Raymond E. Brown, The Death of the Messiah,
v.1, Act 3 - #26. The Roman Trial, Part One: Initial Questioning by Pilate, pp 723-759

(detailed summary)

The Roman Trial, Part One: Initial Questioning by Pilate
(Mk 15: 2-5; Mt 27: 11-14; Lk 23: 2-5; Jn 18: 28b-38a)


With respect to logic, the Gospel stories raise many questions: How could Pilate have wanted to interview this Galilean peasant personally? How could the accusation of being king of the Jews emerge when it was never mentioned during Jesus' ministry? How did Pilate become aware of the conclusions of the Sanhedrin's trial? Even if we admit that there is probably a historical nucleus, i.e. Jesus died on the cross under the accusation of being king of the Jews, we must admit that the evangelists are much more interested in creating a dramatic effect from this nucleus to proclaim who Jesus really is.

In order to interpret these stories properly, one should not place oneself around 30 AD, the time of Jesus' death, but rather around 70 or 80 AD, when they were written, and imagine what the Christian listener must have understood from them. Within this setting, it was assumed that the trial was legal, that it was the chief priests who had passed on to Pilate the conclusions of the Sanhedrin's trial, and that what interested the Romans was the political dimension of Jesus' activity; in the latter case, did not Jesus preach the coming of a kingdom, and was not the Messiah King Son of David spoken of?

Even though Mark is the first to present us with an account of the passion, it would be a mistake to think that it is the most historical, for he reworks its source a great deal to integrate it into a structure: from the general (several accusations) to the particular (are you the Messiah?) in the Jewish trial, from the particular (are you the king of the Jews?) to the general (several accusations) in the Roman trial. He makes the chief priests play the role of the wicked in the Psalms, and the figure of Pilate is pale: he shows little interest and insensitivity, yielding to the crowd so that Jesus may be crucified. Matthew takes up Mark's story, improving the style, but above all increasing it with dramatic incidents (Judas feeling guilty about the innocent blood, the dream of Pilate's wife, the washing of Pilate's hands) which add more liveliness and theological value to the story. Luke, for his part, takes up Mark's account, but reshapes it on the model of Paul's various trials as presented in the Acts of the Apostles. As for John, he offers us a masterpiece in dramatic art, where we walk alternately from the inside to the outside of the praetorium, where the divine and the human confront each other, with Pilate as the main actor, who fails to recognize the truth.

  1. Translation
  2. Comment
    1. Different Approaches to the Pilate Trial
      1. Historicity
      2. Source Criticism
      3. The Narrative at Face Value
    2. A Common Pattern in the Interchanges between Pilate and Jesus
    3. The Marcan Account of the Questioning (Mark 15: 2-5)
    4. The Matthean Account of the Questioning (Matthew 27: 11-14)
    5. The Lucan Expansion of the Basic Interchange (Luke 23: 2-5)
    6. The Johannine Expansion of the Basic Interchange (John 18: 28b-38a)
      1. Episode 1 : Pilate and Those outside the Praetorium (18: 28b-32)
      2. Episode 2 : Pilate and Jesus inside the Praetorium (18: 33-38a)
  3. Analysis
    1. The Marcan Roman Trial (Mark 15: 1-15)
    2. The Matthean Roman Trial (Matthew 27: 1-26)
    3. The Lucan Roman Trial (Luke 23: 1-25)
    4. The Johannine Roman Trial (John 18: 28 – 19, 16a)

  1. Translation

    Words of Mark shared by the other evangelists are underlined. Words in blue indicate what is common to Matthew and Luke, in red words of John shared by other evangelists.

