"The Jews and the Death of Jesus in Acts"

S.G. Wilson

in Peter Richardson, with David Granskou, eds. Anti-Judaism in Early Christianity. Vol. 1 Paul and the Gospels (Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1986), 155-164.  For footnotes consult the original.

The Speeches

The evidence which relates directly to this theme falls almost exclusively in the missionary speeches and in the prayer of the Jerusalem community recorded in Acts 4:24-30. To begin with it is instructive simply to list the relevant material in order to gain a sense of the uniformity and the degree of repetition involved:

Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs which God did through him .in your midst, as you yourselves know--this Jesus, delivered up (ekdōtos) according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified (prospēxantes) and killed (aneilate) by the hands of lawless men. (Acts 2:22-23)

Let all the house of Israel therefore know assuredly that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified (estaurōsate). (Acts 2:23)

The God of Abraham and of Isaac and of Jacob, the God of our fathers, glorified his servant Jesus, whom you delivered up (paredōkate) and denied (ērnēsasthe) in the presence of Pilate, when he had decided to release him. But you denied (ērnēsasthe) the Holy and Righteous One, and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, and killed (apekteinate) the Author of Life, whom God raised from the dead .... And now, brethren, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers. But what God foretold by the mouth of all the prophets, that his Christ should suffer, he thus fulfilled. (Acts 3:13-18)

Be it known to you all, and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified (estaurōsate), whom God raised from the dead, by him this man is standing before you well. (Acts 4:10)

For truly there were gathered together in this city against thy holy servant Jesus, whom thou didst anoint, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever thy hand and thy plan had predestined to take place. (Acts 4:27-28)

The God of our fathers raised Jesus whom you killed (diecheirisasthe) by hanging him (kremasantes) on a tree. (Acts 5:30)

And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered (prodotai kai phoneis egenesthe). (Acts 7:52)

They put him to death by hanging him (aneilan kremasantes) on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and made him manifest. (Acts 10:39-40)

For those who live in Jerusalem and their rulers, because they did not recognize him nor understand the utterances of the prophets which are read every sabbath, fulfilled these by condemning (krinantes) him. Though they could charge him with nothing deserving death, yet they asked Pilate to have him killed. And when they had fulfilled all that was written of him, they took him down f¥om the tree and laid him in a tomb. But God raised him from the dead. (Acts 13:27-30)

There are several observations which are pertinent to our theme. First and foremost, the insistent refrain of all the speeches is that the Jews were responsible for Jesus' death. Luke describes this in typically varied and colourful language: the Jews delivered (3:13), denied (3:13-14), condemned (13:27), betrayed (7:52), killed (2:23; 10:39; 13:28), murdered (7:52), crucified (2:23; 2:36; 4:10), and hanged (5:30; 10:39) him. This unmistakable and unvarying message is reinforced by other tendencies in the speeches. For example, in the speeches as in Luke's passion narrative the Romans are in general exonerated from responsibility for Jesus' death. It is the Jews who insist on Jesus' death while Pilate finds him innocent and wishes to release him (3:13; 13:28). There are two possible exceptions. The "lawless men" of 2:23 could be Jews, Gentiles, or both, and Conzelmann thus suggests that while originally it referred to Gentiles (cf. Luke 18: 31-33; 24:7) in its present context it refers to Jews. More obvious is the interpretation of Ps. 2:1-2 in Acts 4:27-30 where "Herod and Pontius Pilate, the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel" conspire in Jesus' death and thus fulfil God's predestined plan. This apparently runs counter to both the general tenor of the speeches and the Lukan passion narrative where, although the Romans are implicated, they have at most a passive and unwilling role. Wilckens suggests, therefore, that the passion interpretation of Ps. 2:1-2 is pre-Lukan. He finds confirmation of this in the identification of Herod and Pilate with the "kings and rulers" of Psalm 2, since Luke's normal term for Herod is "tetrarch" and the term "rulers" usually refers to Jewish rather than Gentile leaders (especially in the passion narrative). On the other hand, the reference to Herod is suspiciously Lukan and the unusual use of "kings and rulers" may be due precisely to their presence in a quotation. Since nothing is said specifically about Jesus' death, it may be that Luke uses Ps. 2:1-2 to confirm only that the whole world conspired against Jesus--either energetically, like the Jews, or reluctantly, like Pilate. At any rate, this brief' allusion to the role of Roman officialdom detracts little from the overwhelming impression throughout the speeches of Jewish culpability.

