"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)
13.4 Jesus' Condemnation before Pilate (Jn 19.1-16a)
This section concludes John's account of Pilate's trial of Jesus. It is very similar to Mark's account, with one important exception. John portays Pilate as seeking to punish Jesus on a lesser charge and release him. As part of this endeavour, Pilate proclaims multiple times that he finds no guilt in Jesus. John does not seem to be aware of any of the peculiar additions made by Matthew or Luke, such as the handwashing incident (Matt 27.24-5) or the questioning by Herod Antipater (Luke 23.6-12).
This is an endeavour in most cases beyond the scope of this commentary - we must concentrate on John's account and its implications, while always keeping in mind that it may not be an accurate portrayal of what happened. That being said, however, it is also appropriate to compare John with Mark when there are discrepancies between them, since John invites a critical reading of Mark.
COMMENTS ON SPECIFIC VERSES
There are three different levels of beating that might be ordered by a Roman judge. In ascending levels of severity, these were fustigatio (beating, usually with rods rather than whips), flagellatio (flogging, usually with whips), and verberatio (scourging, with knotted whips in which pieces of bone, iron, or spikes were embedded). The latter was invariably part of a sentence of crucifixion. So the question is, what did Pilate order here? In Mark (Mk 15.15) and Matthew (Mt 27.26), it is clear that he ordered verberatio -- the scourging comes after Pilate has been persuaded to pronounce a sentence of crucifixion and seems to be part of the order. But in Luke (23.13-16, 22) it is clear that Pilate was discussing a lesser punishment, probably fustigatio, which would be adequate for a lesser crime than the one 'the authorities' were charging Jesus with.
Which one is John talking about in his gospel? His chronology is closer to Luke's than to Mark's - despite the fact that John does not say anything about sending Jesus to Herod Antipater. Both Luke and John place the beating of Jesus before Pilate's decision to have him crucified, which makes it virtually impossible that Pilate ordered a verberatio -- Roman judges did not punish someone who had not yet been designated for crucifixion in that way.
So we have two pairs of evangelists, each pair with a slightly different chronology here. On the one hand for Mark and Matthew, the flogging of Jesus is part of carrying out his sentence of crucifixion, a normal course of action at the time. In the others (Luke and John), the beating of Jesus is apparently part of a plan by Pilate to punish him for a lesser charge and release him. It is possible that John means his chronology to be a small but significant correction to Mark's. It is also likely that John and Luke were drawing upon similar traditions here (rather than that either evangelist was using the other's work).
On the other hand, John used the verb mastigoō, which derives from the word for whip (originally a horse-whip) or scourge -- this certainly might imply he was thinking about something much more serious than fustigatio. But, if John really is claiming Jesus was scourged before being condemned to crucifixion, it would be an extraordinary mistake for someone with actual lived experience of Roman justice to have made. I think we have to assume that -- whatever the connotations of that verb, strictly speaking, were -- John here is claiming that Pilate had Jesus beaten with rods as a lesser punishment to crucifixion, as part of an attempt to release him without condemning him for insurrection.1
This discussion raises a wider question, of what actually happened at Jesus' trial and crucifixion. Did Pilate really try to have Jesus punished for a lesser crime and then released, or did he instead simply accede to the demands of 'the authorities'? There does not seem to be any way to be sure, nor does it seem possible to determine which is the more plausible on the basis of the information provided in the four canonical gospels. So here we must focus on determining exactly what John said about the events he described and what that meant, while remaining aware of the broader issues that lie outside the scope of a commentary on a single gospel.
Who are these soldiers? Likely they are part of the cohort that was stationed at Jerusalem (see the discussion of Jn 18.3 in the comments on Section 13.1). They would have been attending the governor, just as the Temple attendants, the so-called Temple police, attended the leaders of the Council. Here, having administered the beating ordered by Pilate, they also engage in some elaborate mockery of Jesus as a king, the King of the Jews. A real purple cloak would have been hard for them to come by, but as auxiliaries they would have worn the scarlet cloak common to most Roman soldiers. A crown fashioned from some kind of thorn bushes or the spiky leaves of the acanthus would have resembled the radiate crowns of Eastern monarchs, especially if the thorns or spike were plaited so as to point outward, away from the head.
Pilate says that he is bringing Jesus out of the praetorium so that they (presumably 'the authorities') can see that he (Pilate) finds no guilt in Jesus. How would seeing him in this state - beaten and subjected to cruel mockery by the auxiliaries - demonstrate that Pilate finds no guilt in Jesus? I think this is connected to what we have already said about the timing of Pilate's order for Jesus to be beaten. No one living in Jerusalem under a governor like Pilate could be unaware of the implications of Roman sentencing practice. Jesus has been beaten and yet no judgement for crucifixion has been pronounced. Everyone there would have understood that he was being punished for a lesser offence than insurrection. Hence Pilate finds no guilt in him on the greater charge. Roman justice seems to have proceeded on the assumption that those brought before a judge must have done something wrong, or they wouldn't be there, and 'the authorities' have earlier accused Jesus of being an evildoer. This is all Pilate needs to order him beaten and released and, according to John, this is what he intended to do.
See the comments to Jn 7.32 for a discussion of this term, "chief priests", used here and in v15 below.
The dialogue between 'the authorities' and Pilate, concluding with this statement, is important in the development of John's picture of events. Pilate seems to have been a devout pagan who took his duties in the Roman civic religion seriously2 and there was a place in his belief system for mortals who claimed to be the children of, or otherwise related to, gods. 'The authorities' have hit upon an claim that reads quite differently in the two religious traditions. To them, and other devout Jews, it is an affront, in fact, a blasphemy, that Jesus was seen to have made such a claim. In Pilate's eyes, it makes him for the first time a potential threat. The governor is being set up for Caiaphas' final manoeuvre.
