Gospel of John 18:28-19:16

28 Then they led Jesus from Caiaphas’ presence into the palace. It was now early morning and the Jews themselves did not go into the palace, for fear that they would be contaminated and would not be able to eat the Passover. 29 So Pilate walked out to them and said, “What is the charge that you are bringing against this man?” 30 “If he were not an evil-doer, we should not have handed him over to you,” they replied. 31 To which Pilate retorted, “Then take him yourselves and judge him according to your law.” 32 “We are not allowed to put a man to death,” replied the Jews (thus fulfilling Christ’s prophecy of the method of his own death). Phillips

The confusion for us continues because we have no idea where Annas and Caiaphas lived. Speculation has it that they each had a small palace somewhere in the city, but no archaeological record supports that assumption. Josephus writes that Caiaphas had his palace near the Hasmonean Palace—the place used by Herod’s sons when they were in the city. It is possible that all of Annas’ family lived in one palace or that the current High Priest had a smaller residence near the Temple. If Annas and Caiaphas lived in the same palace it would have been easy to pass Jesus around.

A quick rehash of the Annas/Caiaphas question. In verse 18:13, Jesus is taken to Annas. In the next verse, Caiaphas is mentioned. In 18:19, the High Priest questions Jesus. That would suggest Caiaphas asked the questions, but 18:24 records Annas sending Jesus to Caiaphas, so Caiaphas could not have been asking the questions.

We also note that John wrote nothing else about Caiaphas’ actions.

J. Ramsey Michaels includes a discussion of who did the questioning of Jesus, concluding with the following. By default as it were, Caiaphas must (for now at least) be understood as the interrogator. If so, then it must be assued that Jesus, having been taken to Annas “first” (v. 12b), has moved on from there.

That is not the final word but there is no evidence to decide the answer, so we leave it here.

Herod the Great built a massive palace against the city’s western wall. Pilate and all the other Roman governors live in the palace when in the city. The rest of the time it is the administrative and military center for the Romans. Pilate’s headquarters is in Caesarea, a Roman city on the Mediterranian coast. He only visits Jerusalem on some of the holy days. When Pilate is in Jerusalem, he sits from about the first hour to the fifth hour each morning to hear the more complicated legal cases, as he does in any other city he visits, including Caesarea.

The Jews are concerned about ritual purity. If they should touch anything inside a Gentile building or be touched by anything or anyone, they have to go through a lengthy purification process. This is not just about the priests and authorities, it is true of all Jewish men. Only John records the fear of contamination for the Passover.

We should note that the Jewish leaders would not have dared to disturb Pilate until the time he was ready to receive such matters. That means this stage of the trial takes place in the early morning. The central question is: was it Thursday or Friday morning?

The Synoptics have Jesus sharing the Passover feast with his Twelve on Thursday and crucified on Friday. John seems to have Jesus eating the Last Supper—not the Passover—on Wednesday and facing the cross on Thursday while the Passover lambs are sacrificed, a powerful symbolism. 

Perhaps it will help to give the days as the Hebrew calendar has them. In the two most likely years for the crucifixion to occur—30 and 33 CE—the 14th of Nissan is on Thursday. The 14th is the day the Passover lambs are sacrificed. The actual feast is after sundown on Nissan 15, Friday.

In the Synoptics, Jesus—and the two thieves—must be off the crosses before sundown because that is the beginning of Shabbot, Saturday—Nissan 16.

In John, chapters 14-17, we see Jesus teaching and praying for his disciples. That apparently occurs on Wednesday Nissan 13 and after sundown for the early hours of Nissan 14. Jesus is arrested during the night of 14 Nissan, taken to Annas and Caiaphas in the dark, then to Pilate after sunrise. The crucifixion takes place as the lambs are sacrificed on Thursday the 14th. Jesus’ body is safely in the tomb by sundown as 15 Nissan begins. That places Jesus in the tomb for a bit of Thursday, all of Friday and Saturday, and an unknown portion of Sunday—possibly twelve hours—sunset to sunrise.

