Parashat Vayikra (and he called) Leviticus 1:1-5:26
Haftarah: Isaiah 43:21-44:23
This Shabbat we begin reading the book of Leviticus and nearly the entire Torah portion deals with different types sacrifices. As disciples of Messiah Yeshua, we know that His death on the Tree represents the most important of all sacrifices. Earlier this week we entered into the month of Nissan and Passover, the day that Messiah Yeshua laid down His life is quickly approaching. Therefore, I thought it would be appropriate to write a few words on the death of Yeshua. A few months ago I received an email with the question, “Why did the Jews kill Christ?” Such a question is not new and at best is rooted in a wrong understanding of the Scriptures or at worst, rooted in Anti-Semitism.
Theologically it is clear that Yeshua, the eternal Son of G-d, entered into this world from the heavens for the purpose of doing the work of redemption. In other words, He entered into this world to die. Scripture is clear, no one took His life; rather He laid it down. If the question is who put Messiah on the Cross, then the answer is my sin and your sin— we are all to blame. The problem arises when there are those who want to place some special blame on the Jewish people collectively for the death of Yeshua. Such a perspective has given rise to persecution of the Jewish people and provides a basis for Anti-Semitism. The question, therefore, which this article will examine is, “Does Scripture teach that the Jewish people as a whole were uniquely to blame for the death of Messiah?”
Obviously it is wrong to blame an entire people for the acts of a few. When examining the word of G-d, one learns some interesting truth concerning this issue. Yeshua said in regard to this matter,
“Behold we are going up to Jerusalem and the Son of Man will be delivered unto the chief priests and to the Scribes; and they will condemn Him to death, and they will deliver Him to the Gentiles.” Mark 10:33
This verse emphasizes that although the leaders of the Jewish people, i.e. the Sanhedrin, played a major role in Yeshua’s death, so too did the Gentiles, i.e. Pilate and the soldiers that carried out the execution. This verse clearly demonstrates that Jews and Gentiles, i.e. humanity, are to blame. However, when we delve deeper into the Scripture some other facts are learned.
The trial of the Sanhedrin did not go as the leadership wanted. In order to find Yeshua guilty, as the leadership wanted, they had to allow for false witnesses to provide testimony. False witnesses are not just those who spoke falsely; rather this is a technical term which refers to those could not provide testimony in a Jewish court. Today for example, if a man does not follow orthodox Jewish law, he cannot be a witness on the marriage document (ketubah). The fact that false witnesses were allowed and even arranged to give testimony shows that the Sanhedrin violated its own protocol in its attempt to convict Yeshua. In addition to allowing individuals who were unfit to testify, one also reads that their testimony did not agree with one another (Mark 14:55-56). In the end, it was the Chief Priest who asked Yeshua if He was the Son of the Blessed One, i.e. G-d; at this Yeshua affirmed that He is. It was with this statement that the Sanhedrin in essence ended their trial and decided to turn Yeshua over to the Romans for crucifixion.
Yeshua was first sent to Pilate and then to Herod, who sent Him back to Pilate, who ultimately had the decision of what to do with Yeshua. It is clear that Pilate wanted to set Him free and when the Jewish leadership protested, Pilate had Him flogged, thinking that such a beating would suffice the leaders. It is important that one remembers that Yeshua’s arrest and Sanhedrin trial, as well as Him going before Pilate and Herod, all took place on the 14th day of Nissan, on Passover. John’s Gospel tells us an important fact.
“Then they led Yeshua from Caiaphas unto the Hall of Judgment; and it was early, and they themselves did not enter into the Judgment Hall, lest they should be rendered ritually impure and would not be able to eat the Passover.” John 18:28
Because of Jewish law, no Jewish individual could enter the area. When one reads John’s Gospel carefully, he finds that Pilate went out to discuss his decision with the Jewish leadership on three separate occasions (See John 18:29, 38, and 19:4). It is clear that although Pilate wanted to release Yeshua, pressure not from the Jewish people, but rather the leadership of the Sanhedrin, who wanted to see Him crucified, ultimately influenced Pilate and he succumbed. In no way does this at all excuse Pilate from his giving the order, nor those Roman guards who carried it out.
