Bonus Post: Sorry for Brussels

I woke up this morning trying to begin developing habits of mindfulness. I took a moment to breathe and be grateful. As my current self-help book (Emergence, by Derek Rydall) suggested, instead of saying, “Good God, it’s morning,” say, “Good morning, God.” It actually helped. I got out of bed with feelings of gratitude for the gift of life and breath God has given me.

Then I turned on CNN, like I do most mornings, and… well you probably know by now. Europe, once again, is the victim of terrorist attacks by ISIS. Two explosions at the airport in Brussels. Another at the Metro station. Reports at the time said Twenty-six dead. Twenty-six people who will never again have the opportunity to thank God for life and breath as I had done just a few minutes before. I wanted to write about other things, particularly continuing my series on Pontius Pilate.

A few months ago, I posted a comment on Deuteronomy 26 related to the Syrian refugee crisis. We have some of our presidential candidates calling for a ban on all Muslims entering the country and saying we can’t take any of these refugees in. I argued instead we need to make every effort to let them in. From a practical perspective, we need friends in the Muslim world. People like this:

A few years from now, he might make a good spy for us. And he’s not alone.

We are not fighting a nation with armies lining up together that we can bomb or send tanks against. We are fighting an enemy that is hiding in plain sight – until they decide to carry out their planned attacks.

Here is an example:

June 22, 2015, Hickory, North Carolina: A nineteen-year-old man was planning to carry out an ISIS inspired attack. His plan was thwarted when his father reported him in to authorities. This particular boy wasn’t even Muslim or Arab, so don’t think if we keep Muslims out we’re safe.

The main point is he was stopped because someone close to him found out what he was up to and reported him. The more friends we have, the more eyes we have to root out these moles. If the ISIS recruiters are reaching out mainly to Muslims, Muslim friends are our best defense against them.

Then there is the Christian perspective. Love your neighbor. Love the stranger and the alien. Love your enemies. What does that mean in the face of terrorism? I don’t have the answer, but I’m pretty sure it does not include banning, hating and denigrating entire groups of people because of race, religion, ethnicity, or nationality. Not a good way to make the friends we need either.

But let’s remember what they really want: Not so much to kill us but to terrorize us. We are going to need to heighten our security, but we need to be smart about it too. Be watchful, but don’t give in to panic and terror. And on this point, I offer one of the best examples of this I have come across.

A friend was planning the baptism of her newborn. She requested specifically September 11 as the date. The pastor was like, “9-11? Why would you want that date?”

She said, “Because that’s the date my husband and I met.”

That’s how you don’t let the terrorists win. Don’t let them take the joy out of your life.

Grace and Peace to you.

P.S. If you’re having trouble believing there are still good Muslims in America and around the world who want to help us, take a look at this:

P.P.S. A lot of good things happening in Estonia. Hear what the Prime Minister says about the Refugee crisis.

“>Starts at 5:00 if you’re in a hurry


Verdict of Pontius Pilate, Part 3

In the previous two posts, I went over the accounts of the Pontius Pilate’s verdict in the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke. I went over each of them very carefully, looking for any differences. I found that though there were a few minor differences, they agreed on the main points. I noted at the end of the last post that John mostly agrees with them, except that Jesus is not silent before Pilate (or the Sanhedrin). This makes the way he engages both Pilate and the conspirators more interesting and much easier to comment on. So this post is longer than most. But I’ve tried to break it up into easily digestible pieces.

John 18:28-19:16a

John seems to reject the silence of Jesus when he is under trial. Jesus has a lot more to say to his accusers and to Pilate. First, when he’s before the Sanhedrin, he is not silent like in the Synoptic Gospels.

“I have spoken openly to the world; I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all the Jews come together. I have said nothing in secret. Why do you ask me? Ask those who heard what I said to them; they know what I said.”

When he had said this, one of the police standing nearby struck Jesus on the face, saying, “Is that how you answer the high priest?”

