When Jesus hung on the cross he said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Lk 23.34 NRSV). Nearly all Christians have believed that Jesus herein was asking God to forgive everyone involved in his condemnation and execution, thus regardless of any admission of guilt, and some would add Judas in his betrayal of Jesus. But this interpretation fails to understand these words of Jesus in Luke’s context.
According to the four New Testament gospels, this saying of Jesus–“Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing”–is the first of seven brief sayings he made while hanging on the cross. This particular saying about forgiveness is recorded only by Luke. Interestingly, there is significant omission of this saying in the manuscript evidence. The two prominent Greek New Testaments show that there is some doubt about the historical authenticity of this text. The fourth edition of the United Bible Society’s Greek New Testament includes it in brackets and gives it a C-rating in its rating scale of A to D. The C-rating means “there is a considerable degree of doubt” as to whether or not this text is genuine. Nestle’s 27th edition of the Greek New Testament includes it in brackets as well. That is why the following English Bible versions include this text but place it in brackets and/or add a footnote informing of its absence in some Greek manuscripts: NIV, RSV, NRSV, NEB, NASB, ESV.
I’m no expert on textual criticism; yet I accept this saying as genuine. I think some scribal copyists likely deleted it since they thought, like most people do, that this text means Jesus asked God to forgive everyone involved in his death, and they rightly concluded that that didn’t make sense biblically. And they may have thought such a prayer was incompatible with subsequent history, which makes it look like God didn’t answer Jesus’ prayer. Indeed, Israel revolted twice, causing the Romans to destroy the temple at Jerusalem a generation later, in CE 70, and that led to the dissolution of the nation of Israel fifty-five years later, in CE 135.
The interpretation that Jesus asked the Father to forgive everyone responsible for his death is contrary to many things in the Bible.
First, God requiring people to repent of their sins committed against him is a basic principle of his justice and thus his forgiveness.
Second, only hours before Jesus was crucified he told Roman Governor Pilate, “the one who handed me over to you,” referring especially to Caiaphas the high priest if not also the entire Sanhedrin who voted against Jesus, “is guilty of a greater sin” (Jn 19.11). In saying this, Jesus meant that Caiaphas and Pilate were guilty of the condemnation and impending death of Jesus, but Caiaphas was more guilty than Pilate. Why would Jesus say this if he was soon going to ask God to forgive both of them?
Third, all three synoptists report that soon after Jesus arrived in Jerusalem for Passion Week he taught a parable that angered the Jewish religious authorities. Mark records it as follows in Mk 12.1-9:
Then he began to speak to them in parables. “A man planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a pit for the wine press, and built a watch-tower; then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. 2When the season came, he sent a slave to the tenants to collect from them his share of the produce of the vineyard. 3But they seized him, and beat him, and sent him away empty-handed. 4And again he sent another slave to them; this one they beat over the head and insulted. 5Then he sent another, and that one they killed. And so it was with many others; some they beat, and others they killed. 6He had still one other, a beloved son. Finally he sent him to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ 7But those tenants said to one another, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ 8So they seized him, killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard. 9What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others.
In crafting this parable, Jesus probably drew upon Isaiah 5. Matthew records it but has Jesus asking, “when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” (Matt. 21.40). The people answered, “He will put those wrtches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time” (v. 41). Matthew then relates Jesus explained, “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom” (v. 43).
So, according to Matthew Jesus meant that the vineyard owner was God the Father, the vineyard was the kingdom given to Israel, the owner’s son was Jesus, and the tenants were the religious rulers at Jerusalem. Thus, Jesus was predicting that the religious rulers would get him killed, and because of it God would destroy them, take the kingdom from Israel, and give it to the church.
Jesus was not original in predicting this. As we might expect, Moses had predicted it earlier in the Torah. Since Israel’s idolatry had made God jealous, Moses said on behalf of God, “My anger will be kindled against them in that day. I will forsake them and hide my face from them;… So I will make them jealous with what is no people, provoke them with a foolish nation,” which is the church (Deut 31.17; 32.21).
Fourth, during Passion Week, Matthew relates that Jesus pronounced seven woes of judgment upon Israel’s scribes and Pharisees and then said, “Truly I tell you, all this will come upon this generation” (Matt 23.36). Then he added, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you, desolate” (vv. 37-38). Jesus seems to imply that judgment will come upon Israel, especially Jerusalem, within a generation.
