"Come and See": A Web Commentary on the Gospel of John: Section 13 The Passion, Death, and Burial of Jesus (Jn 18.1-19.42)
13.3 Jesus' Trial before Pilate (Jn 18.28-40)
COMMENTS ON SPECIFIC VERSES
Who are the group of people who are simply designated here and in subsequent verses as "they"? Context and the parallel verse in Mark (Mk 15.1), suggest that "they" are the most senior members of the Council, who had concurred with Joseph Caiaphas on charging Jesus with the political crime of insurrection at the hearing to which Jesus was sent on Saturday morning after his questioning before Annas and Caiaphas (see Jn 18.24 and 28, as well as Mark 15.1). This charge necessitated a Roman trial before Pilate. Likely some Temple attendants were involved as well, in order to conduct and guard the prisoner from the high priest's house to the praetorium. This suggestion is strengthened by the fact that those speaking with Pilate about Jesus are referred to as 'the authorities' (hoi Iudaioi) in verses 31 and 38.
A praetorium was originally the headquarters of a praetor, the Roman magistrate next most senior to the consuls, who were the chief magistrates of the Roman Republic. In one of Rome' overseas posessions, like Judaea, the praetorium was the headquarters of the governor. In Judaea, the governor had at this time his main praetorium at Caesarea Maritima, the capital, and a secondary praetorium in Jerusalem, where official functions could be carried out when the governor was in that city.
Scholars have disagreed about the site of the Jerusalem praetorium, with some opting for the Antonia fortress overlooking the Temple and others for Herod the Great's Palace, which the Romans took over as an official residence when they assumed control of Judaea from Herod's son Archelaus. (The latter was apparently not able to keep the support of enough of the lay and religious oligarchy of Judaea and Jerusalem, leading ultimately to a successful petition to Rome to depose him from his throne and take over the reins of authority.) As more archaeological investigation is carried out on these sites, a majority of scholars have come to agree that the praetorium was most likely in the palace complex, which is know to have had features like those described in the gospels, especially in John. These include an open space between the inner and outer walls paved with flagstones; a gateway between the area outside the complex and this open space; and a raised platform for the bema (the governor's judgment seat or tribunale in Latin).1
We have discussed this reference to eating the Passover before, at the beginning of the long section that covers the evening of this fateful day, which began with the Last Supper on Thursday evening, and ended with the Crucifixion of Jesus on Friday afternoon. We don't know exactly what the chronology of the night-time events, or the other early morning ones, was. But if our chronological arguments cited above are correct, we can now be certain that it is the morning of 15 Nisan (that is, Friday morning, the morning of Passover and the first day of the Feast of unleavened Bread) when Jesus was brought, under arrest, to the Praetorium, the governor's headquarters in Jerusalem.
Marcus Pontius Pilatus (best known in English as Pontius Pilate) was the Roman governor of Judaea between 26/7 - 36/7 CE, serving under Tiberius Caesar, who succeeded Augustus. The philospher Philo Iudaeus, and the historians Josephus and Tacitus are all sources of information about Pilate's governorship. We have no information about his activities after he served in Judaea. Opinions about Pilate and his time as governor vary among modern historians on the basis of their evaluation of the ancient sources and their possible prejudice against Pilate's actions (see McGing, 'Pontius Pilate' for a full discussion of this issue). We can say for certain that Pilate was unpopular with most parties in Judaea, and that his unpopularity was a factor in his recall to Roman in 37 to answer charges concerning his violent suppression of a Samaritan movement. Joseph Caiaphas seems to have been able to work successfully with Pontius Pilate - he retained the high priesthood for 18 years, during the last 8 years of the governorship of Valerius Gratus and the entire governorship of Pilate, although frequent changes in the office of high priest were common both before and after him. In the gospels, Pilate seems prone to being manipulated by Caiaphas.
