Luke 23:13-25

Jesus is sent back to Pilate

1st CE
New Testament
Title of work: 
The Gospel According to Luke



After being first questioned in front of the Jewish council (Luke 22:66-71), Jesus has already been brought once by the Jewish authorities to the Roman governor, Pilate, with the hope that he will find Jesus guilty of insurrection (Luke 23:1-7). Ultimately, this attempt is unsuccessful, and Pilate sends Jesus to the tetrarch Herod Antipas (Luke 23:8-12) after learning that he falls under his jurisdiction. The implication made by the Lukan author is that Pilate would rather not have to deal with Jesus’s case, and takes the first opportunity to pass him back to the Jewish authorities. In the present passage, we see Jesus hauled before Pilate once again, after Herod Antipas has had his soldiers mock him in a scene that the Lukan author has placed in a Jewish setting, rather than a Roman one as the Markan and Matthean authors do (Luke 23:11). Both Mark and Matthew narrate that this mockery of Jesus, including the dressing of him in expensive garments to mock his assumed kingly pretensions, takes place in the praetorium by Roman soldiers. Back before the Roman governor again, Jesus is once more dealt with by Pilate in a way which seems to minimalize his guilt in the execution that Jesus will ultimately be subject to.

Pilate states no less than three times here that he has not, and still cannot find anything in Jesus that makes him worthy of being sentenced to death, and moreover, neither has the Jewish tetrarch Herod Antipas (Luke 23:14, 15, 22, and previously 23:4). Pilate is happy simply to chastise Jesus (likely by beating, as was customary with potential troublemakers whom it was felt would cease after such a punishment; see Adrian Sherwin-White, “The Trial of Christ,” p. 104). In addition, we are told twice (verses 19 and 25) that Barabbas, whom Pilate is compelled to release to the crowd instead of Jesus, was imprisoned for his part in an insurrection and murder. This only enhances Jesus’s political innocence in comparison. The practice of releasing a prisoner at the Passover is not referred to outside the Gospels, and is likely an invention, which in Luke’s rendition of the story provides another opportunity for Pilate to state Jesus’s innocence and for the Jewish crowd (who are described as persistent and unyielding in their demand) to be blamed for his death. In this connection, it is significant that Luke’s Pilate has Jesus “delivered to their will” (i.e. that of the Jewish crowd), making it clear that it is predominantly their demands which will lead to Jesus’s crucifixion (verse 25), whereas in Mark and Matthew’s accounts, Pilate is described instead as handing Jesus over to be beaten and crucified.

There is an alternative reading of Pilate’s role in this passage, however. For Joshua Yoder, the fact that Pilate is content to punish Jesus and then let him go is not a device employed by the Lukan author to present Pilate as less complicit in Jesus’s death, but rather shows him as acting appropriately in his role as governor. Pilate does not see any justifiable reason to execute Jesus, so he decides to take action which he deems more suited to the situation – he has not judged Jesus to be particularly threatening, and so clearly disagrees with his Jewish petitioners about the level of danger posed by him, but he still intends to take some action, and one which was quite normal under the circumstances (see Joshua Yoder, Representations of Roman Rule, p. 227). Indeed, Joshua Yoder has argued contrary to a large number of scholars that Luke does in fact condemn Roman rule, and that Pilate’s portrayal is not one which sees him as absolved of responsibility for Jesus’s death, but rather as weak and controllable by the very people that he is supposed to be presiding over (see Joshua Yoder, Representations of Roman Rule, p. 195-234, for more details on Pilate’s wider role in Luke). After all, Pilate ultimately delivers a verdict sentencing to death a man whom he himself believes to be innocent, and this fact is not avoided by Luke.

Despite the points raised by Yoder, however, it remains the case that the Lukan author’s villainising of the Jewish authorities over and against the Roman official is consistent with the wider outlook of the Gospel as a whole, which frequently emphasises Jewish sin, often in conjunction with an avoidance of criticism of the Roman imperial system, or even a positive portrayal of its representatives. For example, earlier in Luke’s Gospel Jesus chastises a group of Jews who complain to him about violence done to a group of Galilean Jewish pilgrims by Pilate, the Roman governor (see Luke 13:1-3); rather than condemning the act of the Roman official, Jesus tells the complainers that they must repent or else also perish. It has often been stated, for example by Philip Esler, Community and Gospel, p. 203, that Luke is more concerned with highlighting Jewish misguidedness than making specific anti-imperial statements. 

Bibliographical references: 

"The Trial of Christ"

Sherwin-White, Adrian N.article-in-a-bookHistoricity and Chronology in the New Testament Dennis E. Nineham et al.97-116"The Trial of Christ"LondonSPCK1965
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