Following the WWII Holocaust, many scholars no longer assessed Jews who witnessed the condemnation and crucifixion of Jesus as culpable, but only their Sanhedrin leaders. And some said not even them. But this shift in thinking is contrary to the New Testament as the following reveal: (1) tribal elders were representatives of the people and members of the Sanhedrin, (2) the crowd demanded that Pilate crucify Jesus (Matt. 27.20-21; Mark 15.11-15; 23.18-25), (3) the Apostle Peter’s sermons in Acts are strong indictments against most Jews who so attended, which many implicitly admitted and believed what Peter preached.
Fifth, weeks later, at the temple in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost, Peter preached to various crowds of Jews. When he did he was empowered by the Holy Spirit of God. He accused them of being guilty of Jesus’ death and exhorted them to repent of it (Ac 2.23, 36, 38; cf. 3.13-15, 19; 7.51-52). Peter telling people to repent of killing Jesus indicates God had not forgiven them. Here is what Peter preached mostly to large crowds, but sometimes to Sanhedrin religious authorities who condemned Jesus and got him crucified:
- “this man,… you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law,” i.e., Gentiles (Ac 2.23)
- “this Jesus whom you crucified” (v. 36)
- “You Israelites,… Jesus, whom you handed over and rejected in the presence of Pilate” (Ac 3.12-13)
- “you rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer given to you” (v. 14)
- “you killed the Author of life” (v. 15)
- “Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified” (Ac 4.10)
- “Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree” (5.30)
Sixth, Stephen, the first Christian martyr, preached right before he was stoned to death, saying, “You stiff-necked people uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do…. They killed those who foretold the Coming of the Righteous One [Jesus], and now you have become his betrayers and murderers” (Ac 7.51-52). Wow, what an indictment!
Lest we suspect that Stephen was not exercising righteous anger in saying that and thus not in tune with God, Luke the author adds, “But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right of God. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!’” (vv. 55-56).
But how could Peter and Stephen so accuse the Jewish crowds of guilt for Jesus’ death? We can see why they accused the religious leaders, since the synoptic gospels are so clear that the Sanhedrin–the council of seventy religious leaders at Jerusalem–with Caiaphas as its high priest, condemned Jesus as a blasphemer worthy of death, took him to Pilate, and pressured Pilate to execute Jesus (Mark 15.14-15; Luke 23.4, 14, 22; John 18.38, 19.4, 6, 12, 15). But why also condemn the people? What did they do?
Elders were older leaders of tribes, and many of them were members of the Sanhedrin (Mt 26.57; 27.1; Mk 14.53; 15.1; Lk 22.66). Plus, Matthew reports, “Now the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus killed” (Mt 27.20).
Matthew also informs that “Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning” (Mt 27.24). Roman governors, such as Pilate, had to be careful that they did not allow riots or else they would be held accountable by Caesar.
Furthermore, Matthew says Pilate then performed a custom of exonerating himself of guilt. He “took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.’ Then the people as a whole answered, ‘His blood be on us and on our children!’ So he released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified” (Mt 27.24-26). Many contemporary New Testament scholars are so opposed to this text that they think it is historically unauthentic. But they have no good reason for so concluding other than that only Matthew reports it.
Seventh, after Jesus was arrested and condemned to die, Luke reports that the Roman soldiers led Jesus and two criminals to Golgotha. Then he says they, that is, the soldiers, “crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.’ And they cast lots to divide his clothing” (Lk 23.33-34). In quoting this saying of Jesus, many Christians often fail to ponder the meaning of the last clause, and some omit quoting it. By doing so, they take this saying of Jesus out of its context.
The Gospel of John provides more detail by adding, “When the soldiers had crucified Jesus, they took his clothes and divided them into four parts, one for each soldier” (Jn 19.23), and then they cast lots for them.
So, understanding the context of Luke 23.34, Luke means that Jesus prayed for God to forgive only those four soldiers who were doing their job. They are the ones who did not know what they were doing. They were Gentiles, not Jews. Thus, it is doubtful that they knew much about the Jews’ religion or their scriptures.
On the other hand, the Sanhedrin knew quite well what it was doing. This religious council consisted of the tribal elders who were representatives of the people, the scribes who were experts about the Law, and the chief priests, with the high priest as its leader. And the multitudes knew pretty well what they were doing in calling for Barabbas to be given to them and for Jesus to be crucified. Yet they wrongly allowed the chief priests and elders to persuade them to do so (Matt. 27.20; Mark 15.11).
So, it should be concluded that Jesus did not ask God to forgive all those responsible for his death, but only the soldiers who nailed him to the cross. For, they were only following orders and therefore did not know what they were doing.