Verdict of Pontius Pilate, Part 6 – The Violence Inherent in the System

This is the sixth and final part of an in-depth series I’ve been doing on the trial of Jesus, focusing on what the gospels say about Pontius Pilate’s role in Jesus’ crucifixion. If you want to review the posts leading up to this, here are the links. However, I don’t think you necessarily have to read them before this post. I’ll give you my conclusions here. The links are here if you want more information on how I reached my conclusions. To put it simply, you can look at them if you want to, or you can skip them and go to the article below. It’s up to you.

 

Verdict of Pontius Pilate, Part 1 – Witnesses of Matthew and Mark

Verdict of Pontius Pilate, Part 2 – Witness of Luke

Verdict of Pontius Pilate, Part 3 – Witness of John

Verdict of Pontius Pilate, Part 4 – The Detective Makes His Case

Verdict of Pontius Pilate, Part 5 – John Breaks the Silence

 

Now if you’re ready, we can begin to draw to a conclusion.

***

In Monty Python and the Holy Grail, there’s a scene where King Arthur is “riding” among a group of peasants going about their daily activities. He wants to know who lives in the castle. They are not very helpful. Finally, someone tells him no one lives there. They have no lord. They are an “anarchosyndicalist commune.” As one man explains how executive power is shared among them, Arthur grows impatient, tells him to be quiet, and grabs him.

Man: Aha! Now we see the violence inherent in the system!
Arthur: SHUT UP!
Man: (yelling to all the other workers) Come and see the violence inherent in the system! Help, help, I’m being repressed!
Arthur: (letting go and walking away) Bloody peasant!
Man: Oh, what a giveaway! Did’j’hear that, did’j’hear that, eh? That’s what I’m all about! Did you see ‘im repressing me? You saw it, didn’t you?!

I love how the peasant drops radical twentieth-century egalitarianism on a medieval king who is claiming rule by Divine Right. That phrase “the violence inherent in the system,” though, perfectly describes the crucifixion of Jesus.

If you are Christian, or even if you know only the most basic ideas of Christianity, you’ve heard that Jesus died for our sins. What does that mean? When we hear about “sins,” we tend to think of personal sins, and so we think Jesus died for our personal sins. But if you read about Jesus’ trial without the centuries of tradition and doctrine that have been layered on top of it, this is obviously a story of an innocent man killed by systemic, not personal, sins. To put it simply, Jesus was killed by “the violence inherent in the system.”

What system? There were actually two systems involved: The political system, represented by Pontius Pilate, and the religious system, represented by the Sanhedrin. They existed in a specific historical context,  and yet for 2,000 years, oppressed people all over the world in all kinds of historical contexts have recognized Pilate and the Sanhedrin in their own authorities. They’ve recognized Judas in those who betray them to the authorities. What were the systemic sins that killed Jesus?

Political system

The political system, of course, begins with Rome. They ruled the area around the Mediterranean, including Judea and Galilee – the primary Jewish territories. Rome at times was extremely brutal in forcing their domination over the world. Crucifixion was, after all, a Roman punishment. But they were not just brutal. They knew how to use the stick but also the carrot. They had a system of rewards for individuals and entire communities who served them well. Of course they also had a system of punishments for those who did not toe the line.

The Jews chafed under Roman rule. In some ways, this probably perplexed the Romans. The historian Josephus tells us Herod the Great had been one of the best friends of the previous emperor, Augustus. Through this friendship, Herod was able to secure a number of benefits for the Jews, not just in his kingdom but throughout the Empire. They were free to practice their religion for the most part, including keeping holidays and the Sabbath. So while the Romans were brutal to anyone who refused to pay taxes or challenged the authority of the Emperor, the Jews were spared the worst of it – except when they openly rebelled(1).

As Governor, Pilate represented the Emperor. It was his job to keep the Pax Romana in his territory. The Gospels, I think, present a convincing case that Pilate thought Jesus was innocent. If so, why would he execute him? In previous posts in this series I have examined Pilate’s motives. I believe there was more than one reason, but I think the overriding motivation was definitely to keep the peace and keep Caesar happy.
His options were:

A. Protect Jesus from the mob, even if he has to use force(2).
B. Sacrifice him as a scapegoat to pacify the mob(3).

He chose B, and any Roman governor would have understood.
The violence inherent in the system, Point 1: Kill anyone if it will keep the peace.

