The recent daily note in this series examined the Roman “Trial” of Jesus before Pilate, as preserved in the Synoptic Tradition. The version of this episode in the Gospel of John has certain unusual details and elements which require a separate study, however brief. Apart from the issues of chronology related to the Passover festival (cf. the historical detail in 18:28, 39, along with the recent supplemental note), the Johannine account has a unique structure, and line of tradition, centered on the two exchanges between Jesus and Pilate in 18:33-38 and 19:8-11. The remainder of the narrative here, while differing in detail from the Synoptic, is fully in accord with the essential (historical) tradition shared by both.
The Structure of the Episode
There is a very precise, symmetrical structure to this episode in John’s Gospel; from the standpoint of the narrative, it plays upon the image of Pilate going out to the Jewish leaders (J. L.), and going in (i.e. inside the Palace) to deal with Jesus, presented in alternating scenes:
Cf. R. E. Brown, The Gospel According to John, Anchor Bible [AB] Vol 29, 29A, pp. 858-9.
Exchange #1—Jn 18:33-38
Each of the dialogue exchanges between Jesus and Pilate centers on a title which is part of the charge/accusation against Jesus by the Jewish embassy. The first is “King of the Jews”, which features in the Synoptic interrogation scene (Mk 15:2 par). As in the Synoptics, Pilate asks Jesus “Are you the King of the Jews?” (v. 33). Nothing in the narrative prepares us for this, since John does not have anything comparable to the Sanhedrin scene of the Synoptics in which the question of Jesus’ identity as the “Anointed One” (Messiah, presumably of the Davidic Ruler type) was addressed. The Lukan version of the interrogation before Pilate specifically makes this part of the accusation against Jesus (Lk 23:2). There is little reason to doubt that this political aspect of Jesus as the “Messiah” (and thus a would-be king of Judea) was the basis of the trial/interrogation by the Roman governor Pilate. John’s Gospel, unlike Luke’s, has little interest in the political implications. Rather, the author uses the title “King of the Jews” to emphasize a theological point related to Jesus’ true identity.
The dialogue begins from the political level of understanding; Pilate assumes that the title “king” (basileu/$) is being used in the customary ethnic and national/political sense—i.e. “king of the Jews“, of Judea. Jesus’ initial response in verse 34 plays on Pilate’s own understanding of the title, and of Jesus’ identity—”(Is it) from yourself (that) you say this, or did others say (it) to you about me?” The question draws out from Pilate the ethnic/national aspect of his way of thinking—i.e. Roman vs. Jew: “I am not a Jew, [am I]? Your (own) nation…gave you along to me” (v. 35). In his mind, Jesus’ actions must have similar national and political implications, as he asks “What (have) you do(ne)?”
This leads in to the dual statement by Jesus in vv. 36-37; it has the same place and function as the expositions of Jesus in the earlier Discourses, in which he explains the true, deeper meaning of his words. In this instance, he explains the sense in which he is a king—that is, the true nature of kingship and his own true identity. The first part of this exposition deals with the nature of kingship and the idea of a kingdom. The structure of Jesus’ statement is interesting in its logical symmetry:
- “My kingdom is not out of this world(-order)”
—”If my kingdom were out of this world(-order)…”
- “But now my kingdom is not from this (place)”
The conditional, hypothetical statement in between (“If my kingdom were…”) reflects precisely what is denied by the surrounding declarations. The sort of political, partisan action assumed by the conditional statement is completely foreign, even antithetical to Jesus’ kingdom. This, of course, was illustrated vividly by the rash and violent action by Peter with the sword in the earlier Garden scene (vv. 10-11), and has, sadly, been repeated by Christians and non-Christians alike throughout the ages. Such violence and partisan power-struggles are part of the world—the current world-order, which is dominated by darkness (1:5; 3:19; 8:12; 12:35, 46; 13:30b; cf. also Lk 1:79; 22:53 and 23:44 par). Jesus declares flatly “My kingdom is not of/from this world”.
The second part of the exposition is introduced by another question from Pilate. Since Jesus speaks of “my kingdom”, Pilate naturally asks him “Are you not then a king?”. This moves the discussion more decidedly in the direction of Jesus’ identity (cf. below). With his response in verse 37, Jesus make no further mention of his kingdom or being a king, telling Pilate “You say that I am a king”; instead he makes a powerful statement regarding his purpose in the world, which epitomizes the theological portrait of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel:
“Unto this [i.e. for this purpose] I have come to be (born) and unto this I have come into the world that I might bear witness to the truth—everyone being out of [i.e. who is from] the truth hears my voice”
Exchange #2—Jn 19:8-11
The second exchange relates to the second title—”Son of God”—which is part of the Jewish Council’s charge against Jesus: “…according to the Law, he ought to die, (in) that he made himself (to be the) Son of God” (19:7). The mention of the title “Son of God” causes fear in Pilate—doubtless a superstitious kind of fear, but one which fits the Johannine portrait of Jesus, whose commanding (divine) presence and authority caused the soldiers in the Garden scene to shrink back and fall to the ground at the sound of his voice and the declaration “I am” (18:5-6). And, indeed, it is the very theme of authority (e)cousi/a) which is central to this portion of the dialogue. It begins with another question by Pilate—this time specifically addressing Jesus’ identity (cf. above): “Where are you (from)?” (v. 9), to which Jesus gives no answer (cf. Mark 14:61; 15:5 par). This provokes Pilate to make his own declaration, expressing his political (worldly) authority as Roman Imperial governor:
“Do you not see [i.e. know] that I hold (the) authority [e)cousi/a] to loose you from (custody) and I (also) hold the authority to put you to the stake?” (v. 10)
The noun e)cousi/a fundamentally refers to something which is in a person’s power, i.e. that he/she has the ability to do—literally it means something which is (or comes) out of [e)k] a person. Pilate refers specifically to the power/authority he holds (vb. e&xw) personally. However, quite often the noun is used in the sense of something which a person is allowed or permitted to do (i.e. by a higher authority). Jesus develops this aspect in his reply to Pilate:
“You (would) hold no authority (at all) against me, if it were not [i.e. had not been] given to you from above [a&nwqen]” (v. 11a)
The use of the adverb a&nwqen (“from above”) is of tremendous theological significance in the Gospel of John, being used in the Discourse of Jn 3:1-21 (vv. 3, 7)—i.e. the idea of a person (believer) coming to be born “from above”. It appears again in 3:31, part of a powerful Christological statement (by John the Baptist?) which is similar to Jesus words here, especially if they are combined with the earlier declaration in v. 37 (cf. above):
“The one coming from above is over (and) above all (thing)s; the one being out of [i.e. from] the earth is (indeed) out of the earth and speaks out of the earth. The one coming out of heaven [is above all things]; he witness of what he has seen and heard, and (yet) no one receives his witness”
With Jesus’ concluding statement, the scene returns to the traditional motif of the responsibility for Jesus’ death being upon the Jewish leaders, rather than Pilate (on this aspect of the Gospel tradition, cf. the recent daily note).