Jesus answered, “If I have spoken wrongly, testify to the wrong. But if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me?” (Joh 18:20-23 NRS).

Not exactly the lamb that is silent before the slaughterer here. So what happens when Pilate questions him?

When the Jewish leaders bring him to Pilate, John makes a point of saying, “They themselves did not enter the headquarters, so as to avoid ritual defilement and to be able to eat the Passover” (Joh 18:28 NRS).

Very ironic from the view of the early Christians. Being in the office of a Gentile defiles you, but executing an innocent man does not? And when Pilate asks what they accuse him of, they say, “If this man were not a criminal, we would not have handed him over to you” (Joh 18:30 NRS).

That’s not the answer of someone who is seeking justice. I would love to see how Judge Judy would have handled that. Don’t pee on my leg and tell me it’s raining. Answer my question!

Pilate tells them to judge him according to their law. I think that indicates he’s already suspicious. You want me to judge him, but you won’t give any specific charges. Right.
So when they answer they only brought him to Pilate because they do not have the power of execution, his “spidey sense” really must have been tingling. He pulls Jesus aside to interrogate him. This exchange is only in John, but I find it very interesting.

Then Pilate entered the headquarters  again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” (Joh 18:33-34 NRS).

Something about that response I love. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s that he is interrogating Pilate as much as Pilate is interrogating him. But Pilate rises to the challenge.

Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?”

Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”

Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?”

Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

Pilate asked him, “What is truth?” (Joh 18:35-38a NRS).

Like the other Gospels, John has Pilate say he finds no case against Jesus, and this time it’s more believable. No charges but they want him executed. He says he is a king, but his kingdom is not of this world. Therefore – and this is crucial from Pilate’s point of view – his followers will not fight to save him. No violence, no sedition, no insurrection. Nothing deserving of death as far as Rome is concerned.

Pilate says he wants to release Jesus. He references the custom of releasing a prisoner on Passover and says, “Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?” They shouted in reply, “Not this man, but Barabbas!” Now Barabbas was a bandit (Joh 18:39-40 NRS).

Why did he say it like that? Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews? They cannot say yes to that. Just when I think he really does want to release Jesus, he makes me wonder again.

Pilate’s response in John is probably the most familiar to people.

Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged. And the soldiers wove a crown of thorns and put it on his head, and they dressed him in a purple robe. They kept coming up to him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” and striking him on the face. Pilate went out again and said to them, “Look, I am bringing him out to you to let you know that I find no case against him.” So Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. Pilate said to them, “Here is the man!” (Joh 19:1-5 NRS)

John tells us about the purple robe and the crown of thorns. Why would Pilate do this? The most common theory is that he thought some severe corporal punishment and public humiliation might be enough to satisfy the wrath of his accusers. That’s how it is portrayed in The Passion of the Christ. At least he would live if the plan worked. But just as in the other three Gospels, it does not.

It could have been an example of Roman brutality, I suppose. If he wanted to teach a lesson to a potential insurrection leader, this would have been a good way to do it. Romans sometimes flogged people before crucifixion because they wanted them in a weakened state.

Even so, I still think Pilate does not want to crucify Jesus. He has noted the charges are not well-founded, Jesus has not been charged with anything violent, and he has told him neither he nor his followers will carry out violence. Sometimes when people see someone beaten, suffering, and humiliated, their anger dissipates, so I find that theory believable. But even in this pitiful state, his accusers still demand death.

When the chief priests and the police saw him, they shouted, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” Pilate said to them, “Take him yourselves and crucify him; I find no case against him” (verse 6).

Now didn’t they already say they can’t execute anyone? Take him yourselves and crucify him? They can’t. Could this be another ploy of Pilate?

Crucify him yourselves. I’m not going to do it. Oh, you can’t? Gee, that’s a shame.

It may sound silly, but I could imagine myself doing something like that. But then they drop a bombshell on him.

