Jesus and Pilate
Title of work:
The Gospel According to John
Keywords in the original language:
- βασιλεὺς τῶν Ἰουδαίων
- υἱος θεοῦ
- φίλος τοῦ Καίσαρος
Thematic keywords in English:
Up until John 11:47-50 (where Caiaphas the Jewish high priest decides that Jesus’s death is necessary to avoid backlash from the Romans if Jesus’s growing number of followers should be incited into rebellion), John’s Gospel does not appear to make any obvious or coded statements about Roman oppression at all. The Gospel was traditionally understood as expressing conflict between Christianity and Judaism, that might indicate church and synagogue debates at the time when it was written, but this theory was later challenged by certain scholars preferring to understand the Gospel as an example of Greco-Roman rhetoric seeking to nurture the faith of Christians by exonerating Jesus and condemning Jesus’s accusers (for the older view, see J. Louis Martyn, History and Theology, and for the more recent theory, Andrew Lincoln, Truth on Trial). Either way, the conflict between the Jewish leaders (and indeed the larger Jewish population) and Jesus is in this passage placed within the context of his trial before Pilate, the Roman governor.
In this lengthy account of the series of interactions between Jesus and Pilate, the Johannine author engages with the broader issue of the Roman government and its relationship to Judaism, yet it remains clear that the Jewish authorities are largely responsible for the ill treatment and eventual execution of Jesus, even if the Johannine author also makes clear that it is under Roman sanction that Jesus is killed.
The Jewish authorities attempt to persuade Pilate of the need for him to take action against Jesus by claiming that letting him go would make him no “friend” (φίλος) of Caesar (John 19:12). It has been argued that this may be related to the execution of Lucius Aelius Sejanus, Pilate’s patron who had served as regent, and bore the official title “friend of Caesar.” He was executed in 31 CE for sedition, and Tacitus, Annals 3.7.72-73, tells us that he was so despised by the Roman people that they tore apart his corpse and threw the pieces into the Tiber. The trial of Jesus took place either not too long before, or not too long after this event, and so it might be that by using these words the Jewish authorities are playing on Pilate’s potential fear of drawing negative attention from his superiors on the issue of sedition (see Jo-Ann Brant, John, p. 243). However, this may be reading too much into the phrase, as the tactic of scaring Pilate into worrying about looking soft on the issue of sedition makes sense regardless of its potential relevance to a particular incident such as that involving Sejanus.
Pilate’s questioning of Jesus sees him allow the prisoner to get away with what would likely have been seen as rather disrespectful and brash responses. When Pilate asks whether Jesus is in fact the King of the Jews, Jesus does not answer, but instead effectively insults Pilate’s authority by suggesting that he is simply being coerced by others, i.e. the Jewish authorities: “Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?” (John 18:33-34). Pilate responds to this challenge with a rhetorical question: “I am not a Jew, am I?” (John 18:35). Next, the governor asks Jesus what it is that he has done for the Jewish authorities (his “own people”) to hand him over, and is given an indirect answer which states that if his kingdom were “from this world” then his servants would have fought for him (John 18:36). One interpretation of this is to understand Jesus’s words as a description of the eschatological kingdom that he will preside over with God, but Reimund Bieringer, for example (“‘My Kingship is Not of This World’”), argues that Jesus is simply refusing to acknowledge kingship that is conferred by human beings, which is precisely the type of kingship that the Jewish authorities accuse him of, and that he is mocked for by the Roman soldiers (John 19:2-3, 19). Pilate assumes that this vague response is a denial, but is then accused by Jesus of saying that he believes him to be a king (John 18:37), an accusation which seems to imply that just by questioning him Pilate is acknowledging as much. The fact that John shows Pilate allowing Jesus to speak to him in such a way perhaps suggests that he wants to present him as more concerned with the threat that the Jewish authorities pose to his image of power that any threat Jesus presents (see Jo-Ann Brant, John, p. 244). After all, he is seemingly unconcerned with Jesus’s claims that he has otherworldly kingship and has been sent as a witness to “the truth” (John 18:37). Pilate does not require any further detaβils from Jesus about this so-called “truth” that he brings, and immediately departs after giving a dismissive response: “What is truth?” For Craig Keener, The Gospel of John, p. 1113, Pilate’s lack of interest in Jesus’s claims here is due to a fundamental difference in the understanding of “truth” – for Pilate, acting as a Roman governing authority, truth refers simply to facts and events, he has no interest here in any theological dimensions to the word. This highlights the fundamental difference that the Johannine author sees in what constitutes authority in God’s eyes and in those of Roman rule.