In reading John, we see Pilate wanting to dismiss the case against Jesus as only a religious issue, one the Jews should take care of. Remember that Pilate was warned by the emperor a few years before for upsetting the religious leaders. He wanted to avoid getting involved, but the Jewish leaders insisted.

33 So Pilate went back into the Palace and called Jesus to him. “Are you the king of the Jews?” he asked. 34 “Are you asking this of your own accord,” replied Jesus, “or have other people spoken to you about me?” 35 “Do you think I am a Jew?” replied Pilate. “It’s your people and your chief priests who handed you over to me. What have you done, anyway?” 36 “My kingdom is not founded in this world—if it were, my servants would have fought to prevent my being handed over to the Jews. But in fact my kingdom is not founded on all this!” Phillips

Are you the king of the Jews? This is the crucial question for Pilate, but it is an even more critical question for the rest of the world and the rest of time. For Pilate, if Jesus claims to be the new king of Judea, then he is a political threat. If Jesus is the Messiah, he is also the King of Kings—a threat Pilate never understood.

It is worth noting that all four Gospels use the exact words of the question. Luke alone states that the authorities told Pilate that Jesus claimed to be a king. But it is likely Pilate’s spies kept him informed, with claiming to be king at the top of the list. The normal legal process was for the accusors to present the charges to Pilate, so he had heard that Jesus wanted to be king. Craig S. Keener writes, Whatever the possible religious motivations behind the charge, the charge against Jesus is political: by claiming to be a king, Jesus implied a worldly kingdom that would challenge Rome.

All the Synoptics have Jesus responding to the question with, You have said so. John has Jesus probe a bit. Are you asking this of your own accord, or have other people spoken to you about me? Remember that Jesus is standing in front of the man who speaks for the Emperor. No one else is involved in the trial. Pilate alone passes judgment. Jesus is a trifle saucy here.

Pilate reminds Jesus that his own people are accusing him. Pilate would rather not deal with what appeared to him a minor issue. What have you done? Pilate is trying to understand why the Temple authorities are so upset. No doubt his spies kept count of Jesus’ followers and reported a small band, a mix of men and women, hardly a threat.

Jesus sets Pilate’s mind at ease by refusing any claim to the political throne in the earthly sense.

37 “So you are a king, are you?” returned Pilate. “Indeed I am a king,” Jesus replied; “the reason for my birth and the reason for my coming into the world is to witness to the truth. Every man who loves truth recognises my voice.” 38 To which Pilate retorted, “What is ‘truth’?” and went straight out again to the Jews and said: “I find nothing criminal about him at all. 39 But I have an arrangement with you to set one prisoner free at Passover time. Do you wish me then to set free for you the ‘king of the Jews’?” 40 At this, they shouted out again, “No, not this man, but Barabbas!” Barabbas was a bandit. Phillips 

The Synoptics record Pilate’s question as Are you the King of the Jews? And Jesus response, You have said so. John is not content with that simple exchange.

We need to consider how John knew the details of the exchange between Pilate and Jesus. There is no way he could have been in the room or even in the palace. Most likely, one of the servants was in a position to hear. He later became a believer and told John what he heard.

Jesus makes a non-Jewish statement. I came into the world to witness to the truth. Speaking to a Roman, Jesus chooses to simply tie God and truth together in a way that Pilate could understand—somewhat.

That was enough for Pilate. He responded to what he heard to be a philosophical statement with, what is truth? He knew enough of Greek philosophy to know he need not continue.

To the Jewish authorities, Pilate reported that he could find no crime in Jesus. He offered them a deal. Release Jesus as is the custom. Give us Barabbas the bandit.

19 Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged severely. The soldiers braided a crown of thorns and put it on his head, and they clothed him in a purple robe. They came up to him again and again and said, “Hail, king of the Jews!” And they struck him repeatedly in the face. NET

We tend to think of flogging as a brutish practice by the Romans, but it was widely practiced throughout the world for thousands of years. Roman practice in the first century was considered by the people of the day to be reasonable. Bad people had to be punished. The Roman whip consisted of three leather thongs with three or more small lead balls threaded on the thongs. The intent was to rip through the skin of the back to cause bleeding on a limited level so that the sufferer would not bleed to death. You know how it worked if you have been brave enough to watch The Passion of the Christ, though the scene may have been overdone.