    Mark 15Matthew 27Luke 23John 18
    28b And they did not enter into the praetorium lest they be defiled and in order that they might eat the Passover (meal).
    2 But they [the whole multitude of them] began to accuse him, saying, "We have found this fellow misleading our nation, both forbidding the giving of taxes to Caesar, and saying that he is Messiah king".29 So Pilate went out to them and says, "What accusation do you bring against this man?"
    30 They answered and said to him, "If this fellow were not doing what is bad, we would not have given him over to you".
    31 So Pilate said to them, "Take him yourselves, and according to your law judge him". The Jews said to him, "It is not permitted us to put anyone to death",
    32 in order that there might be fulfilled the word of Jesus that he spoke, signifying what kind of death he was going to die.
    33a So Pilate went again into the praetorium, and called Jesus
    2a And Pilate questioned him, "Are you the King of the Jews?" 11a But Jesus stood in front of the governor, and the governor questioned him, saying, "Are you the King of the Jews?"3a But Pilate asked him, saying, "Are you the King of the Jews?"33b and said to him, "Are you the King of the Jews?"
    34 Jesus answered, "Of yourself do you say this, or have others told you this about me?"
    35 Pilate answered, "Am I a Jew? Your nation and the chief priests have given you over to me. What have you done?"
    36 Jesus answered, "My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my attendants would have struggled lest I be given over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here".
    37a So Pilate said to him, "So then you are a king".
    2b But in answer he says to him, "You say (so)".11b But Jesus said, "You say (so)".3b But in answer, he said to him, "You say (so)".37b Jesus answered, « You say that I am a king. The reason for which I have been born and for which I have come into the world is that I may bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice".
    3 And the chief priests were accusing him of many things.12 And although he was being accused by the chief priests and elders, he answered nothing.
    38a Pilate says to him, "What is truth?"
    4 But Pilate tried to question him again, saying, "Do you answer nothing at all? Behold how much they have accused you of".13 Then Pilate says to him, "Do you hear how much they are testifying against you?"
    5 But Jesus answered nothing further, so that Pilate was amazed.14 And he did not answer him, not to even one word, so that the governor was greatly amazed.
    4 But Pilate said to the chief priests and the crowds, "I find nothing guilty in this man".
    5 But they were insistent, saying that "He stirs up the people, teaching through the whole of Judea, having begun from Galilee even to here".

  2. Comment

    The audience of the Gospels, who belonged to the period from the 60's to the 100's, and lived in cities such as Antioch, Ephesus or Rome, must have known little about the prefectural administration of Pilate and the place of the praetorium, as well as about the extra ordinem trials in the imperial provinces such as Judea. This is an important point to emphasize when trying to determine how they understood the Roman trial.

    1. Different Approaches to the Pilate Trial

      1. Historicity

        Some biblical scholars think that since Mark's Gospel is the oldest and shortest, it is the most historical, and so they use it to answer their logical questions: How could Pilate have wanted to personally interview a Jew without much social status? How could a trial be centered around the title of King of the Jews without an investigation of Jesus' journey, especially since this title never emerged during his ministry? How could Pilate have known about Jesus' claims, since all information about him is relayed by the Jewish authorities? Why is there no clear relationship between the questions raised by Pilate and those raised by the Sanhedrin? Unsurprisingly, the biblical scholars end up questioning the historical value of the Roman trial.

        All these biblical scholars forget that the Gospel accounts are not minutes or summaries of eyewitnesses. Of course, there is probably a historical core: Jesus died on the cross under the accusation of being the king of the Jews. But the evangelists are primarily interested in creating a dramatic effect from this core to proclaim who Jesus really is, not in informing the reader how Pilate obtained his information or what the legal formalities of the trial were. Basically, the Gospel accounts are not so different from that of Josephus when he recounts the arrest of Jesus son of Ananias (The Jewish War, 6.5.3: #303-305) thirty years later, who was handed over to the Roman governor by the Jewish authorities, questioned by him about his alleged proclamation of "Woe to Jerusalem", refusing to answer the charges despite the lashes, and receiving his sentence from the governor. If no one dares to question the authenticity of Josephus' account, why would anyone doubt the authenticity of the Gospel accounts? Rather, it must be recognized that, in both cases, the literary genre does not allow us to reconstruct the details of the legal proceedings.

      2. Source Criticism

        Other biblical scholars have tried to reconstruct the strata in the development of the Gospel account and have come to the conclusion that Mk 15:3 ("And the chief priests accused him of many things") was older than 15:2 ("And Pilate asked him, 'Are you the king of the Jews?"), for the former is more general than the latter, and it always goes from the general to the particular; in other words, according to these biblical scholars, the theme of Jesus as King of the Jews was developed later and added afterwards.

        Such an argument does not hold water. For it would imply that the whole theme of Jesus' kingship, which is the thread running through the whole Roman process, would have been added at a later stage. On the contrary, the motive of Jesus' kingship is so old that an evangelist like John feels the need to spiritualize it, or like Matthew to put it partially in the shadows (Mt 27:17 vs. Mk 15:9; Mt 27:22 vs. Mk 15:12). Above all, the decisive argument of his antiquity is the fact that the four evangelists use the same vocabulary in the question and the answer: Sy ei ho Basileus tōn Ioudaiōn (Are you the King of the Jews?), Sy legeis (You say).

