Raymond E. Brown, The Death of the Messiah,
v.1, Act 3 - #25. Introduction: Background for the Roman Trial of Jesus by Pontius Pilate, pp 676-722

(detailed summary)

Introduction: Background for the Roman Trial of Jesus by Pontius Pilate


The period of the Roman prefects, later called procurators, must be divided into two, because there is a risk of attributing to the first period (6 to 41 AD), rather peaceful, the period in which Jesus exercised his ministry, the characteristics of the second (44 to 66 AD), much more troubled with its revolts. Thus, Jesus was wrongly attributed different profiles of the period, as a charismatic leader, messiah, would-be kings, charlatan prophet, bandit, sicairius, or zealot.

Pilate was prefect from 26 to 36 AD. He belonged to the lower Roman nobility, the equestrian rank, rather than senatorial, meaning that he had had a military career before becoming prefect. He was a controversial figure: Christians tended to overestimate him and make him a holy martyr, and Jews tended to demonize him. In the course of his administration, we can attribute to him six incidents in which he had to intervene, presenting him as a man without subtlety or diplomatic skills, not very sensitive to the Jewish milieu, following the usual army procedures, but yielding to the pressure of the crowd, especially when his reputation was at stake.

The praetorium was the Roman governor's residence to which the public had access, as it also served as headquarters for the administration. However, it was not used for the exercise of justice, which took place instead in a large public court, often across the street, where there was a raised platform with a seat or bench for passing sentence. Caesarea, on the Mediterranean coast, was the place of the praetorium, the centre of the Roman administration. But on certain occasions, such as a religious festival, the prefect used to go to Jerusalem. Where was this praetorium then? The data point us to Herod's royal palace on the western hill, contrary to the medieval tradition that places it at the Antonia fortress.

Was Jesus' trial a proper Roman trial? Unfortunately, there are no records of this trial. And the presentation of the Gospels is a bit skimpy: the account of Mark/Matthew is so brief that one does not bother to read the charge; the only evidence is an ambiguous answer to the original question; and the sentence is pronounced under the pressure of the crowd. Nevertheless, it is plausible to imagine that, since Jesus was not a Roman citizen, the trial may have been conducted according to Roman procedures extra ordinem, where it was not necessary to follow all the procedures of the law, and that Pilate had the right to be satisfied with a simple interrogation. In this, Pilate's attitude is no different from that which he had in six other incidents. Legally, the innocence of the accused was not so clear that he could have taken a chance by releasing him, so he gave in to the pressure of the crowd.

  1. Roman Procuratorial Rule in Judea/Palestine
    1. Differences in the Two Periods of Roman Rule (6-41 AD, 44-66 AD)
    2. Jesus as a Revolutionary and Figures on the Political Scene
      1. "Charismatic leaders"
      2. Messiahs
      3. Would-be kings
      4. Prophets and charlatans
      5. Bandits
      6. Sicarii
      7. Zealots
  2. The Prefecture of Pontius Pilate in Judea (26-36 AD)
    1. The context and Data of Pilate's Career
    2. Estimations of Pilate, Favorable and Unfaborable
    3. Six Incidents or Items Involving Pilate
  3. The Site of Jesus' Trial: The Praetorium
    1. Meaning and Nature of a Praetorium
    2. Two Candidates for the Praetorium of the Passion
  4. The Type of Roman Trial
    1. The Legal Quality of the Gospel Record of the Trial
    2. Relation of the Roman Trial to the Jewish Trial/Interrogation
    3. Legal Status of Selected Features in the Roman Trial of Jesus


After the reign of Herod Archelaus, son of Herod the Great, it is the era of the Roman prefects/procurators which lasts 60 years (from year 6 to 66).

  1. Roman Procuratorial Rule in Judea/Palestine

    1. Differences in the Two Periods of Roman Rule (6-41 AD, 44-66 AD)

      We must distinguish two periods separated by the reign of King Herod Agrippa I (41-44), because in the first period of 35 years seven prefects, coming from Italy, succeeded one another, while in the second, shorter and more troubled period of 22 years, the same number of procurators, but coming mainly from the Greek eastern part of the empire, left a legacy. The two periods are often confused, attributing to the first the characteristics of the second marked by the terrorism of the Zealots, which contributed to the creation of the myth of a revolutionary Jesus, in the manner of Che Guevara or Gandhi.

      If we look closely at this first period, we must recognize that it was truly peaceful. Of course, the Jews were facing a hostile occupation, but they still preferred the Roman government to the troubled period of more than a century they had just lived through. One need only think of the Hasmonean high priest Alexander Jannaeus (107 to 76 BC) who had hundreds of people, including Pharisees, crucified. His sons Hyrcan and Aristobulus II tore each other apart, leaving a divided country. Herod the Great (40/37 to 4 BC) exterminated the rest of the Hasmoneans, as well as members of his family and the Pharisees (see Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, 17.2.4; #44-55). At his death, there were a number of revolts that brought the reign of his son Archelaus to Judea. But Archelaus was so bad as head of state that the Jews themselves asked for Roman intervention, thus introducing the sequence of Roman prefects in AD 6, beginning with Coponius (see Josephus, The Jewish War, 2.7.3 to 8.1; #111-117). Some will note the revolt of Judas of Galilee in AD 6 against the Roman census, in a period of transition, but this revolt was not considered very serious. In short, the sound and orderly administration of the Romans was seen as preferable to the Jewish tumult which had preceded it. And it is within this setting that the adult Jesus must be placed from his twelve years of age until his death, i.e. from 7 to 30/33 AD).

