Jesus, Pilate, and “The Jews”: The Empire Strikes Back—John 18:28–19:16a

Studies in John’s Gospel— Lesson 41

by Reta Halteman Finger

Antonio Ciseri's depiction of Pontius Pilate presenting a scourged Christ to the people Ecce homo! (Behold the man!).
Antonio Ciseri’s depiction of Pontius Pilate presenting a scourged Christ to the people Ecce homo! (Behold the man!). From Wikipedia.

Trials are in the news these days. Grand juries decide not to indict police officers who have killed black men in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York City. Protests erupt. A power imbalance exists between those charged “to serve and protect” and racial minorities targeted more frequently than white people. American justice too often slides subtly (or brazenly) into injustice.

Was Jesus’s trial before Pilate unjust? Or was he guilty as charged? Continuing the narrative’s ironic mode, our author keeps us in suspense until the end. But first, reread John 18:28–19:16a and review the background from Lesson 40 in order to understand the relationship between Rome (represented by Governor Pontius Pilate) and the elite Jews who run the temple system in Jerusalem (whom John calls “the Judeans”). Throughout this trial, Jesus is the pawn within a tit-for-tat honor challenge between these two political power blocs. If we read this scene “straight,” we will think that Pilate really does want to free Jesus and is a “good guy.” Instead, Patron Pilate continually taunts his subordinate clients to remind them that Rome is in charge and they are not.

The dramatic impact of place

Notice the seven alternating scenes in this trial with their outside and inside locations:

♦  Scene 1, outside (18:28-32). So that the priests can avoid ritual defilement in the Roman praetorium (headquarters), Pilate goes outside to speak with them. Note irony!
♦  Scene 2, inside (18:33-38a). Pilate enters the praetorium and meets Jesus.
♦  Scene 3, outside (18:38b-40). Pilate again meets with the Judeans.
♦  Scene 4, inside (19:1-3).Pilate and the soldiers mock Jesus by whipping him, crowning him with thorns, and clothing him in purple.
♦  Scene 5, outside, (19:4-7). Pilate mocks the Judeans by presenting their “king” to them.
♦  Scene 6, inside (19:8-12). Pilate tries to figure out Jesus, and fails.
♦  Scene 7, outside (19:13-16a). Pilate pronounces sentence.

How must Jesus die?

Scene 1 is an honor challenge. The elite Judeans have decided in 11:47-53 that Jesus must die. But stoning him for religious reasons will only turn the common people against them. Rome must view him as a political threat and crucify him for rebellion. Hence the Judeans’ smart alecky retort in 18:30, indicating that, of course, Jesus is a criminal. Why else would they have brought him to Pilate?

Scene 2 clarifies that the Judeans present Jesus’s crime as rebellion against Rome. He is a would-be messiah trying to overthrow the Romans and rule Palestine. “Are you the ‘King of the Jews’?” Pilate asks. Jesus counters with another question: “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?”

The following conversation highlights the spiritual gulf between Pilate and Jesus. Pilate has no clue what Jesus is talking about (and readers often don’t either). The “kingdom not of this world” (18:36) is not a heavenly realm but the alternate community of those who believe in the truth of Jesus’s teachings and are living in this present world but are not involved in the power struggle between elite Jews and Rome. Pilate sarcastically asks, “What is truth?” and then leaves without waiting for an answer.

Scene 3—Pilate again goes out to the Judeans, challenges their act of bringing him an innocent man, and offers to free him according to their Passover custom. But, ironically, these high priests would rather cope with Barabbas, a violent rebel.  (The word translated “bandit” in the NRSV is rendered “terrorist,” “insurrectionist,” or “political revolutionary” in some translations.  That’s because the Greek word describing Barabbbas, lestes, actually refers to revolutionaries who were part of the movement in Upper Galilee that was trying to overthrow the Romans through military means. They hung out in nearly-inaccessible caves and would attack them whenever they could. This is part of the huge irony the author creates to show up the high-priestly hypocrisy—that to them Jesus, a teacher and healer who nonviolently undercuts their power, was worse and more threatening than an actual revolutionary.)

Scene 4—Jesus is flogged. (Is this CIA-like torture to find out the “truth”?) He is stripped and beaten front and back with a whip made of leather thongs tipped with metal points. Then the soldiers make a crown from a thorny bush and wrap him in a purple cloak as a parody of royalty. The shaming is deliberate. What kind of Judean king is this?

Scene 5—Pilate belittles the temple priests by showing them their “king.” He further taunts them by declaring Jesus innocent, but the priests finally scare him by charging Jesus in 19:7, (literally in Greek) “he made himself a son of a god.”

Scene 6—This charge finally scares Pilate because only the Roman emperor was considered “a son of a god.” (The NRSV misses the point.) “Where are you from?” asks Pilate, unknowingly echoing a theme throughout this Gospel. Maintaining honor, Jesus is silent, finally responding that Pilate has no ultimate authority to release or crucify him. Again Pilate taunts the Jews by threatening to release Jesus. They rise to the bait with a counter-thrust: “If you do, you are no friend of the emperor!”

Scene 7—Pilate further ups the ante by bringing Jesus outside again, seating him on the judge’s bench, and calling out, “Here is your king!” Infuriated, the Judeans finally say what Pilate is waiting to hear: “We have no king but the emperor!”

With these words, the high priests repudiate their ancient covenant with God as Israel’s king (1 Samuel 8:7; Psalm 47:2; 93:1). Their deeper commitment is with their Roman allies. As readers, we are not surprised, for they have long resisted God’s purposes as revealed in Jesus throughout this Gospel.

Pilate has won their allegiance, but the Judean leaders have also gotten what they wanted: their adversary will be executed on a Roman cross as a political insurgent. No blood on their hands!

Questions for discussion and reflection:

  1. Was Jesus guilty as charged? How does verbal and dramatic irony help us answer this question?
  2. Does this “empire-critical” interpretation of Jesus’s trial differ from how you have understood it in the past? If so, in what way?
  3. What theological undercurrents run through this trial (i.e., 18:28 and 19:14)?
Reta Halteman Finger
Reta Halteman Finger is a long-time member of EEWC-CFT and is a past Southeast representative on the EEWC-CFT Council. She holds a Ph.D. in theology and religion from Northwestern University, masters of theological studies from Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary and Northern Baptist University, and a master of education from Boston University. Reta retired in 2009 from teaching Bible (mostly New Testament) at Messiah College in Grantham, PA. She lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and since her retirement from Messiah College has been devoting her time to writing and speaking projects, as well as some part-time teaching at Eastern Mennonite Seminary. For fifteen years, Reta edited the Christian feminist magazine, Daughters of Sarah (no longer published), and is a frequent writer and reviewer for Christian Feminism Today. Using the search box on the homepage of our EEWC-Christian Feminism Today website, you’ll be led to many of her online articles.