Several plants in Palestine produce thorns, and we do not know which the soldiers used for Jesus. They would have been whatever was close at hand. No artwork or written descriptions from the early centuries references the crown, so it seems that early Christians did not consider it of much import. Medieval paintings rarely showed a crown of thorns. When they did appear, they were generally short thorns. The modern trend has been to emphasize the wicked-looking long thrones. A small tree growing on the Mount of Olives had such thrones and could have been used. It is pictured above.

On the website, living with, R. Herbert, Ph.D, wrote this about the thorns. Like the crown of thorns, the Roman Civic Crown (Latin: corona civica) was formed of plant material: of leaves of the oak tree woven into a circle.  But the Civic Crown was granted only to  Roman citizens who saved the lives of other citizens.  So high was the honor of this crown that it became part of the  imperial regalia and was worn by all the emperors from the time of Augustus, and the emperors themselves were often hailed as the  “Savior” of the people.

Ironic or not, the richness of the symbolism that God allowed in the crown of thorns also finds much earlier foreshadowing in the Bible itself.  Not only does the biblical story of humanity’s “fall” tell us that as a result of sin the earth would produce “thorns and thistles” (
Genesis 3:17-19), but also the crown of thorns is more specifically foreshadowed in the story of Abraham’s sacrifice of his son, Isaac. Genesis 22:13 tells us that the sacrifice of Isaac was transferred to the sacrifice of the male sheep God provided, that was caught by its horns in a “thicket.”

The purple robe presents us with a problem. The color purple was reserved for royalty and the super-rich. Where would the soldiers have found such a garment? The most realistic solution is that Pilate had a ratty cast-off that he allowed the guards to use for such occasions. But we do not know for sure.

“Hail Caeser” was the proper address of the Emperor. For the soldiers to use it, they were mocking Jesus. Slapping him in the face added injury to insult.

We should not assume Jesus received thirty-nine lashes. That number—based on Deuteronomy 25:3—was used by the Jews,  so it did not apply to the Romans. Nonetheless, anything like that number would have left Jesus too weak to stand or talk. As we will see, Pilate intended to return Jesus to the Jews, so he likely ordered a light scourging. Matthew reports that Pilate had Jesus flogged (27:26). Mark reports that Pilate had Jesus flogged (15:15). Luke does not mention flogging. So, John alone makes much of the scourging.

Pilate went out again and said to them, “See, I am bringing him out to you that you may know that I find no guilt in him.” So Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. Pilate said to them, “Behold the man!” ESV

We must remember that Pilate was on his best behavior. A couple of years earlier, the Emperor sent him a severe reprimand for excessive violence. Pilate hated the Jews but had to tread lightly lest he lose his job. If Jesus had come before him a few years earlier, he would have ordered the execution without a second thought. God’s timing is incredible.

Notice Jesus is wearing his ‘kingly’ clothing. We do not know if the Jews thought Pilate was trying to pass Jesus off as a true king or if they saw the joke.

Behold the man! I suspect that John had his way with this statement. He is saying to the early Gnostics that Jesus was human. No doubt Pilate’s statement was similar, but John had a different agenda. Jesus is more man than anyone else in this whole drama. Jesus set the time a place for his arrest—even stepping forward to receive the guards who were more fearful than he. Jesus faced Pilate without fear while Pilate tried to get anyone else to make the judgment call. Jesus was indeed the Man.

When the chief priests and the officers saw him, they cried out, “Crucify him, crucify him!” Pilate said to them, “Take him yourselves and crucify him, for I find no guilt in him.” The Jews answered him, “We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die because he has made himself the Son of God.” When Pilate heard this statement, he was even more afraid. ESV

Pilate was no doubt disturbed by the vehemence of the Jewish leaders. He had hoped that seeing the bleeding Jesus, they would soften their position. He tried again by shouting, I find no guilt in him. Finally, we learn that Pilate was even more afraid. Pilate’s fear may have been twofold. He was fearful of how the Jewish authorities might report this incident to Rome. At the same time, he seems to have become afraid of Jesus, as we will see below.

