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John 18:31 ESV:

Pilate said to them, “Take him yourselves and judge him by your own law.” The Jews said to him, “It is not lawful for us to put anyone to death.”

In the above text the Jews refused to execute Christ yet were willing to stone Stephen to death

Acts 7:57-60 ESV:

But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him. 58 ESV:Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59 ESV:And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 ESV:And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep

There is also mention of defilement during the coming Passover

John 18:28 ESV:

Then they led Jesus from the house of Caiaphas to the governor's headquarters. It was early morning. They themselves did not enter the governor's headquarters, so that they would not be defiled, but could eat the Passover.

Could the issue of Passover have been one of the reasons they refused to execute Christ?

4 Answers 4

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By the time of Jesus' crucifixion the Jewish Sanhedrin had lost the power to perform capital punishment without Rome's approval.

This did not mean they could not execute criminals; it meant they had to work within the confines of the Roman legal system. This is demonstrated in Paul's trial before Felix in Acts 24, and addressed specifically in John 18:31

Then said Pilate unto them, Take ye him, and judge him according to your law. The Jews therefore said unto him, It is not lawful for us to put any man to death:

Stephen was executed illegally by a mob, James the Lord's brother was illegally executed during a Roman interregnum. These circumstances gave hostile religious leaders the opportunity to break the law without being punished by Rome for doing so, but their actions were not legal.

They may well have considered trying again to stone him

Some consider Sanhedrin 43a to preserve an arrest warrant for Jesus, in which it is indicated that Jesus was to be arrested for sorcery and put to death by stoning. Historian Paul Maier examines the evidence here and suggests this was originally written before Jesus' death (since afterwards it was well-known that He died by crucifixion).

In any event, whether there had been an intention to execute Jesus themselves (which would have meant death by stoning) or not, this is not how it played out.

Why death by crucifixion instead?

Talmage suggests both a theological & political significance to Jesus being put to death by crucifixion instead of by stoning:

John the apostle intimates...a determination on the part of the Jews to have Jesus put to death not only by Roman sanction but by Roman executioners; for, as we readily may see, had Pilate approved the death sentence and handed the Prisoner over to the Jews for its infliction, Jesus would have been stoned... whereas the Lord had plainly foretold that His death would be be crucifixion, which was a Roman method of execution...Furthermore, if Jesus had been put to death by the Jewish rulers, even with governmental sanction, an insurrection among the people might have resulted, for there were many who believed on Him. The crafty hierarchs were determined to bring about His death under Roman condemnation. (Jesus the Christ pp. 632-633)

I can see at least three reasons why the Sanhedrin preferred to have Jesus put to death by Rome:

  1. Fear of the people. The multitudes could be manipulated but could also be unreliable. If the Sanhedrin sought to turn the people against a popular figure, they risked the multitude turning on them instead! They may well have generated an uprising, but risked an uprising in the wrong direction. By having the sentence decreed and carried out by Pilate, they ensured its success. If the people rose up against Rome, Rome had the resources to brutally quash the rebellious.

    That this factored into the Sanhedrin's plan is evident by the fact that they arrested Jesus in seclusion at night, rather than taking one of many opportunities to have Him arrested when He could easily be located while teaching in public during the day (see Luke 19:47).

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  1. They knew Pilate could be manipulated into doing their dirty work. Despite the fact that Pilate wanted to let Jesus go, his own standing with Rome and the risk of an appeal to Rome were adequate to paint him into a corner with this threat:

And from thenceforth Pilate sought to release him: but the Jews cried out, saying, If thou let this man go, thou art not Caesar’s friend: whosoever maketh himself a king speaketh against Caesar. (John 19:12)

The significance of this threat is explored on this site here, and my own research on the political realities Pilate faced if he did not comply is found here.

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  1. A slow and painful death. The Sanhedrin did not merely want to kill Jesus, they wanted to destroy His movement. Having Him put to death by crucifixion would be humiliating, and having Him put to death by Rome would intimate that His teachings were opposed by the might of Rome. The slow, tortuous death by crucifixion also afforded ample opportunity to mock Him as He suffered (see Matthew 27:39-43).

Conclusion

Death by crucifixion would not only be more humiliating and more painful, but by having Jesus executed by Rome, the Sanhedrin could accomplish its designs with the fewest risks (in their minds) that He would escape yet again.

