Palm Sunday of the Passion: condemned

Jesus-Pilate2Jesus Is Condemned (27:11-25) The Gospel reading for Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion is quite lengthy and so will not be included here. It can be found at the USCCB website.

This is the official trial of Jesus, and yet the description sounds less like a formal judicial hearing than an example of oriental bargaining. Pilate, as prefect of Judea, had the sole authority to acquit or to condemn, and to determine the sentence. There is a perfunctory attempt at a formal examination of the prisoner, but increasingly the dominant force is not the official role of the governor but the demands of the Jewish leaders, backed by ‘the people’. It is here that the focus of Matthew’s attention falls, so that Pilate’s role is as a cast extra on the movie set whose sole role is at best a catalyst which helps to define unequivocally the people’s stance towards the Messiah.

It is clear that Pilate has been told a charge by the religious authorities and so asks “Are you the King of the Jews?” The charge cleverly incorporates Jesus’ admission of his messiahship in a formula with the maximum political innuendo – and one that carries a death penalty. The title King of the Jews is used in Matthew only by Gentiles (2:2; 27:29, 37; in 27:42 the Jewish leaders substitute ‘King of Israel’). In the sense in which Pilate presumably understood the title, Jesus could quite properly have disclaimed it. But it expressed a theme of Old Testament prophecy which Jesus had come to fulfill, and had indeed deliberately enacted in 21:1–9. Jesus therefore uses again the formula of ‘qualified assent’ used already in 26:25, 64. Beyond that Jesus is silent, echoing the image of the Suffering Servant of Isa 52:14-15, 53:7.

The amnesty practice’s historicity is questionable (see Notes) but that is perhaps secondary to the Matthew’s narrative purpose to ironically paint the people’s choice. They would rather have Barabbas (lit. “son of the father”) than the true Son of the Father. Once again two kingship stand in contrast. One represented by the criminal Barabbas, one represented by the Righteous One.

Only Matthew mentions Pilate’s wife and her dream, and nothing is known of her from other sources, but she is hardly the sort of figure legend might be expected to invent. She may have been one of the many Gentile women who had a secret interest in Judaism, hence her interest in the case of Jesus. At any rate Matthew has clearly inserted this verse together with vv. 24–25 in order to heighten the impression of Jesus’ legal innocence—even a pagan woman can see it! But while she is open to the voice of God (from whom dreams come; cf. 1:20; 2:12, 13, 19, 22), the Jewish leaders are deaf to it.

Undoubtedly the Jewish leaders ensured that the crowd was selected and knew their part in the script. For a general population of people, the cry Let him be crucified! is remarkable because crucifixion was a sign of Roman oppression and was hateful to the average Jew. The necessity of the method of death was the necessity of Roman authority – and crucifixion was the regular method of Roman execution for provincial rebels.

But Matthew’s reporting of the incident is different. In the period before Jesus’ arrest Matthew seems to have carefully distinguished between the people as a whole (‘the crowds’) and their leaders. Now there is now no difference; all together are calling for Jesus’ death. Undoubtedly Matthew intends us to notice a change in the popular reactions to Jesus; those who were previously undecided, even inclined to favor Jesus, have now decided against him, influenced no doubt by the news that their religious leaders had judged him a blasphemer.

Pilate’s dramatic gesture and the corresponding cry of ‘all the people’ (v. 25) are found only in Matthew. The effect of the whole complex is to underline in the strongest way the responsibility of the worldly kingdoms for the death of Jesus. The symbolic washing of hands recalls the ritual prescribed in Deuteronomy 21:6–9, and the metaphorical language of Psalms 26:6; 73:13. It is sometimes argued that this act makes sense only in a Jewish context, and that it has no precedent in Graeco-Roman culture. But the symbolism is obvious enough, and the removal of blood-guilt was a major concern in much pagan literature. In using the same formula of disassociation as in v. 4, Look to it yourselves, Pilate aims to exonerate himself from what he clearly regards as an unjust killing.

