April 7, 2006

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Jesus in the Gospels: Condemned to death

See Matthew 27:1-32, Mark 15:1-21, Luke 23:1-32, John 18:28-19:17

Pontius Pilate, the Roman procurator, lived in Caesarea Maritima on the Mediterranean coast, but he had made it a practice to go to Jerusalem during Passover because he had learned from experience that riots might break out and he would be needed there.

But he was less than pleased when Caiaphas and his cohort brought Jesus to him.

All four Gospels report Pilate’s opening question to Jesus: “Are you the king of the Jews?” When Jesus replied that his kingdom did not belong to this world and that he came to testify to the truth, Pilate concluded that he was dealing with some kind of visionary or mystic.

Pilate wasn’t dumb. He knew that, for whatever reason, these Jewish leaders wanted him to do their dirty work for them. His first inclination was to resist them. He didn’t like Jews, and particularly didn’t like being manipulated by them. He had had three other conflicts with these leaders, one of which had gone all the way to Emperor Tiberius, ending in a censure for Pilate.

He thought of a couple ways to get out of doing what Caiaphas wanted. First, he offered to release Jesus in accordance with his custom of releasing a prisoner every Passover because it commemorated the release of the Israelite people from Egypt. But Caiaphas was able to manipulate whatever crowd there might have been to demand Barabbas, a real revolutionary.

When that didn’t work, Pilate decided to put the onus on Herod, a political enemy, since he was tetrarch of Galilee and Jesus was a Galilean. Earlier, he had executed John the Baptist. Herod, too, was in Jerusalem for Passover.

Herod was glad to see Jesus. He had wanted to for a long time. But their meeting was disappointing for Herod because Jesus wouldn’t play along. In anger or frustration, he and his soldiers began to mock Jesus. Herod put a bright robe on him and sent him back to Pilate. Herod’s mockery was the signal for his soldiers to weave a crown of thorns and put it on Jesus’ head.

Now Caiaphas turned up the screws on Pilate. If he didn’t condemn Jesus to death, he was no friend of Caesar, he said. Pilate understood the threat: They would report him to Tiberius as they had before. He had Jesus scourged, a cruel Roman scourging that the movie The Passion of the Christ depicted so realistically.

Then Pilate presented Jesus to the crowd one last time. “Ecce homo,” he proclaimed—“Behold the man.” But the crowd demanded that Jesus be crucified. Crowd? How large? We don’t know, but it was a tiny fraction of the Jewish people.

Finally, Pilate relented and washed his hands of the whole matter. The crossbeam of a cross was laid on Jesus’ shoulders, but it was obvious that he was too weak to carry it and Simon of Cyrene was pulled out of the crowd to help.

And Jesus was led away to be executed with two other men. †


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