He entered his headquarters again and said to Jesus, “Where are you from?” But Jesus gave him no answer. 10 So Pilate said to him, “You will not speak to me? Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?” 11 Jesus answered him, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above. Therefore he who delivered me over to you has the greater sin.” ESV

Pilate cannot understand why Jesus has everyone so upset. He tries to get to know Jesus first by asking where he is from. Pilate knows Jesus is from Nazareth and currently lives in Bethsaida, but he fears he might be from a more important ‘place.’ Getting no response, Pilate threatens Jesus. For his part, Jesus tells Pilate that he has no control over the Son of Man, that God alone is in charge.

Therefore he who delivered me over to you has the greater sin. I was puzzled by this until I read J. Ramsey Michaels’ comments. First, he notes that John used the singular he, so the reference is not likely to be to the Jews or even the authorities; he has one person in mind. Michaels then points to Caiaphas, followed by Judas as having the greater sin. But John has a message to the church that exceeds earthly bounds. Michaels believes Satan may have been the intended source of his delivery to be executed.

We have seen already that John uses earthly details to point to Heaven. For Jesus to mean Caiaphas, Judas, and Satan is characteristic of John’s style. Jesus does not let Pilate off the hook, but he does say his sin does not match that of the others. It is like saying that Hitler killed twenty million Russians in WWII, but Stalin killed forty million of his own people before the war (some put the number as high as sixty million).

12 From then on Pilate sought to release him, but the Jews cried out, “If you release this man, you are not Caesar’s friend. Everyone who makes himself a king opposes Caesar.” 13 So when Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus out and sat down on the judgment seat at a place called The Stone Pavement, and in Aramaic Gabbatha. 14 Now it was the day of Preparation of the Passover. It was about the sixth hour. He said to the Jews, “Behold your King!” 15 They cried out, “Away with him, away with him, crucify him!” Pilate said to them, “Shall I crucify your King?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but Caesar.” 16 So he delivered him over to them to be crucified. NET

While John does not record it, clearly, Pilate stepped outside again to try to bargain with the Jewish leaders. He does not want Rome to know that he ordered Jesus to be executed. And he is afraid of Jesus.

Now the Jewish leaders change tactics. They initially presented Jesus as claiming to be the Son of God. Now they realize Pilate could care less about that charge, so they make out that Jesus is challenging Caesar. That tack ends with verse 15, when they claim to have no king but Caesar. To even think that any first-century Jew would shout such an absurdity is mind-blowing.

I believe that John’s phrase, the Jews, applies only to the authorities from the Temple. Getting into the inner courts of Herod’s Palace was much like being admitted to the White House Olive Office. The guards would not allow very many in.

As John writes, the other consideration is that it was the day of Preparation of the Passover. All 18,000 Jewish priests were on duty that one day of the year, presumably including the High Priest. Women were busy preparing for the feast, and men were busy picking up their lambs to take to the Temple for the sacrifice. John notes it was the sixth hour, noon, so the men began to file into the Temple’s outer courts because the killing of the lambs would start soon. That means few men would have had time to watch the trial, if they could get in.

In verse 15, we read The chief priests answered. Notice the plural form. The Greek word is archiereus which means the high priest or the chief priest. If Caiaphas had been there, I think John would have named him. The picture I have is a group of priests who are close to Caiaphas doing all they can to get Jesus executed.

I will close this section with two quotes. The first is from Karen H. Jobes. Ironically, the chief priest here doubly condemn themselves since God’s original intention was for Israel to have no king but God, much less a pagan king (1 Samuel 8:6-7).

The second is from Merrill C. Tenney. A study of the attitudes of Pilate thus reveals that he passed from perfunctory official indifference through curiosity to intense personal concern, and then, because he did not dare to act on what he knew was right, he gave way to hesitation, fear, arrogance, and bitterness. He was aroused by Jesus’ presence and bearing, but he was reluctant to conform to the truth as the occasion presented it, and so he lost Jesus altogether. The story of Pilate is the tragedy of unbelief.

Be Righteous and do Good

Mike Lawrence

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