John 19:9 clearly states that Pilate departed from the leaders and returned once more to the Judgment Hall. It is here where one must pay close attention to what the text reveals. Most individuals are very familiar with the one who was released on that same day called Barabbas. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke it appears that immediately after the selection was made to release Barabbas that Yeshua was handed over to be crucified. However, John’s Gospel shows that after Barabbas was released, Pilate had one more conversation with the Jewish leaders (See John 19:4). The point that needs to be made is that although these leaders demanded that Yeshua be crucified, there was a group of other individuals who were present inside the Judgment Hall. Who were these people? It has already been shown that because it was Passover, Jewish individuals could not enter into this area (John 18:28). The area of this Judgment Hall was on the northern side of the city. Jewish individuals lived in the Southern section. One should remember that there were many non-Jews living in Jerusalem functioning in the Roman government as well as merchants. The 14th day of Nissan is known as the preparation day. It was on this day that not only were the lambs sacrificed, but final preparations had to be made for the Feast of Unleavened Bread. It was an extremely busy day and most Jewish individuals would not have been near the northern side of the city. In Luke’s Gospel, it is recorded that a multitude led Yeshua to Pilate (Luke 23:1). Mark states it this way:
“And immediately in the morning the Chief Priests did a consultation with the Elders and the Scribes and the entire Sanhedrin; and they bound Yeshua and led (Him) and delivered (Him) to Pilate.” Mark 15:1
This multitude was made up of the Jewish leaders, who were most likely assisted by the same soldiers who had arrested Yeshua in the Garden of Gethsemane. The Gospels inform the reader that Judas had received a band of men and officers from the Chief Priest and Pharisees. These men and officers were supplied to Jewish leaders by the Roman officials to provide support to the Jewish leaders in controlling the people and enforcing their decisions.
Pilate received Yeshua and made an initial ruling that he found no fault in Yeshua, but once he learned that Yeshua was from Galilee he sent Him to Herod in an effort to pass this matter on to him. Despite vehement accusations from the Chief Priests and Scribes, Herod likewise found nothing in Yeshua worthy of death.
Close examination of the related texts reveals that it was only the Jewish leadership at this time demanding that Yeshua be crucified and not the Jewish people in general. John’s Gospel frequently uses the term “the Jews”. The intent of this phrase is not to imply the Jewish people at large, but those who subscribed to the tradition of the elders and used these teachings to rule over the people. For example, in John chapter 7 one reads that Yeshua did not walk anymore in Judea because the Jews wanted to put Him to death. Obviously this phrase does not mean the Jewish people in general, because when one reads that Yeshua went up to Jerusalem for the feast, the “the Jews sought Him” while there was much murmuring among the people concerning Him, some saying He was a good man…Yet no one spoke openly for fear of the Jews.” (See John 7:11-13) It is clear that the people referred to in this passage were all Jewish and those who feared the Jews were in fact Jewish as well.
Pilate knew that the Jewish leaders had delivered Yeshua over to him to be crucified out of envy (Mark 15:10). When Pilate came to the realization that it would be him who would be the one making the decision on what to do with Yeshua, he attempted through a couple of means to appease the Jewish leaders, but at the same time not have Yeshua crucified. The Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) do not go into as much detail as John’s Gospel. They tend to condense the events of that day into a brief summary. Mark has the shortest account and after stating that Yeshua would not respond to any of Pilate questions except that He was indeed the “King of the Jews”, i.e. the Messiah, Pilate moved to have Yeshua released by means of a Passover tradition. It would seem that the Governor of Jerusalem would release one prisoner in honor of Passover. Mark’s Gospel states,
“Now at the feast, he would release to them one prisoner, the one whom they asked.” Mark 15:6
This verse does not mean whomsoever the people wanted; rather there was a choice offered to the people and from that choice they would select. Matthew 27:17 demonstrates it was indeed Pilate who made the selection of either Barabbas or Yeshua. It is important to remember that Pilate desired to release Yeshua. It is clear that Pilate had the authority to simply do this, but he feared that if he did, then due to the insistence of the Jewish leaders that a protest would arise which could cause him problems with Herod and the Roman leaders over him. Pilate’s number one responsibility was to make sure the taxes were collected and that there were no rebellions against Rome. Knowing this, the Jewish leaders used this information to their advantage against Yeshua.
It is unlikely that Barabbas, who was guilty of insurrection and murder, had been part of a rebellion against Rome and had murdered a Roman citizen. Actions like this would surely result in immediate death. Rather, it is far more likely that Barabbas was opposed to the Jewish leadership, seeing them as traitors having conspired with Rome. Many among the Jewish people had recognized their corruption and their failure to serve HaShem according to the word of G-d. In fact, many among the priesthood had refused to serve in the Temple and left Jerusalem all together; John the Baptist is a good example one of these priests.
