Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

221. Not Guilty! (Matt. 27:1, 2, 11-14; Mark 15:l-5; Luke 23:1-12: John 18:28-38)*

Whilst Jesus was suffering all manner of indignity at the hands of the high priest's retainers, another meeting of all the council was taking place at first light of dawn. In this way (See Study 219), they sought to legalise what had already been decided during the hours of darkness. In spite of the injunction of the rabbis: "Be tardy in judgement", these evil men were in a hurry. This meeting was brief and clear-cut, but it included amongst other things a consultation as to the best tactics to be employed when bringing the case before Pilate. "While they took counsel together against me, they devised to take away my life" (Ps.31 :13).

Pilate bribed?

Little difficulty was anticipated here, for already a rogues' agreement had been reached with the governor, and the smooth working of it ensured, as they thought, by judicious bribery. This much can be inferred from two passages of Scripture. In the course of the trial "Pilate's wife sent unto him, saying, Have thou nothing to do with that just man: for I have suffered many things this day in a dream because of him" (Mt. 27:19). Even allowing for the possibility that this might have been a special revelation from heaven, the inference is still to be made that Pilate's wife had become somehow aware that early on this particular day the condemnation of the prophet of Nazareth had been pre-arranged. Yet evidently the message had been sent immediately she awoke and before she could become acquainted with the momentous events that were even then going forward.

This strange incident implies (so Morison infers in "Who Moved the Stone?") that a deputation from the chief priests had waited on Pilate the night before with a view to securing his acquiescence in a prompt and speedy condemnation of Jesus early next day. In the usual way of things it would scarcely be possible to be confident of Pilate's co-operation at about half an hour's notice next morning. On the other hand, it would be perfectly normal (and undoubtedly desirable from the point of view of both Pilate and Caiaphas) to give as much advance notice as possible of this piece of legal business. Hence, almost certainly, after Jesus had been arrested-or maybe even whilst the soldiers were on their way to arrest him-emissaries from the chief priests went hastily through the night to Pilate, apologetically craving audience at such a late hour, explaining with emphasis the extreme urgency of the matter in hand, and unctuously soothing the uncertain temper of the governor with a substantial gift.

The detailed prophecy concerning Christ in Micah 7:3 is very forceful here: "Their hands are upon that which is evil to do it diligently; the prince (Herod) asketh (for a sign; Luke 23: 8), and the judge (Pilate) is ready for a reward; and the great man (Caiaphas), he uttereth the mischief of his soul: thus they weave it together" (RV). It needed the co-operation of these three worldlings to consummate the destruction of the Son of God.

A further hint will soon be available in John's record that Pilate had already been given warning of what was afoot and had intimated his willingness to oblige.

As soon as the Sanhedrin had concluded its deliberations, Jesus was led away to Pilate. There went also "the whole multitude of them"-the entire Sanhedrin-to impress Pilate with the gravity of the case now being submitted to him. This simple fact is a measure of the unrelenting hatred these venerable elders bore the Man of Righteousness in their midst.

The governor's praetorium or headquarters was almost certainly in the castle of Antonio, overlooking the temple area, where also the Roman garrison was quartered. This may be implied in Mark 15 :8 RV: "And the multitude went up and began to ask him . . ." The expression would hardly be appropriate if Pilate were, as some assert, at the palace of Herod.

Pilate's character

This Pontius Pilate was not one of Rome's aristocrats. His name probably connects with the pileus of Roman f reedmen (of whom Felix was one). However, a fortunate marriage to the daughter of Sejanus, Tiberius Caesar's favourite, had made his career. Unfortunately Pilate never understood these intractable Jews whom he was called upon to govern. His administration was marred by a series of grievous blunders (or were they unhappy mischances?)

For example, Pilate thought it would surely please Caesar to have Roman eagles installed in Jerusalem — an open sign of Rome's might and authority. A firm believer in the fait accompli, Pilate had them brought into the holy city under cover of darkness. The Jews could not have taken this insult against their city worse. They picketed the governor's palace at Caesarea, blocking all access by simply lying down in crowds, until at last Pilate had to give way.

Again, one of the finest things the governor did was to build an aqueduct to bring water from the Pools of Solomon into Jerusalem. But the tactless fellow raided the temple treasury to pay for it. When riots broke out, he sent some of is troops disguised as worshippers into the temple court, and there they massacred innocent and guilty alike (Lk.13 :!?). Order was restored, but love for Rome was not.

On another occasion, doubtless seeking to honour Tiberius, he had gilt imperial shields hung in his palace at Jerusalem. The result of this faux pas was a strong and influential deputation to the emperor himself who promptly bade his governor remove the offending symbols. At length there was another bloody incident when Pilate had a crowd of troublesome Samaritans slaughtered. This led to his recall in A.D. 36. The next Caesar, Caligula, stripped him of his office, and later on he committed suicide, perhaps by order of the emperor.

