Now Jesus stood before the governor, and the governor asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus said, “You have said so.” But when he was accused by the chief priests and elders, he gave no answer. Then Pilate said to him, “Do you not hear how many things they testify against you?” But he gave him no answer, not even to a single charge, so that the governor was greatly amazed.Now at the feast the governor was accustomed to release for the crowd any one prisoner whom they wanted. And they had then a notorious prisoner called Barabbas. So when they had gathered, Pilate said to them, “Whom do you want me to release for you: Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?” For he knew that it was out of envy that they had delivered him up. Besides, while he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent word to him, “Have nothing to do with that righteous man, for I have suffered much because of him today in a dream.” Now the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and destroy Jesus. The governor again said to them, “Which of the two do you want me to release for you?” And they said, “Barabbas.” Pilate said to them, “Then what shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?” They all said, “Let him be crucified!” And he said, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Let him be crucified!”So when Pilate saw that he was gaining nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.” And all the people answered, “His blood be on us and on our children!” Then he released for them Barabbas, and having scourged Jesus, delivered him to be crucified.Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the governor’s headquarters, and they gathered the whole battalion before him. And they stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and twisting together a crown of thorns, they put it on his head and put a reed in his right hand. And kneeling before him, they mocked him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” And they spit on him and took the reed and struck him on the head. And when they had mocked him, they stripped him of the robe and put his own clothes on him and led him away to crucify him.
Three chapters ago when we were beginning a study of Christ’s trials, I pointed out that they present a unique situation in that Jesus was tried, on the one hand, by an ecclesiastical court, seeking to apply the revealed law of God to Jesus’ case, and, on the other hand, by a civil court seeking to apply what is generally thought to be the most highly developed law known to man. Jewish law was the most humane of legal systems. It did everything possible to preserve life and avoid executions. Roman law was known for its comprehensiveness, systematization of statutes, specification of procedures and affixing penalties. It has been said of the ancient World that Judea gave religion, Greece gave letters, and Rome gave law.
We might think from the very nature of Roman law that the Roman part of Jesus’ trial would be easy to understand. But the opposite is the case. We can understand the Jewish trial. Jesus was condemned because he was hated by the religious leaders who resented his exposure of their sin. But Pilate did not hate Jesus. He seems to have respected him; he pronounced him innocent. Why then, in the end, did he turn Jesus over to be crucified?
The greatest puzzle of the Roman trial is the contrast between what we know of Pilate’s character from secular sources and his conduct at the trial of Jesus as reported in the gospels. Pilate was not a noble person. He had come from Spain, served under Germanicus in the wars on the Rhein, and had risen to his relatively minor post as governor of Judea through his marriage to Claudia Proculla, a granddaughter of the emperor Augustus. The marriage was a smart career move but a moral disgrace. This was because Claudia’s mother, Julia, was notorious for her coarse immorality even in decadent Rome and her daughter was like her. Augustus would refer to Julia saying, “Would I were wifeless or had childless died.”
Pilate revealed his nature by his oversight of Judea. He was the sixth procurator of that region, having assumed his post in A.D. 26. The governors who had served before him had been sensitive to Jewish sensibilities and had generally avoided acts that could offend or inflame the people. But Pilate showed no such sensitivity. When he arrived in Judea the first time, he sent his legions to Jerusalem by night, bearing standards blazoned with the images of Tiberius, which the Jews considered idolatrous. That he did it by night shows that he knew what he was doing; but that he did it at all betrays his brutish nature. On another occasion he appropriated money from the sacred Corban treasury to build a fifty-mile aqueduct to the city, provoking outrage from the citizens. When the people gathered to protest the sacrilege, Pilate sent soldiers into the crowd disguised as common people who, on a prearranged signal, pulled out hidden clubs and daggers and attacked the demonstrators. Luke refers to an apparently similar massacre in which Pilate “mixed” the blood of certain Galileans “with their sacrifices” (Luke 13:1). Pilate was not an upright, nice, or nobleman.
Yet here is the fascinating thing. As far as the trial of Jesus is concerned, at least in its opening stages, no one could have conducted its course with greater attention or integrity. Pilate seems to have understood what was going on, recognized that Jesus was innocent, and used every means he could think of to get him acquitted and discharged.
I suggested in an earlier study that Pilate probably had been contacted the previous night by one of the Sanhedrin, probably Caiaphas, to be sure he would hear the case in the morning. He must have agreed to a quick pro forma trial. But when the leaders appeared the next day they were startled to find that the governor wanted to begin a formal hearing. They seem to have been caught off guard since they did not have their charges against Jesus well thought out. John gives the fullest account of these proceedings, indicating that when Pilate reopened the case, demanding, “What charges are you bringing against this man?” the best they could do was retort, “If he were not a criminal, we would not have handed him over to you” (John 18:29, 30). When they were forced to produce a charge, Luke says they dragged up everything they could think of, hoping that one of the accusations might stick: 1) “We have found this man subverting our nation,” 2) “He opposes payment of taxes to Caesar” and 3) “He claims to be Christ, a king” (Luke 23:2). The first two of these were lies, but the third was both true and important. Therefore, each of the gospels records it. It is the charge Matthew presupposes in his shortened account of the trial when he has Pilate demand of Jesus, “Are you the king of the Jews?” (Matthew 27:11).
The leaders must have said, “This man claims to be a king.” So Pilate asked if that were true. Jesus admitted that he was indeed a king. But even then Pilate knew that this was a religious matter and that Jesus was innocent of treason or rebellion. So he tried to acquit him.