For Lent, I am reflecting on the events leading up the Jesus’ crucifixion by reading part of David Seccombe’s The King of God’s Kingdom.
With Jesus’ appearance before Pilate, we get connected with secular history. Pilate seems like a ruthless, self-interested figure from all we know outside the Bible. So it is a surprise that Pilate goes out of his way to get Jesus released.
Perhaps this is what went wrong with the priest’s intention to quickly execute Jesus before the crowds knew anything about it. They seem to have expected Pilate to rubber-stamp their death sentence.
Of course, one approach would be to say that, because the secular accounts of Pilate do not seem to match the gospel’s characterization of him, the gospels have made Pilate’s reluctance up.
However the Matthew gives us a reason for Pilate to have altered his stance toward Jesus. His wife sent him a message that he should have nothing to do with Jesus because of a dream. Now, if Pilate was a superstitious man, this would make sense. Seccombe thinks we should not dismiss Matthew’s account of this. It is hard to see a reason for Matthew to have included this information unless he actually knew something.
In any case, Pilate is said to have told the priests to take Jesus and deal with him according to their own law. This leads to the discussion of whether the Jewish authorities had the power to put someone to death. They certainly did use it in the case of James, the brother of Jesus. Also the Book of Acts tells us that they sentenced Stephen to death by stoning. There was an inscription in the Temple that threatened even Romans with death by stoning should they enter the forbidden inner courts.
But John 18:31 says that the Romans reserved this power to themselves alone. Seccombe says that this accords with what was the case in the rest of the empire. Theoretically the Romans exclusively held what was called the power of the sword (Romans 13:4). However, governors sometimes turned a blind eye to the actions of local authorities. So Seccombe wonders what the subtext was of Pilate’s request for the priests to deal with this according to their own laws.
One possibility is that he was giving them implicit permission to stone Jesus.
Another is that he is telling them to inflict their harshest penalty short of the death penalty.
So why did the priests insist that Pilate act? Seccombe suggests that, because stoning was a penalty that required group participation and the crowds were for Jesus, an attempt to stone him could backfire. Or, Seccombe speculates, they might have feared Jesus’ reputation as a miracle worker. Maybe he could call down fire from heaven or something.
More theologically, the priests may have had in mind the passage from Deuteronomy 21:23, that says anyone hanged on a tree is cursed. If Jesus hanged then his whole ministry and reputation would unravel as falling under a curse. At least, they may have hoped this. Paul, before his call, may have discounted Jesus for this reason (Galatians 3:13).
So the priests begin to bring political charges against Jesus. But Pilate knew Jesus was not a revolutionary. According to Luke, he sent him to Herod. Seccombe thinks Luke has this because he was privy to information from Herod’s court (Luke 8:3 and Acts 13:1).
The gospels agree in various ways that Pilate tried to release Jesus.
The priests bring in Pilate’s obligation as a friend of Caesar. This was a weak point for Pilate. “Friend of Caesar” was a term that had to do with political patronage in the empire. Pilate held his position because he was a friend of Caesar.
Roman historians know that Pilate got his position through Sejanus, a close adviser to Tiberius. However, Seccombe dates the crucifixion to the year 30. If, as I think is likely, the actual date is 33 then Sejanus has already fallen and Pilate’s position was particularly weak. (In my view, the fourteen plus three years between Paul’s call and the Jerusalem conference from Galatians 1:18 and 2:1 force scholars who assume Luke wrote Acts in chronological order to date the crucifixion too early.)
So in the end Pilate gave in and ordered the crucifixion. To passive aggressively get back at the Jewish authorities for manipulating him, he had an ironic charge affixed above the cross, mocking the accusers claims that Jesus was political. In three languages Pilate had written, “The King of the Jews.”