The focus of this study is the Roman trial narrative of the Gospel of John. It thus completes the four studies in early Christian anti-Judaism which is embedded in the Roman trial narratives of the four NT gospels.
Differing from the synoptic gospels, in John’s Gospel there is no formal Jewish trial before Jesus is handed over to Pilate (18:28). Immediately after his arrest (18:12), Jesus is first taken to Annas (the father-in-law of Caiaphas) who questions him “about his disciples and his teaching” (18:13,19) and then sends him to the high priest Caiaphas (18:24). If there is to be any formal Jewish trial of Jesus, it should be before Caiaphas in his official capacity as the high priest (18:13, 24).
But John says nothing about any proceeding which may have happened before Caiaphas. Some of the features contained in the Jewish trial accounts of the synoptic gospels have been scattered throughout the fourth gospel, especially in chapter 10 where it is noted that “the Jews” ask Jesus if he is the Messiah and then accuse him of blasphemy (= “making yourself God” [10:22-39]; cf. “making himself equal to God” [5:18]) as well as in chapter 11 where John reports that “the chief priests and the Pharisees call a meeting of the Sanhedrin” to cynically decide on the death of Jesus to avert destruction by Roman hands to “the place [Temple] and the nation” (11:47-53).
The trial before Pilate (18:28-19:16a) began with an interchange between Pilate and “the Jews”/1/ who are typically depicted in John’s Gospel as the representatives of the unbelieving, hostile world/2/ which is led by Satan and alienated from the believing Johannine community./3/
This interchange occurred outside the praetorium (18:28-31), whereas Jesus, after being taken by “the Jews” to the praetorium and handed over to Pilate to go on trial, remained inside.
In John’s Roman trial narrative, during the trial Pilate is depicted as moving back and forth constantly, being one time with “the Jews” who remain outside the praetorium and, at another time, being with Jesus who, for most of the action, remains inside the praetorium.
This depiction is not due to John’s attempt to make Pilate appear indecisive and vacillating during the trial; but, in Helen K. Bond’s view, this is most probably due to John’s literary style drawn from the literary convention of his day./4/
Raymond E. Brown considers this as a Johannine theological symbolism that signifies two separate realms in conflict, one of darkness and one of light./5/
However, John applies this symbolism not in a consistent way; in two scenes Jesus is together with Pilate and the Jews outside the praetorium (19:4-8; 19:12-16a).
In keeping with Pilate’s movements, John’s Roman trial narrative (18:28-19:16a) is structurally to be divided into seven scenes, all arranged into two symmetrical groupings, each with three scenes and centring on the scourging episode in 19:1-3:
(1) 18:28-32 (Pilate with “the Jews” outside: Jews demand Jesus’ death);
(2) 33-38a (Pilate with Jesus inside: an interchange on kingship);
(3) 38b-40 (Pilate with “the Jews” outside: Pilate finds no guilt [asserted for the first time]; Jewish choice of Barabbas);
(4) 19:1-3 (Pilate with Jesus inside: soldiers scourge and mock Jesus);
(5) 4-8 (Pilate with Jesus and “the Jews” outside: Pilate finds no guilt [asserted two times]; “Behold the man”; “the Jews” shout for crucifixion);
(6) 9-11 (Pilate with Jesus inside: an interchange on power);
(7) 12-16a (Pilate with Jesus and “the Jews” outside: Pilate yields to the Jewish demand for crucifixion).
Brown considers these seven chiastically structural divisions as “one of the master dramatic constructions” in John’ Gospel,/6/ and remarks that “Nowhere does the interplay between historical tradition and the interests of theology and drama become more apparent than in the scene of the trial before Pilate.”/7/
Wishing to show that Pilate followed a proper formal judicial procedure,/8/ John has him start with asking “the Jews” for the charge against Jesus, “What accusation do you bring against this man?” (tou anthrōpou toutou) (18:29). Because Roman participation in Jesus’ case actually had already begun in the arrest of Jesus (on this, see below), the prefect Pilate, before the trial began, certainly had been made well informed about the accusation brought by “the Jews” against Jesus, whom the prefect considered nothing more than as “a man” (anthrōpos).
It is therefore natural that “the Jews” then replied to the prefect’s question in an insolent tone, with this statement: “If this man (houtos) were not doing what is bad (kakon poiōn), we would not have given him over to you” (18:30). Because of this insolence, Pilate in return cynically said to “the Jews”: “Take him yourselves and judge him according to your law.” “The Jews” replied with this assertion: “It is not lawful for us to put anyone to death.” (18:31).
In that exchange, “the Jews” judged Jesus contemptuously (“this man”) as “an evildoer,” that is, as one doing what is bad, or as a criminal; and it is also clear that they wanted him to be sentenced to die by the prefect.
In 18:32, John makes it clear, with reference to 12:32-33, what “kind of death Jesus was to die,” that is, death by “the lifting up” of Jesus from the earth, namely, by crucifixion (also 19:6), in accordance with Roman practice of capital punishment.
“The Jews” admitted that they had no power to execute Jesus. With regard to this, Brown is of the opinion that “according to the better evidence, except for certain specified religious and moral crimes where death was the automatic penalty, the Jews in Judea were not allowed to execute.”/9/
As the representative of the Roman state in Judea, Pilate knew that “the Jews” had no power to put anyone to death; only he as the Roman prefect did have the power to crucify or to release Jesus, as he later stated in 19:10.
It should therefore be concluded that when Pilate told “the Jews” to see to Jesus’ trial themselves, he actually was warning them in a humiliating and cynical way that he was the judge and that, without him, they could not have the prisoner executed; so they must not talk with him in an impudent way.
Agents of the Devil
By writing that “the Jews” condescendingly called Jesus “an evildoer” and that they had “given him over” to Pilate to stand trial, John wishes to express both a note of irony and a theological view of “the Jews” by which he desires to denigrate “the Jews.” The “giving over” (the verb: paradidonai) of Jesus to Pilate by “the Jews” paints them as having taken a crucial part in the chain of decisive events culminating in the death of Jesus by crucifixion.
Behind these events, John tells, Satan or the Devil played a role until the crucifixion (see below) and even it did so beyond it (17:15; cf. 15:18-19; 16:33b). Thus, the actual evildoer was not Jesus, but, ironically, they, “the Jews” whose father was “the Devil”, “the father of lies” (8:44). Because Satan, their father, was “the murderer from the beginning”, “the Jews” were then the murderers themselves (5:18; 7:1,19, 25; 8:37,40, 59; 10:31, 33; 11:8, 50-53). By giving Jesus over to Pilate, “the Jews” refused to come to the light lest their evil deeds be exposed (3:19,20).
The consecutive events of the “giving over” of Jesus began with the entrance of Satan or the Devil into Judas which occurred when Jesus together with his disciples were celebrating the last supper on the night before the day of the Passover feast (differing with the synoptic gospels).
After Satan had entered into Judas, Jesus ordered him to do quickly what he was going to do (13:26-27; cf. 13:2; in 6:70-71 Jesus already labelled Judas “a devil”). On the same night, the “giving over”of Jesus to “the Jews” by Judas (18:2-3; see also 6:70-71; 12:4; 13:2) took place through the hands of a substantial number of Roman troops (hē speira) together with their commander (ho chiliarchos) and the Jewish Temple police ― all of whom having been guided by Judas to the place where Jesus and his disciples were, in order to arrest Jesus (18:1-12).
Because the mobilization of a great number of Roman soldiers in the arrest of Jesus certainly was only possible if Pilate had ordered it, it is clear that, unlike in the synoptic gospels where the arrest of Jesus is depicted as a purely Jewish affair, in John’s Gospel substantial Roman involvement in Jesus’ case had already begun right from, and even prior to, the arrest of Jesus.
When Jesus was about to be arrested, as John describes the scene, it was actually Jesus who was in control of the whole situation. He knew all that was to happen to him (18:4). In order to fulfill the word that he had spoken, he gave instructions to let his disciples go free (18:8-9)./11/
Confronted with Jesus’ revelation of himself as the living embodiment of God in the words “I am he” (the egō eimi of 18:5,8), those sent from the worldly authority to arrest him drew back and fell to the ground (18:6), an incident intended by John to emphatically denote their powerlessness against Jesus.
Furthermore, as Jesus was being taken into custody, “the Ruler/Prince of this world” (ho archōn tou kosmou toutou), i.e., Satan or the Devil/11/or “the Evil One” (17:15; 1 John 2:13-14; 3:12; 5:18-19), appeared to show its demonic power; but this supernatural being could do nothing against Jesus (14:30)./12/
Immediately after the arrest, “the Jews” brought Jesus to Annas for a brief interrogation, during which Jesus demanded that proof be offered that he had done anything wrong (18:23). Annas then sent Jesus bound to Caiaphas, the high priest. Early the next morning, the “giving over”of Jesus by “the Jews” to Pilate for trial took place (18:28,30, 35; 19:11). The trial ended in the “giving over” of Jesus by Pilate to “the Jews” to be crucified (19:16a).
