After the Sanhedrin had determined that Jesus was deserving of death, the chief priests, other members of the court, and subordinates (probably Levite temple guards) led Jesus as a bound criminal to Pilate, the governor. Roman officials started their work day early in the morning. Emperor Vespasian (69 to 79 CE), for example, began his day before dawn. So it would not have been unusual for Jesus to have been brought to Pilate at an early hour. (Matthew 27:2; Mark 15:1; Luke 23:1; John 18:28; 19:6; for more information about Pilate, see the Notes section.)
The chief priests and the other Jews did not enter the praetorium, where Pilate had his official residence while in Jerusalem. They were concerned about not contracting ceremonial defilement, which would have prevented them from eating the Passover. (John 18:28; see the Notes section for additional comments.) Ironically, although they had been willing to override legal requirements in order to condemn Jesus to death, they scrupled about external purity.
The praetorium may have been the palace Herod the Great had built. According to Josephus, Gessius Florus (War, II, xiv, 8), who served as governor or procurator at a later time, did use the palace when he was in Jerusalem.
Probably in response to a message conveyed to him, Pilate came out to speak to the Jews, asking them what charge they were making against Jesus. (John 18:29) They implied that there was no reason for Pilate to inquire about an accusation, for they would not be turning over to him a man other than a criminal. (John 18:30) When Pilate told them to judge Jesus according to their own law, they responded that it was illegal for them to execute anyone. By seeking to have Pilate issue the death sentence, they served to fulfill Jesus’ words regarding the kind of death he would die, that is, as one elevated and crucified in an upright position. (John 18:31, 32; compare Jesus’ earlier words [John 3:14, 15; 12:32, 33].)
It appears that, at this point, they set forth charges that were designed to incite Pilate, as the representative of Rome, to take action. They claimed that Jesus had inflamed the nation, forbidden the payment of taxes to Caesar, and proclaimed himself to be the Messianic king or ruler. In this way, they portrayed him as a dangerous seditionist who posed a serious threat to Roman authority. (Luke 23:2)
Pilate had Jesus come into the praetorium for questioning, likely having Roman soldiers leading him. He asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?” (John 18:33)
Jesus countered with the question, “Are you saying this of your own accord, or have others told you about me?” Pilate’s response suggests that he had no firsthand knowledge. He was not a Jew, and it was members of the Jewish nation and the chief priests who had delivered Jesus into his hands. Pilate asked, “What did you do?” (John 18:34, 35)
In his reply, Jesus revealed that he posed no threat to the authority of the Romans, explaining that his kingdom was “no part of this world.” It was not a rule that originated with or depended upon any human authority. If this had been the case, Jesus continued, “My subordinates would have fought.” Their reason for engaging in armed conflict would have been to prevent his falling into the hands of the Jews who opposed him. “But,” as Jesus added, “my kingdom is not from here,” indicating that it had no link to any human action or source. Pilate asked, “Are you a king?” Jesus’ reply, “You are saying that I am a king,” may imply that Pilate’s question acknowledged the possibility that he was a king. The fact that Jesus did not deny it could have served as an affirmative answer to the question. (John 18:36, 37; see the Notes section for comments regarding Matthew 27:11, Mark 15:2, and Luke 23:3.)
Nevertheless, he made it clear that his purpose was not to establish an earthly kingdom. He had been born and come into the world “to testify to the truth,” and persons who were “of the truth,” taking their stand for it, would listen to him. (John 18:37) Pilate would not have understood what he meant. Jesus had made known the truth about his Father and how to become a part of the realm where he would be ruling by his Father’s appointment. As the intimate of his Father, Jesus was the embodiment of the truth and in a position to reveal his Father in a manner than no one else could.
The context does not indicate how Pilate’s question (“What is truth?”) is to be understood. (John 18:38) Perhaps he intended it as a dismissive response, reflecting no further interest and no desire to be identified as a person who listened to the truth Jesus could have made known to him.
