Verdict of Pontius Pilate, Part 5 – John breaks the silence

Jesus was almost completely silent before his accusers in the Synoptic Gospels. In my previous post, I said this had to do with his understanding of himself in light of scripture. He was to be the sacrificial lamb who offers himself up in silence, as described in Isaiah. So the silence itself is a powerful statement to those who know. However, in John he answers and talks back to Pilate, the Sanhedrin, and the guards who beat him. If this silence was so important to many early Christians, why did John change it?

copy of Ecce Homo by Quintin Massys
Behold the man!

Three reasons occur to me, given in headlines.

A writer’s sensibilities

All four Gospels make a point of saying Pilate did not want to crucify Jesus. Why? The most often cited reason is he distrusted the motives of Jesus’ accusers. Matthew and Mark say Pilate saw they were jealous of Jesus. Luke says the same and adds that Pilate sent him to Herod, who also did not think he deserved death. This gives Pilate more reason to believe Jesus should be set free.

But John presents the most compelling case for that because he follows one of the cardinal rules of storytelling: Show don’t tell. The others say the Jewish authorities were jealous of Jesus. John shows it in how they present Jesus to Pilate. In John’s account, their exchange with Pilate shows ulterior motives right from the beginning. If he were not a criminal we would not have brought him to you (Joh 18:30). In this case, the differences do not contradict each other. John agrees with the other three, but he fills in some details they don’t have.

Still, it’s hard to see why Pilate thought he was innocent when Jesus does not answer him. In John, Jesus’ answers to Pilate make it much easier to believe. As a writer, John might have seen a gap that he thought needed to be filled. If Pilate was reluctant to crucify Jesus, there had to be more of a reason than what the other Gospels provide. Jesus’ answer fills that gap to a large extent. In John, Jesus speaks the words behind the silence of the Synoptics.

A persecuted community

I believe all four Gospels were written to communities who were either experiencing persecution or felt the threat of it. They were subject to suspicion, ostracism, even jailing, torture and death for what they believed. When they read about Jesus’ trial and his Passion, they were not just reading about Jesus’ suffering but theirs as well.

Jesus’ eloquent defense to Pilate in John says Jesus and his followers are innocent. Yes they claim him as a king, but his Kingdom is not of this world. Because of that they will not fight or participate in rebellion against Rome. There is still room for Caesar to be king in this world. No doubt this served as an important line of defense for any Christians tried in the Roman courts.

A greater satisfaction

This is better illustrated in the trial before the Sanhedrin. The police beat Jesus before he is found guilty of anything. Imagine you are one of the early Christians who have had similar experiences. You think, “That’s not right.” Then you read this in John. The high priest interrogates Jesus about what he taught. Instead of being silent, Jesus answers,

“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” (Joh 18:20-21 NRS).

Now if you have already read this scene in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, you know “those who heard” can’t agree on what he said. It’s a brilliant tactical move. In fact, in going over the trial with the Sanhedrin, I was amazed at how close Jesus came to being released because the witnesses could not agree on anything he said.

One of the guards punches him in the face. Remember, in Mark, Matthew, and Luke, it was important that Jesus said nothing as those in the court beat him. But if you are his follower, and you have been or could be beaten by those same authorities, you don’t want to be silent. You want to say something. And when Jesus is beaten unjustly, you want him to say something. So in John, 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).

Effectively, he tells the guard and everyone there, “You can tell me I’m wrong. You can tell me why I’m wrong. But there is no justification for you to beat me.”

I’m sure this very same thought occurred to those in the Christian community there, so it must have been thrilling to hear Jesus say exactly what they were thinking in the same situation.

Verdict on Pilate

I started this study skeptical that Pontius Pilate would have cared much about whether Jesus was innocent or not. There had already been rebellions of the Jews in recent history. In Judea, there was always an undercurrent of hope of a Messiah who would shake off the yoke of Caesar. The people here had to be kept on a tight rein. So if there is a man who many people, including local leaders, accuse of speaking against Rome, against paying taxes, and against Caesar, who some are calling “messiah” and “son of David,” what would a Roman governor do? Even if he is innocent, crucify him, up high on a hill where everyone can see. Put up a sign that reads “King of the Jews” to show them what Rome will do to anyone they try to make king apart from Caesar. On the surface, Pilate’s actions appear to be straight out of the Roman playbook.

However, after examining these four witnesses carefully, I am 100% ready to believe Pilate thought Jesus was innocent and wanted to release him. To sum up the reasons cited,

  1. He thought the Jewish leaders accused him out of jealousy (Mark and Matthew).
  2. The way they presented him for judgment was suspicious (Luke and John).
  3. Herod did not condemn him when he had the chance (Luke).
  4. Given the choice between Barabbas and Jesus, he would rather crucify Barabbas (all).
  5. He heard Jesus was the son of a god (John).

This last one is the most interesting psychologically. What would a Roman think if he was told he was about to execute the son of a god? It would be terrifying. You don’t mess with the gods. Every Roman knew that. Even if it’s not a Roman god, you never want to challenge them directly. Don’t make a god get personal with you. Killing his son? That’s personal.

Of course anyone can claim to be the son of a god, but what if it is true? Pilate must have known the story of Homer’s Odyssey. Ulysses did not know Polyphemus the Cyclops was the son of Poseidon. Not knowing did not make Poseidon any less angry. Jesus had a powerful charisma about him. Something about him may have struck Pilate as odd, unusual, and different from others he had tried. What made him this way? Maybe something – or someone – not of this world, as he said.

According to John, this fear made Pilate redouble his efforts to release Jesus, but someone among his accusers said,

“If you release this man, you are no friend of the emperor. Everyone who claims to be a king sets himself against the emperor” (Joh 19:12 NRS).

To be a friend of Caesar and lose that, at the very least it would be a grave dishonor. As a Roman officer, if you lose favor with Caesar, you might as well kill yourself. Pilate could very well have believed Jesus was innocent, but would the emperor believe it? Could he take that chance?

In the end, Pilate feared the wrath of Caesar and/or the crowd more than a foreign god. He killed an innocent man to appease the anger of a mob, to please his superiors, and to save his own skin. It may sound like he has done something despicable and inhuman. It may be despicable, but it’s hardly inhuman. What would you do if you faced the same pressure from those in authority over you and from public opinion when it pressed in and threatened to break into a riot? If I were in Pilate’s shoes, I don’t know what I would have done. But honestly, I know myself well enough that I could easily have done just as he did.

So Pilate bears his guilt, as Jesus said. The religious authorities who delivered Jesus to him bear the greater guilt. And I bear the guilt with them. Because the same sins that led to his crucifixion then are alive and well today – in me, in all of us, and in the systems of authority we participate in. His blood was poured out for the forgiveness of sins, the same blood that stains our hands. The very same act that earns our condemnation, God turned around into an act of loving redemption. Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.

painting of Pilate washing his hands of Jesus
Pilate washes his hands

Grace offers forgiveness when we deserve condemnation. But healing can begin only if we name the sins that led to this moment at the cross, and that is what I want to try to do in my next post. Until then,

Grace and peace to you.

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