At this climactic moment, Jesus, having been nailed to the cross and “having known that already all was accomplished” (19:28,30), “gave over (paredōken) the [his] spirit” (19:30). With these words, John indicates that the whole series of the “giving over” had come to an end, and that Jesus’ death was not caused by his enemies, but due to his own conscious will (cf. 10:11,15,17-18)./13/
Jesus had power over everything, even over his own death on the cross as the divinely determined way which would lead to his simultaneous ascension into heaven, exaltation and glorification./14/
With the event of Jesus’ death, according to John, a cosmic battle broke out between God and the forces of darkness. As the end result of this supernatural combat, “the Ruler of this world” was “driven out” (or “cast down”) and “condemned” (12:31-32; 14:30-31; 16:10-11);/15/ the world (ruled by Satan, opposing Jesus and his followers) was brought into “judgment” (krisis) (12:31a)/16/ and the divinity of Jesus was disclosed (8:28).
In this series of the “giving over” of Jesus, “the Jews,” indeed the entire “Jewish nation” (18:35; see below), are pictured by John as deeply involved, and involved as “agents” of the Devil. Clearly, with picture such as this, John sharply reveals an anti-Jewish polemic. As Alan F. Segal expresses it, “In John’s Gospel, the Ruler of this world is part of one of the strongest anti-Jewish polemics in the New Testament....[T]he supernatural figure and the anti-Jewish polemic are related.”/17/
“Are You the King of the Jews?”
The first exchange between Pilate and Jesus occurred inside the praetorium, starting with Pilate’s question to Jesus: “Are you the King of the Jews?” (18:33). As in the synoptic gospels, this initial question of the prefect is best understood as a clear-cut commencement of interrogation against the prisoner, in accordance with Roman trial procedure./18/
In Dodd’s judgment, Pilate’s first question to Jesus “is the core of the trial in all gospels.”/19/ This question indicates that Jesus was accused of claiming to be the king of the Jews. This is a political charge, formulated from the Roman point of view as is indicated by the use of the term “the Jews” instead of “Israel” (cf. the title “King of Israel” in 1:49b). The political character of this charge is clearly implied when “the Jews” say to Pilate, “Everyone who claims to be a king sets himself against Caesar” (19:12b). In view of the fact that the question of the kingly status of Jesus and the sobriquet “the King of the Jews” or simply “king” appear frequently during the trial (18:33, 37, 39b; 19:3, 12b, 14, 15b) and even into the crucifixion scene (19:19, 21-22), one must conclude that this political charge is the primary one.
A secondary, more religious reason for demanding Jesus’ death is declared by “the Jews” later, in 19:7: “We have a law, and according to the law he ought to die because he made himself the Son of God.”
To Pilate’s inaugural question, “Are you the King of the Jews?,” Jesus responded with another question: “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” (18:34). Having just commenced his investigation, Pilate would undoubtedly have been surprised to be interrogated by Jesus, the accused.
The words used by Jesus may well have been intended by John to carry the implication that Jesus did indeed consider himself to be king of the Jews.
Perhaps feeling that Jesus was gaining some degree of control over himself, Pilate as a non-Jew refused to state his opinion of the personal identity of Jesus, referred to the Jewish leaders and nation as the source for the use of the title “King of the Jews”, and then gave Jesus the opportunity to explain what he had done to cause such an accusation: “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” (18:35). In this interchange, it seems clear that John wanted to stress Pilate’s main concern as being the political implication of the use of the title “King of the Jews”, particularly since it was the Jewish leaders who had reported that Jesus was claiming that role.
An Anti-Jewish Generalization and Theological Irony
By depicting Jesus’ “own nation” as those, together with the chief priests, who accused and gave Jesus over to Pilate to stand trial, John undoubtedly made an anti-Jewish generalization, implicating all Jews in the execution of Jesus.
It is quite possible that John made this generalization because Christian Jews were being expelled from the synagogues in John’s city, probably in the closing years of the first century. In this action, John seems to have judged the local Jewish leaders as heirs of those who took Jesus into custody and accused him before Pilate./20/ Other reasons, literary and theological, for mentioning the entire Jewish nation as those responsible for the giving over of Jesus to be tried are found in 11:45-53.
In that passage, as has been noted, John narrates that “the chief priests and the Pharisees” in a meeting of the Sanhedrin concluded that, because of the signs he had performed, Jesus had attracted such a large number of people that the Romans might be led to destroy “the place [Temple] and the nation.” To prevent such a national disaster, the Sanhedrin members agreed on a plan to kill Jesus and thereby eradicate the movement he had initiated.
In that meeting, the high priest Caiaphas said, “[I]t is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed” (11:50; 18:14). These words are interpreted by John to be a prophesy given to Caiaphas as high priest, but a prophecy in which the true theological import, not realized by Caiaphas, was the gathering together of all the dispersed children of God as a result of Jesus’ death (11:51-52). Because of the perceived danger of extreme action on the part of the Roman against the Temple-centered Jewish religion and national life if the Jesus movement was not halted, it was not surprising, as John relates in 18:35, that the Jewish nation together with those same Sanhedrin members later took Jesus into custody and handed him over to the Romans.
In all this, there is a marked theological irony: the nation which sought Jesus’ death and which handed him over to the Roman prefect, with the accusation that he was trying to make himself a rival of Caesar, was the nation for which Jesus died of his own accord. And it is a further theological irony that, whereas the Sanhedrin wanted Jesus eliminated in order to prevent all men from coming to believe in him (11:48), Roman crucifixion, by lifting Jesus up from the earth, would actually draw all men to him (12:32-33), thereby foiling their evil plan to crush him.
“My Kingdom Is Not from This World”
With the question “What have you done?” (18:35), Pilate would seem to be seeking testimony from the accused himself, leaving aside any prejudice of Jesus’ accusers. But, rather than give some accounting of his activities, Jesus made a statement about the character of his kingdom: “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting/21/ to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here” (18:36). Here John emphasizes strongly by three repetitions that Jesus’ kingdom is not from this world, not “from here” (enteuthen [18:36]).
Using John’s similar phrases, Jesus’ kingdom is not “from below,” nor “of the things below” (= ek tōn katō [8:23]); but it is “from above” (anōthen [19:11; 3:3,7,31]) or “of the things above” (= ek tōn anō [8:23]).
As such, Jesus’ kingdom is totally unlike, and superior to, the empire ruled by Caesar or any other worldly dominion (cf. 3:31). If this were not the case, Jesus’ followers would have used force to try to prevent his arrest. Jesus was indeed a king, but a king without army or military forces; hence his kingly activities were apolitical and non-military, but rather spiritual and divine.
As a spiritual rather than a political dominion in the world, Jesus’ kingdom is not limited to any geographical boundaries and consequently it is open to all men (12:32). In the words used by John, Jesus indirectly acknowledges the title “king”, but it does not have any worldly connection. Therefore, Jesus and his activities are no threat to Roman authority over the land of Israel./22/ According to John, it is this which Jesus wants Pilate to understand.
In the Gospel of John, there are other passages which point to this kingly status of Jesus. In 1:47-51, Nathanael, who had come to believe in Jesus, hailed Jesus as the Son of God and “the King of Israel” and Jesus did not reject these titles.
Jesus is truly the king of Israel, namely, the king whose subjects are not Jews in general, but those who, like Nathanael, believe in him, those who, also like Nathanael, are true Israelites in whom deceit is not found./23/
The people of his kingdom are not the same as subjects of any worldly dominion, but those who hear his voice as truth and believe in him as the embodiment of God’s truth. That Jesus did not espouse the notion of an earthly, political nationalistic kingship is denoted also in 6:15; in this text John relates that when Jesus realized that the people would come to carry him off and make him an earthly king by force, he rejected this attempt and withdrew again to the mountain alone.
In the episode of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem (12:12-16), John narrates, when Jesus was entering the city, the large crowd that had come there for Passover took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, and, upon his arrival, acclaimed him by the title “the King of Israel”, thereby proclaiming him, in the spirit of Maccabean nationalism, as the messianic King/24/ or a national liberator/25/ (cf. 2 Maccabees 10:7; 1 Maccabees 13:51).
Jesus, on the one hand, apparently did not deny the title, but, on the other hand, immediately corrected this nationalistic conception of his kingly status by getting a young donkey and sitting upon it; and Zephaniah 3:16 and Zechariah 9:9 are quoted to interpret this action of Jesus.
