THE MAN WHO SENTENCED JESUS
Matt. 27:1-2; Matt. 27:11-26
When the morning came, all the chief priests and elders of the people took counsel against Jesus, to put him to death; so they bound him, and led him away, and handed him over to Pilate the governor.
Jesus stood before the governor, and the governor put the question to him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus said to him, “You say so.” While he was being accused by the chief priests and the elders, he returned no answer. Then Pilate said to him, “Do you not hear the evidence which they are stating against you?” Jesus answered not a single word, so that the governor was much amazed. At the time of the Feast the governor was in the habit of releasing one prisoner to the crowd, a prisoner whom they wished. At that time he was holding a very well-known prisoner called Barabbas. So, when they were assembled, Pilate said to them. “Whom do you wish me to release to you? Barabbas? Or, Jesus who is called Christ?” For he was well aware that they had delivered Jesus to him because of malice. While he was sitting on his judgment seat, his wife sent a message to him.
“Have nothing to do with this just man,” she said, “for today I have had an extraordinary experience in a dream because of him.” The chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds to ask for the release of Barabbas, and the destruction of Jesus. “Which of the two,” said the governor, “am I to release to you?” “Barabbas,” they said. “What then,” said Pilate to them, “am I to do with Jesus who is called Christ.” “Let him be crucified,” they all said. “What evil has he done?” he said. They kept shouting all the more: “Let him be crucified.” When Pilate saw that it was hopeless to do anything, and that rather a disturbance was liable to arise, he took water, and washed his hands in presence of the crowd. “I am innocent of the blood of this just man,” he said. “You must see to it.” All the people answered, “Let the responsibility for his blood be on us and on our children.” Then he released Barabbas to them; but he had Jesus scourged, and handed him over to be crucified.
Matt. 27:1-2 describe what must have been a very brief meeting of the Sanhedrin, held early in the morning, with a view to formulating finally an official charge against Jesus. The necessity for this lay in the fact that, while the Jews could themselves deal with an ordinary charge, they could not inflict the death penalty. That was a sentence which could be pronounced only by the Roman governor, and carried out by the Roman authorities. The Sanhedrin had therefore to formulate a charge with which they could go to Pilate and demand the death of Jesus.
Matthew does not tell us what that charge was; but Luke does. In the Sanhedrin the charge which was levelled against Jesus was a charge of blasphemy (Matt. 26:65-66). But no one knew better than the Jewish authorities that that was a charge to which Pilate would not listen. He would tell them to go away and settle their own religious quarrels. So, as Luke tells us, they appeared before Pilate with a threefold charge, every item in which was a lie, and a deliberate lie. They charged Jesus first with being a revolutionary, second, with inciting the people not to pay their taxes, and third, with claiming to be a king (Lk.23:2). They fabricated three political charges, all of them conscious lies, because they knew that only on such charges would Pilate act.
So, then, everything hung on the attitude of Pilate. What kind of man was this Roman governor?
Pilate was officially procurator of the province; and he was directly responsible, not to the Roman senate, but to the Roman Emperor. He must have been at least twenty-seven years of age, for that was the minimum age for entering on the office of procurator. He must have been a man of considerable experience, for there was a ladder of offices, including military command, up which a man must climb until he qualified to become a governor. Pilate must have been a tried and tested soldier and administrator. He became procurator of Judaea in A.D. 26 and held office for ten years, when he was recalled from his post.
When Pilate came to Judaea, he found trouble in plenty, and much of it was of his own making. His great handicap was that he was completely out of sympathy with the Jews. More, he was contemptuous of what he would have called their irrational and fanatical prejudices, and what they would have called their principles. The Romans knew the intensity of Jewish religion and the unbreakable character of Jewish belief, and very wisely had always dealt with the Jews with kid gloves. Pilate arrogantly proposed to use the mailed fist.
He began with trouble. The Roman headquarters were in Caesarea. The Roman standards were not flags; they were poles with the Roman eagle, or the image of the reigning emperor, on top. In deference to the Jewish hatred of graven images, every previous governor had removed the eagles and the images from the standards before he marched into Jerusalem on his state visits. Pilate refused to do so. The result was such bitter opposition and such intransigence that Pilate in the end was forced to yield, for it is not possible either to arrest or to slaughter a whole nation.
Later, Pilate decided that Jerusalem needed a better water supply–a wise decision. To that end he constructed a new aqueduct–but he took money from the Temple treasury to pay for it.
Philo, the great Jewish Alexandrian scholar, has a character study of Pilate–and Philo, remember, was not a Christian, but was speaking from the Jewish point of view. The Jews, Philo tells us, had threatened to exercise their right to report Pilate to the Emperor for his misdeeds. This threat “exasperated Pilate to the greatest possible degree, as he feared lest they might go on an embassy to the emperor, and might impeach him with respect to other particulars of his government–his corruption, his acts of insolence, his rapine, his habit of insulting people, his cruelty, his continual murders of people untried and uncondemned, and his never-ending gratuitous and most grievous inhumanity.” Pilate’s reputation with the Jews stank; and the fact that they could report him made his position entirely insecure.
We follow the career of Pilate to the end. In the end he was recalled to Rome on account of his savagery in an incident in Samaria. A certain impostor had summoned the people to Mount Gerizim with the claim that he would show them the sacred vessels which Moses had hidden there. Unfortunately many of the crowd came armed, and assembled in a village called Tirabatha. Pilate fell on them and slaughtered them with quite unnecessary savagery, for it was a harmless enough movement. The Samaritans lodged a complaint with Vitellius, the legate of Syria, who was Pilate’s immediate superior, and Vitellius ordered him to return to Rome to answer for his conduct.