This impression is confirmed by the observation that, whether Pilate is mentioned (3:13-18) or not (as in most cases), it is suggested that the Jews were even responsible for the typically Roman act of crucifixion. A possible exception appears in Acts 13:28 where the Jews ask Pilate "to have him killed" which, if one turns to Luke's passion narrative to see what happened, depends in turn on the ambiguous "as they led him away" in Luke 23:26 which could refer to Jews or Romans (cf. Luke 24:20). There is also the curious reference to the Jews removing Jesus from the cross and burying him (Acts 13:29) which, at least in tone, is not the most natural way to refer to the sympathetic description which Luke gives of the actions of Joseph of Arimathea in his earlier narrative (Luke 23:50-53). Moreover, the actions which the Jews take against Jesus are dramatized by the victim~ innocence, which is implicit throughout and explicit in 3:13-15 and 13:28. Their behaviour had neither legal nor moral justification, as is illustrated by their preference for Barabbas the "murderer" to Jesus the "author of life" (3:14-15).

Luke's case against the Jews is bolstered in at least two other ways: on the one hand the forms of address, especially in 3:17 and 13:27, indicate that not only the Jewish leaders but also the people at large were responsible for Jesus' death; on the other hand, what the Jews did to Jesus was the culmination of their disobedience to God and their crimes against the prophets (7:52). And it may be that yet another factor has to be brought into play, namely, that the soteriological significance of Jesus' death is never made explicit in the missionary speeches and is rarely apparent elsewhere in Luke-Acts. The use of the word "servant" (pais, 3:13, 26; 4:27, 30) and the references to Jesus "hanging on a tree" (5:30; 10:39; 13:29) may have traditional connotations, but the most that can be said is that "Luke has taken over certain traditions regarding the meaning of the death of Jesus but he has not in any way developed them or drawn attention to them.'' The longer reading in Luke 22:19-20 and the reference to the church as having been "obtained by his own blood" in Acts 20:28 are not to be overlooked, and a practical theologia crucis, understood as a daily bearing of the cross modelled on the careers of Jesus and his apostles, is clearly a matter of some interest to Luke. Yet the failure of Luke to develop the positive notion of Jesus' death as an atonement, even though he is aware of it, means that there is little to counterbalance the negative emphasis on Jewish culpability. Of course, this is not necessarily a deliberate move on Luke's part, for it may well be that Paul's concentration on this theme makes him, rather than Luke, the exception in early Christianity, or that the atonement was an inner-church theme and not part of the missionary kerygma. The effect, however, whether intended or not, is that our attention is focused without distraction on the accusations against the Jews.

In the speeches, therefore, the theme of Jewish culpability is not only clearly stated but also reinforced in a variety of ways. In order to get a balanced picture, however, we need to mention several other themes which have a bearing on the question of Jewish guilt. First, the conviction that Jesus' death was the necessary fulfilment of God's predetermined plan, as expressed in the law and the prophets (2:22; 3:18; 4:28; 7:52; 13:27), is no less conspicuous than the assertion of Jewish responsibility for it. This accords with the specifically Lukan passion sayings (Luke 17:25: 24:7, 20, 26, 46), which emphasize the necessity (dei) of these events.

Peculiar to Acts, secondly, is the willingness to explain Jewish complicity in Jesus' death by reference to their "ignorance." The first appeal to this notion (3:17) is more conciliatory than the second (13:27) and both are closely connected with the theme of prophetic fulfilment. Perhaps this connection suggests that Luke is aware of a certain tension between the dual emphasis on Jewish culpability and divine determinism and provides a partial resolution of it by referring to their ignorance--although this may well be to ascribe to him a degree of philosophica] sophistication and a concern which he did not share. The use of the same argument with respect to the Gentiles (Acts 17:30) suggests rather that it is an expression of magnanimity, a realistic concession that the past is past and cannot be altered. The concession is limited, however, since it is designed not to confirm the status quo but to prepare the way for a call to repentance (Acts 3:19; 17:30). Indeed, each address to the Jerusalem Jews where they are held responsible for Jesus' death concludes with a call to repentance and an offer of forgiveness.

Thirdly, Luke clearly distinguishes between the Jews in Jerusalem/Judea and those in the Diaspora. The former are held responsible for Jesus' death but not the latter, as is shown by the change from second (chaps. 2-7) to third (chaps. 10-13) person? The speeches to the Gentiles (chaps. 14, 17) contain no references to the death of Jesus.