Thus, according to Brown’s exegesis, in John’s Gospel Jesus’ entering Jerusalem on a donkey is a prophetic action designed to counteract Jewish nationalism; it is an affirmation of a universal, superior kingship open to all men which will be achieved, as 12:16 indicates, only when he is “glorified”, that is, when he is lifted up from the earth through his death by crucifixion and resurrection in which time he can draw all men to himself (11:50-52; 12:20, 24, 31-32)./26/
In John 10, using OT imagery of shepherd symbolizing either God who takes care of His people/27/ or Israel’s king or ruler,/28/ Jesus says that he is the Good Shepherd who lays down his life of his own accord for the sheep, and that no one takes his life from himself, but he has the power or authority to lay it down and to take it up again (10:11-18). The picture of the shepherd’s willingness to die for the sheep is a unique feature in John’s Gospel./29/
In the historical context of an internal conflict concerning leadership in John’s community,/31/ the evangelist John presented Jesus as the good leader of God’s people whose task was not political, but spiritual in nature, that is, to give his life for God’s people, “his own”, namely, to die for them,/31/ so that they may have had life abundantly (10:10b), would never perish, but had eternal life (10:28; 3:16).
All the passages analysed above lead one to the conclusion that Jesus clearly did not deny that he was the king of Israel. At the same time, Jesus resolutely rejected the notion of an earthly, political kingdom linked to himself, for his kingdom was of divine or otherworldly origin and character. Nevertheless, as is depicted and stressed throughout the Gospel of John, Jesus’ kingdom is present and powerfully active in the natural world through the signs which Jesus performed, i.e., through his works and words.
Pilate Was Part of the Unbelieving and Hostile World
After hearing the phrase “my kingdom” said by Jesus himself three times in 18:36, Pilate, perceiving Jesus as claiming to be a king of some sort, reasonably asked him this question: “So you are a king?” (18:37a).
This question of Pilate does not suggest that the prefect correctly recognized Jesus’ divine kingly status. As John will soon make clear, Pilate had no concern at all about anything divine in Jesus’ personal qualities, words and deeds. Jesus answered Pilate with the statement: “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.” (18:37b).
Unlike the two previous answers by which Jesus had pointed out indirectly that he was a king, and also unlike the Roman trial narrative of the Gospel of Mark (and pars.) in which the “You say so” should be considered as ambiguous, here, in John’s Gospel, the “You say that I am a king” should, by the context, be seen as Jesus’ clear and direct affirmation that he was truly a king, an assertion given in response to Pilate’s perception./32/
And Jesus went on to explain that to be a king in this world was the reason of his birth, the reason why he, as the preexistent Word (1:1) or heavenly Son of Man (3:13), had become incarnate, namely, had come into the world in human flesh (1:14). In other words, he was truly not a king from this world, but a king from the divine world who, by becoming flesh, had come into the human world carrying a kingly divine mission.
His kingly divine mission was to testify to the truth in this world, namely, to divine or heavenly reality;/33/ that is, to God’s self-disclosure in Jesus himself as the embodiment of divine truth (14:6) or the incarnation of the Word (1:14); and to God whose words are truth (17:17) who had sent Jesus into the world (8:42b). Only if one accepts Jesus as the truth, will he or she come to God, the Father, since there is no other way for humanity to be able to come to God, to eternal life, except through him (14:6); only “in him was life” (1:4). Thus, at this time Jesus defined his kingly task positively; and, again, spiritually, not politically nor militarily.
Jesus’ answer ended with a solemn assertion that those who belong to the truth will listen to his voice. One should consider Jesus as here implicitly challenging and inviting Pilate (and through Jesus’ mouth, of course John’s readers) to listen with understanding to Jesus’ voice, thereby proving himself (and themselves) to be of the truth, to be on the side of Jesus the truth, to belong to Jesus’ sheep who “hear and know his voice” (10:3,4). Jesus, who according to the world’s standard is the prisoner, here again becomes the judge who indirectly is urging Pilate, the world’s judge, to decide whether he wishes to be of the truth or does not; the world’s judge thus ironically is being judged by the world’s prisoner who is in reality and in truth the divine judge.
For John, in harmony with his “ethical dualism”/34/ or “dualism of decision” (Entscheidungsdualismus)/35/ which fills his gospel presentation, when one is confronted with Jesus’ proclamation of divine things, one cannot take a neutral or middle position; one should decide, to be with or against Jesus; the choice is only “either/or”.
Apparently, unwilling to be under Jesus’control and directive, Pilate gave an uncommitted, evasive and even scornful reply to Jesus: “What is truth?” (18:38a). With this, Pilate showed that he did not belong to the truth; that he was not among the flock of Jesus’ sheep whom the Father had given Jesus out of the world (17:6). Rather, Pilate showed that he belonged to and was part of the unbelieving and hostile world which did not know Jesus and thus rejected him (1:10-11; cf. 14:17)./36/
Pilate’s indifferent answer revealed that he did not want to know more of Jesus as the divine truth, of Jesus as the Word becoming flesh and, therefore, far more than a human being. Pilate was not interested in anything divine in Jesus if such a thing existed in Jesus. And the same point of view is seen in Pilate’s immediately leaving Jesus alone after pronouncing such a scornful question, and going out to “the Jews” (18:38b), thereby intentionally discarding the possibility of discussing truth with Jesus.
“Here Is the Man . . . Claiming to Be the Son of God!”
Pilate’s perception of Jesus as only another human being (18:29) is expressed again and again in John’s trial narrative. In 18:39-19:5, John relates that Roman soldiers, under Pilate’s command, flogged Jesus, and then wove a crown of thorns (= a mocking imitation of the radiate crowns of oriental god-kings) and put it on Jesus’ head, and dressed Jesus in a purple robe (= a mocking dress-up for a royal robe).
In John’s narrative, these were done for two reasons. Firstly, to describe the ways in which Pilate attempted to evoke sympathy from “the Jews” for the scourged, humiliated and mocked Jesus, rather than for a bandit named Barabbas, so as to enable the prefect to set Jesus free with full support of “the Jews” because he considered Jesus as not guilty/37/ (18:38b; cf. Luke 23:13-16; on this, see below). Secondly, to make visual in a concrete and dramatic manner John’s anti-docetic christology.
When Jesus was standing before Pilate and “the Jews,” wearing the crown and the robe, being swollen, beaten, bruised, harmless, powerless, pathetic and bleeding from those cruel and ridiculous thorns, Pilate, pointing to Jesus, said to “the Jews” in a dramatic fashion, “Here is the man!” (idou ho anthrōpos; Latin: Ecce homo!) (19:5).
This scornful proclamation is consistent with Pilate’s view of Jesus as only a man. In these dramatic words, Pilate is speaking with ridiculous and sardonic irony: Here is the man you, “the Jews”, find so dangerous and threatening; can you not see now that he is in reality harmless, powerless, pathetic and somewhat ludicrous? Can you therefore feel sorry for him and willingly set him free?
In other words, Pilate desired to show to “the Jews” that their evaluation concerning Jesus as a dangerous political rebel claiming to be the King of the Jews, was flatly wrong, far from reality! They therefore in the name of justice had to set him free.
Thus, if the prefect Pilate was thereby mocking Jesus, he was also ridiculing the Jewish authorities with no less venom and bitterness; here John’s depiction of Pilate as despising “the Jews” obviously was motivated by the evangelist’s anti-Jewish bias.
However, realizing that Pilate desired to release Jesus whom now he considered as having been wrongly accused (on this, see below), as well as to placate and scorn them, and being very hostile to Jesus, “the Jews” reacted by shouting: “Crucify him! Crucify him!” (19:6a).
Discovering that his stratagem to acquit Jesus was abortive, Pilate responded with offensive resentment and disgust: “You take him yourselves and you crucify him! I find no case against him.” (19:6b-c). The first half of this response of Pilate is an imperative sentence with a doubly emphatic “you”, echoing the tone and the words of 18:31 (see above); this should of course not be seen as a formal transfer by the prefect of his judicial prerogatives to the Jewish court.
