potent formula for fear and trepidation and the need to strike quickly.
Even at his arrest, Jesus continued to call upon his miraculous powers. Jesus told Peter, “Thinkest thou that I cannot now pray to my Father, and he shall presently give me more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matthew 26:53); and when Peter cut off the ear of the high priest’s servant, Jesus “touched his ear, and healed him” (Luke 22:51). Anyone in the group of arresters hearing or seeing these things must have been stunned. Moving forward must not have been easy.
Supernatural factors continue to play a dominant role up to the end of Jesus’ life. People witnessing his cruciﬁxion wondered if Jesus could save himself; they waited to see if the miracle-working Elijah would rescue him from the cross. Although that did not happen, the rocks split apart, graves opened, and holy spirits came forth out of the ground after Jesus’ death (Matthew 27:51–53).
Behind everything lurked a strong undercurrent of fear, albeit misplaced fear, that Jesus was an evil magician. In a signiﬁcant revelation from the Book of Mormon, an angel announced that Jesus Christ would go about “working mighty miracles, such as healing the sick, raising the dead, [and] cast[ing] out . . . evil spirits” (Mosiah 3:5); but “even after all this they shall consider him a man, and say that he hath a devil, and shall scourge him, and shall crucify him” (Mosiah 3:9). In the Book of Mormon, one may well see this as the proximate cause of the death of Jesus: not so much that he posed some kind of political threat, and not that some people disagreed with his doctrines, but that certain key people considered him to be of the devil. Latter-day Saints can relate. In 1879 an article appeared in the Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star comparing the death of Jesus to that of the Prophet Joseph Smith. In both cases, the “chief crime was that he obtained revelations from heaven.” In both cases, divine power had been mistaken for some kind of unacceptable contacts with the supernatural.
Indeed, the chief priests worried to the bitter end that Jesus, whom they called a “trickster” (planos), would rise after three days, as he had prophesied. They worried that this, his last “trick” (planē), would be worse than his ﬁrst. Their concern conﬁrms the Book of Mormon text. Indeed, the word planos, in other early texts such as the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs and the Sybilline Oracles, can mean especially one who deceives through evil powers or spirits and fools even the elect through nature miracles, including churning up the sea or raising the dead. Obviously, being a planos could raise serious legal and religious concerns.
Reflection 6. Was it possible that sorcery and necromancy could be considered criminal conduct in Jesus’ day? Of course, certain forms of magic and wizardry were not necessarily problematical under the law at that time. Magicians such as Simon the Magician (see Acts 8:9) and Theudas, another wonder worker (see Acts 5:36), seemed to walk the streets freely. But when magic was used for improper purposes, it was severely punished.
Biblical law prohibited sorcery, soothsaying, and necromancy. Some knowledge of sorcery was even “a requirement to be appointed a member of the Sanhedrin,” presumably so that such cases could be properly prosecuted. Leviticus 20:27 provides: “A man also or woman that hath a familiar spirit, or that is a wizard, shall surely be put to death.” We have here the same words, “being worthy of death,” that are used in Matthew and Mark to condemn Jesus as worthy of death. Having a familiar spirit refers to “calling out of the earth” or conversing with the spirits of the dead (might one think of Lazarus?). Being a wizard has to do with giving signs or wonders, and Deuteronomy 13:1 made it a capital offense to use signs or miracles to pervert or lead people into apostasy. To some, the case of Jesus could easily, although erroneously, have presented a prima facie case of such conduct warranting, if not requiring, the death penalty.
Likewise, Roman law at the time of Jesus outlawed certain forms of spell-casting or divination and made them punishable by death. In A.D. 11, Augustus Caesar himself issued an edict forbidding mantics from prophesying about a person’s death. Such conduct had become a serious political and social problem in the Roman world. The main thrust of Augustus’ decree was to expand the law of maiestas, which had long punished people who harmed the state by actions, to now include treasonous divination, especially augury directed against the imperial family. This “empire-wide imperial legislation circumscribed astrological and other divinatory activities everywhere,” and we know of about one hundred trials for maiestas from the time of Tiberius alone. Later Roman law would specify that the punishment for enchanters or spell binders was cruciﬁxion.
This is not to say that Jesus was cruciﬁed for predicting the death of Tiberius Caesar or anyone else, but it may explain why the chief priests thought they could get Pilate to take action against Jesus. If Jesus—who had been born under an unusual star and visited as an infant by magi (astrologers or sign-readers) from the east—spoke evil predictions against the temple and the lives of the Jews and prophesied about his own death, perhaps he would next lay spells on Caesar. If that were to happen, letting Jesus go would certainly make Pilate no friend of Caesar. In ﬁnal desperation the chief priests argued that anyone who made himself a king “speaketh against Caesar” (John 19:12). All this looks like attempted allegations of maiestas.