    2. Jesus as a Revolutionary and Figures on the Political Scene

      It is important first to clarify the figure of Jesus, for a number of biblical scholars, beginning with Hermann Samuel Reimarus (The Purpose of Jesus and His Disciples, 1778), have supported the myth of a revolutionary Jesus, who hoped to become king of the Jews, and who threw in the towel at the Jewish Passover, when he found himself with only a small group of people following him. Other biblical scholars followed, presenting a Jesus in revolt against Jewish and Roman authority, planning an assault on the temple. For them, Jesus was crucified for purely political reasons, and if the Jewish authorities denounced him in this way, it was because he represented a threat to the Jewish state for which they were responsible in the eyes of Rome. An evangelist like Mark hid this whole aspect of Jesus to prevent Christians from being seen as a threat to the Roman government. So let's look at the various figures that have been associated with Jesus.

      1. "Charismatic leaders"

        What does that mean? If we want to speak of a person who knows how to persuade and attract disciples in the proclamation of his message, then the expression applies to many people. There is nothing revolutionary about it. Placed in a religious context, such a person is seen as a messenger of God. However, even though people have been impressed by Jesus' ability to heal and speak with authority, such behaviour does not fit the technical definition of a charismatic person, as specified in 1 Cor 12, i.e. a gift of the Spirit to fulfil a particular role. According to the Gospels, Jesus was born of the Holy Spirit and the Spirit rested upon him, but it is never said that he was clothed with the Spirit to fulfill a role that he did not yet possess.

      2. Messiahs

        Let us first recall what we said earlier (#17), i.e. Josephus does not give the title of messiah (christos) to any Jew, except Jesus. Some biblical scholars tend to give the title of messiah to any leader or social or political movement that is a source of agitation. With good reason, others take the trouble to distinguish prophets or leaders of the bandits from messianic figures. While it can be admitted that, in the pre-Exile period and even in the early Second Temple period, some charismatic leaders stood out and led people to accept them as their king, for example Saul, it is quite inappropriate to call "messianic" charismatic manifestations of non-Davidic kingship in the later Second Temple period. This is confirmed by the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Psalms of Solomon, and the 14th of the "Eighteen Blessings" where it was hoped that an anointed one, a son of David, would restore the Davidic kingdom in all its glory. And one would look in vain in the data available at the end of the Second Temple period for someone who would meet this definition through his disciples. The only exception was the Christians (and perhaps Jesus' disciples in his ministry) who claimed a Davidic lineage for Jesus.

      3. Would-be kings

        According to Josephus, five pretenders to royalty can be identified (but none of them mention membership in the Davidic lineage).

        1. Judas son of Ezechias (a chief bandit/brigand)
        2. Simon the slave
        3. Athrongaeos the shepherd
        4. Menahem, the son/grandson of Judas the Galilean, entering Jerusalem armed with a band of bandits and wearing the royal robe.
        5. Simon son of Giora, a military hero who gathered a considerable army of disgruntled people who recognized him as king.

        These names belong to two different eras. The first three date from the time of the death of Herod the Great (4 BC; see Josephus, The Jewish War, 2.4.1-3: #55-65), the last two from the Jewish revolt around 66 AD (Josephus, The Jewish War, 2.17.8-9: #433-448; 4.9.3-4: #507-513). The first group was active in the countryside and addressed peasants who sought a more egalitarian and just social structure by attacking Herod's authority. The second joined the great Jewish revolt against the Romans.

        It will have been observed that the first group lived 30 years before Jesus' public ministry, and the second 30 years after. So we cannot really speak of pretenders to kingship in Pilate's time, a time when Judea was well governed. And there is something incongruous about associating Jesus with all these pretenders:

        • These so-called kings were surrounded by armed troops, while Jesus surrounded himself with fishermen and tax collectors, not conducting any military campaign.

        • Of course, it is not clear how his audience understood Jesus' references to the "kingdom of God", but there are no words to suggest an intention to establish political kingship on this earth; even though he was hailed as the "son of David" (Mk 10:47), Jesus seems to minimize the value of this title (Mk 12:35-37), and according to John, he refuses to be made king (Jn 6:15) and claims that his kingdom is not of this world (Jn 18:36).

        • Some biblical scholars have tried to exploit Jesus' claim that he did not come to bring peace but war (Mt 10:34), and the fact that the disciples had a sword at the time of his arrest, to make him a revolutionary; but this means forgetting certain scenes, such as the one where Jesus asks to give back to Caesar what is Caesar's (Mk 12:17 and par. ), or the one in which he asks to put the sword back into its sheath (Mk 14:47), and his word about the irrelevance of weapons to his mission (Lk 22:38, 49-511).

      4. Prophets and charlatans

        Let us onsider the various figures called prophets at the time

        1. First there are the "seers" who claimed to be able to interpret the future. First there are the educated Essenes and the Master of Justice himself in Qumran who could find in the sacred books a teaching for what was happening now. Then a parallel was drawn with Jesus seeing in his passion the fulfillment of the prophetic writings (Mk 14:27). Likewise, Essenes and Pharisees were known to be able to predict what was going to happen, just as the Gospels say about Jesus (e.g. Mk 14:13.30; Jn 21:18-19).

