Jesus before Pilate
Then the Jews led Jesus from Caiaphas to the palace of the Roman governor. By now it was early morning, and to avoid ceremonial uncleanness the Jews did not enter the palace; they wanted to be able to eat the Passover. So Pilate came out to them and asked, "What charges are you bringing against this man?" "If he were not a criminal," they replied, "we would not have handed him over to you."
Pilate said, "Take him yourselves and judge him by your own law."
"But we have no right to execute anyone," the Jews objected. This happened so that the words Jesus had spoken indicating the kind of death he was going to die would be fulfilled. Pilate then went back inside the palace, summoned Jesus and asked him, "Are you the king of the Jews?"
"Is that your own idea," Jesus asked, "or did others talk to you about me?"
"Am I a Jew?" Pilate replied. "It was your people and your chief priests who handed you over to me. What is it you have done?"
Jesus said, "My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place."
"You are a king, then!" said Pilate.
Jesus answered, "You are right in saying I am a king. In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me."
"What is truth?" Pilate asked.
With this he went out again to the Jews and said, "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'?"
They shouted back, "No, not him! Give us Barabbas!" Now Barabbas had taken part in a rebellion.
The trial of Jesus by the Roman procurator Pontius Pilate dominates the Johannine passion story. The evangelist organizes the trial into a series of vignettes, alternately staged inside the praetorium and outside in full view of the crowds. The scenes mount in intensity, beginning with Pilate's seemingly bored discussion with the religious leaders, through his increasing mystification with his prisoner, and climaxing with his attempt to free Jesus that is rejected by the crowd.
John once again injects irony into his narrative. In the first scene the religious leaders are concerned with maintaining ritual purity but they are engaged in handing over the Son of God to the Romans. They are concerned to be ready for the feast of Passover (18:28) yet the true Passover Lamb is about to be sacrificed. Their jousting with the Roman procurator about legal rights leads ironically to Jesus being crucified--the very manner of death which the Johannine Jesus had predicted he would undergo, being "lifted up" for the life of the world (see 3:14-15; 12:32-33).
A potent symbol of the whole trial is that of kingship, a theme that emerges as Pilate begins to interrogate Jesus (18:33-38). Pilate represents political might symbolized in the emperor's crown. But Jesus' sovereignty is not "of this world," that is, it represents a very different sort of power--one that gives life. As the prologue of the Gospel had already proclaimed in poetic fashion (1:1-18) Jesus came into the world to proclaim the ultimate truth of God's love--those who hear the voice of Jesus know God's truth and live it out in their lives (8:47). The truth of God's love--and not brute, oppressive force--is the source of Jesus' power. Pilate, like the religious leaders, is incapable of recognizing this truth (18:37).
Even though he cannot understand Jesus, Pilate is convinced of his innocence and he goes outside to inform the leaders of his decision. To assuage them, he offers to release Jesus as a gesture on the occasion of the Passover (18:39). But the "Jews" demand that Barabbas be released instead. The Gospel simply notes that Barabbas was a "revolutionary" (18:40). Is John's irony at work again? Does the evangelist imply for the reader that the crowds are blind to the fact that the most profound revolution is the one inaugurated by Jesus himself? [Note that at this point John has subtly moved from identifying Jesus' opponents as the religious leaders to calling them in generic fashion, "the Jews"--the Christian reader must be careful not to draw the conclusion that all Jews are somehow guilty for the death of Jesus. This cannot be John's point: Mary, the Beloved Disciple, and Jesus himself were Jews!]top of page