When Jesus hung on the cross he said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Lk 23.34 NRSV). Christians have believed that Jesus was asking God to forgive everyone involved in his condemnation and execution, and some would add Judas in his betrayal of Jesus.
According to the four New Testament gospels combined, this saying of Jesus is the first of seven brief sayings he made while hanging on the cross. But only Luke records this saying. Interestingly, there is significant omission of this saying in the manuscript evidence of Luke. The United Bible Society’s Greek New Testament, fourth edition, includes it in brackets and gives it a C-rating in its rating system of A to D. The C-rating means “there is a considerable degree of doubt” as to whether or not this text is genuine.
Although I’m certainly no expert about it, I accept this saying as genuine. Why? I think some scribal copyists may have deleted it because they thought like most people, that Jesus was asking God to forgive everyone involved in his death, and that didn’t make sense to them. Also, they may have thought such a prayer was incompatible with subsequent history. Indeed, the Romans destroyed the temple at Jerusalem a generation later, in 70 ce, and that led to the dissolution of the nation fifty-five years later.
But this viewpoint, that Jesus asked the Father to forgive everyone responsible for his death, goes astray of many things in the Bible. First, only hours earlier Jesus had told Roman Governor Pilate, “the one who handed me over to you,” referring to Caiaphas the high priest, “is guilty of a greater sin” (Jn 19.11). In saying this, Jesus meant that Caiaphas and Pilate were guilty of his impending death, but Caiaphas was guiltier. This is a warning. Why say it if Jesus is soon going to ask God to forgive them?
Second, all three synoptists report that soon after Jesus arrived in Jerusalem for Passion Week, he taught a parable that angered the 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.
Jesus meant in this parable that the vineyard owner was God the Father, the vineyard was 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 of God from Israel, and give it to the church. Jesus was not original in predicting this. As we might expect, Moses had done so in Torah by saying 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).
Third, during Passion Week, Jesus took his disciples up the Mount of Olives and said concerning the temple buildings below, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down” (Mk 13.2). If Jesus died in CE 30 as most scholars think, that happened exactly forty years later. According to Matthew, right before that Jesus pronounced seven woes on the scribes and Pharisees, adding, “Truly I tell you, all this will come upon this generation” (Mt 23.36).
Fourth, weeks later the Apostle Peter preached to various crowds of Jews at Jerusalem. 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; 3.13-15, 19; 7.51-52). Having to repent indicates God had not forgiven them. If so, what about Jesus having prayed that God would forgive them? Did God not do what Jesus had asked? Here is what the Apostle Peter preached mostly to large crowds, but sometimes to the 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)
Fifth, 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, that’s quite 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 so 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 him to execute Jesus. But why also condemn the people? What did they do?
First, the people of Israel were represented by their elders. They 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).
Second, 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 seriously held accountable by Caesar.
Third, 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 not authentic. But they have no good reason for so concluding other than that only Matthew reports it.
Oh how fickle is the world and even the institutional church sometimes! For so long the Roman Catholic Church, and for awhile the Lutheran Church, was anti-Semitic. But the Jewish Holocaust of WWII greatly changed this situation. The result has been to exonerate the Jewish people present at Jesus’ death of any culpability in that crime and lay the charge only against their religious rulers, if that. If that is correct, then Peter and Stephen were badly mistaken when they so accused the people of Jesus’ death, and so was Luke in saying that when they did so they were “filled with the Holy Spirit” (Ac 2.4; 7.55).
It must be concluded that Jesus did not ask God to forgive all those responsible for his death. To say so is a serious misunderstanding. It also fails to interpret Jesus’ meaning in its literary context. 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).
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, Luke means that Jesus prayed for God to forgive 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. It is doubtful that they knew much about the Jews’ religion or their scriptures.
On the other hand, the Sanhedrin knew quite well was it was doing. That is, the elders of the people, the scribes, the chief priests, and especially the high priest, knew very well what they were doing. And I think the multitudes knew pretty well what they were doing in calling for Barabbas to be given to them and for Jesus to be crucified.
So, he answer to the above question is “no;” Jesus did not ask God to forgive everyone responsible for his death. He asked God to forgive only those soldiers who nailed him to the cross because they did not know the gravity of the situation. But the Jewish people who were present at those feasts, many of whom would have witnessed the proceedings during daylight on so-called Good Friday, needed to afterwards repent of that great sin in calling for, or approving of, Jesus’ death.
Yet, in one of Peter’s evangelistic sermons in the temple, in which he condemned the people, he offered hope by saying, “And now, friends, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers. In this way God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, that his messiah would suffer. Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Messiah appointed for you, that is, Jesus, who must remain in heaven until the time of universal restoration that God announced long ago through his holy prophets” (Ac 3.17-21).