Ultimately, of course, Pilate found no legal cause of action here. Jesus claimed that his kingdom had nothing to do with Caesar’s world, and Pilate was satisﬁed that the man from Nazareth had not broken any Roman law. But Pilate was still worried enough by the situation that he was willing to take action or to go along with Jesus’s accusers.
Laws against sorcery are mentioned occasionally by commentators writing about the trial of Jesus, but this underlying cause of action is not usually taken seriously by them. No formal accusation of magic ever seems to be made during the trial. But, as Morton Smith argues, the term “worker of evil” used by the chief priests only in John 18:30, or its Latin equivalent maleﬁcius, is “common parlance” in Roman law codes referring to a “magician.” So the supernatural may well have had more to do with the death of Jesus than people think, and as Mosiah 3:9 indicates. This is not to say that other legal charges did not ﬁgure at various stages into the course of these proceedings. But concern over Jesus’ mighty power would seem to explain best all that is reported by the four New Testament Gospels.
An underlying concern about demons would especially explain the puzzles of cruciﬁxion and the lack of legal formalities. Since the publication of the Temple Scroll from the Dead Sea in the 1970s, many scholars acknowledge that hanging on a tree (or cruciﬁxion) could serve as a possible Jewish mode of execution. In one other notorious case a century before the time of Jesus, 80 witches were hung or cruciﬁed in Ashkelon without proper trials, because the Jewish court saw the matter as an emergency. This event shows that such things could happen, even if only rarely. Thus, both Romans and Jews (especially on an emergency charge involving a fear of demons) were capable of executing someone by cruciﬁxion.
Reflection 7. We can now turn to our second main question: Who killed Jesus? We can now better appreciate that lots of people were involved. But before we answer this question, we must back up again and reﬂect on which of the four Gospels to favor, for again we get different answers from the different Gospels.
In giving weight to various statements, Latter-day Saints generally favor the report of the highest priesthood authority, which in this case is the Apostle John. With Peter and James, John was one of the highest ranking apostles. Matthew, the publican, was one of the Twelve, but Mark and Luke are never named as apostles.
Moreover, most people ﬁnd more credibility in the testimonies of eyewitnesses, and it is not clear how Mark and Luke learned the details they report. Luke was clearly not present for any of the proceedings surrounding Jesus’ trial and death. Mark may have learned something from Peter, but after the arrest, Peter only “followed [Jesus] afar off” (Matt. 26:58) and stayed outside the door of Caiaphas’ palace hoping to remain unrecognized. The apostle Matthew would have been close to many of these events, but he never says so. John, on the other hand, may have been present for the duration of these developments. Might he have been the disciple who “went in with Jesus into the palace of the high priest” (John 18:15)? He was there at Golgotha when Jesus entrusted his mother Mary into his care (John 19:26–27). Of the spear thrust, John testiﬁed: “And he that saw it bare record [gives solemn testimony], and his [testimony] is true” (John 19:35). In this afﬁrmation, John distinctively speaks of himself as the one who saw, claiming for himself special status. Latter-day Saints do not take his witness lightly.
Reflection 8. Latter-day Saints can be especially comfortable with the Johannine approach to the trial of Jesus, which is supported and clariﬁed by the Book of Mormon.
A key element in LDS doctrine is the knowledge that the sacriﬁce of the Savior was promised and foreordained from before the foundation of this earth, as we read in the words of Lehi, Benjamin, Abinadi, and Alma. Likewise, for John, the death of Jesus was a foregone conclusion from the beginning. It had to happen. It was supposed to happen. “For this cause came I into the world” (John 18:37).
Joh particularly wants his readers to understand that Jesus was not killed because of some offense against the temple or its economy, as many people conclude (especially from Mark). Here John is particularly interesting. Unlike Matthew and Mark, John does not have Jesus say either that he is able or actually will destroy the temple; rather, John 2:19 reads, “[If you] destroy this temple, . . . in three days I will raise it up.”
People have also long puzzled over the distance that John puts between the cleansing of the temple and the death of Jesus. For John, the cleansing occurs at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry (see John 2:13–17), not after his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Why does John place it there? One reason is to introduce Jesus’ prophesy of his death from the beginning; another is to show Jesus working at a cleansed temple, where he often went throughout his ministry.
Latter-day Saints understand that Jesus, the Holy One, was innocent of any crime. Indeed, in John’s good news, Jesus was not convicted of anything by Pilate; and in John, rather than actually convicting Jesus after his arrest, the chief priests simply move ahead on the strength of the prior rationalization of the Sanhedrin that it would be better for one man to perish so that the entire nation would not. Even in discussing the synoptic accounts, it is something of a misnomer to speak of the “trial” of Jesus. There was a hearing (maybe) or perhaps an inquiry or attempted deposition and the voicing of an opinion of how things “appeared” (as the Greek reads in Matthew 26:66 and Mark 14:64), but it would not appear that there was a formal trial and verdict as such. Something much bigger was going on here.
