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2019-04-18

Note of the Day – April 17 (Mark 15:1-20 par)

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The Interrogation (“Trial”) of Jesus before Pilate

Mark 15:1-20; Matthew 27:1-31; Luke 23:1-25

When we turn to the Roman “Trial” of Jesus—that is, his interrogation/examination before the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate—we note immediately the parallelism between this episode and the earlier Sanhedrin scene. This comes out most clearly in the Synoptic version, as represented by Mark and Matthew. There is a basic similarity of structure/outline:

Even more precise is the structure of the interrogation scenes:

  • Testimony given against Jesus—14:56-59
    —Interrogator asks: “Do you answer nothing?” / Jesus is silent—14:60-61

    • Question: “Are you the Anointed One…?”—14:61b
      —Jesus’ answer: “You said (it)”—Matt 26:64a (cp. Mk 14:62a)
    • Question: “Are you the King of the Jews?”—15:2a
      —Jesus’ answer: “You say (that)”—15:2b
  • Testimony given against Jesus—15:3
    —Interrogator asks: “Do you answer nothing?” / Jesus is silent—15:4-5

There can be little doubt either of the close relationship between the titles “Anointed One” (i.e. Messiah) and “King of the Jews” in the questions asked by the High Priest and Pilate, respectively (they are connected in Lk 23:2). Both refer essentially to the same (Messianic) idea—of a ruler from the line of David who will appear (at the end-time) to deliver God’s people (the faithful of Israel) and bring Judgment on the nations. Any claim of kingship would have been viewed by the Roman government as a direct challenge to imperial authority in the provinces (of Judea, etc). The Gospel of John develops this theme of Jesus as “King of the Jews” considerably, as will be discussed in a separate note. It is also only in John’s account that the religious/theological charge emphasized in the earlier Sanhedrin scene is brought out again in this episode. These two aspects, the two halves of the Council’s question—Messiah/King and Son of God—define the structure of the Roman trial/interrogation in John’s version.

With regard to the Synoptic tradition in Mark/Matthew, the structure has been outlined above:

  • The Interrogation of Jesus by Pilate (“Are you the King of the Jews?”)—Mk 15:1-5
  • The Judgment, pronounced by the people/crowd—Mk 15:6-15
  • The Mocking/Mistreatment of Jesus (“Hail, King of the Jews!”)—Mk 15:16-20

There are here two important themes: (1) the motif of Jesus as “King of the Jews”, and (2) the emphasis on the crowd (i.e. the Jewish people) as the ones who pronounce judgment on Jesus. This latter theme is as clear in the Gospel (and early Christian) tradition as it is uncomfortable for most Christians today. There was a decided tendency by early (Gentile, non-Jewish) Christians to mitigate Pilate’s role in the death of Jesus, casting him as a sympathetic figure and placing the responsibility squarely on the Jewish leaders and people as a whole. The extent to which this is manifest in the Gospels is controversial and continues to be debated. Generally, however, the later Gospels (esp. Matthew, cf. below) seem to show evidence of this tendency in developing the tradition. Even in the (earlier) Gospel of Mark, the central role of the crowd in this episode is clear enough (15:8-15). It also helps to explain the prominent inclusion of the historical tradition regarding Barabbas. The Gospel writer goes out of his way to explain that Barabbas was a violent rebel who has committed murder (v. 7; Lk 23:19 [Matthew is less precise]). When given a choice between a murderer and Jesus, the people choose the murderer!

The sympathetic portrait of Pilate indicated by Mk 15:8-10ff is developed considerably in Matthew and Luke. Matthew includes two important additions:

  • The introduction of Pilate’s wife who refers to her auspicious dream (declaring Jesus’ innocence, 27:19), and
  • The vivid exchange between Pilate and the crowd in vv. 24-25; the crowd’s climactic declaration is ominous indeed:
    “(Let) his blood (be) upon us and upon our offspring!”
    No thoughtful Christian can read this today without, I think, feeling a bit uncomfortable about its inclusion in the Gospel.

Luke’s version (23:1-25) is more complex, with a number of important differences between the Synoptic account in Mark/Matthew:

  • The interrogation scene (vv. 1-5) includes more precise accusations about the danger Jesus poses to Roman authority and the peace of the region, involving both political (v. 2) and religious (v. 5) charges.
  • Luke is unique in including the tradition that Pilate sent Jesus to Herod Antipas, to be judged (or examined) as one under Herod’s jurisdiction (vv. 6-12). In Luke’s version the mocking is done by Herod’s, not the Roman, soldiers (v. 11). Ironically, it is stated that this exchange resulted in friendship/reconciliation between Pilate and Herod (v. 12).
  • In the judgment scene (vv. 13-25), it is the group of Jewish leaders—representatives of the Council (v. 13)—and, apparently, not a crowd of the people as a whole, who demand Jesus’ death and the release of Barabbas. This emphasis, along with the inclusion of Herod (together with Pilate), is probably intended by the Gospel writer to bring Psalm 2:1-2 to mind, and is surely influenced by that Scripture (cf. Acts 4:25-28).