Pilate went out to the Jews who were waiting for his decision regarding Jesus and told them that he had found nothing against him. (John 18:38) The chief priests and Jewish elders objected, insisting that the teaching Jesus had begun in Galilee and carried on in Jerusalem had stirred up the people throughout Judea. Despite their continuing to level many charges against him, he remained silent. Pilate asked Jesus whether he did not hear the accusations being made against him. The fact that he said nothing in response filled Pilate with wonderment. After Jesus’ accusers mentioned Galilee, Pilate confirmed that Jesus was a Galilean and under the jurisdiction of Herod Antipas. At the time, Herod was in Jerusalem for the Passover. Probably in an effort to avoid having to render the judgment Jesus’ accusers were seeking, Pilate sent him to Herod. (Matthew 27:12-14; Mark 15:3-5; Luke 23:4-7)
Earlier, Herod had imprisoned John the Baptist and then, in fulfillment of an oath-bound promise to the daughter of Herodias, had him executed. When news about Jesus’ miracles reached Herod, he concluded that John the Baptist had been raised from the dead and was performing powerful deeds. (Matthew 14:1-10) Therefore, upon having Jesus sent to him, Herod was delighted. He had wanted to see him for some time and hoped to observe him perform some impressive sign. Herod questioned Jesus extensively, and the chief priests and scribes, who apparently were among those who had taken him to Herod, made strong accusations. Jesus, however, remained silent. (Luke 23:8-10)
Probably at Herod’s instigation, his guard mocked Jesus, dressing him in a splendid robe as if he were a king. Apparently disappointed at not having witnessed some spectacular sign and probably displeased with Jesus’ silence, Herod sent him back to Pilate. This development ended the hostility that had existed between Pilate and Herod, because Herod likely regarded being consulted regarding Jesus as an acknowledgment of his authority over Galilee. The enmity between them may have arisen when Pilate earlier had killed certain Galileans (Herod’s subjects) while they were sacrificing at the temple in Jerusalem. (Luke 13:1; 23:11, 12)
After Jesus had been sent back to him, Pilate addressed the chief priests and the other prominent Jews who were with them. He told them that, although they had charged Jesus with inciting the people to revolt, neither he nor Herod had found any evidence to support accusations that he was deserving of death. Seemingly, in an effort to satisfy their desire for Jesus to be punished, Pilate said that he would chastise him (probably by submitting him to a flogging) and then release him. (Luke 23:13-16)
His effort to placate Jesus’ accusers was unjust. Pilate had not found him guilty of any crime and neither had Herod. Still, he continued his political maneuvering, likely with the intent of avoiding an uproar. Based on his examination of Jesus, Pilate discerned that the chief priests had handed him over out of envy and not because of any crime. He may have seen that the prominent Jews resented the influence he had among the people and, for this reason, considered him a threat to their position and authority. (Matthew 27:18; Mark 15:10)
At the time, a notorious seditionist and bandit named Barabbas was being held in confinement and apparently was to be executed. Barabbas was guilty of murder. (Matthew 27:15, 16; Mark 15:7; Luke 23:19) Probably believing that if they had a choice between the release of Barabbas and Jesus, the Jews would ask for Jesus to be released. Based on a custom that had developed at the time of the Passover, Pilate presented this choice to those who had meanwhile arrived to petition for the release of a prisoner. (See the Notes section regarding Matthew 27:15; Mark 15:6-8; Luke 23:17, and John 18:39.) The chief priests succeeded in inciting the petitioners against Jesus and to request the release of Barabbas. (Matthew 27:17, 20, 21; Mark 15:6-11; Luke 23:18; John 18:39, 40; see the Notes section regarding Matthew 27:16, 17.) In the case of the petitioners, they may well have been inclined toward wanting an end to Roman rule. If so, their sympathies would have been with Barabbas who had acted violently in keeping with his fanatical opposition to Roman authority.
Desiring to release Jesus, Pilate addressed the crowd a second time, calling out to them, “So what shall I do with Jesus, the one called Christ [king of the Jews (Mark 15:12)]?” They shouted, “Crucify, crucify him.” (Matthew 27:22; Mark 15:13; Luke 23:20, 21)
For a third time, Pilate called out to them, “Why, what evil did he commit? No guilt [meriting] death did I find in him. So I will chastise him [probably by flogging] and release him.” They refused to yield, demanding with loud shouting that Jesus be crucified. (Matthew 27:23; Mark 15:14; Luke 23:22, 23)
All of Pilate’s efforts failed to gain the crowd’s consent to release Jesus. Those who had brought him and the others who had come to request the release of a prisoner became more adamant in their cry for crucifixion and were on the verge of rioting. Instead of upholding justice, Pilate, for political reasons, gave in to their demands. With an outward gesture, he tried to absolve himself of guilt when handing down an unjust verdict. He washed his hands in the presence of the crowd and said, “I am innocent of this [man’s] blood. You must see [to it].” They responded with the words, “His blood come upon us and upon our children.” Thereafter he released Barabbas and handed Jesus over to Roman soldiers to be flogged. (Matthew 27:24-26; Mark 15:15; Luke 23:24, 25)
This flogging was an extreme form of torture. The whip consisted of a handle with several leather cords to which pieces of bone or metal were attached. A severe flogging could result in death, as the bone or metal ripped into the flesh and caused serious bleeding.
