Jesus confuses Pontius Pilatus.

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. Ac 8.57-60 That stoning was actually illegal, by Roman standards; somebody paid for it eventually, but Acts doesn’t tell that story.) Only the Romans could execute anyone, so the Judeans had to go convince the Romans to do it. Namely, convince them Rome, the emperor, or the Roman senate would want him dead—’cause Rome wasn’t just gonna execute anybody the Judean senate recommended. Especially over stuff the Romans didn’t consider capital crimes, like adultery or blasphemy.

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.

Mark 15.1 KWL
Soon it was morning. The head priests, with advice from the elders, scribes, and the whole senate,
went to bring back and hand over Jesus, whom they bound, to Pontius Pilatus.
Matthew 27.1-2 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 Pilatus, the leader.
Luke 23.1-2 KWL
1 Getting up, the crowd led him to Pontius Pilatus.
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.”

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.

Mark 15.2 KWL
Pilatus interrogated Jesus: “You’re the king of Judea?”
In reply Jesus told him, If you say so.”
Matthew 27.11 KWL
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.”
Luke 23.3 KWL
Pilatus questioned him, saying, “You’re the king of Judea?”
In reply Jesus told him, If you say so.”

Some interpreters claim Jesus’s words have more of an affirmative sense: “You said it!” (NTE) Others figure it was more contrary: “Your words, not mine.” (The Message) In John’s telling of the trial, Jesus’s response sorta sounds more like the “Your words, not mine” idea—because he came back with “because I am a king; just not the sort you’re thinking of.”

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. Jn 14.6 ’Cause we love the Father and want access to him. And we can’t get to the Father via any other way than through 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 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” Jn 18.37 —he didn’t care what else Jesus had to say. “What’s truth” is a very important question, but notice Pilatus didn’t stick around to get Jesus’s answer. Phooey on truth; he didn’t come to Judea to get an education from some obscure Galilean rabbi about epistemology. (He came there to get rich, if anything. Lots of money went to temple.)

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.

Mark 15.3-5 KWL
3 The head priests were accusing him of many things, 4 and Pilatus 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 27.12-14 KWL
12 But Jesus answered nothing in the accusation against him by the head priests and elders.
13 Then Pilatus told Jesus, “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.

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 Mt 27.24 was all for show and we know it—makes Pilatus 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. Pilatus, 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 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. 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 all the help and comfort he lacked when he suffered.