Jesus confuses Pontius Pilate.

Yep, even Jesus’s best student tried to cover his butt and abandon his Lord.

Mark 15.1-5 • Matthew 27.1-2, 11-14 • Luke 23.1-4 • John 18.28-38

When the Roman Republic took over Judea, they left the governance in the hands of the locals: The Judean senate ran all the local matters and enforced the laws. The one thing they couldn’t do was enact the death penalty. The Romans kept that power for themselves. Understandable; if the senate executed someone whom Rome wanted alive (like kill Roman soldiers for their idolatry), it could spark a war.

So when the senate decided Jesus deserved death, they couldn’t execute him themselves; only the Romans could. They had to go convince the Romans to do it. And convince ’em Rome would want Jesus dead too—’cause Rome wasn’t gonna execute people over things they didn’t consider capital crimes, like adultery or blasphemy.

What they did have on Jesus was he declared himself Messiah, which means king, which was treason against Rome: Tiberius Caesar Divi Augusti, princeps/“first citizen” of Rome, was their king. Rome had a vested interest in putting down any antikings. So that was the charge the senate brought to Caesar’s local representative, Pontius Pilate.

In all the gospels, Pilate questioned Jesus, and came away unconvinced that this man was any threat to Rome whatsoever. In Luke and John, he didn’t even figure Jesus was guilty. But the Judean senate wanted him dead, and got enough of the people to say so too. So in the end, Pilate gave ’em what they wanted.

But first, his mini-trial before Pilate:

Mark 15.1-5 KWL
1 Soon it was morning. The head priests, with advice from the elders, scribes, and the whole senate,
to bring back and hand over Jesus, whom they bound, to Pontius Pilate.
2 Pilate interrogated Jesus: “You’re the king of Judea?”
In reply Jesus told him, If you say so.”
3 The head priests were accusing him of many things, 4 and Pilate again questioned him,
saying, “You answer nothing! Look at all they accuse you of!”
5 Jesus no longer answered anything. So Pilate was amazed.
Matthew 27.1-2, 11-14 KWL
1 In the early morning they gathered in council—all the head priests, and the people’s elders—
regarding Jesus, and how they’d put him to death.
2 Binding him, they led him away
and handed him off to Pontius Pilate, the leader.

11 Jesus was stood before the leader, and the leader interrogated him,
saying, “You’re the king of Judea?”
Jesus was saying, If you say so.”
12 But he answered nothing in the accusation against him by the head priests and elders.
13 Then Pilate told him, “Don’t you hear how much they testify against you?”
14 Jesus didn’t answer him for even one word. So the leader was greatly amazed.
Luke 23.1-4 KWL
1 Getting up, the crowd led him to Pontius Pilate.
2 They began to accuse Jesus, saying, “We found this man twisting our nation,
preventing taxes to be given to Caesar, calling himself ‘Christ’—which means king.”
3 Pilate questioned him, saying, “You’re the king of Judea?”
In reply Jesus told him, If you say so.”
4 Pilate told the head priests and the crowd, “I find nothing of guilt in this person.”

“Why’s this guy not defending himself?”

Getting convicted of treason meant execution, and for non-Romans like Jesus it meant crucifixion. It’s one of the most painful ways to die humans have ever invented, so the fact Jesus didn’t fight his charges but said nothing, made Pilate wonder what on earth was going on here. Everybody else he interrogated would fight the charges or justify them, not just accept crucifixion as their inevitable lot.

In the synoptic gospels, Jesus responded to his charges with two words, Su légeis/“If you say so,” and nothing more. Some translators claim it has the sense of an affirmative “You said it!” and others a contrary, “Your words, not mine.” John 18.37, where Jesus responds in this way to Pilate’s “Therefore you’re not a king,” seems to back the “Your words not mine” idea, ’cause Jesus came back with “because I am a king.” But more translators have picked the “You said it!” idea, and even bend Pilate’s ukún/“thus [you’re] not” into a simple “thus,” so Jesus’s response doesn’t sound so awkward.

I figure “If you say so” splits the difference. It is a yes, but not enthusiastic about it. It’s not like Jesus wanted death. It’s just that was the plan.

