I have sometimes heard people say that in Jesus’ time the Romans occupied Palestine. Not true. Only the province of Judea had a Roman governor. Galilee, Jesus’ home and the scene of most of his ministry, was under the authority of the petty king Herod Antipas. So was the southern Transjordan., where John the Baptist operated. Most Bibles have a map in the back that will show this.
Herod was a vassal of Rome, but he maintained his own army, coined his own money, collected his own taxes, and had his own foreign policy. His was a semi-autonomous Jewish state. He payed tribute to Rome, kept order among the Jews, and served as a buffer and intermediary between Rome and the Parthian and Nabatian states to the east.
There was a political interest group in Jesus’ day called the Herodians. Their hope for freedom from Rome rested, not in prophets and messiahs, but in the dynasty of Herod. Herod Antipas’s father, Herod the Great, had been brutal and paranoid, but he also inspired hope and admiration, because he was the most effective and strongest Jewish leader since David and Solomon. So there was a party of Jews who put their political hope in a situation where, instead of revolution, there evolved a single Jewish state under a strong king with only loose ties to Rome.
The gospels give us the impression that the Pharisees were the main opponents of Jesus. But this is because the Pharisees were the main opponents of the Christian movement in the later part of the 1st century, when the gospels were actually written. The gospels were meant to be relevant and Jesus’ problems with the Herodians were no longer relevant. Still, the gospels show that they were enemies of Jesus ( Matthew 22:16, Mark 3:6, and Mark 12:13).
Today we quite rightly look at the historical Jesus from a post-Holocaust perspective. The charge that Jews were Christ-killers was part of the toxic mix of anti-Semitism. So there is a lot of emphasis on the fact that the Romans, not the Jews killed Jesus. This is true. Crucifixion was a Roman punishment. If the chief priest had lynched Jesus, he would have been stoned to death, like Stephen (Acts 7). If Herod had executed Jesus, he would have been beheaded, like John the Baptist. Since he was crucified, it was a Roman deed.
Before we start an ant-Italian crusade, however, we need to remember that the responsibility lies with the whole human race. The historical situation was complicated. The chief priest was involved in bringing charges and some of the Pharisees may have been. The Zeolots, represented by Barabbas and the “thieves” on the cross had created a situation where the authorities felt the need to suppress insurrection.
What about Herod? The Herodians, who put their hope in the dynasty of the Herods, certainly would have had motive. The non-canonical and anti-Jewish Gospel of Peter blames Herod entirely. Luke’s gospel puts Herod in Jerusalem at the time but is kind of ambiguous about Herod’s involvement. Luke never mentions the Herodians. I suspect that the prayer in Acts 4:27 apportions responsibility in about the right way and may go back to the earliest tradition.
“For in truth, in this city , both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the people of Israel gathered together.against your holy servant, Jesus whom you anointed, ”
Pilate may have washed his hands, but nobody really had clean hands.