A significant point in the Synoptic versions is that the interaction between Jesus and Pilate is limited to the brief exchange in the interrogation scene (Mk 15:2-5 par), which, as noted above, was consciously shaped to match the Sanhedrin interrogation scene precisely. The situation is quite different in the Gospel of John, which records an extended dialogue between Jesus and Pilate, including some of the most memorable and striking verses in the entire Gospel. Because of this unique situation, I am devoting a separate note in this series to a discussion of John’s version of the Roman “Trial”.

Supplemental Note on the Sanhedrin “Trial”

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As was discussed in the recent daily note in this series, there are three different versions of the “Trial” (or examination/interrogation) of Jesus before the ruling authorities of the Jewish Council (Sanhedrin). In each of these versions there is a distinct order and arrangement of traditional material:

In Mark/Matthew, there is a night session of the Council, assembled quickly, it would seem (Mk 14:53), soon after Jesus’ arrest on the evening beginning the Passover (Nisan 15). It is presented as a formal trial, with witnesses and announcement of sentence. The central scene has the High Priest (identified as Caiaphas by Matthew, 26:57) questioning Jesus directly (Mk 14:60-62). A second session (consultation) is mentioned in 15:1, after which Jesus is sent to the governor Pilate, where the Council would present their case (and the criminal charge) against Jesus.

In Luke, by contrast, there is only one session of the Council recorded, corresponding to the night session of Mk 14:53-65 par, but Luke has it set specifically in the morning (“as it came to be day”, 22:66). This fits with the Lukan order of events, which has the session take place after Peter’s denial.

The Gospel of John has nothing corresponding to the Synoptic episode, but instead records a separate interrogation of Jesus (by the Chief Priest Annas, described as the father-in-law of Caiaphas, 18:13). There is very little in common between this scene and the Synoptic account, except a general similarity of outline with Mark/Matthew—questioning, Jesus’ response, mistreatment (striking) of Jesus. Peter’s denial is intercut with the interrogation scene, indicating that they are taking place simultaneously.

For those concerned with harmonizing the Gospel accounts, it is relatively simple to blend Luke’s version together with that of John, but extremely difficult to reconcile either Luke or John with the order/arrangement in Mark/Matthew. Consider how the events in Luke and John might be put together:

  • NIGHT-TIME
    • Jesus is bound and taken to the house of the Chief Priest Annas where he is held in custody—Jn 18:12-14
    • Peter is waiting the Chief Priest’s (Annas, not Caiaphas) courtyard outside—Jn 18:15-16; Lk 22:54-55
    • Peter’s First denial, while he waits—Jn 18:17-18; Lk 22:56-57
    • Jesus is interrogated by Annas—Jn 18:19-21
    • While this is going on(?), Peter’s second and third denials take place outside—Jn 18:25-27; Lk 22:58-62
    • Mistreatment/abuse of Jesus by the “police” holding him in custody—Jn 18:22-23; Lk 22:63-65 (details differ between the two at this point)
    • Jesus is bound and sent to Caiaphas—Jn 18:24
  • MORNING
    • Jesus is question by the Council, led by the High Priest Caiaphas (to be inferred, cf. the Synoptic account)—Lk 22:66-70
    • [This may include witnesses/testimony as in the Synoptic account, cf. the wording in Lk 22:71]
    • Determination that Jesus is worthy of being sentenced to death—Lk 22:71
    • Jesus is bound and taken to the governor Pilate where the Council will present its case—Lk 23:1; Jn 18:28a

Insofar as it is possible to get back to the historical level of the tradition, in an objective sense, this would probably be a fair reconstruction. The problem lies in evaluating the Synoptic evidence of the Council session held at night (which Luke sets in the morning). Most critical scholars would hold that the Lukan order is almost certainly more accurate, and that, in many respects, John’s account, with its wealth of unique local detail (cf. Jn 18:10b, 12-13, 15b-16, 26, 28b, etc) may be closest to the original historical tradition. The reasons for preferring John’s chronology, in which all these events occur on the day before Passover (Nisan 14), rather than on Passover itself, have been discussed in an earlier note. At the same time, it is hard to explain the curious inclusion of the Synoptic Temple-saying report if it were not part of the historical tradition regarding an accusation/charge brought against Jesus by the Council. If Luke were aware of this tradition—which would be the case if he made use of the Gospel of Mark (cf. also Acts 6:14)—one can only guess as to why it was left out in his account. Perhaps the similarity of language and thought with portions of the speeches by Stephen (7:48-50) and Paul (17:24-25) in Acts prompted him to omit the “false” report of the saying (= a false saying by Jesus?) in Mk 14:58 par.