The issue of Roman and Jewish laws are absolutely central to this passage. The Jewish authorities take Jesus to Pilate because they want him dead, but cannot pass such a sentence themselves without violating Roman law. The Johannine author therefore has them politicise Jesus’s wrongdoing, by labelling him as a rebel that they claim is beginning to stir the Jewish population towards insurrection, and also as one whose so-called kingly and divine sonship pretensions present a clear and direct subversion of the authority of the Roman emperor. Essentially, the Jewish authorities hope that by accusing Jesus of sedition, he will be considered a Roman problem, and dealt with accordingly. Revealing in this regard is that the Synoptic Gospels each attest that a murderous insurrectionist named Barabbas was at that time being held in prison (whom the crowd will ultimately ask to be released when given the choice between him and Jesus) (see the discussions of Mark 15:1-15, Matthew 27:11-26, and Luke 23:13-25), yet the Johannine author merely states that Barabbas was a robber (λῃστής) (John 18:40). One way of interpreting the Barabbas incident is to see Pilate’s offer to release Jesus, the “King of the Jews” in John 18:39 as a mockery of Jewish nationalistic beliefs, which backfires when the crowd ask instead for Barabbas, and he is compelled to release a prisoner whom has been convicted of something concrete, and which unlike Jesus’s charges fits with Pilate’s definition of “truth” (so, Jo-Ann Brant, John, p. 245). However, the scene may also be an attempt by John to centralise the political accusations made against Jesus by the Jews, and not risk their effectiveness being undermined by another dangerous rebel being casually released. John has inherited the Barabbas material from other traditions, and so it is noteworthy that his choice of vocabulary suggests crimes less serious than the insurrection and murder of Mark and Luke
Pilate now has Jesus scourged, during which he is mocked by the Roman soldiers. The Synoptic Gospels deal with this incident very differently, with Luke having Jesus mocked by Herod Antipas’s soldiers instead (as part of an attempt to raise Jewish guilt in Jesus’s death and minimise Roman responsibility), and Matthew and Mark placing the flogging after Jesus has been sentenced to death. It could be, therefore, that the Johannine author understands this episode either as an attempt by Pilate to torture a confession out of Jesus, thereby providing a clear motif for executing him (which Pilate himself does not have at this point), or that Pilate simply wants to appease the Jewish authorities by punishing Jesus. Pilate’s words upon bringing Jesus out to the crowd after his flogging, “Behold the man,” have evoked much discussion as to their potential significance in their Greco-Roman context (John 19:5), as has the significance of the mockery and flogging itself. Kathleen Coleman’s (“Fatal Charades”) exploration of the way Roman public executions were carried out, with prisoners often dressed up to look like defeated kings, or other figures from historical events and myths, might suggest that this is being imitated in Jesus’s treatment. When Pilate brings Jesus out to the Jewish crowds, it has been argued that he is attempting to “control what Jesus’s appearance signifies” (see Jo-Ann Brant, John, p. 246-247). By referring to him as “the man,” it is possible that the Gospel writer is alluding to various things. For instance, perhaps John’s audience are intended to connect Pilate’s words to Jesus’s identification as the Son of Man, or as Ernst Haenchen (A Commentary on the Gospel of John, volume 2, p. 181) argues, Pilate is degrading Jesus by asserting that he is merely a man, and not a king. Coleen Conway (Behold the Man) even suggests that the Johannine author seeks to present Jesus’s masculinity in a way which conforms to his Greco-Roman Mediterranean setting, wherein Jesus is shown here by Pilate as a triumphant victor emerging bloody, and with the right to wear a corona (the thorny wreath) and toga purpura (the purple robe). This is extremely far-fetched, however.
Upon hearing Jesus claiming to be a “Son of (a) God”, Pilate seems to become more concerned, and decides to question Jesus again about where he has come from. Jesus tells Pilate that he would have no authority to try him had it not been granted to him from above (i.e. if God had not allowed it), and states that it is his Jewish accusers, not Pilate, who are therefore more sinful (John 19:10-11). This comment seems to clearly outline the view of the Johannine author that the Romans are to a large degree pawns in a greater plan. The Jews now try to dissuade Pilate from releasing Jesus by arguing that to do so would be detrimental to Caesar, as kingly pretensions must be viewed as a direct affront to the emperor (John 19:12-15). With this argumentation, culminating in the affirmation at John 19:15 that they have “no king but Caesar,” the Johannine author not only has the Jewish authorities coercing Pilate to kill Jesus, but also effectively aligns them with the imperial oppressors over and against him. Pilate, on the other hand, states five times during the course of this passage either that he cannot find any fault in Jesus, or that he wishes for the Jews to deal with him themselves (John 18:31, 38; 19:4, 6, 12). Overall, the Pilate of John’s trial narrative is not as passive as say that of the Lukan author, and does not seem to be excused for his role in quite the same way. Yet, he is still portrayed as reluctant to deal with Jesus’s case (even if this is through genuine uncertainty of its credibility), while the Jewish authorities are relentless in their insistence that Jesus die. If, as many scholars have argued, John’s earliest audiences were experiencing bad relations with local synagogues, then this portrayal of the Jewish authorities would certainly add fuel to the fire.