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

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

  1. Pingback: Verdict of Pontius Pilate, Part 2 (Luk 23:1-25) – Fawns of Naphtali

  2. Pingback: Verdict of Pontius Pilate: Part 4: The detective makes his case – Fawns of Naphtali

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