Besides flogging Jesus, Roman soldiers also mocked him. They stripped off his garments and clothed him with a “scarlet” or “purple” cloak (purple being the color of garments commonly worn by royalty and other officials). On his head, they placed a crown made from thorns. In imitation of his having a royal scepter, they had him hold a reed in his right hand. With another reed, soldiers may have taken turns hitting him over the head, likely causing the thorns to penetrate his forehead. Besides slapping him in the face and spitting at it, the soldiers kneeled before him, addressing him as “king of the Jews.” (Matthew 27:27-30; Mark 15:16-19; John 19:1-3; see the Notes section regarding Matthew 27:28; Mark 15:17; Luke 23:11, and John 19:2.)
It appears that the Jews who wanted Jesus executed chose to remain outside the praetorium until they were certain that he would not be released. After the soldiers had ended the flogging and mockery, Pilate again came out of the praetorium to address the Jews, telling them that he would bring Jesus out to them so that they would know that he found no guilt in him. It seems likely that soldiers then brought Jesus outside. He still wore the reddish garment and the crown of thorns. Pilate then said, “See! The man.” (John 19:4, 5)
The context does not reveal how these words should be understood. In view of the abuse to which Jesus had been submitted, his appearance must have been such as would have evoked sympathy in persons who had retained their humanity. So the expression “the man” could have meant the pitiable fellow or a mere man who posed no threat. There is also a possibility that Pilate was impressed by the control Jesus had exercised in not responding to false charges and by the dignity which he had maintained while being abused and mocked. If these aspects prompted Pilate’s words, the expression “the man” would signify a man in the noblest sense.
Unmoved by any feelings of sympathy, the chief priests and subordinates (probably temple guards) shouted, “Crucify! Crucify!” Having found no guilt in Jesus, Pilate responded, “Take him and crucify him yourselves.” In their reply, those who wanted Jesus crucified now revealed that their previous accusations were false. They now said that, according to their law, he should be put to death because he claimed to be the Son of God. (John 19:6, 7)
On hearing the words “Son of God,” Pilate gave way to superstitious fear. (John 19:8) A contributory factor may have been his wife’s dream. While he was sitting on the judgment seat deliberating, she had sent a message to him, telling him to have nothing to do with the innocent man. This was on account of having suffered much in a dream because of him. (Matthew 27:19)
After entering the praetorium with Jesus, Pilate asked him, “From where are you?” When he did not answer, Pilate continued, “Are you not speaking to me? Do you not know that I have the power to release you and the power to crucify you?” “You would have no power over me,” said Jesus, “unless it had been given to you from above. Therefore, the one who delivered me over to you has greater sin.” (John 19:9-11)
If it had not been his Father’s will for Jesus to surrender his life, Pilate would have been powerless to do anything to him. What was about to take place would occur according to God’s will, and so, by divine permission, Pilate would be exercising the power to hand Jesus over to be crucified. This would not free him from guilt, for he would be acting unjustly toward one whom he knew to be completely innocent of any wrongdoing. Nevertheless, Pilate’s sin would not be as great as that of the one who had been responsible for handing Jesus over to him. The context does not identify this one. Jesus may have meant the betrayer Judas, the high priest Caiaphas, or the chief priests and other members of the Sanhedrin as a corporate body.
After the interchange with Jesus, Pilate still wanted to release him and again addressed the Jews who were waiting outside the praetorium. They then forced him into a position where he had to consider the preservation of his own office and even his own life. “If you release him, you are not a friend of Caesar. Everyone who makes himself a king speaks against Caesar.” Thus they insisted that releasing Jesus would be an act of disloyalty to Caesar — an offense meriting severe punishment. (John 19:12; see the Notes section regarding how seriously Tiberius took any slight to his imperial dignity.)
