So far in this series, I have taken the approach of a detective who has four witnesses. A detective will talk to each one individually, and when he has a complete statement from each of them, he compares notes. If he had any preconceived ideas of what happened, he re-examines them in the light of the witnesses’ testimonies. There will be some differences in their accounts. In fact, the most suspicious thing that could happen is if all four witnesses say exactly the same thing. That would mean they all met together to “get their story straight.” They are reading a script, not reporting what they saw and heard. So we should not be surprised that every detail is not exactly the same.
In some ways, the detective will be at a loss. None of these four are eyewitnesses to these events. They are all reporting what they heard from someone who probably heard it from someone else who probably heard it from someone else. I don’t know about first century Roman trials, but in our modern courts this would be inadmissible. It is hearsay. Nonetheless, that does not mean their testimonies are unreliable. They may have heard it from eyewitnesses that we don’t have access to today. I don’t have the exact references, but the Book of Acts reports members of the early congregations included members of Herod’s court, Roman soldiers, and slaves of governing officials. There were some within the Sanhedrin who joined as the Jesus movement was just getting started. Pilate’s wife might even have an ally if not a member of the church. So even if they are not admissible in court, I am going to treat them as reliable witnesses unless they prove otherwise.
Like a detective, I have made note of what was the same in each story. Are the similarities consistent with the evidence and real life? If so, these witnesses are mostly reliable. I have carefully compared the differences and asked if they matter. Is there a reasonable explanation for them? I have considered any biases each witness might have. As is often the case with people, each witness might be reliable in some ways but not in others. If two or more witnesses contradict each other in any of the details, I recognize I have to make a choice.
To consider any possible biases, I should say something about each of the witnesses. If you want to review my analysis of the scene in each of the Gospels, you can follow these links
Here is a quick summary.
Mark is probably the earliest written Gospel. He gives the most basic account.
Matthew is the same as Mark, except he shows Pilate putting forth more effort to release Jesus. He adds that Pilate’s wife tried to intercede and stop him from crucifying Jesus. It is in Matthew where Pilate washes his hands and declares, “I am innocent of this man’s blood” (verse 24).
Luke is mostly the same as Mark, but his order of events is a little more confusing. He adds that when Pilate heard Jesus was a Galilean, he sent him to Herod. Herod did not pronounce him guilty of anything and sent him back to Pilate. Also in Luke, Pilate wants to have him flogged before releasing him. This seems to show he does not believe Jesus is totally innocent. He is, after all, claiming to be a king. He has stirred up the mob nearly to the point of rioting. That alone is enough to warrant some punishment. But what is most important to Luke is he has done nothing to deserve death (23:15).
Finally, John also has Pilate wanting to release Jesus, but the mob calling for him to be crucified. Unlike Matthew and Mark, Pilate flogs Jesus before handing him over. It appears, from the way John reports it, he was hoping that the crowd would be satisfied with the severity of that punishment, so that they might let him live.
From these four witnesses, I can say confidently
- The Sanhedrin (Jewish Council) brought Jesus to Pilate
- They wanted Pilate to crucify him
- Pilate was suspicious of their motives
- He wanted to release Jesus
- Fearing a riot was about to break out, and perhaps fearing offense to Caesar, he handed Jesus over to be crucified.
Those are the main similarities. But there are a couple of issues I am still wrestling with: This custom of releasing a prisoner on Passover, and whether or not Jesus was silent before his accusers.
Passing Over Barabbas
They all say there was a custom in Judea where on Passover, the Ruler would let the people choose one prisoner to release from the sentence of death. They all say Pilate tried to release Jesus based on this custom, but the crowd called for a man named Barabbas instead. Even though they all affirm this custom, there is nothing in other literature to confirm it (except maybe Josephus, Antiquities, 20:215). Could this aspect of the story been made up? If I am objective, I have to say it is possible. Should I ignore my suspicions and accept their testimony on faith? That’s not my style. I must dig deeper.
Why would the Romans accept this practice?