Finally, it should be noted that the references to Jesus' death are enclosed occasionally by allusions to the signs and wonders he performed (2:22; 10:38), which the Jews should have recognized as the work of God (2:22; cf. 13:27), and, more importantly, by repeated references to his resurrection. The latter is emphatically the work of God which counteracts and refutes the deeds of men.

The question of Jewish involvement in the death of Jesus, as recorded in the speeches of Acts, is a matter of some complexity and it will be pursued further in the concluding reflections. For the moment, this aspect of the speeches, like the others, invites enquiry about the traditions, if any, which Luke used. Of course, if we find such a tradition, that he used it is scarcely less significant than if he created it himself. It is nevertheless of some interest to consider whether Luke's view has its roots in early tradition. U. Wilckens, who discusses the possibilities with great clarity, expresses a tentative preference for the view that the combination of divine necessity and Jewish culpability has its roots in a form of Hellenistic-Jewish-Christian preaching which, in turn, is based on a well-established Old Testament and Jewish scheme in which Israel is called to repentance from her disobedience and rejection of the prophets (e.g. Neb. 9:26; Ezra 9:10-15; 2 Chron. 36:14-15). This scheme is Christianized by the addition of the death of Jesus as the culmination of Israel's misdeeds and the substitution of a specifically Christian call for repentance. Wilckens argues that Acts 7 is an essentially pre-Lukan version of such early Christian preaching which, in turn, suggests that it goes back to the preaching of the Hellenists. The traditional scheme of Acts 7, moreover, may have been Luke's model for the other missionary speeches in Acts. This is a plausible hypothesis, however, only insofar as the pre-Lukan origin of Acts 7 can be asserted with some confidence. The case can be made, but so can the equally plausible case for the Lukan origin of this speech. This question, like most attempts to divine the traditions or sources behind Acts, cannot be resolved with any certainty--and not least because the reasoning is of necessity largely circular. Wilckens' conjecture cannot with certainty take us beyond the Lukan narratives.

Much the same problem arises when we turn to the material in Luke's gospel. The passion summaries, some of which presumably are traditional (Luke 9:22 = Mark 8:31; Luke 9:44 = Mark 9:31; Luke 18:31-33 -- Mark 10:33-34; Luke 17:25 and 24:26, 46 are in Luke alone), emphasize Jesus' suffering and death, his resurrection, and the fulfilment of scripture. The similarity to the speeches in Acts is clear, but the differences are perhaps more important. Of these the christological changes--in which the "Son of Man" becomes "Christ", as already in Luke 24:26, 46, and in which he no longer "rises" but is "raised" by God--are for our purposes less significant than the introduction of the motif of Jewish responsibility into a tradition which either does not specify the opponents of Jesus or specifically mentions the Gentiles (e.g., Luke 18:31-33). Of course this accords not only with Luke's editorial procedure in the passion narrative where, in comparison with Mark, both Jewish responsibility and Roman innocence are enhanced, but also with the retrospective summary in Luke 24:19-29 in which the "chief' priests and rulers" are held responsible for the condemnation and crucifixion of Jesus. Thus the traditional passion summaries are in important ways different from, and the Lukan passion narrattve is in general similar to, the kerygmatic summaries of Acts. That the Jews were implicated in the death of Jesus Luke would have learned from Mark, but it must be assumed that the exaggeration of Jewish responsibility is Luke's handiwork--unless he found it in a passion source independent of Mark.

Perhaps the most interesting parallel to the speeches in Acts is to be found in 2 Thess. 2:14-16:

For you, brethren, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus which are in Judea; for you suffered the same thing from your own countrymen as they did from the Jews, who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out and displease God and oppose all men by hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles that they might be saved--so as always to fill up the measure of their sins. But God's wrath has come upon them at last.

That the Jews killed Jesus, and earlier the prophets, are both themes of Acts. The reference to wrath is ambiguous, but the understanding of the destruction of Jerusalem in the gospel (Luke 19:41-44; 21:20-24) and theme of continuing Jewish obduracy and the consequent turning to the Gentiles in Acts (cf. especially Acts 28:23-28) may imply a similar on Judaism. The statement is without parallel in Paul and sits uneasily beside his reflections in Romans 9 to 11, so that many consider it an interpolation. But the arguments are scarcely persuasive and the passage should be taken as evidence that Paul, in some circumstances, could express himself in a vein similar to the missionary speeches in Acts. To be sure, Paul was provoked by an unpleasant situation in Thessalonica and does not return to the theme elsewhere, and what he says to the Thessalonians may not be what early Christian preachers said in Judea. Nevertheless, it remains the most interesting parallel to the speeches in Acts outside the Lukan writings themselves.