        2. More importantly for our purposes, there are those who issued terrible oracles about impending divine intervention to punish the people, Jerusalem or its temple, in the manner of the prophets of old like Amos, Isaiah, Micah, Jeremiah and others. Let us first mention Jesus, son of Ananias, who came to Jerusalem in the early 60s with a message of divine judgment against the city and its temple, which led the religious authorities to hand him over to the Romans for execution. Let us also mention John the Baptist who frightened Herod Antipas to the point where he had him killed. As for Jesus, some have associated him with one of the prophets like Jeremiah (Mt 16:14; Mk 8:28).

        3. A third type of prophet led a large movement of disciples, sometimes armed, to bring about a predicted destruction or liberation. In general, these prophets promised a sign, but failed in the face of violent repression that resulted in many deaths. Josephus describes them as charlatans and impostors. Let's give some examples:

          • Around the year 36, a Samaritan prophet gathered the little people together on Mount Garizim to show the place where Moses would have placed the sacred vessels, a movement which Pilate repressed in blood.
          • Around the year 45, in the time of the procurator Cuspius Fadus, Theudas, a self-proclaimed prophet, convinced the masses to follow him with their possessions to the Jordan River, promising to divide it in two so that it could be crossed; he was killed and beheaded.
          • According to Josephus, a self-proclaimed Egyptian prophet, deceived 30,000 people to follow him to the Mount of Olives, from where, by his word, he would bring down the walls of Jerusalem; the authorities slaughtered more than 400 people.
          • In August of 70 AD, at the end of the Roman siege of Jerusalem, when the temple was on fire, 6,000 people died because they had listened to a "false prophet" who had led them to the portico of the outer courtyard.

          All this, as will be noted, happened after the period of Jesus' ministry. And so it is only in retrospect that Jesus and his disciples could be associated with these movements: the Roman procurators could be associated with the Pharaohs, so that Jesus became the new Moses who walked on the waters and fed the crowd with the new manna, or as Elijah or Elisha. However, Jesus was never remembered as someone who gathered the crowds together and led them to a symbolic place with the promise of miraculous signs; on the contrary, he rejected the demands for signs (Mt 12:38-39; 16:1-4; 27:42). Rather, Jesus warned against false prophets performing signs and wonders, and asking to be followed into the desert. Josephus himself, who often speaks of charlatans, never associates Jesus with them. Finally, it should be noted that none of the prophets mentioned above underwent a trial before being executed, as was the case with Jesus.

      5. Bandits

        Of the 14 occurrences of lēstēs (bandit) in the Gospels, half occur in the passion narratives, on the one hand in the mouths of Jesus' enemies to point to him, on the other hand in reference to Barabbas or to those who will be crucified with him. What was the meaning of this word? In the first century it referred to the armed and violent men who ravaged the countryside or the troublemakers who caused riots in the city. Barabbas was one of those guys. But there is no evidence that they could be revolutionaries. In Josephus, all references to lēstēs are outside the period of Jesus' ministry. One would actually look for a reference to a revolt against the Romans. After the year 70 and the fall of Jerusalem, there may have been a tendency to associate Barabbas and those crucified with Jesus with the revolutionaries of the Jewish revolt of 66-70. This was probably also the case with anti-Christian propaganda. But one would look in vain for data which would support the idea that Jesus was considered a revolutionary in his time.

      6. Sicarii

        This word is the plural of sicarius and literally means "knife-wielder", i.e. someone who infiltrated the crowd and indiscriminately stuck his knife into someone to create a stir and provoke a Roman reaction. Josephus refers to these terrorists during the period of Felix (52-60) and the following one. They carried out selective assassinations, eliminating the Jewish bourgeoisie and setting whole villages on fire (see Josephus, The Jewish War, 2.13.3: #254-257). They prospered during the reign of Festus (60-62), but lost popular fervor on the eve of the first Jewish revolt. Josephus never mentions them during the period of Pilate.

      7. Zealots

        The Greek word zēlōtēs means: zealous. It translates the Hebrew word whose root is: qn'. A zealot reflects the idea that God does not love the lukewarm and that it is necessary to protect His interests: it is Pinhas who massacres the violators of the law (Num 25:6-13), it is the Maccabees who resist the Hellenistic syncretism (1 Mac 2:24-26), or it is Paul who persecutes the Christians who forsake the tradition of the ancestors (Gal 1:13-14). In all this, the enemy is above all the lawbreaker, not the Romans. But the zealots also pointed to a group of young people who had committed themselves to ruthlessly attacking those who were preventing them from realizing their vision of religious purity in relation to the Law and the temple. Josephus perceives them as violent revolutionaries, but mentions their existence only during the Jewish revolt at the end of 67. They are said to have appeared in Jerusalem on the occasion of this revolt, one group among many, but the only one led by priests and having established its quarter in the inner courtyard of the temple.

        How then can we explain that one of Jesus' disciples, Simon, is called a zealot (Lk 6:15; Acts 1:13)? The word certainly had the general meaning of "zealous", and not of a member of the organized group of zealots that did not exist at that time. For Jesus could not be associated with the Zealots when he chose as his disciple a tax collector, a pro-establishment. And the very fact that his disciples were left in peace when he was put to death, at the very time of the Passover feast when the atmosphere was volatile, indicates that the authorities did not consider themselves to be facing a revolutionary movement. In short, the style of Roman government at the time of Jesus' ministry did not lend itself to violent revolutionary movements.