The relevance of Passover to their deliberations is summarized in Matthew 26:

4 And consulted that they might take Jesus by subtilty, and kill him.

5 But they said, Not on the feast day, lest there be an uproar among the people

The Passover crowds gave the Sanhedrin incentive not to cause an uproar, but they clearly had separate motives for wanting Rome to do the dirty work, regardless of the date.


Addendum - the references to the Sanhedrin in this post can be correctly read as the majority of the Sanhedrin. While it is clear that the convened Sanhedrin collectively favored the execution of Jesus, this does not mean all members of the Sanhedrin shared this view.

I reference the term Sanhedrin specifically to avoid the vast oversimplification that the Jews in general wanted to kill Jesus. While some individual Jewish people did want this outcome, it was religious leaders, not laity, who organized the execution plot, and it is worth noting that the people who hailed Jesus at His triumphal entry were also Jews. There was not just one single Jewish viewpoint on Jesus--who was Himself a Jew.

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  • I upvoted this answer because it correctly deals with the fact that the Jewish authorities did not have the right to execute criminals at this time and that Stephen was killed without trial. The parts about stoning Jesus are superfluous and speculative. There is biblical evidence that the Sanhedrin included defenders of Jesus and at least one secret disciple... Moreover, the sources imply that the president of the Sanhedrin at this time was already Gamaliel 1, who did not want to destroy Jesus' movement acc to Act 5. Mar 11 at 14:48
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    @DanFefferman I added an Addendum for clarity. I believe it is more appropriate to say that the Sanhedrin plotted to kill Jesus than to say that the Jews killed Jesus, and the Evangelists frequently use the term the Jews to refer to the religious leaders. That's said, it was a smaller subset still -- a fraction of the Sanhedrin -- who led the effort to have Jesus executed. Mar 11 at 17:25
  • I agree with your comment here.... although the question arises as to how large a fraction of the Sanhedrin was involved. As you point out the Evangelists tended to generalize opposition to Jesus. The only named culprits were Annas and Caiaphas, while we have two named defenders - Nicodemus and and Joseph of Arimathea - plus Gamaliel, who would be opposed to execution. Mar 11 at 20:15
  • Stephen's death was by the Sanhedrin. They may have behaved like a mob but that doesn't negate the fact they acted. Not only were there no repercussions from Rome, but it marked the beginning of the persecution of Christians which Paul says included the death penalty. Paul was stopped by Jesus, not Rome. He was stopped before he could remove Christians from the synagogue and bring then to Jerusalem for trial, presumably for their execution. Mar 22 at 18:36
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They did not "refuse" to kill Christ. They refused to use their own law to judge Christ. Why not? They answered that question themselves, as recorded in John 18:31 - “It is not lawful for us to put anyone to death.”

This means that if they had judged Jesus according to their understanding of their own law, they would have declared Jesus guilty of blasphemy, which called for the death penalty. But they would have been powerless to execute Jesus. Roman rule prevented them from putting anyone to death. The power of execution had been removed from them at that time.

Given that they desperately wanted Jesus to be put to death, the only option was to hand him over to the Roman judicial authority, whom they hoped would execute the Roman death penalty.

If Jesus' accusers had been given even half a chance, they would eagerly have killed Jesus. But the chance they were given prevented them from killing him, so they turned that down, pressing instead for Rome to do their dirty work.

Yet their initial plan to get Jesus arrested after the Passover backfired and they were forced to enlist Judas Iscariot at the Passover, to betray Jesus to them. In that sense, the Passover event was involved but the matter of refusing to enter the Governor's headquarters had nothing to do with their desperate attempts to get Jesus executed. Ceremonial uncleanness considerations applied across the board for Jewish religious leaders, who would have remained outside at any Passover event, under any circumstances.

As for Stephen being stoned to death, that was quite different. The event was not known to the Roman authorities. If they had known of the angry mob surrounding Stephen, they would have rushed in to break it up to prevent illegal stoning.

Summary of Answer: The Jews did not "refuse" to kill Jesus. Circumstances prevented them. If their plan to capture Jesus after the Passover had worked, the event could have been kept hidden from the Roman authorities, and they would have swiftly stoned Jesus to death. They were able to surreptitiously deal that way with Stephen. But the main point is this: the prophecies concerning the sacrificial death of the Messiah were worked out to the nth degree by God, so that Jewish plans were scuppered as to timing, and back-fired totally when the manner of death complied exactly with God's fore-ordained plan - unknown to them. It all happened at precisely God's timing. And, on the third day, Jesus arose triumphant from the grave.