      3. The Narrative at Face Value

        Rather than trying to reconstruct the historical elements (even though we believe that Mark and John used an ancient tradition), we propose another approach: to put ourselves in the feet of the listener of the 70s, 80s or 90s, and ask ourselves what he or she should understand of the story as written. From this perspective, we can make the following statements:

        1. There is nothing to suggest that the listener could imagine being in front of an illegal trial, even though the scene clearly shows the pressure exerted by the public.
        2. He had to assume that the chief priests had taken the trouble to give Pilate all the information about Jesus required for him to be sentenced to death.
        3. In view of the fact that the accusation revolved around the title of King of the Jews without this having been mentioned during Jesus' ministry or during the Jewish trial, the listener had to assume two things
          • It was an indication that the Jewish authorities were deceitful, since this was not the accusation made at their trial (John 18:30 dramatizes this point by showing them reluctant to reveal the real problem).
          • This new charge would have been introduced because that's what the Romans were really interested in, a political motive, not a religious one. Jesus' ambiguous answer ("You say (so)") would confirm Pilate's misunderstanding of Jesus' kingship.

        This approach is more fruitful than the one that takes a historical and logical perspective and leads to questions with no answers: Did Pilate know the details of the religious charges? If so, why did he not mention them? How did the accusation of "King of the Jews" come about? Etc.

    2. A Common Pattern in the Interchanges between Pilate and Jesus

      1. The two exchanges between Pilate and Jesus

        In the first exchange, Pilate asks Jesus, "Are you the King of the Jews?" and Jesus answers, "You say (so)". In the second, Pilate continues the questioning, but Jesus does not answer. These two exchanges constitute the most stable structure in the passion narratives. In Mark/Matthew, these two exchanges appear in the first part of the trial and are the only elements of the direct interrogation. In Luke and John, the first exchange is preceded by an introduction to help the intelligibility of the scene, and the second exchange continues at the heart of the later elements of the trial.

        It is by comparing the Roman trial with that of the Sanhedrin that we see the place of this structure. In Mk 14:60-02, the high priest begins his interrogation by pointing to the general accusations against Jesus, and encounters Jesus' silence. Then he becomes more specific by asking the question of his identity: "Are you the Messiah (Sy ei ho Christos), the son of the Blessed One?" and Jesus offers a nuanced answer. In Mk 15:2-5 the content is similar, but the order is reversed: Pilate first asks the question of his identity: "Are you the king (Sy ei ho Basilius) of the Jews", followed by a nuanced response from Jesus. Then Pilate points to the general accusations against Jesus. Clearly, we are not before a record of a trial, but before the Christian tradition, which first records through the first exchange how each group responds to the question of the identity of Jesus, the Jews and the Romans. As for the second exchange around the multiple accusations, the very fact that Jesus does not deign to answer expresses the Christian point of view that these accusations were irrelevant.

      2. The title of "King of the Jews"

        This title appears to be what Christian tradition has retained from the Roman accusation against Jesus. This is supported by the fact that all evangelists claim that this was the charge published on the cross. This could be truly historical. For example, this title would express how the Romans perceived Jesus. And this could appear threatening if one knows Jewish history. First there are the Hasmonean high priests, biological and political descendants of the Maccabees, who established an independent state in Palestine and began to call themselves kings. There is also Herod the Great who was called: King of the Jews.

        Even though Jesus never designated himself as a king during his ministry, the Marcan reader knows very well that Jesus spoke much about the reign or kingdom of God, and that he occupied a unique place in that kingdom. Even the disciples imagined themselves occupying a place in this kingdom (see Mk 10:37 and the request of James and John to have a special place in this kingdom), and the crowd in Jerusalem acclaimed him, mentioning the coming kingdom (Mk 11:10). In Mt, the magi want to see the king of the Jews (Mt 2:1-2) and in 13:37-42 the community planted by the Son of Man is called: kingdom. Thus, it is not illogical to think that Jesus' enemies could easily distort events to accuse him of claiming to be the king of the Jews.

      3. The title of "Messiah"

        The gap between the Jewish and the Roman trial, i.e. between the title of Messiah and that of King of the Jews, is not as great as one might think. For Messiah means: the anointed king of the house of David. Of course, Mark does not say it explicitly, but his readers should understand it that way. This equation Messiah and King of David is reinforced by Mk 15:32 ("Let Christ, the King of Israel, now come down from the cross") which puts Messiah and King of Israel together. Matthew's reader could make the connection between the question of the Sanhedrin and that of the Romans all the more since the narrator of the infancy narratives, after having described Jesus as Messiah several times (1:1,16,17,18: Christos), suddenly speaks in 2:2 of the "newly born King of the Jews".

    3. The Marcan Account of the Questioning (Mark 15: 2-5)

      We have already seen that Mk 15:1 was a transitional verse, concluding the Sanhedrin trial and describing the transfer to Pilate. V. 2 introduces Pilate's question ("Are you the king of the Jews?"), to which an answer is expressed with a historical present: "You say (so)". For Mark, this present tense demonstrates a great sense of narrative. But his formula is awkward: he says (legei): "You say (legeis)". Luke and Matthew improved it by using the past tense and avoiding repeating the same verb: "He (Jesus) said (ephē): 'You say (legeis)'". However, its meaning is clear: whoever proclaims this title of Jesus must take responsibility for it, especially if he gives it a political connotation. The reader of Mark knows that this connotation would be a distortion of Jesus' identity.