  2. The Prefecture of Pontius Pilate in Judea (AD 26-36)

    1. The context and Data of Pilate's Career

      During the reign of the Emperor Tiberius (14 - 37), the period from the year 26 to 31 is marked by the presence of Lucius Aelius Sejanus, a Roman nobleman who gradually acquired great importance, to the point of being entrusted with the daily administration of the empire, while Tiberius himself had withdrawn in 26-27 to the island of Capri. Sejanus' ambition reached its peak in 31 when he was virtually co-emperor, before being unmasked, rejected and put to death by Tiberius on 18 October 31. In this context, the date of Jesus' death becomes important: if he died at Passover in 30 AD, then Sejanus was in office; if it was in 33 AD, then Sejanus was no longer in office. The establishment of a correlation between the death of Jesus and the administration of Sejanus depends on two other points.

      1. Was Sejanus the patron of Pilate when he was appointed Prefect of Judea in 26 AD? If so, Pilate could feel more confident of gaining the support of Rome with the death of Jesus in 30 AD, than a death in 33 AD. According to Jn 19:12, where the crowd shouts, "If you let him go, you are no friend of Caesar: whoever makes himself king opposes Caesar", Pilate is threatened with being denounced in Rome. The threat could have been more serious if Pilate's boss had fallen into disfavour.

      2. Was Sejanus really anti-Jewish as Philo reports (Ad Gaium 24: #160-161; In Flacum, 1)? If so, then perhaps Pilate was trying to imitate his patron and please him. But this point is not confirmed by other ancient writers, and Philo may have blamed the anti-Jewish actions on Sejanus, who had fallen into disgrace, to avoid accusing the Emperor Tiberius himself.

      All this makes us aware of the political reality that Pilate had to take into account. But there are too many hypothetical elements to determine their impact on the death of Jesus.

      So what do we know about Pilate? Pontius Pilate belonged to the lower Roman nobility, the equestrian rank, rather than senatorial, which means he had a military career before becoming prefect. His tribe or people is indicated by his name Pontius and is originally from the Samnium (mountainous region of central Italy), while his family is indicated by his first name Pilate, which comes from pileus (hat, helmet) or pilum (spear). He was the fifth of the seven prefects of Judea before the reign of Agrippa. His longevity (26 - 36) during this period from the year 6 to 66, when 14 prefects / procurators succeeded one another, should also be noted. During his term of office, three legates of Syria succeeded one another. One must therefore be circumspect in the face of certain biblical scholars who consider him irresponsible. It should be noted that Pilate never deposed a high priest (Caiaphas was in office from 18 to 36/37), unlike his predecessor, Valerius Gratus, who deposed four during his term of office. In 61 a damaged inscription was discovered in Caesarea, the left side of which was lost, and on which it still read: Pontius Pilatus, Prefect of Judea.

    2. Estimations of Pilate, Favorable and Unfaborable

      In antiquity, there are divergent portraits of Pilate. For example, Mark's is not very flattering, for even though Pilate knows that Jesus was handed over out of jealousy, he does nothing to help him. But the other evangelists portray him in more noble traits, as he seeks ways to free Jesus, knowing the exaggerated and even false accusations. Later, in Christian Christology, Pilate becomes first and foremost a chronological reference point concerning the reality of Jesus' death, as the Creed testifies: "He suffered under Pontius Pilate".

      As astonishing as it may seem, it is a favourable portrait of Pilate that will predominate. For Tertullian (Apologeticum, 21.18,24), he is a Christian at heart. For Hippolytus of Rome (On Daniel, 1.27), Pilate is as innocent of the blood of Jesus as Daniel is in relation to Susanna. The apocryphal Acts of Pilate shows him weeping over Jesus and desiring that he should not be put to death. Another apocryphal writing, The Gospel of Gamaliel, describes Pilate's martyrdom. Pilate's wife, who was called Procla, was honored by the Greek Church on October 27. In the 9th century, Vienna (in France) was considered the place of Pilate's death, and later in Switzerland, and his memory has been preserved with Mount Pilate near Vienna, and Mount Pilate near Lucerne.

      However, in the Jewish world the portrait of Pilate is not favourable. The historian Josephus paints a hostile picture. Philo of Alexandria, in his Legatio ad Gaium (for example, 28: #302), darkens it even more: he is said to have multiplied corrupt actions, insults, robberies, gratuitous wounds, summary executions, being extremely cruel. But in the latter case, the approach is above all rhetorical, for Philo wants to justify the good decision to replace a succession of Roman prefects by the Jew Agrippa, and therefore has every interest in denigrating Pilate.

    3. Six Incidents or Items Involving Pilate

      1. The emblematic banner incident in 26 AD

        Newly appointed prefect and wanting to show his loyalty to the Emperor Tiberius, Pilate brought his troops to Jerusalem with emblematic medallions or busts of Caesar attached to the standards (Josephus, The Jewish War, 2.9.2-3: #169-174; Jewish Antiquities, 18.3.1: #55-59). This was an unprecedented event for the Jews who refused to accept any image. They sent a delegation to his headquarters in Caesarea to ask that the standards be removed from Jerusalem. After six days of protests following his refusal, Pilate had the delegation surrounded by the army, threatening to kill them all if they did not return. But when he saw them lying on the ground, ready to die, he yielded and had the standards taken down. All this suggests a man with little subtlety and no diplomatic skills, following the army's usual procedures and wanting to establish his reputation from the very beginning of his mandate. However, this is a far cry from the stubborn and bloodthirsty tyrant.