This is a key question in the process that is now beginning. under Roman law, the right to be heard by a Roman judge and be tried under Roman law was reserved for Roman citizens. As no-one was claiming that Jesus was in fact a Roman citizen, Pilate had jurisdiction over him only if he were accused of murder, civil insurrection, or similar capital crimes. Otherwise the Sanhedrin (the Council) would try him for lesser offenses or offences under Jewish law.
If John is right that Roman soldiers were part of the group that arrested Jesus in the garden, then Pilate was presumably aware that the Jerusalem authorities had feared some kind of disturbance the previous night and had asked for help to control it. But he would not necessarily recognise Jesus as someone mixed up in it. Hence his question.
It appears that Joseph Caiaphas and his party in the Council were discussing Jesus and the probable Roman reaction to Jesus' continued activity from at least the time of the council meeting described in Jn 11.47-57, which took place after the raising of Lazarus. Since they perceived the danger of Rome's reacting to Jesus as a political threat, claiming royal authority and inciting insurrection, it seems almost inevitable that they would charge Jesus with such crimes and bring him before Pilate to be condemned to death. This is the implication of the prophecy that John attributes to Joseph Caiaphas in Jn 11.47-57, that it would be better for one person to die than for the whole nation to be destroyed.
To proceed with the hearing, Pilate needs something more than just that Jesus was an "evil doer" -- he needs an actual charge that puts Jesus under his jurisdiction. Otherwise it would be more appropriate for the Council to deal with him themselves, in accordance with their own laws. So he challenges them to bring a charge which justifies their bringing Jesus to him for trial, and at the tail end of his regular assize session in Jerusalem at Passover (see Kinman, 'Pilate's Assize' for a discussion of the probable organisation of the Roman courts in Jerusalem).
This claim, which John puts in the mouths of 'the authorities', fits with what we know about the way the Roman system operated in most of its overseas possessions. They tended to govern through local oligarchies, which in Judaea meant making the Council, or Sanhedrin, a body that advised the governor and also looked after local legal charges and disputes among members of the local population. But the norm was also to reserve capital crimes as well as crimes and disputes involving Roman citizens for the governor's judgment. So if Joseph Caiaphas and his party had decided after the raising of Lazarus that Jesus was so dangerous that he must be executed (see the comments on Jn 11.47-57 here and here), then to do so legally they must refer Jesus to Pilate to be tried for a capital crime like insurrection in order to secure his execution. There continues to be a dispute among scholars as to whether the Sanhedrin had some limited reserved powers to execute condemned criminals, despite this statement.2
The allusion here seems to be to verses like Jn 3.14, which speak to the need for the Son of Man to be lifted up in death. If that was to happen as Jesus said that it would, then Jesus would need to be condemned by the Romans, who alone crucified condemned criminals. So for the authorities of the Council to decline to try Jesus on the ground that they could not execute him if he were condemned was the necessary first step for a trial under a Roman judge for an offence under Roman law, which would lead to a sentence of crucifixion.
A number of factors come together here: Jesus is sent to the Romans for trial, which dictated the possible sentences that could result; the Council authorities seize an opportunity to have Jesus condemned to death, which they think will preserve the saftey of the nation and the Temple; and two predictions (Jesus' prediction of the kind of death he would die and Joseph Caiaphas' prophecy that it was better for one man to die than for all the people to be destroyed) begin to come to fruition.
Pilate addresses Jesus in Greek here and throughout this trial. It was standard for Roman officials to use Greek for administrative and judicial purposes in the Eastern Mediterranean - they did not expect the population of their overseas possessions to know Latin. It used to be thought that Jesus was probably a unilingual Aramaic speaker, but as a resident of Galilee he was actually likely to have known the Koine Greek used as a lingua franca of ordinary business and trade. The real problem here is where the tradition on which John was drawing derived its knowledge of Jesus' trial. What Pilate and 'the authorities' said to one another in the courtyard would have been said in public and so known to all who wished to find out. But what Pilate said within the praetorium is another question, although we should not overlook the possibility that those inside the praetorium may have heard at least some of what Pilate and 'the authorities' said to one another outside, or that those outside may have heard at least some of what Jesus and Pilate said to one another inside.