Latter-day Saints agree with John that an innocent Jesus died for the whole world, for all mankind, and that the whole sinful world in a signiﬁcant sense brought about the death of Jesus. Look who arrests him in John’s account: not just a group of men with torches, as in the other Gospels, but a cohort of soldiers, servants of chief priests and Pharisees (see John 18:3), and the commander or chiliarchos (see John 18:12). The whole world, it seems, was symbolically there. This seems particularly consonant with another important revelation extended to us by the Book of Mormon. Nephi prophesied: “And the world, because of their iniquity, shall judge him to be a thing of naught; wherefore they scourge him, [smite him and spit upon him] and he suffereth it, … because of his loving kindness and his long-suffering towards [all] the children of men” (1 Nephi 19:9).
Reflection 9. If we need to ﬁnd a precipitating culprit in all of this, the prime and persistent movers in the ﬁnal actions against Jesus were probably only a small group identiﬁed as “the chief priests,” the most powerful and best known ofﬁcials of Jerusalem. An interesting pattern emerges by carefully examining every reference to these chief priests: It is the chief priests and scribes whom Herod asked about the birthplace of the Messiah. When Jesus prophesied about his death in Matthew 16:21, he mentioned only the chief priests, elders, and scribes as being involved. It is the chief priests and elders who in the temple questioned Jesus’ authority. The chief priests alone sought Jesus’ death after the raising of Lazarus. Judas betrayed Jesus to the chief priests. The chief priests alone demanded Jesus’ death before Pilate in Mark 15:3; and in the end, it is they who wanted the title to read, “He said, I am King of the Jews” (John 19:21).
Fourteen times in the Gospels and four times in Acts, the chief priests act alone against Jesus or against his disciples. Eighteen other times they act together with the elders, rulers, captains, or the Sanhedrin. Twenty-one times they are associated with the scribes. Clearly the chief priests and these associates of theirs are the main driving force behind the arrest and execution of Jesus. The Pharisees often debated Jesus and were verbally denounced by him, but they are mentioned much less often, and they lacked the political muscle of the Sadduccean chief priests, whose party had a strong majority in the Sanhedrin. It is not hard to see this small group of chief priests as the one consistent force that agitated and militated against Jesus and his disciples. Their crowd was not large; certainly it did not contain all the Jews.
This subtle point is consistent with an important passage in the Book of Mormon. In 2 Nephi 10:5 it clearly says that it would be “because of priestcrafts [in other words, because of a small, powerful group interested in trafﬁcking in religion for money] and iniquities, [that] they at Jerusalem will stiffen their necks against him, that he be cruciﬁed.” The Book of Mormon does not seem to implicate or condemn all Jews.
In this regard, we should also remember the testimony of Paul. As a student of Gamaliel, Paul would have been well informed about legal events in Jerusalem, and he adds an important corroboration to this Book of Mormon position. The words in 1 Thessalonians 2:14–15 speak of Jews who killed Jesus. Notice the great importance of the punctuation between these words: should it read “the Jews who killed Jesus,” with no comma (meaning “the particular Jews” who killed Jesus)? or should it read “the Jews [comma] who killed Jesus” (meaning that “the Jews who all” killed Jesus)? This is the most famous punctuation mark in the world; it is known as the “antisemitic comma.” But based on the Greek construction of this sentence, no punctuation mark should be there, and thus Paul spoke here only of “those particular Jews who killed Jesus.” Indeed, many Jews accepted Jesus. Peter was a Jew. Mary was a Jew. John was a Jew. Those in the crowds on Palm Sunday were all Jews. The number was far fewer who did not. (On this point, see similarly, Joseph Ratzinger Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth Part Two: Holy Week [San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2011], 185, “In John’s Gospel this word [“the Jews”] has a precise and clearly defined meaning: he is referring to the Temple aristocracy”).
Reflection 10. Finally, especially for John, Jesus was in full control from the beginning to the end. At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus spoke of his death even to prominent Jewish leaders and others outside his circle of disciples. Speaking to Nicodemus, Jesus said, “Even so must the Son of man be lifted up” (John 3:14).
Consistent throughout his writing, John reports the death of Jesus with Jesus knowing exactly what was required to carry out the plan. When his hour had come, Jesus knew and “bowed his head, and handed over his spirit” (according to the Greek in John 19:30). Might it be significant that this same word is used three times in the story: when Judas betrayed or handed Jesus over to his arresters; when the Jews handed Jesus over to Pilate; and when Jesus handed over his spirit to God? For John, we must never forget that it is God who is voluntarily, purposefully, and knowingly dying as planned.