      In v. 3, the chief priests take advantage of Jesus' ambiguous response and lack of formal denial to advance their cause. Mark mentions them alone to emphasize their role in the trial, and at the same time makes them play the role of the wicked against the righteous in the Old Testament ("For wicked and deceitful mouths are opened against me, speaking against me with lying tongues. They beset me with words of hate, and attack me without cause", Ps 109:2-3). The allusion to accusations of "many things" is on the same level as the many false witnesses in the trial before the Sanhedrin.

      Vv. 4-5 shows us a Pilate who ignores the intervention of the chief priests to question Jesus directly. Mark's editorial work makes itself felt here with typical expressions: "again" (palin), "behold" (ide), double negation (lit., "Do you not answer nothing?" and "Jesus no more answered nothing"). And the image of Pilate that he leaves us, with his warning to Jesus of the danger of not answering, is that of a man who wants to be impartial, in contrast to the high priests who seek to accuse him. Jesus' silence surprises him, not because he sees it as an admission of guilt, as the proverb says (He who says nothing, consents), but because all the charges against him leave him indifferent. For Mark, all these charges are beside the point.

    4. The Matthean Account of the Questioning (Matthew 27: 11-14)

      Matthew follows Mark very closely. But first, since he interrupted the sequence of events with the story of Judas' suicide, he must write a short introduction to resume the sequence of events: "But Jesus stood in front of the governor, and the governor questioned him". Why speak of the governor instead of Pilate? Not only does this accentuate the official atmosphere of the trial, but it also allows us to anticipate what awaits the Christians who will have to appear before governors and kings, in order to bear witness before the pagans (Mk 13:9 | Mt 10:17-18). And by resuming the trial of Jesus after the scene where Judas confesses to the high priests that he has given over innocent blood, Matthew accentuates the hypocrisy of the latter.

      In general, Matthew improves Mark's style to make it more graceful and clearer. Jesus' response is better introduced with a verb in the past tense ("Jesus said") that appears as a solemn declaration. While it is through Pilate that we learn in Mark that Jesus remained silent, Matthew makes it explicit: "He answered nothing". Then he tries to avoid Mark's repetitions, for example the repetition of the verb "to accuse": Mark's sentence ("And the chief priests were accusing him of many things... Behold how much they have accused you of) is replaced by ("And although he was being accused by the chief priests and elders... Do you hear how much they are testifying against you?").

    5. The Lucan Expansion of the Basic Interchange (Luke 23: 2-5)

      1. General Remarks

        The Roman trial in Luke immediately follows the trial of the Sanhedrin, which did not issue an explicit sentence. From what the evangelist tells us elsewhere, it is clear that the Jewish authorities nevertheless condemned Jesus to death. But the question we must now ask ourselves is about the expansion of the Lucan account: Is this expansion due to the fact that Luke benefited from another source of the passion, or did Luke himself make changes to his Marcan source? In favor of the first hypothesis, some biblical scholars point to the non-marcian vocabulary (86%), especially when we know that almost a third of the vocabulary common to Mark and Luke is concentrated in Lk 23:3. Moreover, Luke's account clarifies a number of things, such as the accusation against Jesus. And there is that unique scene with Herod.

        But despite all these arguments, we believe that Lk 23:2-5 is simply an expansion of the Mark account. It is time to examine this thesis in more detail.

      2. Luke 23: 2-5 in Detail

        1. v. 2

          "They" refers to Lk 22:66 where the evangelist refers to the assembly of the elders of the people, both the chief priests and the scribes. But later, in 23:4, he speaks of the chief priests and the crowds. In all this the chief priests are the common denominator, as in Mark 15:3.

          If we now look at the way the accusation against Jesus is presented, we note the same approach as that used in Paul's various trials: In Thessalonica Paul is accused of subverting the world, contravening the edicts of Caesar, claiming that there is another king, Jesus (Acts 17:6-7). The words in italics bear a strong resemblance to the accusation against Jesus. Likewise, the high priest Ananias and the elders accuse (katēgorein) Paul before the procurator Felix of causing disorder among the Jews all over the world (Acts 24:1-8; see also the trial before procurator Festus, Acts 25). Luke may have a particular source for Paul's trials, but it is the same structure he uses for Paul and Jesus.

          As for the content of the accusation against Jesus, it could look like three accusations: 1) misleading our nation, 2) forbidding the giving of taxes to Caesar, 3) claiming to be Messiah, King. But the Greek structure of the sentence speaks rather of a main accusation, "misleading (diastrephin) the nation", with two examples: not paying taxes and calling himself Messiah King. This main accusation is repeated later, first in v. 5 ("He stirs up the people"), then in v. 14 ("leading astray the people").

