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:
- The interrogation by the Council/Pilate—Mk 14:55-62 / 15:2-5
- The pronouncement of guilt and sentence—Mk 14:63-64 / 15:6-15
- Mistreatment/abuse of Jesus by the guards holding him—Mk 14:65 / 15:16-20
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
- 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”.