France notes the following about v.25:

Pilate’s disavowal of responsibility is balanced by the apparently enthusiastic acceptance of it by all the people, ‘His blood on us and on our children!’ No verb is expressed in the Greek, and the addition of ‘be’ in RSV, NEB, NIV, making the declaration into a wish, is unjustified. The sentence is rather a statement accepting what Pilate has just said—‘the responsibility is ours’. Jesus has been ‘convicted’ under Jewish law, and they will therefore be answerable for his death to Rome or to anyone else. (For a parallel formula of acceptance of responsibility, cf. Josh. 2:19; and for the metaphor of ‘blood’ being ‘on’ a person, cf. Deut. 19:10, 13; Ezek. 18:13; 33:4–6; Acts 18:6.) To read this declaration as an eternal ‘curse’ on the Jewish race is therefore to press the language beyond its biblical context. In recording these solemn words, and in particular the phrase and on our children, Matthew perhaps had particularly in mind the fate of the Jews of ‘this generation’ in the Jewish War of AD 66–70, a fate already foreshadowed in 23:35–39 as a result of the rejection of God’s final messenger. It was a fate which would fall on the nation as a whole, and would signal the end of its privileged status (see on 21:43). It is perhaps for this reason that Matthew attributes the cry to all the people, using now not the general term for ‘crowds’ as in vv. 15, 20, 24, but laos, the name particularly used in the LXX for God’s chosen people, and so used generally also in this Gospel. The same phrase occurs in the LXX of Jeremiah 26:8–9 for those who attacked Jeremiah and thus risked bringing ‘innocent blood’ on themselves (v. 15), a parallel Matthew probably had in mind. Of course it was only a small number of the nation who were there, and to read into these words a ‘curse’ on all Jews for ever is ludicrous (after all, Matthew and his fellow-apostles were Jews!); but Matthew wants his readers to understand that the loss of Israel’s special status which is so evident in his Gospel is to be interpreted in the light of their rejection of Jesus.


Notes
Matthew 27:15 the governor was accustomed to release…one prisoner: The existence of this amnesty custom is not attested outside the Gospels, though some have found a hint of it in m. Pesaḥim 8:6. If it was a purely local and perhaps temporary concession (perhaps Pilate’s own innovation to try to maintain the goodwill of his difficult subjects), this is hardly surprising. The political expediency of such a recognition of popular feeling can readily be judged from the use of amnesties in the modern world, and their acceptability in the Roman world is well illustrated elsewhere. The account presupposes that neither Jesus nor Barabbas was yet formally condemned; clemency to a condemned man was the sole prerogative of the emperor.


Sources

  • K. Beale and D. A. Carson, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI; Nottingham, UK: Baker Academic; Apollos, 2007) 90-100
  • Eugene Boring, The Gospel of Matthew in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VIII (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1994) 463-97
  • Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Book, 2000) 503-40
  • T. France, The Gospel of Matthew in the New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing, 2007) 976-1095
  • T. France, Matthew: An Introduction and Commentary in the Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, Vol. 1, ed. Leon Morris (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1989) 364-410
  • Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew, vol. 1 of Sacra Pagina, ed. Daniel J. Harrington (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1991) 361-407
  • Daniel J. Harrington, “Matthew” in The Collegeville Bible Commentary, eds. Diane Bergant and Robert J. Karris (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1989) 898-902
  • Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing, 2009) 620-97
  • John P. Meier, Matthew, New Testament Message 3 (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1990) 313-58
  • Turner and D.L. Bock, Matthew and Mark in the Cornerstone Biblical Commentary, vol. 11 (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2005) 335-369

Dictionaries

  • Gerhard Kittel, Gerhard Friedrich and Geoffrey William Bromiley, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1995)
  • Horst Robert Balz and Gerhard Schneider, Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1990)

Scripture – quotes from New American Bible by Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC. © 1991, 1986, 1970

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