          "We have found this fellow misleading our nation". The demonstrative pronoun touton (this one) has been translated as "this fellow", to express the contemptuous manner in which the word is used here. As for diastrephein, it can be translated as "to perfert" or "to twist [=mislead]". The context rather favours the latter translation, as it is the usual accusation of tyrants against their opponents (see for example Pharaoh against Moses and Aaron, Ex 5:4). Similar expressions are used by Luke in Paul's trials: "stirring up" (anaseiein) the people (Acts 23:5), "leading astray" (apostrephein) the people (Acts 23:14), "disturbing" (ektarassein) our city (Acts 16:20), "overturning" (anastatoun) the world (Acts 17:6). And the reference to the nation (ethnos) is quite Lucanian. Even if this language may seem typical for the false prophets of the Old Testament (see e.g. Deut 13:2-6; 18:20-22), it should not be forgotten that Luke writes around the 80's or 85's, and therefore this accusation should be read in the polemical atmosphere between Christians and Jews. And his reader knows that this accusation is false.

          The subordinate accusation of not paying taxes is also false, because Jesus said to give back to Caesar what is Caesar's (Lk 20:22); and did he not take a tax collector as a disciple? The second subordinate accusation concerning his title of "messiah, king" or "king messiah" might have some verisimilitude, for his answer to the high priest was ambiguous: "If I tell you, you will not believe" (Lk 22:67). And when he triumphantly entered Jerusalem, did he not refuse to silence those who proclaimed: "Blessed is he who comes, the King, in the name of the Lord!"? But Luke's reader knew that this accusation was false and a distortion of the title; Jesus never intended to restore a political kingdom and challenge the emperor.

        2. v. 3

          When Pilate speaks, he is interested only in the main accusation, the reference to "king" in the expression "king messiah", which has now become "king of the Jews". We then find Mark's vocabulary.

        3. v. 4

          Pilate now addresses the chief priests and the crowds, which is not found in Mark/Matthew. He then makes the first of his three solemn proclamations. These three proclamations contain the negation "nothing", plus the verb "to find", plus the adjective "guilty", plus the preposition "in". A similar proclamation is found in John 18:38b, when Pilate says to the Jews, "I find nothing guilty in him. Luke and John probably have access to a common source, unknown to Mark.

          One may be surprised by Pilate's proclamation of Jesus' innocence, when he was very uncooperative with his "You say". We must enter here into Luke's point of view, for whom the innocence of Jesus is transparent to anyone who does not allow himself to be overwhelmed by prejudice. It will be the same with the appearance before Herod, who will declare that he finds nothing guilty in him (Lk 23:14). It will finally be the same thing on the cross when one of the criminals crucified with him declares: "But he has done nothing wrong" (Lk 23:41). Pilate's reaction in Luke corresponds to what we find in Mk 15:10: "for he had knowledge that out of envy that the chief priests had given him over".

        4. v. 5

          The chief priests and the crowds are not intimidated by Pilate's answer and repeat their accusation with more insistence (verb to the imperfect to express continuity) and intensity, but with a slight variation in vocabulary: "he stirs up (anaseioun) the people". Moreover, we are not only speaking of Judea where he is at the moment, but also of Galilee. It is the same vocabulary that Luke uses in Acts 10:37, when Peter says: "You know what happened in all Judea: Jesus of Nazareth, his beginnings in Galilee". This reference to Galilee is simply meant to refer to the beginning of Jesus' ministry. While Peter sums up Jesus' ministry in a positive way, here the chief priests do so in a negative way.

    6. The Johannine Expansion of the Basic Interchange (John 18: 28b-38a)

      We can establish in John seven episodes in the Roman trial. The first two go so far in the elaboration of the exchange between Pilate and Jesus that without the knowledge of Mark 15:2-5 it would be impossible to trace them in John. Some biblical scholars have tried to reconstruct the source that the evangelist may have used. This is a very hypothetical undertaking. At the very least, it can be argued that 18:36 ("My kingdom is not of this world..."), with words like kingdom, or my guards, similar to what we find in Mt 26:53 (Jesus speaks of his ability to ask his Father to send angels as reinforcements), would come from a pre-evangelical tradition common to John and Matthew.

      1. Episode 1 : Pilate and Those outside the Praetorium (18: 28b-32)

        From the outset, John places the scene in the praetorium, whereas the Synoptics only refer to it at the end, during the Roman mocking session, a sign that they had no idea of the place. The fourth Gospel is more precise and probably gives a historical account. But in spite of some historical elements, it is on the theological symbolism that it insists: Jesus, the light is inside the praetorium, the Jews belong to the darkness and are outside, while Pilate, in the middle, tries to reconcile the opposing forces. For John, it is necessary to choose between light and darkness. To remain indecisive like Pilate is to choose lies and darkness.