“We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die because he has claimed to be the Son of God.” Now when Pilate heard this, he was more afraid than ever (Joh 19:7-8 NRS).

Boom! The Son of God! Pilate knew little if anything about the Jewish god. As a pagan, he had certain beliefs about gods in general:

  • Each nation had its own gods.
  • The Roman gods had to be the most powerful because Rome ruled the world.
  • However, that did not mean other gods could not act.
  • A god on his home land still had some power.
  • As a Roman, he had heard stories of demigods: half-god, half-human. Jupiter fathered Hercules and Perseus, among others. Julius Caesar himself claimed to be descended from Venus.
  • So now, the question for Pilate is, What will this god do to me if I kill his son?

He entered his headquarters again and asked Jesus, “Where are you from?” But Jesus gave him no answer (Verse 9).

Now Jesus decides to be silent. Pilate is freaking out.

Pilate therefore said to him, “Do you refuse to speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?” Jesus answered him, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above; therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin” (Joh 19:10-11 NRS).

This is certainly not going to make him feel better. Again, I love that response. Jesus tells him

  1. Your power comes from God, not Caesar. Ultimately, you will have to answer to my father.
  2. The greater sin belongs to the one[1] who handed me over to you.
  3. But that does not exonerate you.

Once again, the judge himself is being judged. I would say Jesus is playing Pilate’s pagan superstitions perfectly, but he’s not playing the game. He just knows how this will end – for himself and his persecutors.

From then on Pilate sought to release him, but the Jews cried out, “If you release this man, you are not Caesar’s friend. Everyone who makes himself a king opposes Caesar” (Verse 12 ESV).

This is so obvious. In each of the Gospels, why doesn’t Pilate – a direct representative of Caesar – see this? A man is accused of claiming to be a king (of the Jews), he does not deny it, and Pilate wants to release him. John’s account actually presents a scenario where that is believable. He finds Jesus innocent because

  1. It is obvious the chief priests want Jesus executed for dubious reasons.
  2. He does claim to be a king, but not of this world.
  3. His followers are nonviolent.
  4. Pilate, as a pagan, is afraid to kill the son of any god.

But the Jews[2] remind Pilate he represents Caesar. When you have been declared “a friend of Caesar” (an official title), to have that stripped away would mean both death and dishonor to your family. Most likely, it would make you “an enemy of the state” (another official title), which would mean it is open season on you.

So when Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus out and sat down on the judgment seat at a place called The Stone Pavement, and in Aramaic[3] Gabbatha. Now it was the day of Preparation of the Passover. It was about the sixth hour. He said to the Jews, “Behold your King!” (19:13-14 ESV).

When Pilate says, “Behold your King,” he is almost certainly being ironic. Remember Jesus looks a mess at this point. He’s been flogged, punched around, and had a crown of thorns put on his head. Even the regal purple robe on him would have looked pathetic. Hasn’t he suffered enough?

They cried out, “Away with him, away with him, crucify him!” Pilate said to them, “Shall I crucify your King?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but Caesar” (Verse 15 ESV).

The chief priests say, “We have no king but Caesar.” Are they being ironic? I don’t think so. If this answer had come from the Pharisees or the Zealots, I would say absolutely. But the chief priests were more pro-Roman than most Jewish sects. The high priest was appointed by Rome, and the emperor Augustus financed part of the Temple. They knew the Temple as an institution depended to a great extent on the good graces of Rome. The destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D. really drove this point home.

So Pilate has a choice to make: face the wrath of Caesar or of some foreign god. Of course we know the choice he makes. It’s the reason for Holy Week. Jesus will be crucified.