If Barabbas had led a rebellion against the Romans, it could be anticipated that the crowd would have chosen him. The fact that Pilate wanted to release Yeshua makes the selection of Barabbas difficult to comprehend. However, if indeed Barabbas had committed insurrection against the Jewish leaders and killed a Jew, then it would mean that Barabbas would had been an enemy of the very people who had conspired against Yeshua and therefore a good choice for accomplishing Pilate’s objective, i.e. to set Yeshua free. In other words, Pilate chose Barabbas thinking that he would be the last person whom the Jewish leaders would have wanted to see released and would make Yeshua a more likely choice.
Another important piece of information is the actual name Barabbas. It is an error to think that Barabbas was his name. The word Barabbas is actually a Greek rendering of the Aramaic phrase “Bar Abba” or “son of Abba”. The best Greek manuscripts record his first name as Yeshua or Jesus (See Matthew 27:16-17 and the better Greek manuscripts). Pilate clearly wanted the choice to be Yeshua, therefore he had chosen a man with the same first name as Yeshua. However, the Jewish leadership was wise to this.
It is important to pay close attention to where the offering of Barabbas and Yeshua to the people took place. Matthew 27:19 states that Pilate was on the Judgment seat. This means he had returned to the Judgment Hall, the very place that Jewish people could not enter because of the nearness of Passover. Both Matthew and Mark state that the Chief Priests and the Elders had moved the people to ask for Yeshua Bar Abba or Barabbas (See Matthew 27:20, Mark 15:11). Luke reveals that before Pilate returned to the Judgment Hall, he had a discussion with the Jewish leaders, who refused to accept that Yeshua be released, but stated to Pilate that it should be Barabbas. When Pilate asked then what shall be done with Yeshua, they demanded that He be crucified. Luke does not record Pilate returning into the Judgment Hall, but summarizes the event with the words,
“And they insisted with loud voices demanding he be crucified. And their voices and of the Chief Priests prevailed.” Luke 23:23
It is John’s Gospel which records these events in greater detail. It is clear in John that even after Barabbas is released, Pilate did not give up trying to set Yeshua free; whereas Matthew and Mark placed the flogging / scourging as an outcome of Pilate’s decision to have Yeshua crucified. Please note that these are not contradictions in the texts, but simply information being revealed at different times. One must remember that the Gospels are witness accounts and often people relate facts not necessarily in a perfectly chronological order, but as one remembers. Further, it is vital that one understand that the Gospels are written by men inspired by the Holy Spirit. This means that Scripture does not contain errors and is written to convey theological truth and not necessarily a timeline accounting of the events.
Matthew and Mark are recounting the events of this day in regard to Pilate’s decision to crucify Yeshua in a briefer manner than John. Luke never mentions the flogging by name, but only alludes to it with the words,
“Therefore after I have Him flogged (literally punished) I will release Him.” Luke 23:16
It is John who provides the greatest information concerning the decision that Yeshua should be crucified. Barabbas is only mentioned in the last verse of chapter 18 in John. It would appear that after the decision to release Barabbas, Pilate had Yeshua harshly flogged, hoping that such a severe punishment would appease the Jewish leaders and the matter would end. It is after the flogging that Pilate once again exits from the Judgment Hall to the Jewish leaders, but this time with Yeshua. Yeshua had not only been nearly flogged to death, but His claims of being Messiah were mocked by having a crown of thorns placed on His head and a purple robe placed upon Him. In other words, Pilate was communicating that Yeshua’s claims of being the Messiah were not to be taken seriously. When Pilate came out this third time he once again stated that he found no guilt in Yeshua (See John 19:4).
John reveals the response of the Chief Priests and of the officers was to have Yeshua crucified. One should pay close attention to the word “officers” in John 19:6. The word relates to one who assists or attends to the needs of another. Matthew 26 uses this word in verses 58 and most understand it as referring to the Roman soldiers who were supplied to the Jewish leaders to assist them. Hence John 19:6 shows both the Jewish leaders and the Roman soldiers shouting to crucify Yeshua. Pilate responded that the leaders then could take Yeshua and crucify Him. However, in addition to these shouts, the Jewish leaders said that because Yeshua had affirmed that He is the Son of G-d that He had committed blasphemy and had to die. This piece of information caused Pilate to become afraid and he returned into the Judgment Hall and reexamine Yeshua, but Yeshua would not answer his questions.