The Religious System

The religious system is represented in the Sanhedrin, a sort of council of elders responsible for decisions regarding Jewish religious life, particularly with regard to the Temple in Jerusalem. The council consisted mainly of Sadducees (Temple priests) and Pharisees (local rabbis). The Sadducees, for the most part, benefited from Roman rule. The appointment of the high priest had to be approved by Rome. The order and stability Rome provided, the ease of travel through Roman roads and shipping lanes, and the active trade throughout the Empire created economic opportunity and wealth for the area’s residents, of which the Jews were commanded to pay a tenth to the Temple.

Rumors of Jesus being the Messiah were stirring up hopes among revolutionaries that he would be the one to shatter the yoke of Roman rule and restore the kingdom of David, which would bring the Roman legions to crush them. You can’t have much of an economy when your cities are reduced to rubble.
The violence inherent in the system, Point 2: Kill anyone who messes with the money.

The charge that finally sealed Jesus’ fate to the Sanhedrin was when someone heard him say he would destroy the Temple and rebuild it in three days. Talk of destroying the Temple was not going to sit well in this council that was led by the high priest. It was in response to this charge that the high priest ordered him to answer whether he was “the Messiah, the Son of God” (Mat 26:63). When Jesus says yes, that brings about the charge of blasphemy, which under their law can only be punished with death. There is just one problem. They don’t have the authority to order the death penalty.

They have to convince Pilate that Jesus is guilty of something that would compel a Roman governor to crucify him. So they try to trump up charges against him: He is challenging Caesar’s authority. He claims to be the king of the Jews. He tells people not to pay taxes. He claims to be the Messiah (and Pilate knows that claims of messiahship have always led to rebellion). He is gathering followers around him, i.e., an army. All because they thought he was threatening the Temple.
The violence inherent in the system, point 3: Kill anyone who challenges the religious institution.

However, I think the heart of the religious resistance was this. The religious establishment of the time – especially the Pharisees – represented a system based on purity, nationalism, and exclusion. Jesus preached a message of compassion and inclusion. The Pharisees thought God wanted them to keep out everything foreign – especially Gentiles, Samaritans, immigrants, and Jews who were not “pure enough,” religiously or racially. Jesus focused his ministry on reaching out to those who were excluded: Gentiles, pagans, Samaritans, foreigners, lepers, tax collectors (yes, tax collectors!), women, the sick, the blind, the lame, the poor, children. And in true prophetic fashion, he spoke out against the unjust religious leaders who “devoured widows’ homes and for pretense made long prayers” (Mar 12:40; Mat 23:14; Luk 20:47).

They were offended by the way he called out their injustice masked with piety. They were offended by who he associated with. They were offended by his willingness to welcome anyone of any background who sought God in spirit and in truth. And they were offended enough to want him dead.

I don’t say this as a blanket indictment of the Jewish people. Remember, Jesus was a Jew. His parents were Jews. All twelve original disciples were Jews. But any religious organization can become corrupted when it sees itself as privileged. The Jewish leaders of that time saw themselves as the people of God – exclusively. They taught other Jews to see themselves that way as well. In this way, they were blind leaders of the blind (Mat 15:14). Jesus came along and told them their days of privilege were over. God is the God of all people, Jew and Gentile, equally.
The violence inherent in the system, point 4: Kill anyone who challenges your privilege and superior status.

The Mob

You can’t talk about the system without mentioning the mob. It seems obvious the Sanhedrin was at work through the night, gathering others who also wanted to kill Jesus to put more pressure on Pilate. Were they motivated by religion, politics, or a mixture of both? I believe it was not just one political or religious faction. Probably several factions who normally hated each other were mixed in together, united by one common enemy(4).

Some wanted Jesus dead because they were afraid he would be another messianic pretender who would bring down the wrath of Rome. Some were nationalists, disappointed that he was refusing to lead the people against Rome. Some wanted him dead because they heard he had blasphemed by calling himself the Son of God. Some wanted him dead because he spoke against the Temple. Some wanted him dead because he loved the very people “God hated.” All of these varied reasons were enough to have them all shout together, “Crucify! Crucify! Crucify!”