Now I’ve been through all four of the Gospels’ portrayals of Pontius Pilate. I have tried to follow a certain method:

  1. Because there is a tendency to conflate the different Gospel accounts into one “unified” version, I made a point of examining each Gospel one at a time.
  2. Consider each account on its own without reference to the others. Once that has been done…
  3. …make comparisons only with others that have been read.
  4. Consider each word, phrase, and sentence carefully in its context.
  5. Try to discern the motives of all the major players.
  6. Pay careful attention to the differences and ask why.
  7. Where are the different writers in fact “unified?”
  8. Ask what does it all mean?

All four Gospels present a story of a man unfairly accused, a powerful special interest group that wants him dead, an official who does not want to execute the man, and a crowd so angry they will not accept anything short of death. For me, there are still some lingering questions. I have spent three posts gathering and examining the data. Now, I would like to take a broader view. What does it all mean? That will require at least one more post.



[1] Why did he say the one and not the ones or those?

[2] Up until now, John has specified certain Jewish leaders as Jesus’ accusers. Now he starts calling them the Jews, which historically has had some terrible repercussions. I maintain that it was not “the Jews” as a whole that wanted Jesus crucified but certain Jewish leaders, i.e., chief priests, scribes, elders, and various Temple officials.

[3] The Greek text says Hebrew but could refer to Aramaic.

Hand of God paper retracted: PLOS ONE “could not stand by the pre-publication assessment”

A paper with reference to “The Creator” in PLOS One, titled “Biomechanical characteristics of Hand Coordination in Grasping Activities of Daily Living”, has been retracted a…

Source: Hand of God paper retracted: PLOS ONE “could not stand by the pre-publication assessment”

Verdict of Pontius Pilate, Part 2 (Luk 23:1-25)

In the last post, I began an examination of Pilate’s verdict. I started with Mark and Matthew because they are almost the same in both the order of events and how they report them. They also present the most basic accounts of how the trial unfolded, so it’s good to have that foundation before considering the added details in Luke and John. With that in mind, I will turn my attention to Luke.


Luke tells specifically what the Sanhedrin charged him with. Mark and Matthew do not tell the specific charges, but you can easily guess they were along these lines. Luke’s particular order of events does not make sense, though.

  • The Sanhedrin has just charged Jesus with forbidding to pay taxes and calling himself Messiah and king, both of which could carry the death penalty.
  • When Pilate asks if he is the king of the Jews, Jesus says, “You say so.”
  • Pilate says, “I find no basis for accusation against him” (Luk 23:2-4 NRS).

No basis for accusation? He’s been accused of forbidding Jews from paying taxes and calling himself king and Messiah. His answer does not even come close to denying it. But Pilate is like, he didn’t say yes. That’s good enough for me.
It’s impossible to think a Roman governor would be that cavalier about such flagrant disregard for Caesar’s authority.

Luke adds a noteworthy detail that’s missing in Mark and Matthew: Pilate learns Jesus is from Galilee. He does the next legal and logical step, send him to Herod the tetrarch of Galilee. This is not Herod the Great of the Christmas story but his son Herod Antipas. It’s such an obvious thing for Pilate to do you wonder why Matthew and Mark do not report it. I can only guess that Luke had access to a source Matthew and Mark did not.

The time with Herod is unremarkable. Herod questions him at length, the chief priests and the elders vehemently accuse him, and Jesus does not answer any of them. Herod and his soldiers treat him contemptuously, put a fancy robe on him (apparently to mock his “regal” status), and send him back to Pilate without making any charges (verse 11).

If Pilate is truly convinced of Jesus’ innocence, he just got a boost from Herod. Now he’s able to tell the Sanhedrin and the people gathered outside in effect, “I found no reason to put him to death and neither did Herod.” Incidentally, Luke tells us this made Pilate and Herod allies where they had been enemies before (verse 12). It seems Herod appreciated Pilate deferring to him, and Pilate appreciated Herod backing up his initial judgment.

What follows is very similar to Mark and Matthew, with some slight differences.