There are two other possibilities. One is that someone in Pilate's household or in the cohort supplied information from what they heard or saw that day in the course of their duties. Perhaps some imperial slave or freedman (who often undertook the role of a civil servant at that time) subsequently converted to Christianity, or perhaps a member of the auxiliary cohort did so -- but this is only speculation. The other possibility is that John combined what he knew from the traditions that came down to him (including perhaps his personal witness) with what he could deduce from the public facts of the charges brought against Jesus and his condemnation to produce this dramatic series of dialogues between Pilate and Jesus and Pilate and 'the authorities'. The end result would be, like the speeches put in the mouths of public figures in the works of ancient historian, true to the facts as known to John while also being a literary creation of his own.
Jesus did not answer the charge, that he is creating insurrection by claiming to be king of the Jews - a title which might have been attributed to the Hasmonean (Maccabean) kings, the last quasi-independent rulers of a Jewish state in Judaea and the surrounding territories, but not to their Herodian successors. In Jesus' time, such an expression could be historical, or refer to a religious figure like the Davidic Messiah, or represent a political claim hostile to Rome. Instead he asked why Pilate thought so -- he wanted to know the source of Pilate's knowledge of the charge. Had he learned it himself, or had it been told him? It seems an odd question for someone on trial for his life to ask. Commentators have attempted to explain it, but none of the explanations seem entirely successful.
Though Pilate does not know it, this phrase echos the discussion at the council meeting following the raising of Lazarus (see the comments on Jn 11.47-57 here and here). These two groups would be represented by the Council that sent Jesus to Pilate. See the comments to Jn 7.32 for a discussion of the chief priests.
This passage (Jn 18.33-8) is one of the few places in the gospel where John shows Jesus using the terms king or kingdom to discuss himself or his work. It is likely no accident that the impetus to do so comes from outside, from someone other than Jesus. But Pilate has apparently been told that Jesus is inciting insurrection by claiming to be king of the Jews (v33) and he pursued the point here. Jesus answered by qualifying and defining what "kingdom" meant to him and his followers - he says that his kingdom is "not of this world" and "not of this place" in v36.
So the kingdom which Jesus claims is completely unlike the sort of kingdom that Pilate is envisioning or trying to defend against. It is not one which protects itself or its ruler by fighting, so it is completely removed from insurrection of any kind. Any reader or hearer of John who had read other gospels or heard any preaching arising from the Jesus movement would be familiar with the concept of the reign or kingdom of God as preached by Jesus but it would no doubt be unfamiliar to Pilate. He clings to what he does understand: he has been told Jesus is a king. Kings have kingdoms, and if Jesus admits to having some sort of kingdom then he must be some sort of king. Hence the 'gotcha' question in v37.
Jesus answers Pilate's question at the start of this verse without actually answering, only acknowledging that Pilate says he is a king. But Jesus then goes on to make a statement about his purpose in the world which leaves the discussion of kings and kingdoms completely out of the question. Jesus says that the purpose for which he was born and came into the world was to bear witness to the truth. Furthermore he says that everyone who is of the truth hears his voice. So rather than claiming a kingdom, Jesus lays claim to a community that hears and bears witness to the truth. Pilate, once again faint but pursuing, asks in frustration, "What is 'truth'?"
We too may be excused if we ask at this point, what is 'truth'! What does that mean? Well, Jesus has spoken often about truth in the past, and those discussions have not been abstract. Truth is what is conveyed by those who bear witness to Jesus and his identity, such as John the Baptiser or the Father, or what his deeds bear witness to (cp Jn 5.32). The truth is what Jesus has heard from the Father and himself conveys to his followers (Jn 8.40, 44-6); the Father's word is itself truth (Jn 17.17). Truth is a quality that characterises the worshippers that the Father seeks to be the Father's own (Jn 4.23-4). This truth changes the ones who experience it: the one who does the truth comes to the Light (Jn 3.21); Jesus' disciples will come to know the truth, and that truth will set them free (Jn 8.32). And even after Jesus has returned to the Father, he will send an Advocate, who is the Spirit of truth (Jn 14.7, 15.26). So the truth of which Jesus speaks is central to his mission from the Father and the Spirit's mission from him; it is not an abstraction or a philosophical category. In fact he identified himself in his relationship to his disciples with what is true -- see Jn 14.6 and the comment on it. Jesus' truth is the teaching that he brings from the Father for those who put their trust in him. Thus it is essentially relational, like that teaching itself.