      2. The incident with the coin bearing pagan cult symbols around 29-31

        The imperial currency for the Syro-Palestinian region was minted in Antioch, except for certain short periods when it could be minted in Judea. Especially during the Roman prefectural administration, coins were found in Judea displaying a simpulum (a kind of ladle used to pour wine during libation sacrifices) and also a lituus (a curved stick used for auguries). The appearance of this coin corresponds to the arrival of Pilate in office. Often a standard die was used, without the date, and it was the regions that finished the coin by striking the date, which explains the almost illegible character of the date on some coins in Judea. Some of these coins have been found in Judea, one dated to the 16th year of Tiberius (29 AD) with the simpulum on one side and an ear of wheat on the other, others dated to the year 30 and 31 with the simpulum and lituus. It is easy to imagine that the Jews were very uncomfortable with these pagan symbols. But there is no evidence of any revolt or disorderly movement. Pilate did not contribute to the issue of this currency out of provocation; he merely followed the usual Roman procedures. The only reproach that can be made against him is his insensitivity to the Jewish milieu.

      3. The revolt around the aqueduct

        Later (see Josephus, The Jewish War, 2.9.4: #175-177; Jewish Antiquities, 18.3.2: #60-62), without being able to specify exactly when, Pilate used the sacred treasure of the temple, called a qorban (in Greek: korbōnas), to build a twenty-to-forty-mile-long aqueduct for Jerusalem. This was not a gesture of greed, but an act of public works for the welfare of the people of Jerusalem. Nevertheless, the crowds surrounded Pilate's court while he was in Jerusalem for some feast, and held a siege. The prefect sent his soldiers dressed in civilian clothes, without swords, but armed only with a club to strike the rioters. In spite of the order given, the soldiers beat the rioters and onlookers violently, so that a large number of Jews perished. Clearly, Pilate underestimated the brutality of his soldiers. But this is far from a calculated gesture to massacre innocent people.

      4. The bloody sacrifice of the Galileans around 28-29

        Luke (13:1-2) writes: "At the same time there came people who told him what had happened to the Galileans, whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. And he answered and said to them, 'Do you think that these Galileans were greater sinners than all the other Galileans because they had suffered such a fate?'". The mention of the sacrifices probably refers to a feast in Jerusalem that brought a number of Galileans to the city. It is possible that the small number of victims did not catch the attention of Josephus or Philo.

      5. Gold shields after the year 31

        This incident has only Philo as its source (Legatio ad Gaium 38: #299-305). According to him, Pilate had put gold shields in Herod's palace, which he consecrated to Tiberius with the explicit purpose of irritating the crowd. It is possible that even if there was no image, the context suggests that the whole thing had a religious meaning. The protests of the population against this attack on Jewish traditions were addressed to Pilate through four princes, perhaps including Herod Antipas, Philip of Ituraea and Herod Philip. When he refused, Pilate was reminded that he was creating a situation conducive to insurrection, and even war, which Tiberius certainly did not want. This frightened Pilate, who feared that an embassy would be sent against him in Rome, which was done, and the emperor demanded that the gold shields be brought back to Caesarea.

        Philo's objectivity is questionable in this account. For he addresses Emperor Claudius, inviting him to take the same position as Tiberius did with respect to Pilate and to avoid what Caligula did in trying to put his statue in the temple. Moreover, if Tiberius was really angry with Pilate, why did he keep him in office?

        Among the Bible scholars, there has been some discussion as to whether this event is really distinct from our first incident (the emblematic standards) recounted by Josephus. Most biblical scholars believe that it is, because, on the one hand, the incident recounted by Philo is more innocuous than that of the banners, and on the other hand, Philo's Pilate appears to be devoid of support from Rome, which would place the event after the year 31, i.e. after the fall of his mentor Sejanus, i.e. 5 years after the banner incident.

        This incident of the golden shields, where the multitude tries to intimidate Pilate with threats, sheds some light on the scene of the passion according to John 19:12, where the crowd shouts: "If you let him go, you are no friend of Caesar: whoever makes himself king opposes Caesar".

      6. The Samaritan Prophet

        According to Josephus (Jewish Antiquities, 18.4.1-2: #85-89), a false prophet had promised the Samaritans to show them on Mount Garizim the sacred vessels buried by Moses. The Samaritans gathered with weapons in Tirathana, not far from the mountain. Then Pilate would have been afraid of this eschatological fanaticism, and so he blocked the ascent with heavily armed cavalry and infantry. A skirmish ensued, Samaritans were killed, several were imprisoned, and their leader executed. The Samaritan Council protested to the Syrian legate, Vitellius, who ordered Pilate to leave Judea and go to Rome, ending his prefectural function. Yet Pilate's intervention was not an unthinking gesture. One wonders whether Vitellius' swift reaction in taking a stand for the Samaritans was primarily intended to impress Tiberius, who did not want local traditions to be upset. But perhaps Pilate's attitude had been influenced by the high priests, especially Caiaphas, who hated the Samaritan cult. If Caiaphas really put pressure on Pilate, one could understand why he was dismissed immediately after Pilate's departure.