As noted earlier, the Jewish authorities had no rights to execute anybody in the land under Roman control. Moreover, it should be noted that, after Pilate had uttered these words, “the Jews” continued to press him to order Jesus’ execution; this suggests that they did not take seriously Pilate’s command to crucify Jesus themselves, since they know that only the Roman prefect could make that order. Thus, Pilate’s words are to be seen as a sarcastic and cynical taunt: You bring the prisoner to me to stand trial, but you will not accept my judgment that the prisoner was innocent (18:38b; 19:6c)! So take him yourselves and crucify!/38/
Rightly, Brown sees Pilate’s words as “not serious”, but as “an expression of Pilate’s exasperation.”/39/ Similarly, Bond contends that Pilate’s words here are better to be interpreted as a mockery./40/
In the picture of the tortured and crowned man pointed to in the words “Ecce homo”, one finds John’s christological irony coloured by anti-docetic feature: Jesus was indeed the true Man, that is, the Word made flesh, who was displaying his glory, the glory of the one and only Son of the Father (1:14), in the very disgrace, pain, suffering, anguish and brutalization that Pilate advanced as suitable, concrete evidence that Jesus was undeserving of being put on Roman trial because he was innocent and politically irrelevant./41/
Moreover, as already noted, John gives the word “man” in 11:50 (as in 18:14) a soteriological meaning: “It is better for you to have one man (heis anthrōpos) die for the people”;/42/ this is an affirmation by John of the man Jesus’ universal soteriological significance.
It should also be noted, that in the trial narrative this universal soteriological importance of the man Jesus is stated again by John. In 19:14, referring to Jesus who had been brought outside and was standing before “the Jews” and still wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe, Pilate said to them, “Here is your King!” (ide ho basileus hymōn) (19:14b).
This mock proclamation is directly preceded by John’s note, in verse 14a, of the time in which it was announced: “Now it was the day of Preparation for the Passover; and it was about noon.” “The day of Preparation (paraskeuē)” is the day on which one prepares for the Passover, that is, the day on which the Passover lambs are slaughtered in the Temple precincts.
Two verses later, verse 16, it is reported that Pilate handed Jesus over to “the Jews” to be crucified; the crucifixion itself thus happened just after noon, at the same hour in which the Passover lambs were being slain.
One thus should conclude that, in John’s Gospel, Jesus, the scourged and ridiculed king (on this, see further below), is Jesus the true Passover Lamb, given by God, and sacrificed at Golgotha to take away the sin of the world. This is the fulfillment of John the Baptist’s prophecy concerning Jesus as the Lamb of God: “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (ide ho amnos tou theou....) (1:29; cf. 1:36).
Pilate, however, could not grasp the universally soteriological import of the man Jesus for humankind because he deemed Jesus as only a man and saw the world only in terms of earthly things.
But there was another chance for Pilate to understand more adequately who Jesus really was. John, at one moment in Jesus’ trial, has “the Jews,” in their response to Pilate’s sarcastic reply (19:6b), reason adamantly with Pilate as to why Jesus had to be executed: “We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die because he has claimed to be the Son of God” (19:7).
Realizing that their accusing Jesus for claiming to be “the King of the Jews” was apparently of no avail, “the Jews” tried another stratagem: they accused Jesus of violating Jewish religious law, knowing that the Roman prefect was also responsible for protecting the law and customs of the local people. If Pilate did not accede to their demand, he could be accused of failure to carry out his responsibility for maintaining law and customs of the local people./43/ It is likely that this linkage with Jewish law revealed the real motive for the Jewish leaders’ wanting to have Jesus executed.
In the judgment of “the Jews”, because Jesus had claimed to be the Son of God, a claim which contains, in John’s Gospel, overtones not only of messiahship but of sharing the rights and authority of God himself (cf. 5:18-30), he had blasphemed God’s name, that is, by “making himself [equal to/one with] God” (see also 5:18; 8:58,59; 10:30-36)./44/
Because of this blasphemy, Jesus had to bear the consequence; he had, in the name of the the law of Moses, to be put to death (as demanded specifically by Leviticus 24:16), and Pilate would have to honor this provision of sacred Scripture. Here again is Johannine irony, for, according to John, that Scripture testifies to and speaks about Jesus (cf. 5:39,46); yet “the Jews” would use it to secure Jesus’ death. John’s anti-Jewish orientation shows itself once more.
Hearing with his Graeco-Roman ear the statement by “the Jews” of Jesus’ claiming to be the Son of God, Pilate “was more afraid than ever” (19:8). Here, “more” (mallon) has the force of an elative, thus meaning simply that Pilate “was very much afraid.”/45/
This mental condition of Pilate is not to be taken as indicating that the prefect was afraid either of “the Jews” or of Jesus himself as a physical entity; or even, as Brown suggests, of his own inability to making a judgment about truth,/46/ thus consciously despising himself before “the Jews.”
Given the position of Pilate as representative of Caesar, all these were very unlikely.
But, what is more important to note is that the effect of this fear was not Pilate’s surrender to the will of “the Jews” who now were accusing Jesus of blasphemy, but instead a renewed attempt on Pilate’s part to find ways in which he could secure an acquittal for Jesus (19:12, 15b).
Contrary to Brown’s suggestion,/47/ one should contend that up to this moment in the trial narrative there is no indication that Pilate was afraid of being blamed for disrespect to Jewish local customs (cf. 18:39). Moreover, in Pilate’s own judgment, he was not investigating a bodily appearance of divine truth, something which, as already noted, he had scornfully set aside, but a man accused of being a potential insurrectionist.
On the other hand, in Pilate’s question to Jesus concerning Jesus’ origins in the next verse (19:9a), there is a hint that Pilate feels something which he does not fully understand, something otherworld-like, in the person of this man standing before him (cf. the disciples’ fear in 6:19-20)./48/
Since, in Graeco-Roman socio-religious culture, there was the belief that, from time to time, “sons of God” or “divine men”, i.e., gifted individuals who seemed to possess “divine” or “magical” powers,/49/ appeared in the world, it may be that Pilate felt and was disturbed by this aura of “divinity” which Jesus projected. At least, this seems to be the impression which John has depicted, and this impression is distinctly Johannine; it is not found in the synoptic gospels. And John may have intended Pilate’s subsequent actions against Jesus to appear as a way of repressing this feeling about Jesus’ identity.
After Pilate and Jesus have re-entered the praetorium, Pilate puts another question to Jesus: “Where are you from?” (19:9a). This would seem to be pursuant to the strange feeling, even some fear, that John suggests Pilate was feeling. And this is the interpretation made by Bultmann and others: they suggest that what Pilate was asking was in effect, as worded by Bultmann: “Have you sprung from man or from God? Are you a man or a divine being?”/50/ Does this interpretation fit John’s text?
In 18:36-37, John had described Pilate as uninterested in and in no way concerned about Jesus’ remarks which suggested he was king of some kind of heavenly kingdom. Why would Pilate now suddenly become a “religious quester” and be not only concerned but possibly fearful with such implications? The answer to this is found in 19:10 (see below) which indicates that Pilate has repressed any fear about a more-than-human identity for Jesus.
Thus, with the question in 19:9a, John has placed Pilate actually in company with “the Jews” who also did not know from where Jesus came: whether from God or elsewhere (9:29-33)./51/ In one interpreter’s words, Pilate “displays superstitious fear but no remorse.”/52/
To the question of Pilate about Jesus’ origin, Jesus did not give any answer (19:9b). The silence of Jesus at this juncture is fully understandable in view of the fact that Jesus previously had already given Pilate more than one time his testimony of heavenly things, but only to be confronted eventually with Pilate’s uncommitted and cynical response concerning truth. Because of Jesus’ silence, the prefect asked him the question, “Do you refuse to speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?” (19:10).
Rather than trying to hopefully achieve knowledge of heavenly things, of Jesus’ divine origin, of “things from above”, and to believe in him accordingly, here Pilate, constantly thinking in terms of “things from below”, arrogantly referred to worldly political power which he, as representative of the Roman state in the land of Israel, received from Roman Caesar, the power to set free or to crucify.
By questioning “Do you refuse to speak to me?”, Pilate was warning Jesus that Jesus would suffer the loss of everything, even his own life, if he disrespected the prefect; this warning denotes strongly that here Pilate had successfully overcome any fear he may have briefly had about Jesus’ possible otherworldly identity. Just as Nicodemus, a leader and teacher of “the Jews,” is pictured as being unable to understand “heavenly things” (3:10,12), unable to think of “things from above”, so is Pilate again and again during the trial of Jesus. In short, the blindness of Pilate regarding “things from above” is the reason why Jesus was silent.
In John’s evaluation, the prefect Pilate is the same as “the Jews” and the world in his ignorance of the true identity of Jesus who is, more than only a man, the Word made flesh, the Son of God, the Man “from above,” the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
With regard to Jesus, Pilate was totally wrong, not only politically by eventually not releasing Jesus (even though he knew that Jesus was innocent), but also spiritually by not recognizing his divine origin, and believing in him accordingly. Seen from this point of view, the Johannine Pilate was clearly not acquitted of blame; he took part in the responsibility for Jesus’ death which was demanded by “the Jews” and the world.
The Responsibility for the Death of Jesus
In response to Pilate’s statement concerning his power to release or to crucify, according to John, Jesus responded: “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” (19:11).