Yeshua’s unwillingness to participate in Pilate’s questioning caused him to want to release Yeshua all the more. Yet with this desire, Pilate heard the cries of the Jewish leaders threatening to accuse Pilate of not being loyal to Caesar. It appears these were shouts that Pilate heard inside the Judgment Hall. When Pilate heard this accusation against him if he were to set Yeshua free, Pilate sat down on the judgment seat, presumably in the Judgment Hall. Once again the text reiterates that this day was preparation day for Passover. Pilate was in the Judgment Hall, i.e. the place known as “the Pavement”, when he made the final decision to have Yeshua crucified. Then one reads,
“But it was the Preparation of the Passover, and the hour about the sixth, and he said to the Jewish leaders…
[The fact that Pilate spoke to the Jewish leaders means that after sitting on the judgment seat he got up and exited the Judgment Hall having Yeshua brought with him before the Jewish leaders.]
…‘Behold your King’, but they cried out ‘lift up, lift up, crucify Him’…
[The word most English translations simply render “take away” means literally to lift up and appears here as a reference to lifting Him up on the cross.]
…Pilate says to them, ‘Your King I will crucify’, but the Chief Priests answered. ‘We have no king except Caesar.” John 19:14-15
Many scholars understand Pilate’s words “Your King I will crucify” as a question which gives one last opportunity for the Jewish leaders to change their minds and not have Yeshua crucified. Instead of considering their demand upon Pilate, they make a faithless response, denying not just Yeshua as Messiah, but denying their faith in even the concept of the Messiah all together, stating that their only king is Caesar.
I, on the other hand, do not see this statement as a question “shall I crucify your King?”, but an agreement that I will now do as you have demanded and have your King crucified. The response from the Jewish leaders is not, “Yes, go ahead and crucify Him”, but rather only an objection to the use of the term “King” in regard to Yeshua or anyone other than Caesar.
There is one final issue that needs to be dealt with before the conclusion of this article. In Matthew chapter 27, Pilate is arguing with the Chief Priests and the Elders concerning what to do with Yeshua. It has already been discussed that these leaders had to persuade the crowd that they demand that Barabbas be released and Yeshua crucified because they (the Jewish leaders) were not able to enter the Judgment Hall. It has also been shown that this crowd being referred to was the soldiers who assisted the Jewish leaders in binding Yeshua and taking Him to Pilate. Pilate knew this group represented the desire of the Jewish leadership and he probably thought the Jewish people in general. When Pilate saw that he could not reason with them, rather an uproar was beginning to taking place, one reads that Pilate took water and washed his hands before the crowd of people and said, “I am innocent of the blood of this Righteous Man, you see to it yourselves” (See Matthew 27:24).
The verb at the end of this verse is in the middle voice and therefore has a reflexive quality. This is why it is always rendered as Pilate instructing the people to tend to the crucifixion, because he was done with this matter. Obviously, Jewish law forbade a Jewish individual from taking part in the actual crucifixion, therefore who was Pilate referring to when he stated, and “You see to it yourselves“? The most likely answer was the group of people, who included the soldiers who assisted the Jewish leaders and other non-Jews who had gathered to view the events of this day. The fact that there were other Romans there, hearing Pilate being accused of being no friend of Caesar if he released Yeshua by the Jewish leaders shouting this from outside the Judgment Hall, would have added to Pilate’s dilemma. Pilate would have felt that he (and his wife) was alone in this desire to set Yeshua free. In the end, he gave in to political pressure.
There is one more verse in this section that must be discussed. Matthew 27:25 reads, “Then all the people answered and said, ‘His blood is upon us and upon our children.'”
Many scholars only interpret this verse as referring to the Jewish people. This is an error. Obviously, it was said flippantly by the people, giving no concern for their role in Yeshua’s death. This verse of course has great theological significance, alluding to the fact that Yeshua’s blood placed on an individual (spiritually speaking) redeems one from sin. This is true in regard to both Jews and Gentiles. I see the providence of G-d in the fact that the verse states that all the people answered and said this sentence. It shows that Yeshua’s work of redemption on the Cross is available to all people, both Jew and Gentile. Who was responsible for Messiah’s death? All people! Those who want to uniquely blame the Jewish people err greatly and ignore the role that Gentiles played in the events of that day. I always remember the words of Paul who stated that those who fail to discern the sacrifice of Messiah are the ones who are guilty of the body and the blood of our L-rd.
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