      The image that emerges from these six events is not that of someone without fault, but certainly different from the caricature that Philo makes of them. The evangelist John presents us with the dramatic character of a person indecisive before the choice between truth and lie. On the whole, the portrait painted by the four Gospels is not totally implausible, even if we can doubt the historicity of each detail. Let us imagine for a moment that Josephus would have added another incident about Pilate (to be added after incident c., but before incident f.), where the authorities in Jerusalem would have brought to him for punishment a man who threatened the temple sanctuary and claimed to be king. After examination Pilate would have found him safe and understood that the Jewish leaders were biased. But since the man was from Galilee, a Herodian prince staying in the city was involved in the case, and Pilate informed him of his decision not to execute him. But when he saw that a riot began in the city after this announcement, Pilate backed down and accepted the request of the Jewish leaders. After the six incidents described above, who could say that this imaginary seventh incident does not correspond to Pilate's typical behavior? And this is what the Gospels show.

  3. The Site of Jesus' Trial: The Praetorium

    The Synoptics give us the impression that the whole Roman trial is taking place outside, and that the chief priests, the elders, the scribes and the people are nearby and can converse with Pilate. And it is only after being condemned and whipped that the soldiers bring Jesus inside, in the aulē. In John (18:28ff.), on the other hand, the whole trial takes place indoors in the praetorium, in a private meeting between Jesus and Pilate, and it is only at the end that Pilate goes outside and sits on the judgment seat (bēma), in a place called Lithostrotos (Stone Pavement), Gabbatha in Hebrew; it is from there that he addresses the Jews and pronounces his sentence. Matthew (27:19) is the only other evangelist to mention bēma, apparently outside. What is this praetorium and where was it located?

    1. Meaning and Nature of a Praetorium

      The Latin word praetorium is associated with the praetor, a Roman dignitary who served as an army general, and is formed of the preposition prae (before) and the word itor (he who goes), that is, he who goes ahead. In a military campaign, the praetorium was the headquarters. When praetors became governors of occupied territories, the praetorium was their residence in the main city, often the palace of the ancient king that the Romans had replaced. The public had access to it, as it also served as the headquarters for the administration. However, it was not used for the exercise of justice, which took place in a basilica, forum, or large public court (often in front of the praetorium), where there was a raised platform (in Latin tribunal, in Greek bēma) with a seat or bench for the dignitary who had to pronounce his sentence.

      Caesarea, on the Mediterranean coast, was the site of the praetorium, the centre of Roman administration. But on certain occasions, such as on a religious feast, or simply to demonstrate the Roman presence, the prefect / procurator would go to Jerusalem. Where did he live? Neither Philo nor Josephus used the word pretorium for a building in Jerusalem. But they do offer information about two buildings of Herodian origin that might be candidates for what the Gospels call a praetorium.

    2. Two Candidates for the Praetorium of the Passion

      1. Description of candidates

        First candidate: Fortress Antonia. This ancient castle of the Hasmonaean priest kings was luxuriously restored by Herod the Great around 37-35 BC. Built on a rocky promontory adjoining the northwest corner of the temple (see map of Jerusalem) and constituting the end of the 2nd wall of the city, it was part of the northern line of defenses. This wall was the boundary of the city at the time of Jesus. Herod used it as one of his residences, but later it served as a quarter for a Roman cohort that gave him privileged access to the temple. But Josephus never gave the name aulē (palace) to the building, but pyrgos (tower) or phrourion (fortress).

        Second candidate: the palace (aulē) of the king (Herod). It is a real fortress built on the western hill of the city on Hasmonean ruins (see the map of Jerusalem). It is also part of the northern line of defenses. Outside, there were three huge towers built by Herod to which he gave the names of friends and family members: Hippicus, Phasael, Mariamme. This was Herod's main residence. Josephus considers his luxury and extravagance indescribable (The Jewish War, 1.21.1: #402; Jewish Antiquities, 15.9.3: #318).

      2. Analysis of data

        First of all, it seems unlikely that a prefect / procurator, staying in Jerusalem, would reside in the Antonia fortress, leaving the tribune and his cohort the much more prestigious residence of the royal palace. And there is especially this passage from Josephus on Florus, the last procurator:

        Florus stayed (aulizein) in the royal residence and, the next day, had a court (bēma) placed and sat in court. The high priests and the most influential and well-known citizens then came before the bēma. (The Jewish War, 2.14.8; #301)

        This is the same language Josephus uses in recounting the aqueduct incident (see earlier (c.)) revolt around the aqueduct), as the crowd encircles the court. Similarly, in the Gold Shield incident (see earlier e.), Josephus speaks of consecration in Herod's "royal residence (basileia)".

        In the New Testament, when he describes the scene about Barabbas where the crowd goes to Pilate's house to ask for the usual grace of a prisoner, Mark 15:8 writes: "The crowd having gone up (anabainein)". The act of "going up" fits perfectly with the geography of Herod's palace, located on the highest place in Jerusalem, and it also fits with the term Gabbatha of Jn 19:13, a Hebrew term meaning: high place or hill. In addition, Mark speaks of aulē to refer to the praetorium, a term that Josephus uses for the royal palace, but never for the fortress Antonia. As for bēma, Mt 27:19 and Jn 19:13 place it outside the praetorium, exactly where Josephus places it in his account of Florus mentioned above. Finally, Jn 19:13 mentions a lithostrōtos (stone pavement) outside the praetorium. One must assume that the stone was so impressive that it caught the attention and awakened the imagination. Josephus does not speak of any stone in reference to the fortress Antonia, but speaks of a variety of precious stones (lithos) in reference to the royal palace.