Jesus’ words in the first half of this sentence (verse 11a) are not to be interpreted as Jesus’ ordering the relationship between “religion” and “state” in general, in which “religion” is superior to “state” (cf. Proverbs 8:15; Rome 13:1-7). Rather, as indicated by the second half of the statement, these words mean that, whatever decision he finally decides to take, Pilate is not really in control of the matter; Pilate is under the control of the heavenly realm “above” (see 3:27). Behind Pilate’s “power”, Jesus was convinced that the “hand of God” was determinative./53/
And, because Jesus and God are one (10:30), Jesus’ fate also rested totally on Jesus’ own control. As noted previously, in 10:17-18 it is said that Jesus has the power to lay down his life and the power to take it up again. It was not the judgment of Pilate, the world’s judge, but the judgment of both Jesus and God (cf. 8:16) which would, in the end, determine Jesus’ destiny.
Nevertheless, the prefect and “the Jews”, as moral agents in the world, would be reckoned as responsible for the execution of Jesus. God’s sovereignty never mitigates the guilt of human moral agents in the world who operate under sovereign divine rule, while their voluntary decisions to be in the side of God or their evil rebellion against God never render God utterly contingent upon human instruments (cf. Genesis 50:19-20; Isaiah 5:11ff.; Acts 4:27-28).
This theological position was made clear by the evangelist John himself in the second half of Jesus’ statement; there the subject “the one” should be read as a “collective”, “generic” or “generalizing” term,/54/ referring to “the Jews” (as in 18:35-36), not to Judas Iscariot nor to Caiaphas alone.
Thus, with regard to Jesus’ execution, the primary or greater guilt was placed by John on “the Jews” as those who gave Jesus over to Pilate; but Pilate, as stated by the Johannine Jesus implicitly, was also sinful or guilty in a lesser degree for he in reality had a crucial share in the responsibility for the death of Jesus: in his capacity as the representative of the Roman state, Pilate finally sent Jesus over to “the Jews” to be crucified (19:16). John’s belief that Pilate would not have had any authority over Jesus apart from heaven’s authorization, does not make the evangelist absolve the prefect of all guilt and responsibility.
The Roman Declaration of Jesus’ Innocence
In the trial narrative, John depicts Pilate as three times declaring Jesus’ innocence (18:38b; 19:4; 19:6b), and as also two (or three) times attempting to set Jesus free (18:39b; 19:12a; [19:15b]).
After Pilate, inside the praetorium, had heard Jesus’ statements of his otherworldly kingdom and his coming into the world as king to testify to the truth (18:36-37), and had uttered his scornful response regarding truth (18:38a), he went out to “the Jews” to announce his first declaration of Jesus’ innocence, by stating: “I find no case against him” (18:38b).
Following this declaration, Pilate attempted, for the first time, to release Jesus by offering to “the Jews” the paschal amnesty for Jesus; he said: “But you have a custom that I release someone for you at the Passover. Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?” (18:39). But “the Jews” shouted in reply: “Not this man, but Barabbas!” (18:40).
Because the prefect, as already stated, saw the world only in terms of “things from below” and deemed Jesus as only a man of this world and therefore did (or could) not evaluate all the statements of Jesus from the perspective of “things from above,” he then considered Jesus’ statements as simply nonsensical and absolutely irrelevant to his purely political investigation and as fully harmless to the Roman control over the land of Israel. He therefore judged Jesus as innocent, politically irrelevant, and attempted then to set him free.
From a Roman political point of view, Pilate a non-Jew saw the right thing concerning Jesus that Jesus was not guilty; but, “the Jews”, who brought Jesus a Jew to Pilate as a political rebel, ironically did not see the same thing as Pilate did. They chose Barabbas, a revolutionary, instead of Jesus, to be set free. Here, John’s anti-Jewish sentiment is clear.
Soon after Jesus had been scourged, mocked and humiliated by Roman soldiers, and when Jesus, now wearing the crown of thorns and purple robe, was being brought outside to face “the Jews,” Pilate utterred his second declaration of Jesus’ innocence, by saying: “Look, I am bringing him out to you to let you know that I find no case against him” (19:4), and then went on to say: “Here is the man!” (19:5), making a reference to Jesus as a pathetic, scourged and disgraced man.
Apparently, as said earlier, Pilate thought that if “the Jews” saw the prisoner already in such a tortured physical condition, they would willingly pity Jesus, and then recognize his powerlessness and therefore ask for his acquittal, being thus in agreement with the prefect’s evaluation of him.
The second Roman declaration of Jesus’ innocence was therefore intended to reaffirm the first one, and was expected to result in the acknowledgment of “the Jews” of Jesus’ being not guilty of harmful political activities. But, in this respect Pilate failed; “the Jews” instead, for the first time, cried out insistently for Jesus’ execution: “Crucify him! Crucify him!”(19:6a). This outcry was pronounced fervently because, as noted earlier, “the Jews” knew that Pilate desired to win Jesus from them by having him appear before them tormented, mocked, wounded, humiliated and dismayed; and that by this harsh maneuvering Pilate wanted to pacify them.
In response to this first outcry for Jesus’ crucifixion, Pilate, knowing that he had failed, said to them in an exasperated voice, simultaneously affirming for the third time Jesus’ innocence: “You take him yourselves and you crucify him! I find no case against him.” (19:6b).
As noted previously, to this third Roman declaration of Jesus’ innocence, “the Jews” responded by making an appeal to their own law and, against Jesus, putting forward a deadly religious accusation of blasphemy, namely, of Jesus’ claiming to be the Son of God (19:7). This religious charge however never appears again in the rest of the trial, because “the Jews” saw that their stratagem of changing the charge against Jesus from political to religious ones had failed, and they, therefore, had to return to the original accusation, a political one.
“You Are No Friend of Caesar!” and
“We Have No King but Caesar”
The second attempt to release Jesus was made by Pilate immediately after Jesus had warned him, in 19:11, about the divine origin of his authority to try Jesus and about the sins of “the Jews” in giving over an innocent Jesus to Pilate, and about Pilate’s sin, that is, in ordering the innocent Jesus’ crucifixion.
John notes, “From then on Pilate tried to release him, but the Jews cried out, ‘If you release this man....’” (19:12a). “From then on” (ek toutou) means from the time Jesus gave the response of verse 11, but it could also be causal, “For this reason”, instead of temporal;/55/ but in either case it takes the statement of Jesus in this verse as the reason why Pilate began seeking repeatedly (ezētei)/56/ to set Jesus free.
Perceiving that Jesus, in this verse, was speaking of something “otherworldly” (that is, about the divine origin of Pilate’s authority to try Jesus) and “religious” (that is, about the sins of “the Jews” and the prefect himself), Pilate, having been moved by Jesus’ charge that he was guilty (in a lesser degree) of misusing his God-given power,/57/ then, as he had done previously, adjudged Jesus to be politically irrelevant and harmless, and therefore kept trying to set him free. Finally, as of that moment, neither the political charge of sedition nor the additional religious charge of blasphemy against Jesus held any persuasion for Pilate.
But precisely at this moment a new, very sensitive issue was tactically introduced by “the Jews.” Realizing that their putting forth a religious charge had produced a reaction from the prefect which they had not expected, they reverted to the political charge already put forth ― and one related to the limitations on Pilate’s authority ― with the shout: “If you release this man, you are no friend of Caesar. Everyone who claims to be a king sets himself against Caesar.” (19:12b).
Here, the political charge was raised by “the Jews” to the level of possible rebellion against Caesar, for this was at least potentially possible if the prisoner were claiming to be Son of God and king in a land under Roman rule. How then could the prefect, the “Friend of Caesar” (probably an honorific title granted to Pilate/58/), the representative of Caesar’s authority, ever consider releasing someone who had made such claims? Undoubtedly, in the shouting of “the Jews”, Pilate could imagine their quickly reporting his action to Caesar, as they had done on previous occassions (e.g., in 31 CE, see Philo, Legatio ad Gaium 38:299-305; see also Josephus, Antiquities 18.4.1-2; 85-89).
Pilate had ample reason to fear this implicit, serious threat: Tiberius Caesar was known to be swift to entertain suspicions against his subordinates, and rapid to demand merciless punishment. Suetonius (Tiberius 58) tells us that Tiberius Caesar savagely enforced the law against the crime of lese-majesty (= the crime against sovereign ruler; treason)./59/
This threat by “the Jews”against Pilate is indeed full of irony. In order to execute Jesus, “the Jews” exposed themselves as being friendlier, more loyal subjects to Caesar than Pilate himself. In John’s view, by giving Jesus over to Pilate to stand trial, “the Jews” sinned to a greater degree (19:11), demonstrating their slavery to sin (8:34).