Stephen, Paul, and Jesus

The trial of Stephen and the trial of Paul may well be relevant in a variety of ways to Luke's understanding of the death of Jesus. It is commonly observed, for example, that the account of Stephen's fate hovers uncertainly between a formal trial (Acts 6:12-7:1) and a public lynching (Acts 7:54-8:1). Many suppose that Luke conflated two traditions or that he imposed his own view on a traditional account. It has recently been noted, however, that Luke elsewhere narrates events which combine mob rule with law-and-order (Acts 18:12-17; 21:18-40), although it is significant that on these occasions the Romans represent law-and-order and that the outcome is never the death of the accused. Whether Stephen's death was, in Luke's view, a trial or a lynching or a combination of' the two, it is clear that he suffers a Jewish punishment (stoning) and that his death is the responsibility of the Jews. We cannot be certain of the status of' this narrative as historical evidence for the era prior to 70 C.E., and even less of its relationship to the Mishnaic rules on blasphemy and stoning; but it does indicate that Luke thought that at the time of Jesus or thereabouts the Jews could put a man on trial, the result of which, though perhaps only under pressure from the mob, could be execution. Perhaps in part it is this which allowed Luke, in both the passion narrative and the speeches, to exaggerate the role of the Jews as both the antagonists of Jesus and the agents of his death.

There are remarkable parallels between the trials of Jesus, Stephen, and Paul. Between Stephen and Paul we can note the following: the accusations (Acts 6:11, 13, 14; 21:21, 28); the mixture of mob rule and legal procedure, as noted above; the opening words of the speeches (Ac ts 7:1; 22:1); and the manner in which both speeches, while different in content, relate only loosely to the accusations which instigate them. Between Stephen and Jesus we can note the following: the Sanhedrin setting, the interrogation and reply, and the violent reaction of the crowds--all of which may be incidental, though the echoes cannot be wholly ignored; the vision of the Son of Man (Acts 7:56, where if hestōta refers to location rather than posture, the parallel with Luke 22:69 is particularly close); the prayer for forgiveness (Acts 7:60; Luke 23:34 variant reading) and the dying words (Acts 7:59; Luke 23:46); and, finally, the accusations in Acts 6:11, 13, 14, which recall Mark 14:55-60 but are missing from Luke's account of Jesus' trial. Parallels between the trials of Jesus and Paul can be found throughout Acts 21 to 28, but are most obvious in Paul's summary in Acts 28:17-20: both are seized by the Jews and "delivered" to the Romans (Acts 28:17, Luke 22:54; 24:20); the Romans find both of them innocent and wish to free them (Acts 28:18; Luke 23:4, 14, 16, 20, 22) but accede to the strenuous protestations of the Jews (Acts 28:19; Luke 23:5, 18, 21, 23); in both cases the guilt of the Jews and the innocence of the Romans are starkly contrasted.

It is clear from these lists that the parallels are not identical in each case; but it is equally clear that there are significant common features in all three. Of these the most important are: the antagonism of the Jews and their active involvement in the three trials; by contrast, in two cases, the innocence of the Romans, their desire to free an innocent man, and the strong opposition to this from the Jews. In addition we can note that the charges against Stephen and Paul, which are virtually identical, are connected with Jesus in Acts 6:14 even though they are absent from his account of Jesus' trial. In fact the wording of Acts 6:14 is altogether puzzling. It is cast in the future tense and seems to refer to what Jesus will do rather than what he has done, and it is at most only indirectly answered in the following speech where, moreover, no further mention is made of Jesus' connection with the law and the Temple. The omission from the trial of Jesus of these accusations, in particular the one concerning the Temple, is difficult to explain. Thus, if they were not in accord with the attitude of Luke towards the law and the Temple, or were thought too dangerous to use in Jesus' trial, why are they used in Acts and in connection with Jesus (Acts 6:14)? What was to stop Luke using them and declaring them to be false, as he does in Acts 6:11, 137 It is possible that Luke followed an independent tradition in his passion narrative in which the accusations did not appear; but if not, it is hard to find a convincing explanation in view of Luke's apparent desire to signal the parallels between the trials of Jesus, Stephen, and Paul. However, it is the overall phenomenon of the parallels, and in particular the common features noted at the beginning of this paragraph, which interest us most. Is it possible that one trial was the "source" of at least some features in the others, or have they all become conflated in Luke's mind? It might be thought natural to assume that Luke's understanding of the trial of Jesus has affected his description of the trials of Stephen and Paul. But might not the reverse also be true? Could it be that some elements in the trial of Paul, for example, have spilled over into the trial of Jesus--and especially the theme of Jewish culpability, since it is the Jews who are consistently portrayed as the opponents of Paul in Acts? That they are so portrayed probably has as much to do with accusations against Paul in Luke's time as it does with the experiences of the historical Paul. And thus the exaggeration of the role of the Jews in Jesus' death might derive in part from the contentious reputation of Paul at the time Luke wrote


