Jesus before Pilate
Much scholarship has been devoted to establishing the Jewish context of Matthew’s Gospel, with its Gentile context (including significantly the Roman imperial system) less discussed. Some scholars of the last decade or so, however, such as Warren Carter (see “Matthew and the Gentiles,” p. 259-261), have sought to address this. There have been two dominant positions on this issue: 1) that the Matthean author is addressing a mixed audience of both Jews and Gentiles, and as such, supports taking the salvific message of Jesus to both (see Brendan Byrne, “The Messiah in whose Name ‘The Gentiles will Hope,’” p. 55-73); and 2) the Gospel writer’s community have suffered greatly at the hands of the Romans in Antioch, and wish to avoid the Gentile world as far as possible (see David Sim, “The Gospel of Matthew and the Gentiles,” p. 19-48). In order to appreciate the complexity of the Matthean author’s narrative, the Roman imperial context cannot be ignored, as it is alluded to in various episodes with varying degrees of subtlety.
This passage narrates Jesus being tried before Pilate, the Roman governor, after having being brought to him by the Jewish elders. Although it is Pilate who ultimately authorizes Jesus’s crucifixion, scholarship has long maintained that the bulk of the responsibility for his death lies with the Jews, with the governor somewhat strong-armed into appeasing the Jewish leaders. This is the opinion, for instance, of Helen Bond (Pontius Pilate in History and Interpretation, p. 129-133), who sees Pilate as essentially politically neutral, and just trying to keep the peace for a quiet life. Others, however, such as Warren Carter (Pontius Pilate: Portraits of a Roman Governor, p. 1-54, 79-99), take the opposite view, arguing that Pilate was fully committed to his role in the Roman rulership hierarchy. Rather than being the somewhat indifferent pawn in a Jewish plot to suppress a man who in their view was a blasphemous troublemaker, Pilate’s decision was fully conscious, and extremely strategic. As Warren Carter argues elsewhere (“Matthew and the Gentiles,” p. 274-276), the Matthean author emphasises the political role of governor held by Pilate no less than seven times in this passage. As governor, he had a responsibility to maintain order, both socially and administratively, and looked out for the interests of the ruling elites (for a discussion of Roman governors and their role, see Peter Brunt, Roman Imperial Themes, p. 53-95, 163-87, and 215-54). As Josephus tells us, local elites such as the Jewish leaders of Jerusalem frequently made alliances with Roman governors, and were keen to maintain this beneficial relationship with the imperial rulers (see Josephus, Jewish Antiquities XX.9) (see the discussion also on Matthew 2:1-23). This can be seen throughout the episode in this passage, and it becomes clear that Jesus is not transitioning from the custody of the religious authorities to the secular authorities, but rather from one section of the elite to another. Pilate and the Jewish leaders had a shared interest in keeping figures such as Jesus, with apparent kingly pretensions firmly silenced. Indeed, that the title “king of the Jews” is portrayed as so central to Jesus’s trial (despite he himself supposedly claiming no such title, as verses 11-12 assert) is indicative of the concerns about political subversion that the Matthean author sees lying behind the trial.
As Warren Carter identifies, Pilate has established that Jesus is a threat to Roman interests by verse 14, hearing no defence from Jesus to the barrage of accusations made by the Jewish leaders (Warren Carter, “Matthew and the Gentiles,” p. 276). Rather than appearing regretful at the potential death of an innocent man, Pilate fulfils perfectly his role as an efficient Roman official, who carefully considers the potential public backlash against whatever decision he makes, and chooses to take a poll to measure the crowd’s opinion. This is not, as has been suggested in the past, an act intended to try and save the innocent Jesus, whom Pilate has no real issue with, but rather a strategic move to minimise public disruption and damage to the status quo. When the crowd shout for Barabbas to be released instead of Jesus, they reassure Pilate that Jesus does not have overwhelming public support. Moreover, Warren Carter argues that the Passover tradition of releasing a prisoner gives Pilate the perfect opportunity to also gauge the (likely somewhat intimidated) people’s willingness to show loyalty to the Roman regime. By rejecting the so-called “king of the Jews,” the crowd are not backing a man accused of subverting the ruling hierarchy (Warren Carter, “Matthew and the Gentiles,” p. 276). Granted, the detail in verse 19 of Pilate’s wife warning him that he should distance himself from Jesus’s condemnation, immediately followed by the chief priests’ persuading of the people in verse 20, suggests that the Gospel writer wished to paint Pilate as somewhat less responsible than the religious leaders. However, that he is completely politically neutral is extremely unlikely. The handwashing ceremony enables Pilate to project an image of himself as a fair and responsible governor who has done his job and listened to the concerns of his people.
There is another interpretation of this detail, however. It is also possible to understand the roles of Jesus, Barrabas, and Pilate in connection with the ceremony of the two goats utilised in the Jewish celebration of Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) (see Leviticus 16:1-34), where the sins of Israel are atoned for and covered for the year. As part of the ceremony, the High Priest took two goats, one of which was sacrificed, and one of which, the “scapegoat,” was set free into the wilderness, with a scarlet piece of wool tied around its neck, symbolising the carrying away of Israel’s sin. In the story of Jesus’s trial, this ritual is mirrored, with Jesus playing the part of the sacrificial goat, and Barrabas that of the scapegoat, who is allowed to go free. Pilate’s handwashing in Matthew’s version of the story (a detail which does not appear in Mark’s account) can be understood as reflecting this same ritual cleansing action by the High Priest, after he performs the sacrifice. Barrabas walks free, carrying his sin (just like the scapegoat) away with him, while Jesus becomes the atoning sacrifice, ensuring the forgiveness of his followers not just for one year, but for all time. While there is good reason, then, for understanding this passage in the light of authority relations between Roman and Jewish leaders, and in the context of the expected practice of a vigilant Roman governor, there are also important theological messages conveyed by the Matthean author.
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