Furthermore, by handing over an innocent Jesus to Roman authority and demonstrating their friendliness to Caesar, “the Jews” were showing themselves to be enslaved by Roman power, something they earlier, ironically, denied when saying, “We have never been slaves to anyone” (8:33). And by demanding Jesus’ death based upon the stipulations of Mosaic law, ironically they were bound to sin and could never gain the liberation promised in that very law.
Caiaphas and “the Jews” of Jesus’ time thought that by giving Jesus over to die on behalf of the nation, and by nipping his growing movement in the bud, they would set the Jewish nation and the Temple free from threats of destruction by the Romans (11:48-53); but, in truth, history displayed something very different.
The Jewish revolt against Rome several decades later (but already having occurred when John wrote) showed that any threat to Roman power came not from Jesus but from the Jewish people and their leaders. As a result of that revolt (66-70/74 CE), the Jewish nation was cruelly crushed and the Jerusalem Temple razed. At the same time, even as John was writing, the kingship of the crucified “King of the Jews” was being ever more widely acknowledged. In highlighting this irony of history, John was strongly denigrating “the Jews” of his own day.
Faced with this opposition and sensing the risk of losing his position, Pilate capitulated, and commenced the procedure for rendering a formal judicial decision against Jesus on the original charge of sedition. John writes: “When Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus outside and sat down (ekathisen) on the judge’s seat (epi bēmatos)....” (19:13). Here is the official representative of Roman Empire, deprived of a truly free exercise of his political power to set free or to execute, sitting on the official judgment seat (= tribunal) to be about to pass capital sentence/60/ on the king of otherworldly order, the one to whom the Father himself entrusted all judgment (5:22).
After making note of time at which the official judgment would be pronounced (that is, “Now it was the day of Preparation for the Passover, and it was about noon”) and of the place where the judgment seat was located (that is, “The Stone Pavement” or in Hebrew: Gabbatha), John has Pilate say to “the Jews”, “Here is your king!” (19:14), referring to Jesus in his tortured condition, mocked with a crown of thorns.
John’s notes of the time and of the place of the judgment seat not only indicate that the fourth evangelist views the event of pronouncing judgment on Jesus as very important;/61/ but were also intended to place Pilate’s proclamation of Jesus as king within the context of Jewish Passover, as noted before. In John’s theology, this announcement indeed presents Jesus as a king, but, within the context of Jewish Passover, a king who would be “slaughtered” on the cross as the true Lamb of God to take away the sin of the world, replacing the paschal lambs of Jewish Passover./62/
“The Jews” had said that Jesus, by claiming to be a king, “set himself against Caesar” (antilegei tō[i] Kaisari). But Pilate knew well that this accusation was completely wrong because Pilate could see that Jesus was an apolitical figure. Therefore, Pilate’s pronouncement “Here is your king” is to be seen as a reprimand to “the Jews” because Pilate saw them to be liars, having made a false charge against Jesus. How could this pathetic, even ridiculous Jesus be taken seriosuly as a man who would “set himself against Caesar”, as an antilegōn tō[i] Kaisari/63/ Pilate’s words also served as a scornful Roman warning that if they as a subject nation still held a messianic expectation, what they would likely have as their king was only this bloodied and powerless man; the same point was also made in the titulus placed on Jesus’ cross.
Sensing that Pilate was still trying to avoid their control and, in addition, was mocking Jewish messianic expectations, “the Jews” reacted by shouting: “Away with him!/64/ Away with him! Crucify him!” (19:15a). It was as if they were vehemently rejecting any connection between Jesus and Jewish messianic expectations.
Near the end of the trial, apparently still trying to set Jesus free, Pilate asked “the Jews”: “Shall I crucify your King?” “The Jews” answered with the very sharp statement: “We have no king but Caesar” (19:15b,c); a statement Pilate very likely had been waiting for, as is indicated by the phrase “then therefore” (tote oun) which opens verse 16./65/
In making this statement, “the Jews” were in effect denying the Jewish God as their only true king (e.g., Judges 8:23; 1 Samuel 8:7), the messianic hope of the Jewish people and the Davidic covenant (2 Samuel 7:11,16), and, of course, Jesus’ messianic claim as the Son of God, the King of divine order. Fittingly, from the ideological angle, this scene is, as judged by Brown, “very anti-Jewish.”/66/
According to John, this rejection ironically occurred just as the preparations for the feast celebrating God’s deliverance of his people from the Egyptian bondage were about to begin and it forms a stark contrast to the words of the Passover haggadah which praises the kingly reign of the Jewish God./67/
From the historical perspective, this rejection of the messianic Jewish kingdom and the acceptance of the gentile Roman Empire could reflect the attitude of some Jews who were tired of nationalistic movements and uprisings and preferred Roman domination to the vicious struggles of the Hasmonean times when the Jews had a king./68/
On the level of John’s theology, the suggestion of Alan F. Segal is worth citing: by this statement “the Jews” not only did reject the reign of the Jewish God and therefore gave up the title of Israel, but also implied, in a very anti-Jewish fashion, that they were the agents of Caesar, Caesar being the embodiment of Satan/69/ to whom Pilate had to surrender; thus both (“the Jews” and Pilate) being the slaves and agents of Satan.
Though during the trial both differed diametrically with respect to their judgment on Jesus, in the end of the trial they nonetheless proved to be of the same supernatural father, that is, Satan, the Prince of this World.
Being utterly unable to reject Jewish insistence on the death of Jesus, and especially wishing to demonstrate his allegiance to Caesar his patron, precisely the same as was just already done by “the Jews” themselves, Pilate then “handed Jesus over to them to be crucified” (19:16a).
The foregoing verses suggest that the word “them” here refers to “the Jews”; but, as noted previously, John knows full well that the Jewish authorities did not have the right, delegated or not, to crucify anyone; therefore it must be the Roman soldiers who performed the execution (19:23-25). Moreover, the “they” in verse 18 is the crucifiers of not only Jesus, but also of the two other criminals; thus, the word “they” here must refer to Roman soldiers. It has been suggested that autois (“to them”) in verse 16a is best understood as a dative of advantage: Pilate gave Jesus over (to the Roman soldiers) to satisfy the demands of “the Jews”./70/
How Anti-Jewish Are the Gospel Roman Trial Narratives?
After examining all of the Roman trial narratives in the intracanonical gospels, some conclusions can be drawn. Although each of the narratives has its own different and specific perspective on Jesus’ trial before Pilate, all nevertheless mention the same political charge levelled against Jesus, namely, the charge of claiming to be a king.
This charge was brought by the Jewish authorities to Pilate; and the prefect directly questioned Jesus with this charge just as the trial began.
All of the synoptic gospels also report that to this political charge, Jesus’ gave answer with the words, “You say so” (sy legeis); only in John does this answer of Jesus slightly differ, in having Jesus answer a bit longer, “You say (sy legeis) that I am a king.”
All the intracanonical gospels concur that Pilate finally sent Jesus to be crucified; and all also agree that the titulus on Jesus’ cross read “the King of the Jews,” a title that refers back to the political accusation directed to Jesus in the Roman trial.
All these items, one can maintain, shape the historical core of all the intracanonical gospel Roman trial narratives, or, at the very least, were parts of the historical tradition concerning the trial of Jesus by Pilate which were used by each of the evangelists to compose creatively each of their Roman trial narratives.
Moreover, the gospel portrayal of Pilate as wishing to satisfy the crowd’s demand is not different from the portrayal of Pilate in the writings of Josephus, particularly in the accounts concerning the iconic standards (Jewish War 2.169-174; Antiquities 18.55-59): there Pilate is also depicted as acceding to the demand of the populace, regardless of his own wishes. This strengthens the possibility of viewing the attitude of Pilate during the trial as not entirely invented by the gospel authors.
However, each of the intracanonical gospel Roman trial narratives differs in describing the degree of involvement of the Jews in the execution of Jesus and the role of the prefect Pilate in it.
In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is presented as an apolitical Messiah, a Messiah of divine order, not of human order, who would not harm the sway of the Roman state over the land of Israel. The misunderstanding of Jesus’ identity that existed between Jesus himself and Pilate coloured the Roman trial. Jesus was rejected not only by the Jewish leaders, but also by the governor Pilate who was convinced that Jesus was a political rebel against Rome who had to be punished with the death penalty. No one in authority had taken the side of Jesus. As to the execution of Jesus,
Mark, to be sure, lays the greater guilt on the Jewish leaders; but Pilate is not exonerated from responsibility, because he was the representative of the Roman state who finally sent Jesus to be crucified. There is no sweeping anti-Judaism in Mark’s Gospel.
In Matthew’s Roman trial narrative, Jesus is depicted as being tried as a Messiah, a religious leader, who is rejected by the populace, the chief priests and the elders. Sharply anti-Jewish elements are found in the narrative.
