Jesus before Pilate

Jesus and Pilate1 As soon as morning came, the chief priests with the elders and the scribes, that is, the whole Sanhedrin, held a council. They bound Jesus, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate. 2 Pilate questioned him, “Are you the king of the Jews?” He said to him in reply, “You say so.” 3 The chief priests accused him of many things. 4 Again Pilate questioned him, “Have you no answer? See how many things they accuse you of.” 5 Jesus gave him no further answer, so that Pilate was amazed. 6 Now on the occasion of the feast he used to release to them one prisoner whom they requested. 7 A man called Barabbas was then in prison along with the rebels who had committed murder in a rebellion. 8 The crowd came forward and began to ask him to do for them as he was accustomed. 9 Pilate answered, “Do you want me to release to you the king of the Jews?” 10 For he knew that it was out of envy that the chief priests had handed him over. 11 But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release Barabbas for them instead. 12 Pilate again said to them in reply, “Then what (do you want) me to do with (the man you call) the king of the Jews?” 13 They shouted again, “Crucify him.” 14 Pilate said to them, “Why? What evil has he done?” They only shouted the louder, “Crucify him.” 15 So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released Barabbas to them and, after he had Jesus scourged, handed him over to be crucified. (Mark 15)

In the narrative of Jesus’ trial by the Roman prefect Pilate, Mark was not concerned to produce a detailed report of the proceedings but to sketch a course of events significant for the salvation of mankind. Parallel to the account in Mark 14:53–65, the tradition clusters around the interrogation, condemnation and subsequent mockery of Jesus. Yet between the two narratives there are profound differences. While Jesus was prosecuted under the Jewish law and condemned for blasphemy by the Sanhedrin, he was tried before Pilate under the Roman law governing lèse majesté or high treason. Other details in the two accounts correspond to this fundamental distinction. Thus Jesus is mocked by the attendants of the Sanhedrin as a messianic prophet, while the rude treatment he received from the Roman soldiery showed contempt for his pretensions to kingship. What is of utmost significance to Mark is that both the Sanhedrin and the Roman governor consigned Jesus to die as the Messiah, and that this course of events conformed to the will of God expressed forcefully in the solemn passion prophecy of Mark 10:33–34.

In handing Jesus over, the Sanhedrin has relinquished the direct control of the events, but can only now serve as accusers – not of blasphemy, a charge that would not concern Pilate – but of treason. It was necessary for the Sanhedrin to bring its business to Pilate as soon after dawn as possible because the working day of a Roman official began at the earliest hour of daylight. Legal trials in the Roman forum were customarily held shortly after sunrise. If the chief priests had delayed until morning to examine Jesus and then sought to bring him before the governor, they would have arrived too late and interrupted Pilate in the carefully organized leisure of a Roman gentleman. This offers a significant reason why the Sanhedrin conducted its own proceedings throughout the night.

As Pheme Perkins notes: “It is difficult to determine what Jesus’ exchange with Pilate is intended to convey to Mark’s reader. His silence in the face of many charges (vv. 4–5) continues Jesus’ earlier action before the Sanhedrin (14:60–61a). Jesus’ answer to Pilate’s question, which contains a possible christological title “King of the Jews,” is more ambiguous than that given in the earlier trial (v. 62a). Jesus has neither denied nor accepted the assertion outright. Nor does Mark explain what amazed Pilate about Jesus’ conduct at the proceedings (v. 5). Readers may be intended to associate Jesus’ conduct with Pilate’s conclusion that the case was brought out of envy (v. 10). No one would expect the Roman governor to consider anything but Roman interests in dealing with such a case.”

A crowd appears seeking the release of a prisoner as was the custom (v.8) on the occasion of the feast (v.7). Pilate is perhaps looking for a way out of sentencing Jesus and so offers the rebel Barabbas. As Lane [555] writes:

“Pilate had failed to consider that the populace, who were incensed about a Roman presence in Jerusalem, would never align themselves with him if they were asked to choose between a solution he proposed and one supported by the leaders of the Sanhedrin. Moreover, it is probable that the crowd had already agreed to seek the release of the freedom fighter Barabbas, whose bold actions seem to have won popular support. In Judea it was customary to confront the Roman authorities with as large and boisterous a delegation as could be mustered (cf. Acts 24:1; Josephus, Antiquities XVIII. viii. 4). With the encouragement of the chief priests the noisy crowd emphatically rejected Pilate’s offer and clamored for the release of Barabbas (cf. Acts 3:13f.). This tragic decision is best explained by the fact that Jesus had been formally condemned by the Sanhedrin as a violator of the law who deserved to die. There was no reason for the people, who openly regarded Jesus as a threat to the release of their man, to dispute this sober fact as represented by the spokesmen for the Jewish court who urged them to persist in their acclamation of Barabbas. That alone seems to account for their calloused response when Pilate inquired what should be done with Jesus.”

The tactical blunder of deferring to the riotous crowd in the matter of the paschal amnesty created the dangerous situation in which the point of control had passed from the magistrate to the excited people. On the ground of political expediency Pilate decided that he had no choice but to yield to the determined will of the now fanatical mob. In order to placate the people he released Barabbas and gave orders for Jesus to be scourged

Notes

Mark 15:1 matters of jurisdiction: The city of Jerusalem, together with the province of Judea which was under its jurisdiction, was designated “subject territory” in the time of the procurators. This signified that matters of legislation, the administration of justice, and government were subject to the supervision of the Roman provincial authorities. Generally speaking, however, the Romans permitted even the subject territories to retain their own legislation, administration of justice, and local government, and there is considerable evidence that Jewish authorities in Judea were allowed a great measure of self-government. The Sanhedrin exercised not only civil jurisdiction according to Jewish law but also a certain degree of criminal jurisdiction. Under certain circumstances it could pronounce a death sentence, but there is no definite proof that it could legitimately execute capital sentences. The “right of the sword” was reserved to the Roman magistrate as sole bearer of the full imperial authority (imperium). This was one of the most carefully guarded prerogatives of the Roman government and permitted no concessions. [Lane 547]

Mark 15:7 Barabbas…rebellion: Nothing is known of this person or rebellion outside of the gospels

Mark 15:8 as he was accustomed: The historicity of the paschal amnesty has been disputed often, primarily because the Jewish historian Josephus offers no evidence that such a custom ever existed. There is, however, a parallel in Roman law which indicates that an imperial magistrate could pardon and acquit individual prisoners in response to the shouts of the populace. Moreover, a provision in the Mishnah tractate Pesachim VIII 6a (“they may slaughter for one … whom they have promised to bring out of prison …”), which is judged to belong to the earliest strata of the Mishnah, implies that the custom of releasing one prisoner or several at the Feast of the Passover must actually have existed in Jerusalem in the first century.

Sources

  • William L. Lane, The Gospel of Mark in The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1974) 545-56
  • Pheme Perkins, The Gospel of Mark, vol. 8 of The New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville, TN: Abington Press,1994) 8:717-20
  • The New American Bible available on-line at http://www.usccb.org/bible
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