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  • The final paragraph brings up a question to which we won't get the answer on this side of eternity: Has Satan accepted that he has been playing into God's hands at every turn, or is he still in denial of that fact?
    – EvilSnack
    Mar 12 at 20:31
  • @EvilSnack That is an excellent question that deserves a fresh post! Though if, as you say, "we won't get the answer on this side of eternity" it would fall into the realms of speculation and opinion, and thus be invalid. Can you frame it in such a way that a theological/hermeneutic answer could be offered?
    – Anne
    Mar 13 at 15:24
  • I can't think of a way to re-phrase it. More important, I cannot think of how the answer could affect my Christian walk, so while it may be interesting to investigate, it is probably one of those foolish questions that Paul instructs us to avoid.
    – EvilSnack
    Mar 13 at 15:34
  • @EvilSnack Fair enough.
    – Anne
    Mar 13 at 15:59
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The OP asks, “Could the issue of Passover have been one of the reasons they refused to execute Christ?” I believe the answer is yes, the timing of Jesus’ capture and execution during the week of the Passover festival did play a role in the decision to have Pilate execute Jesus.

Their original plan, as @Anne so deftly points out, was to wait until after the Passover to surreptitiously capture Jesus and kill him.

Matthew 26:3-5 ESV

3 Then the chief priests and the elders of the people gathered in the palace of the high priest, whose name was Caiaphas, 4 and plotted together in order to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him. 5 But they said, “Not during the feast, lest there be an uproar among the people.”

Those who sought Jesus’ death had planned to wait until after the feast, but at some point they changed their minds. The catalyst behind this change was likely the appearance of Judas with his offer (Mt 26:14-15). Based on the presence of the Roman soldiers at Jesus’ arrest, the new plan of action involved the Roman authorities from the outset.

John 18:3

So Judas, having procured a band of soldiers and some officers from the chief priests and the Pharisees, went there with lanterns and torches and weapons.

If Pilate were the one to kill Jesus, Jesus’ opponents could bypass several obstacles that stood in their way. One was Jesus’ popularity among the people and the possibility of public backlash. Two was the problem of timing given the rules against hearing trials during the Sabbath or holidays (Ancient Jewish History: the Sanhedrin).

Trials were also supposed to be held only during the day. The issue of timing helps to explain why Jesus was brought before the religious leaders during the night and handed over to Pilate in the early morning.

Ellicott’s commentary on John 18:28

And it was early.—The Greek word occurs in the division of the night in Mark 13:35 (“even,” “midnight,” “cock-crowing,” “morning”) for the time between cock-crowing and sunrise, as we should say roughly, from three to six o’clock; but comp. Matthew 27:1, and Luke 22:66. We must remember that Pilate must have sent the band (John 18:3), and was therefore expecting its return.

By having Rome execute Jesus, they could sidestep the rules and procedures that regulated how the Sanhedrin conducted criminal trials, not only those that determine when trials could or could not be held but also those that protect the rights of the accused. When Jn 18:31 is examined with these motives in mind, their response to Pilate’s question is revealed to be a cleverly disguised confession.

Pilate must have known what they wanted, and surely they didn’t have to explain to him of all people the Roman constraints on their powers. In other words, their answer was a truthful admission that, if Jesus were fairly tried according to their laws, it would be unlawful of them to execute him. In fact, if they tried anyone else according to how they tried Jesus, it would not be lawful for them to execute anyone.

John 18:31

Pilate said to them, “Take him yourselves and judge him by your own law.” The Jews said to him, “It is not lawful for us to put anyone to death.”

By manipulating Pilate into doing their dirty work, those who sought Jesus’ death thought they could keep their hands clean. It was the same twisted logic that made them think themselves undefiled simply because they did not step into the praetorium (cf Mt 23:23-28). While they must have thought themselves very clever, based on Jesus’ words to Pilate in Jn 19:11, the only ones they were deluding were themselves.

John 19:11

Jesus answered him, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above. Therefore he who delivered me over to you has the greater sin.”

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It was during the passover and the Torah prevented them from putting a man to death during this important ceremony that commemorated their liberation from Egypt centuries of years before.

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