Jesus’s Trial before Pilate: Not What You Expect—John 18:29-19:16a

Studies in John’s Gospel—Lesson 40

by Reta Halteman Finger

"Christ before Pilate" by Mihály Munkácsy, 1881
“Christ before Pilate” by Mihály Munkácsy, 1881 from Wikipedia

“Jesus, meet Pontius Pilate, Governor of Palestine.” I am writing this lesson on John 18:29–19:16a during the same week in December 2014 that the partial CIA torture report has been released. The parallel hits me between the eyes. Since the 9/11 attacks on the United States, countless foreigners have been arrested and have endured physical torture and shaming, whether or not they were guilty of any terrorist activities, and whether or not their suffering produced viable information. All were viewed as enemies of the American empire.

In the same way, Jesus of Nazareth was viewed as an enemy of the Roman Empire through his verbal and non-violent challenges to the Empire’s clients, the elite Jerusalem Jews who ran the temple system. Jesus was from Galilee, an area of political unrest, where rebels hid in caves and plotted to overthrow the Romans. He followed a line of violent messianic pretenders such as the bandit chief Hezekiah, Judas the Galilean, Simon of Peraea, “the Samaritan,” and others—all executed by Rome. What torture would be in store for this low-status Jew with the big mouth and claiming to be acting for God?

The way it wasn’t

We will need an additional lesson or two to better explore the irony and artistry of this trial scene. Here we will debunk traditional views, provide historical background, and introduce the actors on our stage. Warren Carter, a biblical scholar skilled in an “empire-critical” perspective on the Gospels provides some of these insights. Both of his books, Matthew and Empire (Trinity Press, 2001) and John and Empire (T & T Clark, 2008), are eye-opening.

For centuries, Christians have mistreated Jews, calling them “Christ-killers.” It is true that John’s Gospel presents “the Jews” as opponents and enemies of Jesus, but the author is referring only to the wealthy, elite Judeans who run the temple system. It is they, not the ordinary peasants, who hand Jesus over to the Roman governor to be executed. And since these elites are the high priests and rulers of the Jerusalem Temple, the events have been seen as religious rather than political. In contrast, Pilate has often been perceived as an ineffectual or even kindly governor who tries unsuccessfully to get Jesus released—which only heightens Jewish responsibility for Jesus’s crucifixion.

But the reality was very different.

The many intrigues of the 1%

After the Maccabean War of 167 BCE, Israel was independent for 100 years, ruled by the “priest-kings” of the temple system. But corruption and chaos among the high priests pushed the Romans to annex Palestine in 63 BCE. As was their custom, the Romans established themselves at the top of the pecking order and then ruled through the high priesthood of the Jerusalem temple, as well as through client-kings such as Herod the Great and later through his sons, called tetrarchs).  The Jewish historian Josephus notes that the chief priests themselves were chosen by the Roman governors, then forced to collaborate with Rome as obedient clients (Jewish Antiquities 20.249). (See Lesson 38 on John 17 for a description of ancient patron-client relationships). Thus the role of these high priests would have been to preside over the temple with its lucrative system of laws, sacrifices, and festivals—and at the same time protect and serve the Roman occupation.

The role of the Roman governor was to settle disputes and keep order, collect taxes and administer finances, engage in public works and building projects, command troops, administer justice, and, when necessary, put people to death (Carter, John and Empire, 292). Roman law—like much American law today—operated with a strong bias in favor of the elite and against those of lower status. Pontius Pilate (26-36 CE) was the fifth of a string of Roman governors of Palestine and was as arrogant and cruel as the rest of them.

Then add to this complicated political system another category:  the Jewish rebels and messiahs who believed God wanted them to violently overthrow the Romans. Such unrest pushed the priestly caste more strongly toward cooperation with the Roman governor and against the peasants, who comprised 90 percent of the population. Into this mix comes Jesus of Nazareth, who identifies with the peasants, heals their disabilities, and teaches them that the way to God is not through sacrifices bought from corrupt high priests, but can be received as a gift through him!

This “rebel” Jesus, hand-cuffed and exhausted from an all-night trial before High Priest Annas (John 18:12-24), now stands in 18:28 before Pontius Pilate, the most powerful man in all Palestine.

“The hour has come…”

Jesus had known it was coming, ever since he raised Lazarus from the dead and the council of priests and Pharisees had voted him a death sentence (11:47-53). After he enters Jerusalem in 12:12-19, he declares that his “hour has come” (12:23). He knows he will be handed over to Pilate, “the ruler of this world” (12:31), and thus he knows what kind of death he will die: “lifted up from the earth” on a Roman cross (12:32-33). Skipping over the discourses of John chapters 13–17, we can see that Jesus’s arrest may very well have happened the night after Jesus had spoken the public and prescient words of chapter 12 to the crowds on the Temple Mount for the Passover festival.

In the next lesson we will examine the trial of Jesus before Pilate in more detail. In the meantime, look for the setting of the trial in 18:28–19:16a. Where does it take place? In Pilate’s headquarters, or outside? Or both? What does this tell us?

Further questions for discussion and reflection:

1.  Explain how politics and religion are intertwined in first century Palestine. What further background questions do you have about the larger cultural situation?

2.  Name some ways and places where politics and religion are intertwined in the world today.

3.  Is it fair to compare Jesus’s trial and suffering with the CIA’s treatment of suspected terrorists?

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.


  1. Professor Finger

    Thank you for your wonderful website. I have your books on Corinthians and Romans.

    One more piece of insight on the term, “Jews” as used in John. This term identifies the specific region from which the people John is talking about came. The term “Jew” should be set against the term, “Samaritan,” “Galilean” and even “Nazareth”. The term also specified which tradition to which the people most likely adhered. The “Galileans” most likely hald to the more prophetic tradition as the seat of authority while the “Jews” were more likely to hold to the Temple as their primary seat of authority. The Samaritans, too, had their own tradition that centered around the older seat of the Tabernacle. Each of these traditional sources of authority for the different regions are set against one another in the Gospel of John.

  2. Dennis,

    Thank you for responding! You are quite right, and I should have clarified that in my lessons. Perhaps it might also be better to call “the Jews” the Judeans, since it also designated the area where they and the temple are located. I still think, however, that the author was referring to the leaders of the temple system who wanted Jesus executed and not necessarily the ordinary Judeans.

    I’m always honored when someone reads what I’ve written and let me know what they think!

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