This is the biggest reservation I have. I don’t see the Romans letting outsiders decide to let someone go like this. If someone is sentenced to death, he has certainly done very bad things. You let the people choose one person to release from execution, and they might choose a bandit who robs and kills people for their money, a murderer, an insurrectionist, someone like… Barabbas!
It works well with the story – maybe too well
It heightens Jesus’ innocence to contrast him with a thief and murderer. Some texts of Matthew make the contrast even more obvious by calling him Jesus Barabbas, which allows Pilate to say,
Whom do you want me to release for you, Jesus Barabbas or Jesus who is called the Messiah? (27:17 NRS).
By the way, Barabbas means “son of the father.” And who is really the “Son of the Father”? Uh-huh! So the choice Pilate presents is actually Jesus who is called the “son of the Father,” or Jesus who is really the “Son of the Father.” That is just a little too perfect, which is probably why “Jesus Barabbas” is not recorded in all the manuscripts. Or the other Gospels.
Despite all this, I could still make a good case for this custom. Pilate is always presented as trying to release Jesus, a man who has been accused of insurrection and claiming to be a king apart from Caesar. Why wouldn’t Pilate want to crucify him? This custom helps me believe that. Given the choice, it is easy to see why Pilate would want to release Jesus. While Jesus was accused of insurrection (For a Roman official this was the most serious charge that could be made against any one), it was only an accusation and he had committed no violence. Barabbas had already committed violence (called a bandit in John) and/or been found guilty of murder and insurrection (according to Matthew and Mark). If all four were right about Pilate’s intention, maybe they were right about this custom as well.
In the final analysis, my objective, rational mind cannot decide. In cases like this, where I cannot disprove it and it makes sense within the story, I will usually give the benefit of the doubt to the scriptural accounts.
The Sound of Silence?
John has Jesus answer Pilate’s questions to him. The other Gospels say he was silent. In John, Pilate pulls Jesus aside into his judgment chamber, where the Jews won’t go. Perhaps Jesus was willing to speak to Pilate apart from the Jews. They had heard him teach in the synagogues and in the temple, but Pilate not so. Maybe he was willing to share his message with someone who had not heard it before.
That makes sense, but a couple of problems with that. 1) It’s such a simple explanation, why didn’t the other Gospels mention it? 2) The same discrepancy shows up when Jesus is on trial before the Sanhedrin. In the Synoptics, Jesus has all kinds of accusations made against him, he is beaten, and he remains mostly silent throughout. He does not call anyone out for treating him unjustly. In John, when one of the Temple police punches him, he says, If I have spoken wrongly, testify to the wrong. But if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me?
(Joh 18:23 NRS). So here is another instance where in the Synoptics, Jesus is silent, but in John he challenges his accusers.
As I said earlier, when sources contradict each other, we have to make a decision which is more likely to be true to the facts. I am more inclined to believe he was silent because
1) There are three witnesses who agree on that point.
2) They also agree on the one exception to that. When Pilate asked if he was a king, Jesus said, You say so.
3) I know Jesus said repeatedly everything he did and said was to fulfill scripture. We have this from Isaiah:
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. By a perversion of justice he was taken away (Isa 53:7-8a NRS).
The idea of Jesus being innocent and silent, like a lamb led to the slaughter, the Lamb of God, the lamb whose blood takes away our sins, the lamb who is sacrificed for our Passover from bondage to freedom, the lamb who is oppressed and afflicted yet does not open his mouth despite the perversion of justice against him. This is so consistent throughout the Gospels it had to have developed early, so early in fact that I believe it must have come from Jesus himself. This is the portrait Matthew, Mark, and Luke present of Jesus before both the Sanhedrin and Pilate.
If they are all consistent, why does John depart from them on this point and have Jesus speak in his own defense? That is what I would like to examine in the next post. As a quick preview, here are three possible reasons I see for it.
- A writer’s sensibilities
- A persecuted community
- A greater satisfaction
Grace and Peace