Governments exist to establish justice, but government didn’t do that in Jesus’s day.
Mark 15.1-5 • Matthew 27.1-2, 11-14 • Luke 23.1-4 • John 18.28-38
When Herod 1 died, Augustus Caesar took advantage of his heirs’ power struggle and took over Judea. The Caesars left local governance in the hands of the locals: The Judean senate ran all the local matters and enforced laws. (Namely the Law.) The one thing the Judeans weren’t permitted was the death penalty: The Romans reserved that power for themselves. Understandable; if the senate executed someone whom Rome wanted alive (say, if they executed Roman soldiers for idolatry), it could spark war.
So when the senate decided Jesus deserved death, they couldn’t execute him themselves. (I know; Stephen’s martyrdom in Acts suggests they could.
What’d the Judeans have on Jesus? Well, he declared himself Messiah. And Messiah means king—which the Romans would consider treason, because only they got to make kings. Properly, the king of Judea was Tiberius Caesar Divi Augusti, princeps/“first citizen” of Rome. Rome had a vested interest in putting down any antikings.
So that was the charge the senate brought to Caesar’s local representative, Judea’s igemón/“ruler,” Pontius Pilatus. For centuries scholars assumed Pilatus was merely a procurator/“treasury agent,” an administrator whose only job was to make sure Rome got Judea’s taxes. Archeologists have since discovered he was a præfectus/“prefect,” a military governor who should’ve been more decisive than Pilate comes across in the gospels. (Incidentally, his name isn’t pronounced like “pilot”—it’s the same as the founder of Pilates-style yoga.)
In all the gospels, Pilatus questioned Jesus… and came away unconvinced this man was any threat to Rome whatsoever. In Luke and John, he didn’t even believe Jesus was guilty of anything. But the Judean senate wanted him dead, and got plenty of the locals to say so too. In the end, Pilatus pragmatically gave ’em what they wanted.
Let’s begin with Jesus’s mini-trial before Pilatus. First the Judeans hauled him over to Antonia, the fortress next to the temple where Pilate and the Roman soldiers could watch the Judeans’ worship (just in case any riots broke out there), and presented them to their prefect.
John tells a different, more detailed version of events. The different gets more obvious in Pilatus’s interrogation.
John 18.28-32 KWL
- 28 So they brought Jesus from Joseph Kahiáfa to the prætorium. It was morning.
- They didn’t enter the prætorium, lest they be defiled instead of eating Passover,
- 29 so Pontius Pilatus came outside to them.
- He said, “You bring me a certain accusation against this person.”
- 30 In reply they told him, “We’d never hand him over to you unless he were an evildoer.”
- 31 Pilatus told them, “Take him yourself. Judge him by your Law.”
- The Judeans told him, “We’re not allowed to kill anyone.”
- 32 Thus Jesus’s word could be fulfilled—
- which he said to signify which kind of death he was about to die.
“Why’s this guy not defending himself?”
Getting convicted of treason meant execution. (Still often does.) For non-Romans like Jesus, execution meant crucifixion. It’s one of the most painful, disgusting ways to die humans have ever invented. So the fact Jesus didn’t fight his charges, and instead said nothing, made Pilatus wonder what on earth was going on here. Everybody else he ever interrogated would either fight the charges or justify them. Not just accept crucifixion as their inevitable lot. Yet in the synoptic gospels, Jesus responded to his charges with two words, Su légheis/“[If] you say so,” and nothing more.
Some interpreters claim Jesus’s words have more of an affirmative sense: “You said it!” (
John 18.33-38 KWL
- 33 Pilate entered the prætorium again, called Jesus, and told him, “You’re the king of Judea?”
- 34 Jesus replied, “You say this on your own? Or did others tell you about me?”
- 35 Pilate replied, “Do I look Judean to you?
- Your nation and head priests handed you over to me. What did you do?”
- 36 Jesus replied, “My kingdom’s not from this world.
- If my kingdom’s from this world, my servants would fight lest I be handed over to the Judeans.
- Now, my kingdom doesn’t yet exist.”
- 37 So Pilate told him, “Therefore you’re not a king.”
- Jesus replied, “You say so because I am a king.
- I was born into it. I came into the world into it. Thus I can testify to truth.
- Everybody who’s of the truth hears my voice.”
- 38 Pilate told him, “What’s ‘truth’?”
- On saying this, he went out again to the Judeans and told them, “I find nothing of guilt in him.”
Note in John, Jesus didn’t just answer Pilatus with “If you say so,” but a statement of what he means by “kingdom.” Clearly he’s not talking about a political government, but a moral one. We follow King Jesus, not because we’ll get into serious legal trouble if we don’t, not because (as dark Christians gleefully point out,) we’ll go to hell if we don’t. We follow Jesus ’cause he’s truth.
Yeah, such a kingdom would totally overturn the Roman Empire. (And within the next three centuries, that’s precisely what it did.) But Caesar had nothing to fear from such a kingdom. Which is why Pilatus didn’t see anything wrong with it.
Not that Pilatus necessarily understood it. “What’s truth?” exposes that fact. Pilatus had no time for abstract ideas: He just wanted to know whether Jesus was worth crucifying. Would Caesar object to him or not? Once Pilatus had his mind made up—“Therefore you’re not a king”
So in John, Pilatus isn’t confused; just unconvinced that Jesus is worth killing. In Luke he likewise made up his mind right away.
Luke 23.4 KWL
- Pilatus told the head priests and the crowd, “I find nothing of guilt in this person.”
Whereas in the other gospels, Jesus said nothing, and Pilatus couldn’t understand why he wouldn’t fight harder to avoid a gory death on the cross.
It was just strange enough for Pilatus’s B.S. detector to go off: “Doesn’t seem to wanna die, but isn’t fighting it. What’s going on here? Why’s he acting this way? Why isn’t he fighting the charges? What, does he want to get crucified?… Nah; he can’t; that’s nuts.”
Justice wouldn’t be done today.
For Jesus, the suffering came from the fact he knew he wasn’t gonna get justice that day.
It was sunrise when the senate brought him to Pilatus. It was noon when he was finally led out to be crucified. Six hours of waiting. In between, getting mocked and flogged. He knew the end was coming, but the wheels of bureaucracy were turning mighty slow that morning.
But he knew Pilatus believed him innocent. Knew Pilatus figured he was no threat to Rome. And knew Pilatus would be of no help. The proper purpose of government is to establish justice, but corrupt governments everywhere presume it’s to seize and hold power, and Pilatus was just this kind of corrupt. He figured he was only in Judea to make sure Rome got their money, and kill anyone who got in Rome’s way. Jesus might be innocent, but if he didn’t have Jesus killed, he’d spark a war, lose his job, something he desired more than justice. So much for justice.
The fact Pilatus had Jesus executed regardless, with full knowledge he was executing someone he considered innocent—his whole hand-washing demonstration
So this was how Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilatus: Knowing he’d get no proper hearing, no justice, because the powerful didn’t care. Nobody did. He had no advocate. He was alone.
It’s all the more reason Jesus takes the position of our advocate before his Father.