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).



(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)


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 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 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 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 allies 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.


[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