Pilate brought Jesus outside. He sat down on the judgment seat located at the place known as the “Stone Pavement” or, “in Hebrew, Gabbatha.” It was about the sixth hour. (See the Notes section regarding the “sixth hour” mentioned in John 19:14.) Possibly based on the reckoning the chief priests used in that particular year, it was the day designated for the preparation of the Passover (Nisan 14). In response to Pilate’s words (“See! Your king!”), the Jews who were there shouted, “Away! Away! Crucify him!” “Shall I crucify your king?” Pilate called out. “We have no king but Caesar,” the chief priests replied. It was then that Pilate turned Jesus over to the Roman soldiers to be crucified. (John 19:13-16) They clothed Jesus with his own garments and led him away. (Matthew 27:31; Mark 15:20)
After word reached Judas that Jesus had been condemned, he regretted what he had done and, taking with him the 30 silver pieces, went to the chief priests and elders who were then in the temple precincts. When he acknowledged that he had sinned by betraying “righteous blood,” they responded dismissively. “What is that to us? You must see [to it].” Thus they revealed that Judas had only been their convenient tool. What he had done was his concern, not theirs. (Matthew 27:3, 4)
Judas then threw down the silver pieces somewhere in the temple precincts, left, and hanged himself. As for the chief priests, they scrupled about what they should do with the money. Because blood money was involved, they considered themselves legally bound not to put the silver pieces into the temple treasury. After conferring, they decided to use the money to buy a potter’s field (a property having little value) for use as a place to bury foreigners. (Matthew 27:5-7)
This particular burial place came to be known as “Field of Blood.” The reason for the name appears to have been its association with blood money and the suicide of Judas. (Matthew 27:8; see the Notes section regarding Acts 1:18, 19.)
The developments in connection with Judas paralleled expressions recorded in the prophets. Verses 9 and 10 of Matthew 27 conflate words from the prophets Jeremiah and Zechariah, attributing the whole to Jeremiah (possibly because he was the earlier prophet). “Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through Jeremiah the prophet, saying, ‘And they took the thirty silver pieces, the price for the one whom the sons of Israel had priced, and gave them for the potter’s field, as the Lord had commanded me.’”
Jeremiah had been directed to buy a field from Hanamel, and he did, on one occasion, go to a potter’s house to observe him at work. (Jeremiah 18:1-4; 32:6-9) Specific mention of 30 silver pieces is made in Zechariah 11:12, 13, where the prophet’s wages are stipulated as being that amount.
In John 18:28, the nature of the defilement is not revealed. It could not have been a defilement that would have ended at sundown after the legal requirements for purification had been followed.
The night on which Jesus observed the Passover with his disciples was followed by the Sabbath at sundown of the next day. There is a possibility that, in years when this was the case, the Sadducees, unlike the Pharisees, reckoned Nisan 14 as Nisan 13. This could explain why those who brought Jesus to Pilate (or at least a significant number among them) had not as yet eaten the Passover meal. A definitive conclusion, however, is not possible on the basis of the available information in ancient sources.
Based on John 18:33-37, Matthew (27:11) Mark (15:2), and Luke (23:3) present a condensed version of the interchange between Pilate and Jesus. Therefore, Jesus’ answer, “You are saying [it],” may be regarded as being the response to Pilate’s asking him the second time about being a king.
The account in Mark 15:6-8 adds the detail that Jewish petitioners came to ask for the release of a prisoner, whereas Matthew 27:15 only refers to the governor’s custom (at the time of the festival) to release the prisoner whom the crowd wanted. John 18:39 represents Pilate as saying, “You have a custom that I should release someone to you at the Passover.” The difference between Matthew 27:15 and John 18:39 is a one of perspective. It was customary for the Jews to have a prisoner released to them at the time of the festival, and Pilate’s custom was to grant the release. The oldest extant manuscripts of Luke 23 do not include verse 17, where the reference is to Pilate’s having to release someone to the Jews at the time of the festival.
In Matthew 27:16, 17, a number of manuscripts refer to Barabbas as “Jesus Barabbas.”
A partially preserved inscription found at Caesarea in 1961 refers to Pilate as “prefect of Judea.” The first-century Roman historian Tacitus (Annals, XV, 44), however, referred to Pilate as procurator. This may be because “procurator” was the title by which later Roman governors of Judea were known.