        All in all, the data points us to Herod's royal palace on the western hill as the interim location of Pilate's praetorium during the Passover, when he met Jesus. This goes against the tradition, dating back to the 12th century, which locates the praetorium at the Antonia fortress, and led pilgrims to make the Way of the Cross from there to the Holy Sepulchre. This also goes against the discovery in 1870, on the site of the fortress of Antonia, of a massive stone slab with graffiti of a king's game that resembled the mocking of Jesus as king mentioned in Mk 15:16-20 and Mt 27:27-31; in fact, more recent research has shown that the graffiti probably came from the triumphal arch at the entrance to the city's forum after the year 135, when it was called Aelia Capitolina.

  4. The Type of Roman Trial

    1. The Legal Quality of the Gospel Record of the Trial

      The evangelists' perspective is not legal, but theological: they dramatize the religious significance of the condemnation of Jesus. For example, John's Jesus, unlike the silent Jesus in the Synoptics, has a private conversation with Pilate; the author intends to reflect the debate among Christians of his day in their relationship with Rome to reject the idea that they were claiming a separate, political kingdom: Jesus' kingdom is not of this world. It also intends to reflect his theological view that Jesus came into the world to bear witness to the truth, and that Pilate must face this judgment as he stands before the truth. For his part, Luke introduces an independent tradition of an encounter with Herod Antipas during the Roman trial, probably seeking to synchronize Jesus' trial with that of Paul who had to face both the procurator Festus and Herod Agrippa II as judges (see Acts 25-26).

      In fact, no details of Pilate's trial of Jesus have been reported. And nothing resembling a record of Jesus' trial has survived or could be reconstructed from the Gospel accounts. We have no evidence that they could even have benefited from such a document. The only information probably came to them through hearsay or was derived from post-factual explanations by the Jewish or Roman authorities, or from logical suppositions; given the number of persons involved, it would be surprising if nothing was circulated about these events. The " King of the Jews " motive for this public execution has certainly been published and could only be related to the trials that preceded it. In short, in spite of the absence of a record, there is no reason to doubt the fundamental issue at stake in the Roman trial.

      Nevertheless, while acknowledging that the Gospels offered no record of the trial, several ancient authors believed that there must have been one somewhere. This came from their familiarity with the Acts of the Martyrs in circulation which detailed the Roman trial of the Christians. For example, Justin (2nd c.) believed that Pilate had produced the Acts of Jesus' trial (see Apology 1:35). Tertullian (2nd-3rd c.), on the other hand, claims that Pilate was a Christian at heart and would have sent the details of the trial to the Emperor Tiberius (Apology, 21:24). Thus appeared the apocryphal Greek apocryphal writing of the Acts of Pilate (4th c.), very favourable to the prefect (the work is also known in its Latin version under the title Gospel of Nicodemus). There is also the text of the Acts of Peter and Paul (4th c.) which tells that Pilate wrote a letter to the Emperor Claudius. These are all works of the imagination and have no historical value.

    2. Relation of the Roman Trial to the Jewish Trial/Interrogation

      To what extent was the Roman trial independent of the Jewish trial? If the latter was a genuine investigation, Pilate should have proceeded on the basis of what the Jewish authorities reported to him. But Luke is alone, and only partially, in echoing the Jewish interrogation at the Roman trial. None of the Gospels echoes in the Jewish interrogation what will be the heart of the Roman interrogation: Jesus, king of the Jews. The proposition of some biblical scholars that the Roman trial was an implementation or execution of the results of the Jewish trial must therefore be rejected, since the Jews had no right to put someone to death. Even if we find in Mark (followed by Mt) an explicit death sentence from the religious authorities which required Roman intervention for its implementation, the four evangelists present us with two separate trials with two different subjects of interrogation, and therefore would require two different decisions. The four evangelists present us with a Pilate who seems to ignore to a certain extent the pressing demands of the Jewish authorities, as if he did not trust them; in John 18:30-31 Pilate's refusal of the Jewish decision is even explicit. In fact, for the Romans, only what was a real crime, or legally guilty, was important to them. Thus, the Roman trial must be seen as an independent retrial, the outcome of which could be the innocence or guilt of Jesus.

      However, a number of problems remain:

      • Why is the trial described by Mark/Matthew so short that we don't bother to read the charge?
      • Why is the only evidence an ambiguous answer to the original question?
      • Why does Pilate yield to the cries of the crowd to be crucified?

      The explanation of some biblical scholars that Pilate was a bloodthirsty tyrant who acted arbitrarily, ignoring the legal elements of a rule of law must be rejected; the six incidents analyzed above have shown the opposite. A more plausible explanation would come from the fact that Jesus was not a Roman citizen and the trial was perhaps conducted extra ordinem, where it was not necessary to follow all the procedures provided by Roman law, and that Pilate had the right to be satisfied with a simple interrogation. Then the governor could find out the facts about Jesus, know the reasons why he was to be put to death, determine whether there was any legal basis for a Roman sentence, and specify what sentence was appropriate. He could therefore obtain information from the local authority, without requiring the kind of evidence required by ordinary law. The Jewish historian Josephus recounts similar cases of legal actions by Roman prefects / procurators that involved capital punishment, and none of his accounts offer much more detail than the Gospels. This laconism could be due to Josephus' style as well as that of the Gospels, but it could just as well be due to the abbreviated procedures or the expeditious investigation. In short, the Gospel account of the Roman trial does not seem so truncated as to be unusual.