Pilate is like a man coming in on the final scenes of a film and trying to understand what is going on. Of course he cannot. More importantly it appears that he is not really interested in finding out. upon asking that question, he immediately goes out again, thus ending that phase of the conversation. But Jesus has made Pilate uneasy. He shows increasing reluctance to condemn Jesus to the cross, saying that he has found no legal fault in him, and offering to release Jesus in accordance with an established custom.
The question of this custom, to release a prisoner on Passover, has concerned scholars for generations. To some, it seems obvious that this so-called custom has been made up by the evangelists, and they assume it did not exist. Others point, for example, to the behaviour of the Romans elsewhere, in offering amnesty during religious feasts. It seems to me that the burden of proof lies on those who wish to say that the amnesty custom did not exist. See the discussion in Keener pp 1115-17
It is curious that Pilate repeats this expression here. Although it is the gravamen of the authorities' charge against Jesus (that he was making himself a king, a clearly insurrectionary activity), Pilate has just announced that he finds no reason to charge Jesus with a crime.
So, why repeat a charge that he has just said he does not find valid? Perhaps Pilate simply did so to mock the authorities. They had brought a charge against Jesus which they could not sustain, could not make stick -- so he may have mockingly asked them, shall he release 'the king of the Jews' to them, for them to deal with? Later, after he has agreed that Jesus should be crucified for insurrection, he refers to him as a king in 19.14 and 19.15, which makes more sense but is still mocking in context. But here Pilate is still toying with the idea that Jesus is innocent of the insurrection charge and also with the pagan religious implications of what he is hearing about Jesus.
Is it realistic that he would be publicly mocking Joseph Caiaphas and his party? On the one hand they were his allies and he needed them for his rule in Judaea to go smoothly. By this point Pilate should have learned not to press Jewish religious leaders too far -- doing so has caused him difficulties in the past. But on the other hand he seems to have been made nervous by Jesus, and perhaps he thought he was being set up by Joseph Caiaphas and hs allies in some way. In any case it seems to me that the likeliest reason for Pilate's words are that he was mocking Caiaphas and his party, using the charge against Jesus that they clearly could not bring off as a jab at them, a jab they could not answer back to in a public context.
As we shall see, Pilate dismissed the high priestly party too quickly. Josephs Caiaphas and his adherents were not evil, or mere time-servers -- they were sincerely convinced that eliminating Jesus was not just the best way, but the only way, to protect the Temple and the nation, the Judaean ethnos. To serve that end, they were willing to risk everything to back Pilate into a corner from which there was only one exit. That exit was the conviction and execution of Jesus by crucifixion.
None of the gospels tell us very much about Barabbas, and John is no exception. We learn only that he has been condemned as a bandit. This word lēistēs, which is usually translated 'bandit' has political overtones. It is often used (eg, by Josephus) to refer to revolutionaries, those who were guerilla warriors rather than strictly speaking robbers. Mark 15.6-8 makes it clear that Barabbas' banditry is of this kind. John is not really interested in who Barabbas was, only that he was pardoned rather than Jesus, a man Pilate himself appears to have believed not to be guilty.
1 See S. Gibson, 'Trial', esp. pp 104-8, 110-15, and 117-18.
2 See Carson 1991 pp 590-2; Keener 2003 v 2 pp 1107-9; and Thompson 2015 pp 377-9 for discussions of this problem.