Who Arrested and Killed Jesus? Setting the Record Biblically Straight

"But they cried out all the more, 'Crucify Him!'" Mark 15:14

"Who Arrested and Killed Jesus? Setting the Record Biblically Straight" by Steppes of Faith

“But they cried out all the more, ‘Crucify Him!’” (Mark 15:14)

 It has become a common controversial topic among believers and non-believers alike—who killed Jesus? And, for that matter, who arrested Him, the Romans or the Jews? People have arguments assigning blame and, sometimes, subsequent contempt toward either group, especially the Jews.

As always, believers should not take such arguments at face value but compare them to the truth of God’s word. What does the Bible say about this pivotal historical event? Was the group that arrested Him the same ones who had Him crucified?

The Gospel of John is the basis for the argument about who arrested Jesus, beginning when Judas betrays Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.

“Then Judas, having received a detachment of troops and officers from the chief priests and Pharisees, came there with lanterns, torches, and weapons.”

Those who support the belief that the Romans arrested Jesus point to the phrase in verse three, “a detachment of troops.” Here, a detachment refers to a group of Roman soldiers. It can include up to 1,000 men in times of war but was often about 200-600 men otherwise. Ordinarily, the Roman military stationed them at Caesarea, but they were routinely sent to Jerusalem during the Jewish feast days to quell any possible rebellion. The fact that they arrived with the officers bearing weapons tells us they were anticipating a violent reaction.

In addition to the detachment are the “officers of the chief priests.” These are Jewish temple guards and the primary arresting officers. Three pieces of evidence support this fact:

  1. It was the Jewish religious leaders who had a charge against Jesus, i.e., it was a religious matter.
  2. John 18:12 tells us they were “officers of the Jews.”
  3. Verse thirteen says they took Jesus directly to the High Priest.

They would not have taken Him to a Roman authority since it was a religious issue. Plus, it was the middle of the night when the Roman court was not open.

The use of the term “detachment” is ambiguous, however. One can also apply such military terminology to Jewish police. Support for this argument comes from Scripture saying that the group was in service to the “chief priests and Pharisees (v3).” If this is true, then both the troops and officers would have been Jewish.

The Romans did not arrest Jesus since Pontius Pilate did not seem to know the charges the Sanhedrin were bringing against Jesus.

More Support for the Jewish Argument

Further support for these men being Jewish includes the fact that Roman authorities did not ordinarily escort Jewish detainees for interrogation by a High Priest (v13), especially one that had been deposed from office by Roman governor Valerius Gratus eighteen years prior.

Verses 29 and 31 further tell us that Pontius Pilate is unaware of the charges the Sanhedrin has brought against Jesus. Therefore, he responds that they should judge Him according to religious law. If Roman guards were presenting Jesus, Pilate would have already been aware of the charges and ready to judge Him.

Another possible argument in support of everyone present was Jewish is the number of men in the detachment. If they were a true Roman detachment, there would have been hundreds of men clad in armor and carrying weapons.

Common sense indicates that such a number would have been an excessive number of people simply to arrest one man. Likely, the detachment was simply a large group of armed men, not hundreds but perhaps dozens. Scripture does not provide the evidence for this particular argument, but it is one worth considering.

Finally, one can find the final evidence that the detachment was not Roman in the Bible translation itself. Of the few truly reliable translations of John 18:3, only the NASB says the detachment was Roman. All others, including parenthetical translations, indicate they were an armed group sent by the chief priests and elders. Furthermore, looking at the other gospel accounts, none of them say they were Roman (see Mt 26:47 as an example).

So, who arrested Jesus? The weight of evidence leans toward a Jewish contingent, both troops and officers, who worked in service to the Levite chief priests and Pharisees. Perhaps a few Roman soldiers were there, but since the arrest was made in secret during the night so as not to arouse public outcry (and not, as some suggest, while people were distracted by Passover; it had not yet begun, Jn 19:14), their presence is unlikely.

Jesus’ Sham Trials

After the Jewish troops and officers led Jesus to the house of the High Priest, they shuffled Him to several different locations, both Roman and Jewish, for a series of sham trials.

First, Jesus appeared before the Jewish Sanhedrin, a group of 70 men consisting of both Pharisees and Sadducees. Given the hour, it is unlikely the entire Sanhedrin was present. And since it was an illegal and secret trial, not all of them would have been invited.

They commanded that He tell them if He is the Christ, to which Jesus responded, “You rightly say that I am (Lk 22:70).” Feeling they had caught Jesus openly blaspheming God, they sent Him to Pilate, making several false accusations of tax evasion and sedition.

