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Pilate and Jesus

Pilate and Jesus July 24, 2021

In the closing stages of writing my latest book, The Resurrection: A Critical Examination of the Easter Story [UK] (please grab yourself a copy!), I had a few test readers. One was David Austin, down in Australia, who has provided a few guest articles for your delectation. Here is another one – thanks muchly to him (as I am insanely busy researching the hell out of the Pentateuch):

Pilate & Jesus

It is interesting to chart the progression of interaction between Jesus and Pontius Pilate as each successive gospel adds layers to the story.

The first gospel, chronologically, is generally considered to be Mark

Mark – After the “Trial” of Jesus (Which I don’t believe ever happened) , the Jewish Elders and Scribes plus the whole Sanhedrin consult together as to what should happen next. They decide to bring Jesus to Pilate. Pilate asks Jesus “Are you the King of the Jews?” and Jesus answers “You say so”.  Then the Chief Priests make further accusations, and Pilate asks Jesus to respond, but he says nothing. How anybody would be privy to these private conversations is unknown.

Then there is the scene with Barabbas, where supposedly, at Passover, the Romans allow the release of one prisoner (even though there is no such tradition recorded anywhere). The crowd (where this crowd comes from is not explained) asks for this custom to be honoured, and Pilate asks them “Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?”, but the crowd (whipped up by the Chief Priests) call for Barabbas. Then Pilate asks the crowd “Then what do with the man you call the King of the Jews?” and they shout back “Crucify him”. Pilate then asks “Why; what evil has he done?”, and the crowd again shouts “Crucify him”.

Then Barabbas is released, Jesus is flogged, and passed over to the soldiers. They put a purple cloak, and a crown of thorns on Jesus, They strike him on the head with a reed (more likely a cane) spit on him, and then take off the robe, and put on his own clothes (Why bother putting his clothes back on if you are going to crucify him? Normally criminals were crucified naked; part of the humiliation) and take him to be crucified.

The next gospel, chronologically, is probably Matthew.

Matthew – Matthew’s account is copied pretty much verbatim from Mark, except Jesus’s cloak, “magically” changes from purple to scarlet.

However, Matthew adds an incident where Pilate’s wife passes a message to Pilate informing him that she had a dream where she is warned that her husband should have nothing to do with this innocent Jesus person (How she knows he is innocent is not stated). Matthew also adds a scene where Pilate, after sending Jesus to be crucified, washes his hands and says “I am innocent of this man’s blood”, and the crowd answers “His blood is on us and our children”. It is strange that Mark does not include this, if it happened, but it may have been added by Matthew as an anti-Jewish polemic.

The next gospel is probably Luke, and it is quite different from Mark and Matthew.

Luke – Luke has Chief Priests accusing Jesus not only claiming to be the Messiah and King of the Jews, but also of exhorting Jews not to pay taxes to the Emperor (Mark and Matthew do not mention this). Pilate asks Jesus “Are you the King of the Jews?” and Jesus replies (as in Mark and Matthew) “You say so”. However, this time Pilate says “I find no basis for an accusation against this man”. This never happened in Mark and Matthew, and he doesn’t even ask Jesus about “Not paying taxes to the Emperor”; which would seem to be the next logical question.

Next, there is a totally new plot twist. When Pilate discovers Jesus is from Galilee, he sends Jesus to Herod’s court (presumably that of Herod Antipas). There Herod questions Jesus at length, but he remains silent. Luke has Herod’s soldiers mocking Jesus and putting on an elegant robe (thus passing the blame for this mocking from Roman soldiers to Jewish soldiers), but no mention of the crown of thorns or the reed. Then Herod sends Jesus back to Pilate. Why none of this is mentioned by Mark and Matthew is baffling.

Pilate then addresses the chief priest and assembled crowd saying “You brought this man to me as one perverting the people and here I have examined him in your presence and have not found this man guilty of any of your charges against him. Neither has Herod for he sent him back to us. Indeed, he has done nothing to deserve death. I will therefore have him flogged and release him”.  The crowd, as in Mark and Matthew, call for the release of Barabbas. Pilate again tries to release Jesus, but the crowd shout “Crucify him”. He tries a third time saying “Why; What evil has he done? I have found in him no ground for the sentence of death. I will therefore have him flogged and then release him”. The crowd continues to call for Jesus to be crucified, and finally Pilate grants the crowd’s wish for Barabbas to be released and Jesus crucified. It is not detailed whether Jesus was flogged, or whether Pilate washed his hands.