In Acts, perhaps more emphatically than in any other New Testament writing, the Jews are blamed for the death of Jesus. In this sense there is an unmistakable anti-Judaic strain in Luke's presentation of early Christian preaching. Yet the matter does not rest there. Along with this central accusation Luke is careful to include a number of mitigating factors. The Jews acted out of ignorance, and what they did was a necessary part of the divine plan. Moreover, it is specifically the Jerusalem Jews and no others who are held responsible for Jesus' death--a distinction which later generations of Christians would have done well to remember. In addition, each declaration of Jewish culpability is tied to a call for repentance and an offer of divine forgiveness--an attitude further exemplified in Stephen's prayer for his Jewish persecutors. Any summing u p of Luke's presentation of this theme must also bear in mind that the opposite pole of Jewish culpability is Roman innocence. Which of these is prior and in that sense perhaps the cause of the other is difficult to surmise. Yet if there is a political message in Acts--addressed either to the Romans or, more probably, to Christians--this might help to explain, though not necessarily excuse, Luke's excessive concentration on the role of the Jews in Jesus' death.

There is however another, darker side to the coin. While Jewish responsibility for Jesus' death is mitigated in several ways in the speeches, this theme cannot be considered in isolation from the role of the Jews throughout Acts. Clearly, the mission to the Jews met with partial success and occasional support for the Christian movement comes from the Pharisees (Acts 5:33-39; 23:6-9, etc.); but at the same time it is "the Jews" who are consistently represented as the instigators of harrassment and persecution of Christians, especially Paul. As in the Fourth Gospel (the only other New Testament text in which the phrase "the Jews" is used with similar regularity and pejorative force) the Jews in Acts seem to be the natural enemies of the church--a theme which becomes increasingly conspicuous as the narrative proceeds. The parallels in the fates of Jesus, Stephen, and Paul reinforce the impression that, while some were converted and a few favourably disposed, the Jews in general hounded and opposed Christians in precisely the same way that they had earlier treated Jesus--and for this Luke offers no excuses and no mitigation.

This leads us to reflect upon the Sitz im Leben of Acts. The similarities with the Fourth Gospel might suggest not only a similar geographical locale (Asia Minor?) but also a similar problem with contemporary Judaism. Does Acts, as is probably the case with John, reflect the situation following the introduction of the Birkath-ha-minim into the synagogue towards the end of the first century, of which the Birkath is but one expression, that colours Luke's whole account (cf. Acts 18:7; 19:9, where Paul separates himself from the synagogue)? We cannot be sure, but at least it seems probable that disputes with Jews contemporaneous with the time of writing, and centring particularly on Paul, not only influenced Luke's presentation of the Jews as the implacable enemies of the church but may also have worked its way into his perception of their role in the trial and death of Jesus. And if Luke wrote for communities that were predominanfiy Gentile, after the cessation of the Jewish missionand at a time when the enmity of Judaism was a daily reality, this would clearly affect their response to his description of Jewish opposition to the early church and even, despite the mitigating circumstances, to the role of the Jews in Jesus' death.

When all this has been said, and we have allowed that Luke has exaggerated Jewish responsibility for Jesus' death and minimized that of the Romans, and that he has been influenced in a variety of ways by the circumstances of his day, we might still enquire after the historical worth of his presentation. To what degree does his portrait of early Jewish-Christian preaching approximate reality? The problem, of course, is that there is little evidence against which to check Luke outside of his own two volumes. The best supporting evidence comes in a general way from 1 Thess. 2:14-16--and incidentally, contrary to those who would absolve the Jews of any complicity in the trial of Jesus, shows that one Christian writing in the late forties or early fifties believed the Jews were primarily responsible for Jesus' death. Presumably any answer we give to this question will be related to what we think took place during the trial of Jesus as well as to what we think the earliest Christians perceived to have taken place. Merely to raise this complex and contentious matter is to be provided with the best possible incentive to draw to a close.