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.