Already we can see a pattern emerging; the narrative is becoming more complex (audience before Herod Antipas), and Pilate is increasingly unwilling to sentence Jesus to death (He tries three times to release Jesus, and only reluctantly accedes to the crowd’s demands). It seems that a “white-washing” of the Roman’s involvement in Jesus’s death is happening, with the Jews being shown to be more and more culpable.

The final gospel is that of John.

John – with John’s gospel, things really have “gone off the rails”.

Again, the chief priests bring Jesus to Pilate’s palace and Pilate asks “What charges are you bringing against this man?” and they reply “If he were not a criminal, we would not have handed him over to you.”. Then Pilate says, “Take him yourselves and judge him by your own law.” They reply “But we have no right to execute anyone,”, Already we have dialogue that does not appear in the first three gospels. What is more, Jews in this region of Judea had a lot more freedom to practice their laws and traditions, and they would surely have been able to execute blasphemers by stoning if they wanted to. Only in matters of insurrection, sedition or rebellion would the Romans have intervened. Even if the Jews could not undertake capital punishment themselves, the Romans would not have gone to the trouble, time and expense of crucifixion (which was reserved for the most heinous crimes against the Roman empire, where it would have maximum deterrent effect), and would probably have executed Jesus by decapitation, as supposedly happened to Paul.

As in previous gospels, Pilate asks Jesus “Are you the king of the Jews?” but this time Jesus goes off script, and replies “Is that your own idea, or did others talk to you about me?” to which Pilate replies “Am I a Jew? Your own people and chief priests handed you over to me. What is it you have done?”. Jesus replies “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.” Then Pilate says“You are a king, then!”  to which Jesus replies, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”. Pilate retorted “What is truth?”. (This dialogue seems more about theology than a historic narrative.)

Then Pilate goes out and addresses the crowd saying, “I find no basis for a charge against him.  But it is your custom for me to release to you one prisoner at the time of the Passover. Do you want me to release ‘the king of the Jews?” and the crowd asks for Barabbas.

After this, Pilate has Jesus flogged, dressed in the crown of thorns and purple robe and then brought out again before the crowd. Pilate says “Look, I am bringing him out to you to let you know that I find no basis for a charge against him. Here is the man!”, but the crowd says “Crucify him”. Pilate then says “You take him and crucify him. As for me, I find no basis for a charge against him.”. The Jewish leaders still insisted “We have a law, and according to that law he must die, because he claimed to be the Son of God.”

Pilate went to talk to Jesus again saying “Where do you come from?” but Jesus didn’t answer. Pilate then says “Do you refuse to speak to me? Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?”. Jesus answered, “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above. Therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.” (ie the Jews are the guilty party)

Pilate again tried to set Jesus free, but the crowd said “If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar.”. Pilate brings out Jesus saying “Here is your king,”. The crowd shouted, “Take him away! Take him away! Crucify him!”. Pilate asks for the last time “Shall I crucify your king?”, and the crowd replies “We have no king but Caesar,”, and Jesus is lead away for crucifixion.

It should be noticed that the flogging etc occurs in the middle of Pilate’s interaction with the crowd, as opposed to Mark and Matthew where it occurs just before Jesus is crucified, and Luke doesn’t mention whether Jesus was flogged or not.  John’s gospel really puts the Jew’s culpability even higher than the previous gospels, and there is much more dialogue and interaction between Jesus and Pilate (how could the gospel writers know the contents of these private conversations?). We can see how Mark’s original story has been embellished by each subsequent gospel.

In the gospels, Pilate is portrayed as weak, indecisive and even afraid of the Jewish leadership. The portrait “painted” by Josephus and Philo of Alexandria is totally opposite to this. They portray him as cruel and resolute, and someone who would not think twice about summarily executing a “trouble-maker”. He certainly would not have been intimidated by the Jewish leaders.

The whole scenario, presented in the four gospels, reads more like fiction, that nowadays would be called “revisionist history” (eg calling the Insurrection of 6th January 2021 at the Capital building “a normal tourist visit”), shifting the blame for Jesus’s death from the Romans to the Jews. It was probably well known that Jesus was crucified by the Romans, so the gospel writers had to “spin” the story to implicate the Jews. In all likelihood, the Jews were probably not involved in the death of Jesus, or at most peripherally.

By the time the gospels were written, followers of Jesus had split from mainstream Judaism. These early Christians had animosity towards the Jews for not accepting Jesus as the true Messiah, and thus, in their mind, causing the war, against the Romans, of  66 – 70CE which culminated in the destruction of the Temple. This catastrophic war caused many Jews to be killed, exiled or enslaved.

To my mind, all this is fiction, not history. Jesus was arrested and summarily executed by the Romans for sedition, by claiming to be “King of the Jews” and, as such, seen as a challenge to Roman sovereignty.


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