This lack of enthusiasm is something Pilate obviously picked up on: Doesn’t wanna die, but really isn’t fighting it. What’s going on here? It was just weird enough for Pilate’s B.S. detector to go off: Why’s this guy acting this way? Why isn’t he fighting the charges? What, does he WANT to get crucified?… Nah; he can’t; that’s nuts.

For Jesus, the difficulty—and the suffering—came from the delay. It was sunrise when the senate brought him to Pilate; it was noon when he was finally led out to be crucified. Six hours of waiting… and in between, getting beaten. He knew the end was coming, but the wheels of bureaucracy were turning mighty slow that morning.

That, and the fact Pilate knew he wasn’t a threat to Rome, knew the senate wanted Jesus dead for no good reason, and was gonna literally wash his hands of it and have Jesus executed anyway. The proper purpose of government is to establish justice. Pilate wasn’t there to do any such thing; he was there to make sure Rome got their money, and kill anyone who got in Rome’s way. So Jesus wasn’t gonna get justice that day. He was gonna get crucified.

John’s longer interrogation.

John tells a different version of events. Contrary to the other gospels, Jesus didn’t just answer Pilate’s question with “If you say so,” but a statement of what he meant by the word “kingdom.” He wasn’t talking about a political government, but a moral government. We follow this King, not because we’ll get in serious trouble if we don’t; not because, as dark Christians gleefully point out, we’ll go to hell otherwise. We follow Jesus ’cause he’s truth, Jn 14.6 ’cause we love the Father and want access to him, and can’t get to the Father via any other route than Jesus.

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 it, and everything to gain by it.

John 18.28-38 KWL
28 So they brought Jesus from Joseph Kahiáfa to the pretorium. It was morning.
They didn’t enter the pretorium, lest they be defiled instead of eating Passover.
29 So Pontius Pilate 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 Pilate 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.
33 Pilate entered the Praetorium 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 exist yet.”
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.”

Pilate’s attitude indicates it wasn’t his usual job to judge people—’cause it wasn’t. Romans only gave trials to fellow Romans. For non-Romans, no trial was expected nor necessary. Either they caught you in the act, or they assumed you were guilty, so judgment was instant and final. In the moment, soldiers could beat you up or stab you. If arrested, they caned you, whipped you, or crucified you. Having the senate hand off a convict to Pilate meant he had to decide whether to kill this guy—and whether it was something Rome wanted, or a political trick which might get him in big trouble with Caesar.

In the other gospels, Jesus said nothing and let Pilate just assume the senate was right. In John, Jesus did no such thing: He told Pilate what he meant by “kingdom.” And as we can see in John, it went right over Pilate’s head.

Not that Pilate cared for it to go into his head. He had no use for abstract concepts like a kingdom which isn’t from this world. Or of people who’re from the truth, who listen to their king of truth. All Pilate cared about was whether Jesus was the sort of king Caesar might object to. Once he had his mind made up—“Therefore you’re not a king”—he considered everything else Jesus told him as superfluous. “What’s ‘truth’?” he asked—but you notice he didn’t stick around to get the answer. Phooey on truth; he came to Judea to get rich, not get an education from obscure Galilean rabbis about epistemology.

To Pilate’s mind, Jesus’s “kingdom” didn’t count; Jesus was no king; Jesus was no threat. The fact that Pilate had Jesus executed anyway, with full knowledge he was executing someone he considered innocent—his whole hand-washing demonstration Mt 27.24 was overdramatic crap and we know it—makes Pilate just as guilty of Jesus’s death as the senate. Any antisemite who wants to blame the Jews alone for Jesus’s death is an idiot. Pilate, a gentile, could’ve saved him, and didn’t care enough to make any more than a token effort.

So this was how Jesus suffered before Pilate: Knowing he wasn’t gonna get a proper hearing. Knowing he wasn’t gonna get justice. Knowing Pilate 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 the Father. 1Jn 2.1 It’s why he sent the Holy Spirit to help us when we’re not sure how to defend ourselves. Mk 13.11 He’s not gonna abandon us. He never promised us we’d never suffer; on the contrary, we will. Jn 16.33 But he’ll be with us through the suffering, providing us the help and comfort he lacked when he suffered.