    3. Legal Status of Selected Features in the Roman Trial of Jesus

      A formal Roman trial could involve a variety of players in addition to the judge: junior barristers, attendants. It is the choice of the Gospels to mention only Pilate. Still, in a province like Judea, nothing in Josephus or the Gospels suggests that a jury was required. On the other hand, one might have expected a translator to be present, since Jesus and Pilate did not speak the same language; the Gospels are silent on the language used in the interrogation and the answers given.

      1. The Charge against Jesus and the Crime It Represented

        Mark offers us probably the oldest form of the Christian account of the legal proceedings that brought Jesus before Pilate. Even though there is no formal formulation of the accusation, Pilate seems well aware of the point at issue. This picture is consistent with the observation that, in times of tension (busy feasts, recent riots), Roman proceedings could be summary and begin with the equivalent of a police report obtained from the local magistrates.

        The charge concerns Jesus' claim to be the king of the Jews. According to Roman law, this is a crime of sedition or lex de maiestate, punishable by crucifixion. There has been much debate among experts in Roman law about the relationship between perdellio (crime of high treason) and variations on the crime of lex de maiestate, and the penalties attached to it. For perdellio included any malicious offense against the Roman people and carried a wide range of penalties, from the death penalty to fines. But over time, the scope of what the crime of lex de maiestate covered (culpable negligence of an incompetent magistrate, or action that undermined the loyalty of the troops, or leaving a province without permission) replaced the perdellio and made it obsolete. And with the beginning of the empire, the very act of insulting a chief, a symbol of the majesty of the empire, became a crime of lex de maiestate. We notice that with Augustus and especially Tiberius (very sensitive to betrayals), banishments became harsher and summary executions more frequent.

        How does all this apply to Jesus? John 19:12 is the only one who makes the connection between the crime of lex de maiestate and the accusation against Jesus: "Whoever makes himself king opposes Caesar". Did he preserve a historical detail, or did he simply deduce in retrospect the implications of tradition? We note that an author like Josephus never provides the legal basis for the condemnations uttered by the prefects in his chronicles. It is enough for him to mention that there were troublemakers and that the prefect had to see to it, and thus appealed to the general principle of maintaining order. This is probably what happened in the province of Judea with someone who was not a Roman citizen like Jesus. Of course, one can find a link between the general principle and certain laws related to treason, but it would be wrong to imagine that the prefect would consult the books of law every time before convicting a man from a province accused of a crime.

      2. The Responses of Jesus

        Although we have no record of the trial, there is nothing implausible with the question asked in the Gospel accounts, "Are you the King of the Jews?" and it is consistent with the accusation published at his execution. Likewise, Jesus' silence ("Do you not answer? See all that they accuse you of", Mk 15:4) is not unprecedented (see Papyrus Oslo 16). Finally, Pilate's interrogation in Mark bears no mark of theological work.

        According to Mark 15:2, to the initial question, Jesus would have answered: "You say so". One may ask: With this kind of answer from Jesus, would a Roman judge have enough evidence to pass sentence? For this is neither a denial nor an unambiguous statement. What should a judge do in a case where the accused does not plead guilty but does not affirm his innocence or reject the original charge when questioned? Isn't it legal to find such a difficult and uncooperative person guilty? In such a situation, is it not normal for the judge to base his or her sentence on the evidence brought before him or her, especially when there is political pressure to find the accused guilty?

      3. The Role of the Crowd (acclamatio)

        What to do with the outcry of the crowd that wants to see him crucified, as if they had a say in the judge's decision? This practice of popular acclamation (acclamatio populi) was known in some free cities, such as the cities of the Decapolis in Galilee. For example, in Caesarea, Herod the Great brought three hundred military leaders under accusation before the assembly, and the crowd killed them (Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, 16.11.7: #393-394). But this seems to have been rather an Eastern practice, and the Romans tended to respect local customs. However, Jerusalem was not a free city, and popular acclaim was not a Jewish custom. And the cries of the crowd against Jesus in the Gospel accounts are a result of the mob pressure on the prefect, rather than the voice of a recognized jury.

        On the other hand, if we consider the accounts of the martyrs told by their sympathizers who rejected their accusation and sentence, we note the presence of a hostile crowd. In the Martyrdom of Polycarp (11-12), it is the cries of the crowd and the Jews that determine in the eyes of the proconsul of Smyrna the type of death of Polycarp. In examining the six incidents in which Pilate was involved, we have seen the role of the crowd. Also, in the absence of a record, we must consider the plausibility of the Gospel accounts. It is therefore quite plausible to imagine a Pilate anxious to assert Roman prerogatives in death sentences, and therefore anxious to verify by himself the guilt of Jesus, even if the Jewish authorities had presented him as guilty of a crime. He must certainly have known that the real problem was more one of internal Jewish affairs, rather than that of a political crime against the majesty of the emperor. But there was the pressure of the crowd, he certainly did not want the whole thing to degenerate into a riot in the context of the Easter feast. Legally, the innocence of the accused is not so clear that Pilate might take a chance by releasing him; so he gave in to the pressure of the crowd. In short, Pilate's position in this trial is not brave or noble, but it is not illegal or a violation of Roman law, on top of being an insignificant moment in his career.

Next chapter: The Roman Trial, Part One: Initial Questioning by Pilate

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