When Pilate was on his way to Rome, Tiberius the Emperor died; and it appears that Pilate never came to trial. Legend has it that in the end he committed suicide; his body was flung into the Tiber, but the evil spirits so troubled the river that the Romans took the body to Gaul and threw it into the Rhone. Pilate’s so-called tomb is still shown in Vienne. The same thing happened there; and the body was finally taken to a place near Lausanne and buried in a pit in the mountains. Opposite Lucerne there is a hill called Mount Pilatus. Originally the mountain was called Pileatus, which means wearing a cap of clouds, but because it was connected with Pilate the name was changed to Pilatus.
Later Christian legend was sympathetic to Pilate and tended to place all the blame for the death of Jesus on the Jews. Not unnaturally, legend came to hold that Pilate’s wife, who it is said was a Jewish proselyte, and was called Claudia Procula, became a Christian. It was even held that Pilate himself became a Christian; and to this day the Coptic Church ranks both Pilate and his wife as saints.
We conclude this study of Pilate with a very interesting document. Pilate must have sent a report of the trial and death of Jesus to Rome; that would happen in the normal course of administration. An apocryphal book called The Acts of Peter and Paul contains an alleged copy of that report. This report is actually referred to by Tertullian and Justin Martyr and Eusebius. The report as we have it can hardly be genuine, but it is interesting to read it:
Pontius Pilate unto Claudius greeting.
There befell of late a matter of which I myself made trial; for the
Jews through envy have punished themselves and their posterity
with fearful judgments of their own fault; for whereas their fathers
had promises that their God would send them out of heaven his
Holy One, who should of right be called king, and did promise he
would send him on earth by a virgin; he then came when I was
governor of Judaea, and they beheld him enlightening the blind,
cleansing lepers, healing the palsied, driving devils out of men,
raising the dead, rebuking the winds, walking on the waves of the
sea dry-shod, and doing many other wonders, and all the people of
the Jews calling him the Son of God; the chief priests therefore
moved with envy against him, took him and delivered him unto
me and brought against him one false accusation after another,
saying that he was a sorcerer and that he did things contrary to
But I, believing that these things were so, having scourged him,
delivered him to their will; and they crucified him, and, when he
was buried, they set their guards upon him. But while my soldiers
watched him, he rose again on the third day; yet so much was the
malice of the Jews kindled, that they gave money to the soldiers
saying: Say ye that his disciples stole away his body. But they,
though they took the money, were not able to keep silence concerning
that which had come to pass, for they also have testified that they
saw him arisen, and that they received money from the Jews. And
these things have I reported unto thy mightiness for this cause,
lest some other should lie unto thee, and thou shouldest deem right
to believe the false tales of the Jews.
Although that report is no doubt mere legend, Pilate certainly knew that Jesus was innocent; but his past misdeeds gave the Jews a lever with which to compel him to do their will against his wishes and his sense of justice.
PILATE’S LOSING STRUGGLE
Matt. 27:1-2; Matt. 27:11-26 (continued)
This whole passage gives the impression of a man fighting a losing battle. It is clear that Pilate did not wish to condemn Jesus. Certain things emerge.
(i) Pilate was clearly impressed with Jesus. Plainly he did not take the King of the Jews claim seriously. He knew a revolutionary when he saw one, and Jesus was no revolutionary. His dignified silence made Pilate feel that it was not Jesus but he himself who was on trial. Pilate was a man who felt the power of Jesus–and was afraid to submit to it. There are still those who are afraid to be as Christian as they know they ought to be.
(ii) Pilate sought some way of escape. It appears to have been the custom at the time of the Feast for a prisoner to be released. In gaol there was a certain Barabbas. He was no sneak-thief; he was most probably either a brigand or a political revolutionary.
There are two interesting speculations about him. His name Barabbas means Son of the Father; father was a title by which the greatest Rabbis were known; it may well be that Barabbas was the son of an ancient and distinguished family who had kicked over the traces and embarked on a career of magnificent crime. Such a man would make crime glamorous and would appeal to the people.
Still more interesting is the near certainty that Barabbas was also called Jesus. Some of the very oldest versions of the New Testament, for example the ancient Syriac and Armenian versions, call him Jesus Barabbas; and both Origen and Jerome knew of that reading, and felt it might be correct. It is a curious thing that twice Pilate refers to Jesus who is called Christ (Matt. 27:17,22), as if to distinguish him from some other Jesus. Jesus was a common name; it is the same name as Joshua. And the dramatic shout of the crowd most likely was: “Not Jesus Christ, but Jesus Barabbas.”
Pilate sought an escape, but the crowd chose the violent criminal and rejected the gentle Christ. They preferred the man of violence to the man of love.
(iii) Pilate sought to unshoulder the responsibility for condemning Jesus. There is that strange and tragic picture of him washing his hands. That was a Jewish custom. There is a strange regulation in Deut.21:1-9. If a dead body was found, and it was not known who the killer was, measurements were to be taken to find what was the nearest town or village. The elders of that town or village had to sacrifice a heifer and to wash their hands to rid them of the guilt.
Pilate was warned by his sense of justice, he was warned by his conscience, he was warned by the dream of his troubled wife; but Pilate could not stand against the mob; and Pilate made the futile gesture of washing his hands. Legend has it that to this day there are times when Pilate’s shade emerges from its tomb and goes through the action of the hand-washing once again.
There is one thing of which a man can never rid himself–and that is responsibility. It is never possible for Pilate or anyone else to say, “I wash my hands of all responsibility,” for that is something that no one and nothing can take away.
This picture of Pilate provokes in our minds pity rather than loathing; for here was a man so enmeshed in his past, and so rendered helpless by it, that he was unable to take the stand he ought to take. Pilate is a figure of tragedy rather than of villainy.
Back to: Barclay’s Commentary