It was in the year 26 CE that Pilate assumed his official duties as governor of Judea. It was in the same year that Tiberius transferred his residence to the island of Capri. Until his execution in 31 CE, Sejanus, the prefect of the Praetorian Guard, functioned as de facto ruler. The ancient historian Dio Cassius (Book LVIII, v, 1; translated by Earnest Cary) wrote regarding him, “Sejanus was so great a person by reason both of his excessive haughtiness and of his vast power, that, to put it briefly, he himself seemed to be the emperor and Tiberius a kind of island potentate.” Therefore, although an appointee of Tiberius, Pilate may have owed his elevation to Sejanus.
If so, the execution of Sejanus would have made Pilate’s position more vulnerable whenever any accusation might be made against him. Without any support from Sejanus, Pilate’s situation would have been precarious. While Sejanus exercised power, anyone close to him could practically be assured of the emperor’s friendship. (Tacitus, Annals, VI, 8)
Tiberius acted on very little evidence when seeking to have the death penalty imposed for laesa majestas (injured majesty). An excerpt attributed to Dio Cassius (though the exact source is not positively known) reads, “Tiberius put to death a man of consular rank, accusing him of having carried in his bosom a coin bearing the emperor’s likeness when he retired to a latrine.” The only thing Tiberius said to him was, “With my coin in your bosom you turned aside into foul and noisome places and relieved your bowels.” (This extract is found at the end of Book LVIII of Dio’s Roman History, translated by Earnest Cary.)
Pilate must have known how seriously Tiberius took any report suggesting that his majesty had been slighted. Therefore, for word to reach Tiberius that he was no “friend of Caesar” would have put him in a precarious situation.
Although the Scriptures refer to a crowd as crying out for Jesus to be crucified, the number of men involved would have been a small minority of those who were then in Jerusalem. The only ones the chief priests needed to persuade to call for the release of Barabbas were men who had come to petition Pilate for the release of a Jewish prisoner. As men with this kind of personal interest in the cause of imprisoned Jews whom the Romans regarded as criminals, they would have been more readily inclined to believe the chief priests that Jesus posed a threat to the nation and would in no way further its welfare.
The Roman soldiers, when making sport of Jesus, probably used a worn-out item of dress that mockingly resembled a purple garment. (Mark 15:17; John 19:2) They themselves wore red cloaks. An old, faded one could have served their purpose. This would fit the words of Matthew 27:28, where the reference is to a scarlet or red cloak. The Greek term for “cloak” chlamys can, in fact, designate the kind of cloaks Roman soldiers wore. In the case of the mockery staged at Herod’s instigation, Jesus wore a “bright” or splendid garment. This would have been an elegant robe Herod made available. (Luke 23:11)
In John 19:14, the word hos (about) qualifies the “sixth hour,” identifying it as an approximate time before noon. (Mishnah, Pesahim, 1:4) The context does not make it possible to determine just how long before noon Pilate said to the Jews outside the praetorium, “See! Your king.” Based on specifics included in the other accounts (including the mention of a darkness lasting from the sixth hour until the ninth hour after Jesus had been crucified), the late morning hour could have been between an hour or two before noon. (Matthew 27:45; Mark 15:33; Luke 23:44)
In conjunction with the “preparation of the Passover,” all leaven was burned at the start of the sixth hour. This may be why the sixth hour is mentioned in John 19:14, with a possible implied link to Jesus as the sinless king who would die for the people as the “Lamb of God.” (John 1:29)
According to Acts 1:19, the residents of Jerusalem came to know about the field and its association with the death of Judas Iscariot. In their language, they called it Hakeldamách (Akeldama), meaning “Field of Blood.” In Acts 1:18, the 30 silver pieces are referred to as “wages of unrighteousness,” for Judas’ betrayal was an evil act. What he had done in betraying Jesus and then throwing the silver pieces down in the temple precincts provided the occasion for the purchase of the field. This may be why the Acts account attributes the buying of the field to him. Regarding his death, Acts 1:18 indicates that he burst open in the his midsection and that his intestines spilled out. Possibly he hanged himself from a tree limb and either the rope or the limb broke, causing him to fall on jagged rocks below.
Although having been an intimate associate of Jesus, Judas could not in any way justify what he had done but was forced to acknowledge that he had made himself guilty of betraying “righteous blood.” (Matthew 27:4)