        "And they did not enter into the praetorium" Who are these people? At the very least, they can be identified with the high priest (first Annas, then Caiaphas) and the guards present during the Jewish interrogation. But in 18: 31 John speaks only of the Jews in general, no doubt amalgamating the high priests with the whole nation.

        "lest they be defiled". But what could make a Jew unclean? The thesis that in the first century the Jews of Palestine believed that the Gentiles were unclean is today generally rejected. Lev 15:19-33 mentions the impurity of women during their menstruation, but John does not refer to any woman. Num 19:16; 31:19 speaks of the uncleanness of dead bodies, but there is no indication that there could be any under the praetorium. The very fact that John does not specify the reason for possible defilement directs us to the theological irony: while the Jews are careful to maintain ritual purity, they want to put Jesus to death.

        "and in order that they might eat the Passover (meal)". This means that the next day (starting with Friday sunset), Saturday, was the 15th day of Nissan, where the Passover meal was eaten. But, again, John does not explain what could prevent us from having this Easter meal. The danger of ritual contamination only concerned the priests on duty in the temple or the Jews who had already prepared to participate in the sacrificial meal; and even then, a simple bath at sunset before the meal was enough to remove the impurity. This is best seen as a theological irony: as the Passover lambs are about to be slaughtered in the temple precincts, those who value their Passover meal ask for the death of the Lamb of God.

        "What accusation do you bring against this man?". Pilate's question plays the same role as Luke's introduction (23:2) where the charge is specified. John and Luke were familiar with the Roman trials that always began with charges.

        "They answered and said to him, 'If this fellow were not doing what is bad, we would not have given him over to you'". Some biblical scholars wanted to see in the Jewish response a reaction of offended people: the judgment had already been pronounced and they came to Pilate to carry out the sentence. But this is forgetting that with John there was no Jewish trial that night. Rather, we are faced with a technique of Johannine dialogue, that of creating a tension that reveals what is under the surface: the accusation of doing evil (kakōs) echoes the scene with Annas, where Jesus challenges the one who has just struck him to find out what he said was wrong (kakōs); now, ironically, it is the people outside the praetorium who do evil by refusing to come to the light. The irony continues with the verb "to giver over". After the story that Judas has given over Jesus (18:30,35; 19:11), now the Jews are taking over.

        "So Pilate said to them, 'Take him yourselves, and according to your law judge him'. The Jews said to him, 'It is not permitted us to put anyone to death'". It is not to be thought that the Jews were informing Pilate about a point of the law which he did not know. First of all, it is the reader that John wants to inform. Then, in Pilate's mouth, he puts a touch of irony: since the Jews want to bypass the Roman procedures, they only have to follow their own rules. Nevertheless, the question about their inability to put someone to death is difficult to answer. Many biblical scholars think that we are referring here to Jewish law, since in Jn 5:10 the expression "it is not permitted" refers to the Mosaic law. In this case, these biblical scholars evoke the idea that one cannot put someone to death on the eve of Passover (see Acts 13:3-4 where Peter's fate is postponed after Passover). Or they mention that Jewish law does not permit the killing of anyone for political reasons, especially someone with claims to royalty. But there are several objections to this interpretation:

        • If one cannot put someone to death on the eve of Passover, why does the Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 43a, not seem embarrassed to state that "on the eve of Passover Yeshu was hanged"?
        • If the prohibition is politically motivated, why were there two attempts (8:59; 10:31) to stone Jesus without asking for any Roman permission?
        • But the greatest objection comes from v. 32, which refers to the type of death, the crucifixion, which was exclusively a Roman matter.

        "in order that there might be fulfilled the word of Jesus that he spoke, signifying what kind of death he was going to die". This word refers to 12:31-32 ("And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself"). While stoning throws someone to the ground, crucifixion lifts him above the ground. For the believer, it is a triumphal elevation where Jesus returns to his Father. John adds the irony of presenting the Jews forcing the Romans to contribute to this glorification of Jesus.