  • In Matthew and Mark, Pilate asks the crowd who they want him to release. In Luke, he does not ask. He simply says he will release Jesus (after flogging him).
  • In all three, the crowd calls for him to release Barabbas. Matthew and Mark connect this with a custom of releasing one prisoner on Passover. Some manuscripts of Luke mention this custom, but some do not.
  • In Matthew and Mark, Pilate protests twice. In Luke, he protests three times before acquiescing.
  • In Matthew and Mark, he does not say he will flog Jesus until after he decides to hand him over to the crowd. In Luke, he wants to flog Jesus then release him.

Are any of these differences significant? Possibly.

  1. More protesting from Pilate is in keeping with Luke’s emphasis on the political innocence of Jesus and the Christian movement. Matthew and Mark also made this point, but it is more explicit in Luke overall, not just here.
  2. The way Luke presents it, the judgment to flog Jesus could be seen as an attempt to pacify the crowd without executing him.

The differences between Mark, Matthew, and Luke are relatively minor. They agree on these key points:

  1. The Sanhedrin – chief priests, scribes, and elders – try to convince Pilate to sentence Jesus to death.
  2. Pilate is suspicious of their motives and reluctant to do it.
  3. Jesus is almost completely silent while he is accused – except when Pilate asks if he is the Messiah and/or the King of the Jews. Then he says, “You say so.”
  4. Pilate wants to release Jesus, but the people gathered outside his court (at the urging of the Sanhedrin) want him crucified.
  5. Instead, they call for him to release a man named Barabbas, who is in prison for murder and/or insurrection. Jesus is then handed over to be flogged and crucified.

Luke adds a scene where Jesus is interrogated by Herod. Luke is the only one of the Gospels that reports this. Because Galilee is where Jesus is from, it makes sense that Pilate would do this.

When we read John, he agrees on all these points except the third. Jesus is not silent to or about his accusers, and the exchanges between Jesus and Pilate are quite interesting. In my next post, I will look at John’s take on Jesus and Pilate with special focus on the contrast between Jesus’ silence in the Synoptics and his more outspoken defense in John.

The Verdict of Pontius Pilate, Part 1 (Mar 15:1-15; Mat 27:1-2, 11-26)

After pronouncing him guilty of blasphemy, the chief priests and elders brought Jesus to Pilate. The trial before Pilate is a study in conspiracy, miscarriage of justice, false witnesses, mob rules, and the violence inherent in the system. When the gospels present the same story, each one gives different details. However, in much of the Passion narrative, Matthew and Mark are almost identical, so I’ll start with the details they both report.

  • Pilate asks, “Are you the King of the Jews?”
  • Jesus says, “You say so.”
  • The chief priests and elders heap [unspecified] accusations against him, but we gather from the context that they are capital offenses.
  • Other than Pilate’s question about being the King of the Jews, Jesus does not answer any of the charges.
  • Pilate tries to get a response from him: “Have you no answer? See how many charges they bring against you.”
  • Pilate is amazed at Jesus’ silence.
  • Pilate recognizes the chief priests and elders brought Jesus to him out of jealousy. Therefore, he sees no basis for execution.
  • There was a custom that the governor would release one prisoner, chosen by the people, for Passover. [1]

At this point, the similarities with the trial before the Sanhedrin are hard to miss.

  1. Jesus is brought before a leading authority (the high priest and then the governor).
  2. He is charged with capital offenses.
  3. He does not answer any of the charges, with one exception: The high priest, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” Pilate, “Are you the King of the Jews?”
  4. The witnesses prove to be unreliable.
  5. Both the high priest and Pilate ask Jesus, “Have you no answer?”
  6. He is almost released, then something happens to prevent it.

Pilate thinks the custom of releasing one prisoner gives him an out. But he has underestimated the machinations of the Sanhedrin. There is a crowd outside the governor’s residence. The chief priests and elders have stacked the crowd with their own supporters. A man named (Jesus)[2] Barabbas was in prison with other rebels who had killed people in an insurrection. When Pilate asks who they want him to release, they call for (Jesus) Barabbas instead of Jesus the Messiah. The exchange in Matthew and Mark is slightly different, so we should look at each of them separately.