In these verses, Pilate confronts Jesus again, trying to find out where he is from. This is not just a question of Jesus' place of birth or home province. Pilate wants to know whether Jesus is from the purely human or the Olympian realm. Is he in fact the son of a god? Since there is literally no answer Jesus can give that will not mislead the pagan asking the question, he rightly remains silent, thus provoking this exasperated further interrogation from Pilate -- of course Jesus knows that Pilate has the power either to release him or to crucify him! But he will not use Pilate's ignorance of the true God and of the Scriptures to slip out of his clutches. At this point, Jesus must stay the course by his faithful witness to the Father who sent him, and that precludes this avenue of escape.
Jesus' statement that Pilate would have no power over him if it had not been given him from above works on two levels. In the purely political realm, Pilate had power over Jesus' fate because his governing authority was delegated to him from Tiberius Caesar via the imperial legate of the province of Syria, to which Roman Judaea was attached. But on a deeper level, Pilate has power over Jesus because it was part of the divine plan that Jesus should be condemned to execution by a Roman judge and undergo crucifixion. Brown 1970 p 878 cites the conversation between John the Baptist and his disciples in Jn 3.25-30, in which John observes that "A person cannot take anything except what is given to them by heaven" and particularly the words of prayer in Acts 4.27-8, which I think is expressing the same idea as is found here in Jn 19.11:
27For in this city [Jerusalem], in fact, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, 28to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place. [NRSV]
The word I have translated as "fault" or "guilt" is hamartia, which is often rendered as "sin" in older translations. It could also be rendered as "missing the mark" or "error". However we end up translating it, the sense of the verse seems to be that because Pilate's power over Jesus comes from a higher authority, the one who handed Jesus over to him (or "betrayed Jesus" to him) has committed the greater fault.
That could refer either to Judas, traditionally designated as Jesus' betrayer, or to Joseph Caiaphas. Brown 1970 pp 878-9 argues against understanding this as referring to Judas: Judas did indeed betray Jesus to the auxiliaries and Temple attendants in the Garden, but this verse speaks of the handing over of Jesus to the Roman authorities, to Pilate the governor and to Roman law.
If the reference is to Caiaphas, then it works on several levels - Caiaphas is manipulating Pilate's actions, and certainly the manipulator could be construed as more responsible for the outcome than the one manipulated. Also Caiaphas, however pure his motives may have been, is the one with a plan to accomplish Jesus' death, in accordance with which he has had Jesus handed over to Pilate. Pilate, however impure his motives, is not the one who intended Jesus' death. Nevertheless, I think that Brown is clearly correct, and even understating the case, when he observed in Brown 1970 p 878 that "[t]he logic of this verse is difficult".
In John's telling of the story, Pilate has been seeking to release him practically since the beginning. But now it appears that he was seeking this more actively than before. It seems a legitimate deduction from John's presentation that at first Pilate is primarily motivated by dislike of Caiaphas and his party. They have brought Jesus to him on a charge of insurrection -- very well then, make them prove it, and if they can't, he (Pilate) will release the troublemaker and leave Caiaphas to deal with him. But now his motive seems to be superstitious fear.
The jaws of the trap have closed. Apparently thrown by the accusation that Jesus claimed to be Son of God, understood by him in purely pagan terms, Pilate did not see this coming. Reverting to an earlier charge, that Jesus claimed to be a king, Caiaphas and his party put Pilate in an impossible dilemma by pointing out that appearing to support Jesus or to go easy on him would mean that Pilate would no longer be a Friend of Caesar.
The latter, as I have tried to suggest by the use of capital letters, is likely an honorific, awarded to especially favoured bureaucrats and allied rulers3. It would be political suicide to risk losing such an honorific, even more to risk being accused of supporting a provincial revolutionary. Pilate now has no choice but to agree with Joseph Caiaphas and his allies on the Sanhedrin and condemn Jesus to death.
v13 Stone Pavement (Gabbatha in Hebrew)
As we discussed earlier, this would have been a clear, flat open space in the praetorium grounds from which the bema or tribunale, the chair that was the symbol of judicial authority (equivalent to our bench), could be clearly seen and the judge's words clearly heard.
See the discussion of this expression above in Section 12.1.
Although Pilate has been compelled to support the capital charge against Jesus, he seems determined to continue to use irony and sarcasm to emphasise what he considers the inadequacy of the charge of insurrection. Presenting the beaten and taunted man, still wrapped in his "royal" robes, to his accusers, he said "Behold your king!". He continued to call Jesus a king in response to the chief priests' call for crucifixion with the mocking words "Shall I crucify your king?" (Jn 19.15). If we were in any doubt, all this serves to demonstrate that the governor is not motivated by compassion or concern for Jesus himself - Jesus is a mere counter in a political game between Pilate and Caiaphas. At least Joseph Caiaphas, as John presents him, is motivated by a sincere desire to protect the Temple and the people whose high priest he was. He and the rest of the high priestly party deflect Pilate's mockery with the apparently sincere political claim that they have no king but Caesar.
Technically the antecedent of "them" here should be the last speakers, the chief priests (Caiaphas and the others who held the title of high priest and their families). However that cannot be, since they could neither carry out the sentence of a Roman court not execute a condemned man on their own authority. So "they" are likely the soldiers who had taunted Jesus, last mentioned in v3.
1 See Carson 1991 pp 596-8 and Keener 2003 pp 1118-20 for discussions of the significance of the scourging.
2See Taylor, 'Pontius Pilate'.
3 See Brown 1970 pp 879-80.