      2. Episode 2 : Pilate and Jesus inside the Praetorium (18: 33-38a)

        In an abrupt manner, without introduction, as in Mk 15:2, Pilate introduces the charge: "Are you the King of the Jews?" How is the reader of the fourth Gospel to understand this title? Even if Jesus had defected when they wanted to crown him king (6:15), the fact remains that he did not reject the title of "King of Israel" given by Nathaniel (1:49), and that there was this triumphant entry into Jerusalem under the cry of "King of Israel" (12:13). Pilate must have understood this title as coming from an action of Jesus which is the source of the accusation of the chief priests. Once again, to understand what we are dealing with here, we must remember that this dialogue was written after the Jewish revolt of the years 66-70 when the world saw Jewish revolutionaries overthrow Roman authority for a time. Thus, in order to clarify Pilate's misunderstanding and to combat the image of Jesus as a dangerous man, the evangelist resorts to an ancient tradition, also known to Matthew, where Jesus claims that he has no guards to fight for him. This is the first time that guards are mentioned in relation to Jesus. But we must remember that the verb "to struggle" (agōnizesthai) applied to the guards has the same root as agōnia (agony, fight), used by Luke 22:44 in reference to Jesus' fight in Gethsemane, and with a language that evokes the final apocalyptic battle.

        "Your nation and the chief priests have given you over to me. What have you done?". Some biblical scholars have sought to restrict Jewish antagonism to the high priests alone. But they forget that this is around the 90s, when Christians were expelled from synagogues. So John deliberately generalizes the opponents to include the entire Jewish nation, the heirs of the religious authorities.

        "My kingdom is not of this world". This statement is repeated three times in v. 36. We must avoid confusing the kingdom of God in John with that of the synoptic Gospels. Just as the gifts offered by Jesus bear the same name as the realities that can be experienced, such as light, bread or water, but differ from them to the point of not being of this world, so his kingdom is in the world through the person of Jesus, but at the same time, in the image of Jesus, he is not of this world. In this way, John rejects any accusation of ambition for an earthly kingdom that would rival Caesar's. He probably also dismissed the idea of certain Christians who would simply identify the kingdom of the Son of Man with the visible Church. Finally, it might be added that he also rejects the idea of a kingdom at the end of time when the Son of Man would come in all his glory, for the light has already come into the world, judgment is now taking place by the decision for or against him, the kingdom is already in the world, though not of this world.

        "You say that I am a king. The reason for which I have been born and for which I have come into the world is that I may bear witness to the truth". Jesus takes up Pilate's phrase again to rectify it. The first part presents two synonymous terms, being born and coming into the world; the second part gives the meaning of the first part: to bear witness to the truth. This idea had been expressed in another way earlier: "I came into this world for judgment" (9:39), because being confronted with the truth provokes a judgment, a decision. And if Jesus can bear witness to the truth, it is because he comes from on high (3:13), and therefore sees what the Father does (5:19), heard what the Father said (8:26), and fundamentally, he is the truth (14:6). This title does not need to be nuanced like that of king. Nevertheless, the association of a royal function with being a witness may have a certain biblical background with the figure of King David presented as a witness for all peoples (Isaiah 55:3-4; Psalm 89:36-38).

        "Pilate says to him, 'What is truth?'". Pilate, a representative of earthly authority, cannot understand a kingdom that would come from God. But for John, his incomprehension comes above all from the fact that he is not of the truth. In this kingdom there are no guards, but people who hear his voice (as the sheep hear the voice of the shepherd and follow him, 10:3). And to hear this voice, one needs a predisposition, which is the work of the Father (17:6). Thus, Pilate, who is the judge in this trial, finds himself being judged. His answer, about what truth is, is not to be taken in the philosophical sense, but ironically in the sense of his own condemnation: his failure to recognize the truth and to hear the voice of Jesus shows that he does not belong to God.

  3. Analysis

    We have seen that the thesis on the possible existing of record of the trial in the Roman archives is pure fiction. But there are elements of the Christian tradition which are common to all four Gospels:

    • Two short exchanges between Jesus and Pilate
    • A scene that involves Barabbas
    • Sentence of crucifixion

    Each evangelist has his own way of introducing this tradition and dramatizing it.

    1. The Marcan Roman Trial (Mark 15: 1-15)

      The Roman trial is 60% shorter than the Jewish trial, and much less captivating. After the tactics of the Sanhedrin authorities, the figure of Pilate appears pale: he shows little interest and insensitivity; recognizing the dubious motives of those who deliver Jesus, he nevertheless yields to the crowd and delivers Jesus to be crucified. A poor image of Roman justice.

      During the Jewish trial, Mark contrasts Peter's denial of Jesus' fidelity to the questions asked. In the Roman trial, Mark pits Barabbas, guilty of a violent political riot, against Jesus, an innocent man. On the theological level, what we perceive in the Marcan account is the constant hostility of the chief priests, the ease with which they influence the crowd against Jesus, and the political innocence of Jesus.

    2. The Matthean Roman Trial (Matthew 27: 1-26)

      In Matthew, the Roman trial is twice as long as the Mark trial, and longer than the Jewish trial. Even though he uses Mark's elements, he completes it with dramatic incidents that give them more life and increase their theological value. Let us consider together Mk 15:1-15 and Mt 27:1-26. The * sign indicates Matthew's supplement.