“We found this fellow perverting the nation, forbidding to pay taxes to Caesar, and saying that He Himself is the Christ, a King.” (Lk 23:2)

Pilate did not find any fault in Jesus, so he sent him to King Herod in Galilee, the location of Jesus’ upbringing and much of His ministry. Herod, both Roman and Jewish, was excited to see Jesus perform a miracle, but Jesus did not oblige him. Despite the chief priests yelling their accusations, Herod, too, found no fault in Jesus. All he did was mock Him by placing a beautiful robe on Him and sending Him back to Pilate (Lk 23:8-11).

After a second trial, Pilate still did not find any fault in Him. Instead, he offered to release Jesus per a Jewish custom supported by Rome (i.e., not a Roman commandment) that allowed for one prisoner to be set free in honor of Passover. Rome’s goal is to keep the people calm (Mt 27:24), but that is not what the chief priests wanted at this moment.

Jesus’ Final Moments

Mark 15:11-14 describes the chief priests stirring the crowd to choose a murderous thief named Barabbas instead. Internally, they had given Jesus a death sentence, but only Rome had the authority to execute someone. So, they urged the crowd to support crucifying Jesus.

“Pilate answered and said to them again, ‘What then do you want me to do with Him whom you call the King of the Jews?’

“So they cried out again, ‘Crucify Him!’

“Then Pilate said to them, ‘Why, what evil has He done?’

“But they cried out all the more, ‘Crucify Him!’”

To prevent an uprising, Pilate agreed to release Barabbas and crucify Jesus instead. Roman soldiers led Him into a hall inside the Roman Praetorium, the governor’s official residence. There, they tortured Jesus for an unknown amount of time, beyond the routine 39 lashes.

They then forced Him to carry the crossbeam for His cross to Golgotha, where an upright post planted in the ground waited for Him. There on Golgotha, the soldiers nailed Jesus’ hands to the beam, the beam to the post, and then finally His feet to the post (Mt 27:26-34; Mk 15:15-41; Lk 23:24-32; Jn 19:16-22). Typically, the Romans tied a criminal’s hands and feet to the crossbeam and post; they did not nail them, making Jesus’ crucifixion especially monstrous.

Six hours later, Jesus was dead.

Neither the Romans nor the Jews killed Jesus--we did.

[READ MORE: The Science of Crucifixion, Part One]

READ MORE: The Science of Crucifixion, Part Two]

Who Really Killed Jesus?

So, who killed Jesus?

The jealous and fearful Jewish religious leaders devilishly devised a plan to send dozens, if not hundreds, of temple guards to arrest Jesus in the middle of the night to evade any public notice. They then tried Him before the High Priest in a secret, illegal court, where they concocted a litany of false charges to preserve their power. Finally, they incited the crowd to choose Barabbas so Jesus could be crucified and be out of their way. Are they to blame?

Pilate and Herod found no fault in Jesus. Still, Pilate gave into the crowd and released Barabbas, thereby sentencing Jesus to a method of death typically reserved for only the most heinous of criminals. Was he to blame?

The Roman soldiers scourged Him far beyond any typical manner to appease the Jewish leaders. They then nailed Him to a cross in a style far different from their usual methods and watched Him die while they cast lots for His tunic (Mt 27:35; Lk 23:34; Jn 19:24). Did the Romans kill Jesus?

Given the gospel narrative, it seems everyone is to blame. The chief priests, the Sanhedrin, Herod, Pilate, the crowd (likely a mix of Jews and Gentiles), and the Roman soldiers were all involved.

But none of them are truly to blame.

The Final Verdict

The one who is to blame for Jesus’ death on the cross is us. We nailed Him to the cross, not the Jewish people or Rome but all of us. Our sin put Him there.

Despite our shame, Jesus, nevertheless, willingly gave up His spirit.

“And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up His spirit.” (Mt 27:50)

“And when Jesus had cried out with a loud voice, He said, ‘Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit.’” (Lk 23:46)

Recall that, while He was alive, Jesus already told His disciples and the Pharisees that no one takes His life from Him, but He willingly lays it down.

“Therefore, My Father loves Me because I lay down My life that I may take it again. No one takes I from Me, but I lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This command I have received from My Father.” (Jn 10:17-18)

Arguments over who arrested and killed Jesus are frivolous. Assigning blame that leads to antisemitism and other forms of hate is a waste of time when we know we are all responsible.

Let us focus on what is most important instead—what Jesus accomplished through His death and resurrection.

He endured the cross to save us from our sins. Out of His immense love, He alone took the punishment and condemnation we deserve. He suffered unspeakable torture and abuse on our behalf, died a ruthless death, and then rose again three days later to conquer death itself.

Let us focus on Jesus’ love and commitment to save us and His offer of grace. Salvation through faith in what He did is all that truly matters, not who arrested and killed our Lord that fateful and purposeful day 2,000 years ago.

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