And what about Barabbas, the man they asked to be spared? In some texts of Matthew, he is called 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 unknowingly presents is Jesus who is called the “son of the Father,” or Jesus who is really the “Son of the Father.” Perfect irony. Maybe a little too perfect, which is probably why “Jesus Barabbas” is not recorded in all the manuscripts.

Would a mob really choose a thief, murderer, and/or insurrectionist over Jesus who is called the Messiah? I can see that. One person’s insurrectionist/murderer is another person’s patriot. Look at some of the political rallies of this campaign season. We have all seen what happens when a crowd gets stirred up against one person who does not toe the line. A mob is like a Zombie horde, mindless and seeking only destruction and death. They will accept and even cheer any violence against the outsider. I have no problem believing that part of the story.
The violence inherent in the system, point 5: Kill anyone who loves the people we hate.

Walter Rauschenbusch identified six systemic sins (he calls them “social sins,” which is an equally proper term) Jesus bore on the Cross:

  1. Religious bigotry
  2. The combination of graft and political power
  3. The corruption of justice
  4. The mob spirit
  5. Militarism
  6. Class contempt(5).

And I am going to add one more to the list: 7. Nationalism.

In examining all the players of this gross miscarriage of justice, you can probably see how each of these sins played out in nailing Jesus to the cross. Where do you find yourself among them? Don’t kid yourself. We are all guilty. I could easily see myself making the same decision Pilate did under those circumstances. In the past, I have used religious dogma to justify my “superiority” to non-whites, foreigners, gays, lesbians, and women, ergo I could have been one of the Pharisees or the mob.

A Final Word

In saying Jesus died for our sins, let’s not forget the social sins that killed Jesus. We have all participated in the violence inherent in the system, even if only by our inaction. As one of my former pastors said, “We would rather crucify Jesus than be transformed by his love.” We would rather cling to our purity and bigotry than welcome the stranger with compassion.
Rauschenbusch goes on to say,

“…every student of history will recognize that these sum up constitutional forces in the Kingdom of Evil. Jesus bore these sins in no legal or artificial sense, but in their impact on his own body and soul. He had not contributed to them, as we have, and yet they were laid on him. They were not only the sins of Caiaphas, Pilate, or Judas, but the social sin of all [hu]mankind, to which all who ever lived have contributed, and under which all who ever lived have suffered”(6).

 

References

(1) A few examples are given in Acts 5:35-39.

(2) In a similar situation, a mob in Jerusalem tried to kill Paul. The Roman tribune brought in his soldiers to protect him (Acts 23:10). Pilate could have done the same thing. However, unlike Jesus, Paul was a Roman citizen, which meant the tribune had a legal obligation to protect him from the mob.

(3) One ancient source says during Pilate’s tenure, the emperor Tiberius came to see the Jews as his friends. It would require at least another blog post to explain how that came about. The point here is Pilate had more reason than usual to fear the mob, because Tiberius had warned him not to offend the Jews.

(4) Unlikely alliances between factions started forming early in Jesus’ ministry, such as when Pharisees plotted with Herodians to kill him (Mar 3:6).

(5) & (6) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walter_Rauschenbusch

 

P.S. What’s that? You found my analysis so brilliant you want to go back and read the other posts in this series? Aw, shucks! You’re making me blush!

Okay, maybe I’m delusional. But I want to be as helpful as I can. Just in case you are interested, I’ll save you from having to scroll up to find the links.

Verdict of Pontius Pilate, Part 1 – Witnesses of Matthew and Mark

Verdict of Pontius Pilate, Part 2 – Witness of Luke

Verdict of Pontius Pilate, Part 3 – Witness of John

Verdict of Pontius Pilate, Part 4 – The Detective Makes His Case

Verdict of Pontius Pilate, Part 5 – John Breaks the Silence

Grace and peace to you.

-David Anderson

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.

Verdict of Pontius Pilate, Part 4 – The detective makes his case

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.

  1. A writer’s sensibilities
  2. A persecuted community
  3. A greater satisfaction

Grace and Peace

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.

 

References

[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.

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 provide 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

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 friends 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.

References

[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

http://www.livius.org/pi-pm/pilate/pilate06.html