By means of the Roman trial narrative, Matthew blamed all Jews in the shedding of Jesus’ blood: the Jews of Jesus’ own time, the Jews of Matthew’s own day, even the Jews who would be living in the future, from generation to generation. This Matthean anti-Jewish anger is articulated most vividly in Matthew 27:25 where it is noted that “All the people” said to Pilate: “His blood on us and on our children.”
Matthean anti-Jewish tone even continues in the passages that relate events that took place after Jesus’ death. On the other hand, Pilate is portrayed as viewing Jesus as innocent; a view which he received from his wife (who had dreamt of Jesus) and he maintained until the end of the trial.
When Pilate could not reject the Jewish populace’s insistence on Jesus death, and a disturbance was occurring, Pilate, in Matthew’s narrative, took some water and washed off his hands before the crowd, and said, “I am innocent of this [innocent] man’s blood; see to it yourselves” (27:24). Although Pilate was convinced of Jesus’ innocence, and portrayed as not wanting his hands tainted by the blood of Jesus, he nonetheless was not acquitted from all blame: he was the Roman prefect, but under the pressure of the populace, and in order to avert riot, he abandoned his true opinion about Jesus as not guilty, and ordered Jesus’ execution.
In Luke’s Roman trial narrative, Jesus is depicted as a revolutionary accused before the Roman judge, Pilate, of many things, especially of having done harm to the Roman state by perverting his fellow countrymen and inciting them by his teaching to rebellion.
These accusations, Luke however maintains, proved to be flatly wrong and baseless; and the Jewish leaders who brought the charges against Jesus to Pilate therefore proved to be liars and thus were to be blamed.
Embedded in the formulation of the charges is Luke’s anti-Jewish standing. Luke even relates that the crucifiers of Jesus were not Roman soldiers, but the Jews themselves. In Acts, Luke reiterates this view by referring to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and their leaders of the time of Jesus as those who crucified Jesus; they all thus had to be blamed for the murder of Jesus. Here Luke’s anti-Jewish attitude comes to the fore clearly; but, here, he differs from Matthew in not laying the blame on all Jews for posterity.
On the other hand, in Luke’s Roman trial narrative, Pilate is pictured as seeing Jesus as innocent; and Luke makes Pilate three times declare Jesus’ innocence and keep trying to set Jesus free, also up to three times. Herod Antipas is also depicted as having found no guilt in Jesus.
Beyond the trial narrative, in the crucifixion scene, the innocence of Jesus is also declared.
However, being unable to set aside the Jewish demand for Jesus death, Pilate in the end of the trial rendered a formal judgment on Jesus that he had to be crucified.
To be sure, in Luke’s view, the bulk of responsibility for Jesus’ death should be placed on the Jewish side; but, Pilate is not exculpated, because he was the Roman official who had the authority to inflict the sentence of death on Jesus. Moreover, there are other passages in Luke-Acts that picture Pilate in a negative way so that the exoneration of Pilate becomes unlikely. In addition, if one locates Luke’s sharp anti-Judaism within his overarching theological framework of the universal plan of God for humanity and the world, its potentially lethal thrust disappears or is at least weakened.
But with this overarching theological framework being employed, Luke dangerously views his anti-Jewish stance as originating from God himself.
In John’s (Roman) trial narrative, John’s view that Jesus is the King who came “from above”, from the divine, otherworldly realm, and becoming a Man to testify to divine truth, is presented in a dramatic fashion.
Pilate, however, is pictured as the Roman official who consistently did not want to see and evaluate Jesus as more than a man; and who also wanted to try Jesus only on the charge of sedition, that is, of Jesus’ claiming to be the King of the Jews. The statements which Jesus delivered concerning his otherworldly kingdom, his divine kingly status, his kingly mission in the world of men were seen by Pilate as politically irrelevant; therefore, in his judgment, Jesus was innocent and did not have to face a Roman trial.
The Johannine Pilate therefore, like the Lukan Pilate, announced Jesus’ innocence three times; and also tried to release him, at least up to three times as well. “The Jews”, Jesus’ chief enemies representing the unbelieving world and depicted in a very anti-Jewish tone as the “agents of the Devil,” who brought Jesus to Pilate and, together with the Jewish nation, accused him of claiming to be the King of the Jews, even of making himself God or the Son of God, saw Jesus as only a man as well, and were persistent in demanding Jesus’ death on both the political and religious grounds.
Realizing that Pilate would set Jesus free because he was, in the prefect’s eyes, not guilty, and that Pilate had used stratagems to pacify them, “the Jews” reacted by insisting all the more that Jesus was to be crucified, and by seeking tactical steps to corner and defeat the prefect.
All attempts by Pilate to set Jesus free were therefore abortive, especially because “the Jews”, eventually, warned Pilate that if he was a “Friend of Caesar”, and if for him Caesar was the highest authority to be respected and obeyed by him, as Caesar was also honored and obeyed by “the Jews” themselves as “their only King”, he should condemn Jesus to death on the ground that Jesus was a rebel against Caesar.
Because of these warnings, Pilate could do nothing, but gave in to “the Jews”; so, finally, sitting on his official judgment seat, Pilate sentenced Jesus to be crucified.
The recognition by “the Jews” that Caesar was their only king, thereby eliminating the Jewish messianic hope, setting aside the position of the Jewish God as their only true King, and rejecting of course Jesus’ messianic claim, is full of John’s sharply anti-Jewish bias. John clearly blamed “the Jews” for the execution of Jesus. Throughout the gospel, this Johannine anti-Jewish sentiment comes to the fore clearly and colours the presentation.
However, in the Gospel of John, Pilate is not freed from blame. In John’s gospel presentation, in sending Jesus to be crucified, Pilate is evaluated as the Roman official who carried out the will of Caesar, Caesar as the embodiment of Satan, the Prince of this World, to destroy Jesus, the objective also of “the Jews” as the agents of Satan.
In sending Jesus for execution, Pilate proved himself to be part of the unbelieving and hostile world, and shared a lesser degree of guilt. However, in the crucifixion of Jesus, when he was “lifted up” from the earth, John relates, the Prince of this World, Satan or the Devil, was condemned, the divinity of Jesus was revealed, and “all men” would come to Jesus, believing in him.
/1/ In John’s Gospel, the term “the Jews” (hoi Ioudaioi) may on occasion be used in a neutral way (8:31; 10:19; 11:19), but it is employed much more frequently in a pejorative way to refer to the religious authorities of the synagogue (i.e., the chief priests and Pharisees) who are hostile to Jesus, his message and his followers (the disciples and the Christians of John’s community). They murmur at Jesus’ words (6:41), are unbelieving (9:18; 10:25), expel believers from the synagogue (9:22; cf. 12:42; 16:2), accuse Jesus of blasphemy (i.e., making himself God) (10:33; 5:18), seek to arrest (7:30, 32, 44, 45; 10:39; 11:57) and kill him (5:18; 7:1, 19, 25; 8:37, 40, 59; 10:31, 33; 11:8, 50-53), call the Sanhedrin to meet and, obviously in Jesus’ absence, condemn him to death (11:47-53), ask a detachment of Roman soldiers, their commander and the Jewish police, all guided by Judas (into whom Satan has entered, 13:27), to arrest Jesus (18:3, 12), then bring Jesus to Pilate’s praetorium to be tried by Pilate (18:28-19:16a), accuse Jesus of claiming to be a king, thereby setting himself against the emperor (19:12), and finally cry out for Jesus’ crucifixion (19:15).
/2/ On the one hand, especially in the first half of the gospel (chs. 1-12) John does not think that the world, that is, humankind or the society of men, is evil in itself; quite the reverse, it is loved by God, and God does not want it to perish (3:16). God sent Jesus to save the world (3:17; 10:36; 12:47) and to give life to it (6:33,51). Jesus is the saviour of the world (4:42; 1 John 4:14; see also John 6:14; 11:27) and the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (1:29). Jesus has come into the world as the light of the world (3:19; 8:12; 9:5) to give witness to the truth (18:37).
But, on the other hand, as the ministry of Jesus develops and particularly in the second half of the gospel (chs. 12-21), “the world” is rather consistently identified with those who have turned against Jesus under the leadership of Satan, the “Prince of the world” (12:31; 14:30; 16:11), and a strong note of animosity accompanies the use of “the world.” Its works are evil (7:7). The coming of Jesus has become a judgment on the world (9:39; 12:31) and on the sons of darkness who inhabit it (12:35-36; 1 John 2:9-10). So strong is the influence of the Prince of this world that 1 John 5:19 exclaims that the whole world is in the power of the Evil One.