Mark 15

“Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?”

11 But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release Barabbas for them instead.

12 Pilate spoke to them again, “Then what do you wish me to do
with (the man you call)
the King of the Jews?”

13 They shouted back, “Crucify him!”

14 Pilate asked them, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Crucify him!” (15:9b, 11-14).

Matthew 27

“Whom do you want me to release for you, (Jesus)
Barabbas or Jesus who is called the Messiah?”

19 While he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent word to him, “Have nothing to do with that innocent man, for today I have suffered a great deal because of a dream about him.”

20 Now the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus killed.

21 The governor again said to them, “Which of the two do you want me to release for you?” And they said, “Barabbas.”

22 Pilate said to them, “Then what should I do with Jesus who is called the Messiah?”
All of them said, “Let him be crucified!”

23 Then he asked, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Let him be crucified!” (Mat 27:17b, 19-23 NRS).

In Matthew, Pilate offers a choice between Barabbas and Jesus, but in Mark he only asks if they want him to release “the King of the Jews?” In both accounts, the crowd calls for Barabbas – at the urging of the chief priests and elders. If Mark is correct, it indicates a greater level of manipulation from the Sanhedrin. They called for Barabbas, even though he was not presented as an option.

  • Do you want me to release Barabbas or Jesus? Barabbas.
  • Do you want me to release Jesus? No, Barabbas.

Both have the same meaning, but B strikes me as more premeditated. How did they know to call for Barabbas? The chief priests and elders told them.

What happens next, they both agree on. Pilate releases Barabbas, has Jesus flogged, and then hands him over to be crucified. Mark says simply he did this to satisfy the crowd. In Matthew, the pressure is more urgent.

So when Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood;  see to it yourselves.” (Mat 27:24)

A riot was beginning. Remember, Pilate’s job is to keep the peace. This detail about him washing his hands and saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” appears only in Matthew. Also, Matthew is the only Gospel that tells about his wife saying, “Have nothing to do with that innocent man….” Matthew is highlighting Jesus’ innocence and Pilate’s hesitancy to crucify Jesus more than Mark, and those aspects will be highlighted even more in Luke and John.

I still have to wonder if Pilate actually wanted to crucify Jesus. The exchange he has with the crowd serves Roman interests very well. It seems most clear in Mark’s stark account:

What do you want me to do with the King of the Jews?

Crucify him!

That’s exactly the attitude a Roman governor wants the Jews to have toward any messianic hopefuls. Jesus did not claim to be the king of the Jews or the Messiah, but he did not deny it either. That alone would raise some concern for any Roman governor, especially in a province as prone to rebellion as Judea or Galilee.

I don’t believe Pilate would have wanted to execute a man he thought was innocent. But I don’t think he would have been racked with guilt over it either. What he did with Jesus was straight out of the Roman playbook. If a mob is about to riot, and you can calm them down by executing one man – even if he is innocent – do it. Better for one man to die than dozens or even hundreds in a riot. Do not sacrifice the Pax Romana for one life.

He gets to crucify a man that some believe is their Messiah, a direct challenge to Rome’s authority. In doing so, he is sending a powerful message to all the Jews: If you try to set up a king apart from Caesar, this is what we will do to him.

However, I can also see some reasons he would have wanted to save Jesus, as the Gospels contend. To get into that, we’ll have to get into the other two Gospels (Luke and John) and some of the other historical sources of the period.


[1] There are no independent sources to confirm this custom, and it’s hard to understand why the Romans would do that, but it is attested in all four gospels.

[2] Some manuscripts of Matthew give the name as Jesus Barabbas, but most simply say Barabbas.

[3] Parentheses indicate this appears in some manuscripts but not all.


For further study