With all this as background, and knowing that much more work still remains to be done, we can now cautiously offer an answer to the question Who was responsible for the death of Jesus? For John and for Latter-day Saints it would appear that the whole world killed Jesus. As Nephi prophesied, the whole “world” would kill their God (1 Nephi 19:9). And if everyone was responsible, then, in an important sense, no one was responsible or to blame. Stated alternatively, even if someone speciﬁc were to blame, that would seem quite irrelevant for John, the apostle of love.
Of course, iniquity played its part. But, ironically, the Greeks, for whom the gods could be found just about anywhere, were quite accepting of miracle workers. The Jewish legal system, however—with its prohibitions against witchcraft, necromancy, and idolatry—effectively made the Jews (as the Book of Mormon says) the only nation on earth in which anyone could have cared enough about such supernatural conduct to have reacted with such hostility and to have “stumbled” against the very presence of their God in their midst, as Jacob says (Jacob 4:15).
In 2 Nephi 10:3–6 Jacob writes that it was “expedient [which means pragmatically effective, ‘tending to promote some good end or desired purpose, expeditiously, quickly, and proﬁtably’]” that Jesus “should come among the Jews,” for “thus it behooveth [or was ﬁttingly necessary for] our God.” Jacob identiﬁed that Old World location as “the more wicked part of the world,” with more wicked being a comparative between two places. From Jacob’s point of view, the question was whether Jesus should come to the Old World or to the New, and his answer was, to the Old, for its inhabitants would be more wicked than his posterity. He further explains, “And there is none other nation on earth that would crucify their God,” and I would hasten to emphasize that this statement views this conduct in collective terms and does not infer that all people in that body necessarily agreed with their national leaders on this action. Continuing on, Jacob writes, “For should the mighty miracles be wrought among other nations they would repent, and know that he be their God” (2 Nephi 10:4). Indeed, accepting Jesus might have been easier for people in other cultures more accepting of miracles and divinely embodied beings.
Ultimately, there may well have been grievous miscarriages of justice in the trial of Jesus, but I do not think that John or Jacob want us to think of the death of Jesus that way, at least in one sense. Jesus was not a victim. His death was supposed to happen. It had to happen. For this reason, God in his mercy does not come out and place blame on any single person or group of people. The writers of the New Testament Gospels were intentionally ambiguous. They could have been much clearer about who killed Jesus if they had wanted to be, but that was not their point. Even in Judas’s case, we do not know what motivated him; things certainly did not turn out the way he had intended or expected.
In the ﬁnal analysis, overwhelmed with irrational fear, all of them knew not what they really did. As Peter said a few weeks later to those very people in Jerusalem who had “killed the Prince of life,” “I [know] that through ignorance ye did it, as did also your rulers” (Acts 3:15, 17). Jesus forgave people as he hung on the cross, forgiving whom he would. And of us it is required that we forgive all people. Whereas God will judge, we are to judge not. Placing blame is not part of this picture. Masterfully understating all that happened, all that Jesus said, out of the darkness to the Nephites, was this: “I came unto my own, and my own received me not” (3 Nephi 9:16). Let us not forget that we also reject and crucify Jesus anew whenever we partake of the world and its darkness.
In his ﬁrst general epistle, the Apostle John concluded: “And we know that the Son of God is come, [we have heard; we have seen with our eyes, and handled with our hands] and he hath given us an understanding, that we may know him that is true, and we are in him that is true, even in his Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God, and eternal life” (1 John 5:20 [and 1 John 1:1]). By reﬂecting carefully and cautiously on the events and causes leading up to the death of Jesus, one may more surely agree and believe that he is indeed the Son of God, of whom the Book of Mormon and all the holy prophets have ever testiﬁed.
First published as “Latter-day Saint Reflections on the Trial and Death of Jesus,” Clark Memorandum (Fall 2000): 2–13; http://www.jrcls.org/clark_memo/issues/cmF00.pdf. See further, John W. Welch, “The Factor of Fear in the Trial of Jesus,” in Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior, ed. Paul H. Peterson, Gary L. Hatch, Laura D. Card (Provo, Utah: BYU Religious Studies Center, 2002), 284–312; John W. Welch, “Miracles, Maleficium, and Maiestas in the Trial of Jesus,” in Jesus and Archaeology, ed. James H. Charlesworth (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2006), 349–83, and “The Legal Cause of Action against Jesus in John 18:29–30,” in Celebrating Easter: The 2006 BYU Easter Conference, ed. Thomas A. Wayment and Keith J. Wilson (Provo, Utah: BYU, Religious Studies Center, 2007), 157–76, https://rsc.byu.edu/easterconference/2006.