Jesus and his followers cannot be of this world, for the world has now become incompatible with faith in Jesus and love for him (15:18-19; 16:20; 17:14,16; 18:36; 1 John 2:15). The world does not know God, the Father; only Jesus and his disciples do know God (17:25). The spirit which Jesus sends is also discordant with the world and hostile to it (14:17; 16:8-11). The world hates Jesus and his followers, and it persecutes them all (7:7; 15:19-20; 16:33; 1 John 3:13). In the struggle between Jesus and the world, Jesus overcomes the world in his hour of passion, death, and resurrection (16:33) and casts down the Prince of the world (12:31).
/3/ Rudolf Bultmann, The Gospel of John: A Commentary. Trans. by G.R. Beasley-Murray from Das Evangelium des Johannes (1964) (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1971) 86.
/4/ Bond, Pontius Pilate, 169.
/5/ Brown, Death of Messiah, 1.744.
/6/ Brown, Death of Messiah, 1.743, 758; cf. Dodd, Historical Tradition, 96 ff.
/7/ Brown, The Gospel According to John XIII-XXI (AB 29A; Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, 198421 ) 857-59.
/8/ A.N. Sherwin-White, Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament. The Sarum Lectures 1960-1961 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1992 ) 17.
/9/ Brown, Death of Messiah, 1.748, 363-72; see also Sherwin-White, Roman Society, 36, 42.
/10/ John 18:9b refers loosely either to 6:39, 70-71; 10:28 or to 17:12. On this, see Brown, John, 811f.; Bultmann, John, 640; Carson, John, 579; Beasley-Murray, John, 323; Rodney A. Whitacre, Johannine Polemic: The Role of Tradition and Theology (Chico, California: Scholars Press, 1982) 42.
/11/ The “Ruler of this world” is a Johannine technical term for Satan or the Devil whose demonic role is emphasized. Concerning this, see: Alan F. Segal, “Ruler of this World: Attitudes about Mediator Figures and the Importance of Sociology for Self-Definition” in E.P. Sanders, A.I. Baumgarten & Alan Mendelson, eds., Jewish and Christian Self-Definition. Volume 2: Aspects of Judaism in the Graeco-Roman Period (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1981) 246, 261f. (245-268); Bultmann, John, 431 n.2.; R. E. Brown, The Gospel According to John I-XII (AB 29; Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, 198421 ) 468; D.A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Leicester, England/Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press/Eerdmans, 1992 ) 443; George R. Beasley-Murray, John (World Biblical Commentary vol. 36; Bungay, England: Word Incorporated, 1991 ) 213-14.
/12/ Bultmann, John, 639.
/13/ Van der Kwaak, Proces van Jezus, 177; Beasley-Murray, John, 353; Carson, John, 621.
/14/ In the Gospel of John, the crucifixion is simultaneously the time of Jesus’ being “lifted up from the earth” (3:14; 8:28; 12:32, 34), “ascending into heaven” (3:13; 6:62) and “glorification” (12:23); it was divinely determined, fulfilling not just the Scripture, but also Jesus’ own words (19:11; 3:14-16; 8:28; 19:24, 28, 29, 36, 37).
/15/ Judith L. Kovacs, “‘Now Shall the Ruler of This World Be Driven Out’: Jesus’ Death as Cosmic Battle in John 12:20-36”, Journal of Biblical Literature 114/2 (1995) 227-247; Brown, John, 477; Bultmann, John, 427, 431; Carson, John, 443; Beasley-Murray, John, 214.
/16/ Bultmann, John, 428, 431; Carson, John, 443; Beasley-Murray, John, 213.
/17/ A.F. Segal, “Ruler of this World,” 247.
/18/ Sherwin-White, “The Trial of Christ”, 105; Beasley-Murray, John, 329.
/19/ Dodd, Historical Tradition, 99.
/20/ Brown, Death of Messiah, 1.749.
/21/ The tense of the Greek verb for “fight” in 18:36 (ēgōnizonto) is imperfect continuous; the sense is that Jesus’ attendants would be fighting now, not just at the arrest. See Dodd, Historical Tradition, 112; Bond, Pontius Pilate, 178.
/22/ Bultmann, John, 654; Brown, Death of Messiah, 1.683; Beasley-Murray, John, 331; Carson, John, 594.
/23/ Brown, John, 87.
/24/ Bultmann, John, 418.
/25/ Brown, John, 461f.
/26/ Brown, John, 463.
/27/ Genesis 49:24; Psalms 23; 78:52; 80:1; Isaiah 40:11.
/28/ Number 27:17ff.; I Kings 22:17; Psalm 78:70-72; Isaiah 56:8-12; Jeremiah 10:21; 23:1-4; 25:32-38; Ezekiel 34; Micah 2:12; Zechariah 11.
/29/ Brown, John, 398.
/30/ John Painter, The Quest for the Messiah: The History, Literature and Theology of the Johannine Community (Nashville: Abingdon, 19932 ) 353.
/31/ Bultmann, John, 384; Beasley-Murray, John, 171; Painter, Quest, 354.
/32/ Beasley-Murray, John, 331; Van der Kwaak, Proces van Jezus, 180; Carson, John, 594; Bultmann, John, 654.
/33/ Brown, John, 499ff.
/34/ On John’s dualism, see: John Ashton, Understanding the Fourth Gospel (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993 ) 207-232; John Painter, Quest, 36-47; Rodney A. Whitacre, Johannine Polemic, 168ff.
/35/ Rudolf Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament. Translated by Kendrick Grobel (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1955) 2.21, 76.
/36/ Bond, Pontius Pilate, 175, 179; Bultmann, John, 656; Beasley-Murray, John, 332; Carson, John, 595; Van der Kwaak, Proces van Jezus, 180; Brown, Death of Messiah, 1.752f.
/37/ Carson, John, 596; Brown, Death of Messiah, 828; Ashton, Understanding, 54.
/38/ Carson, John, 599; Bultmann, John, 659.
/39/ Brown, John, 877; idem, Death of Messiah, 829.
/40/ Bond, Pontius Pilate, 186.
/41/ Carson, John, 598; cf. Bultmann, John, 659.
/42/ Brown, Death of Messiah, 828.
/43/ Brown, John, 891f.; Carson, John, 599.
/44/ In many contexts, the self-claim of being the Son of God does not necessarily amount to blasphemy. In OT, the anointed king of Israel was sometimes referred to as God’s Son (Psalms 2:7; 89:26-27); and in some intertestamental texts, “Son of God” is parallel to “Messiah” (see 4Q Florilegium).
/45/ Brown, Death of Messiah, 830; idem, John, 877; Carson, John, 600; cf. Bultmann, John, 661n.2.
/46/ Brown, Death of Messiah, 830.
/47/ Brown, John, 893.
/48/ Van der Kwaak, Proces van Jezus, 181.
/49/ Carson, John, 600; Beasley-Murray, John, 338; Bultmann, John, 661; Bond, Pontius Pilate, 187.
/50/ Bultmann, John, 661; Beasley-Murray, John, 339; Bond, Pontius Pilate, 188; Dodd, Historical Tradition, 114.
/51/ Van der Kwaak, Proces van Jezus, 181.
/52/ Carson, John, 600.
/53/ Carson, John, 600.
/54/ Bultmann, John, 662n.6; Bond, Pontius Pilate, 189. Cf. Brown, Death of Messiah, 842.
/55/ Brown, John, 879; Carson, John, 602; Bond, Pontius Pilate, 189.
/56/ The conative imperfect used here implies a series of attempts to release Jesus which “the Jews” shout down; but John says nothing further. See Brown, John, 879; Bond, Pontius Pilate, 189.
/57/ Brown, John, 893.
/58/ Brown, John, 879-80.; idem, Death of Messiah, 843.
/59/ Brown, John, 894; Carson, John, 602.
/60/ Brown, John, 881; idem, Death of Messiah, 844f.; Bond, Pontius Pilate, 191; Bultmann, John, 664.
/61/ Bultmann, John, 664.
/62/ Brown, Death of Messiah, 847f.
/63/ Bultmann, John, 665.
/64/ The “him” is not articulated in Greek (aron = Away!).
/65/ Bond, Pontius Pilate, 192.
/66/ Brown, Death of Messiah, 391.
/67/ E. P. Sanders, Judaism: Practice and Belief, 135; Wayne A. Meeks, The Prophet King: Moses Traditions and the Johannine Christology. (NovTSup 14; Leiden: Brill, 1967) 77; Bond, Pontius Pilate, 192.
/68/ J. W. Doeve, Vox Theologica 32 (1961) 69-83; cited by Brown, John, 884.
/69/ Alan F. Segal, “Ruler of this World”, 263.
/70/ Carson, John, 606; Cf. Bultmann, John, 665 n.2.