      Mark 15: 1-15Matthew 27: 1-26
      15: 1 :End of Sanhedrin Proceedings and Transfer to Pilate27: 1-2
      * 27: 3-10 : Judas and innocent blood
      15: 2-5 :Trial: Initial Questions by Pilate27: 11-14
      15: 6-11 :Trial: Barabbas or Jesus27: 15 – 18: 20-21
      * 27: 19 : Dream of Pilate's wife
      15: 12-15 :Trial: Condemnation of Jesus27: 22 - 23: 26
      * 27: 24-25 : Pilate washes hands; innocent blood

      As we can see, Matthew completes the three segments of Mark: first, in the transfer to Pilate, he adds the scene where Judas is haunted by the innocent blood of Jesus and seeks to transfer responsibility for it to the chief priests; in the second segment, the innocence of Jesus haunts the dreams of Pilate's wife; in the third segment, the innocent blood is the subject of the debate between Pilate and "all the people". With this common theme of innocent blood, Matthew affirms that it is not really Jesus who is judged, but it is God who continues to exercise judgment on those who shed the blood of Jesus.

      In this context, Pilate appears as a tortured figure, forced to condemn Jesus against his judgment, but still seeking to exonerate himself before posterity.

      Matthew's art can be seen in his way of linking the beginning (infancy narratives) and the end of Jesus' life with the motif of dreams, the greater perception of truth on the part of the Gentiles, and the hostility of the Jewish authorities.

    3. The Lucan Roman Trial (Luke 23: 1-25)

      Luke's account is about the same length as Matthew's. Even though he is dependent on Mark, he significantly reshapes this source, so that he differs from it on three points :

      • He has a detailed presentation of the charges
      • Pilate sends him to Herod for questioning.
      • Three times Pilate says he finds nothing to blame in Jesus

      On this last point, Luke probably shares a common source with John. As for the first two points, Luke uses a structure for Jesus that he used for Paul's trials in the Acts of the Apostles: For example (Acts 23-25), when Paul is arrested, an immediate attempt is made to have him killed, then he appears before the Roman procurator Felix while the chief priests and elders lead the charges, and Felix, seeing that he finds nothing guilty in Paul, sends him to a herodian king who, in turn, finds him innocent.

      The biblical scholars tried to perceive different segments in the whole 23: 1-25, but they did not come up with anything convincing. It is better to recognize its unity.

    4. The Johannine Roman Trial (John 18: 28 – 19, 16a)

      John gives us the shortest account of the Jewish trial, but his account of the Roman trial is three times as long as Mark's account. Dramatically speaking, it is a summit. Whereas in the Synoptics we can identify three stages (the initial interrogation, Barabbas, and the condemnation), in John the biblical scholars agree to recognize seven episodes in a chiastic arrangement (chiastic means that the 1st matches the 7th, the 2d matches the 6th, the 3d matches the 5th, with the 4th a middle episode).

      1. Outside (18: 28-32) Jews demand death↓ = ↑7. Inside (19: 12-16a) Jews obtain death
      2. Inside (18: 33-38a) Pilate and Jesus on kingship↓ = ↑6. Inside (19: 9-11) Pilate and Jesus on power
      3. Outside (18: 38b-40) Pilate finds no guilt; choice of Barabbas↓ = ↑5. Outside (19: 4-8) Pilate finds no guilt; "Behold the man"
      4. Inside (19: 1-3) Soldiers scourge Jesus

      Without a doubt, this artistic arrangement is deliberate. Pilate, as the main actor, appears in all the episodes, except for the one in the middle devoted to the violence against Jesus; in the latter case, John changed the tradition that placed this violence after the condemnation of Jesus, to make it the pivot between phase 1 and phase 2.

      The atmosphere between the scenes inside and outside is very different. Inside, Jesus appears as a serene ruler proclaiming his convictions, while Pilate proves unable to recognize the truth. Outside, the Jews try to intimidate Pilate and shout that Jesus must die, revealing their true motivation: not his claim to be king of the Jews, but his claim to be the Son of God.

    Let's try to sum it all up. Mark is the one who makes the least effort to dramatize the basic elements he receives from tradition. Matthew pursues the theme of guilt over innocent blood through small vignettes that have theatrical power. Luke, in re-shaping the trial of Jesus on the Pauline model, has provided a paradigm for the Christian he is called to follow when he is brought to trial. The Johannine version of the Roman trial is superior to what both Luke and Matthew offer us, for it is truly a masterpiece of early Christian drama, in which the divine and the human confront each other.

Next chapter: The Roman Trial, Part Two: Jesus before Herod

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