Philo has left a description of Pilate as "inflexible, merciless, and obstinate". He refers to "his corruptions, his acts of insolence, his rapine, and his habit of insulting people, his cruelty, and his freuent murder of people untried and uncondemned, and his never-ending gratuitous and most grievous inhumanity." But indeed Pilate hardly shows in this light in the gospels. Philo, it is to be remembered, was a Jew, and therefore quite disinclined to say anything but evil about a Roman governor.

The various massacres which Pilate was undoubtedly reponsible for were the kind of incident that any Roman administrator might be responsible for. These things were typical of them.

The biggest problem regarding this man is that, from every angle, his character, as sketched in the gospels, seems to be completely at variance with the picture of him provided by both Jewish and pagan authors. There might be one point in common—the recognition by the Jews that if only they brought sufficient pressure to bear they could impose their will on him. Pilate certainly feared, and the Jews knew that he feared, an appeal to Rome regarding his administrative blunders.

Pilate's dramatic change

Although it was not yet six o'clock when Jesus was brought before him, Pilate was ready to proceed with the case immediately. For the priests and scribes entrance to the precincts of Pilate's headquarters would mean, according to their tradition, such serious defilement that they would be disqualified from eating the Passover that same evening (Pr. 30:12; Is. 66:3,4). So they stayed outside in the corner of the temple court adjoining Antonia. Whilst they waited —with what impatience can readily be guessed—a crowd gathered, possibly because they scented that something untoward was afoot, possibly and perhaps most probably because it was the time when they should receive from the procurator their valued Passover gift-one of their public favourites, set free as an act of grace.

Pilate's first interview with Jesus is unrecorded and was probably brief, but it was sufficient to produce in the governor an immediate volte face which in its turn brought consternation and confusion amongst the enemies of the Lord.

Going out to them-one can picture him addressing them from the higher level of the praetorium courtyard - Pilate spoke impersonally as though he had had no previous acquaintance whatever with the strange case now under judgement: "What accusation bring ye against this man?"

The men to whom he spoke were evidently caught altogether unawares by this request. They had no reply ready, and could only assert with an insolence which was inadequate to cover their confusion: "If he were not a malefactor, we would not have delivered him up unto thee." One can almost hear the implied reproach: "Pilate, you are not playing fair! What about our agreement?"

Yet on the face of it Pilate's question was perfectly reasonable, and their legal unpreparedness was utterly unreasonable in view of their errand. This part of the narrative only makes sense on the assumption already suggested, that Pilate had been not only forewarned, but also "squared", so that he would assent to their wishes. Only too evidently, the priests expected that Pilate would rubber-stamp their condemnation of Jesus without demur. Yet instead the man insisted on making confident that, for once, they would find him helpful and obliging!


The explanation of this changed attitude, as pointed out by Morison, is very simple: Pilate had seen Jesus and had talked with him. He had immediately recognized that here was a prisoner vastly different in character from the ordinary run of disturbers of the peace. And since there was no love lost between himself and the Jewsih leaders, he felt no compunction at all in going back on his "gentleman's agreement".

"Take ye him, and judge him according to your law". Thus Pilate intimated his unwillingness to be entangled in a vicious prosecution of one so palpably innocent. 'Crucifixion of this Jesus is out of question. You may condemn him on some lesser charge if you wish'. Already Pilate was wishing himself rid of the affair.

In reply the priests showed their equally strong determination to be satisfied with nothing less than the death of Jesus: "It is not lawful for us to put any man to death" (Jos. B.J. 2,8,1), thus grimly implying: 'If it were, Jesus would have been dead long ago; but as it is, we must have your official sanction.' According to the Talmud the power of life and death was taken from the Sanhedrin forty years before the temple was destroyed. Then was this the first case of its kind?

The stoning of Stephen, difficult to harmonize with these known facts, was very probably an example of lynch-law carried out in defiance of the government, perhaps at a time when a change over of governors was taking place. This is precisely what happened years later when James, the Lord's brother was stoned. And then high-priest Ananias lost his office through it (Jos. Ant. 20,9,1).

Thus if Jesus was to die, he must die at the hands of the Romans and therefore by their normal method of execution-crucifixion. In this way, so John notes, was to be fulfilled the prophecy Jesus had made that the Son of man must be "lifted up" (the words were evidently a current colloquialism signifying crucifixion: John 12 :32-34 seems to require such an interpretation).

It might be noted in passing that in making this point John uses language concerning Jesus' prophecy, ("that the saying of Jesus might be fulfilled") identical with that which he uses to allude to the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy, thereby putting the two on the same level. Yet how many in these days would give Old Testament prophecy such an exalted status?

Improvised charges

The priests, desperate and goaded beyond measure by Pilate's intransigence, hastily improvised accusations of a sort. These Luke summarises thus:

The charge of blasphemy by which they had declared him worthy of death would be utterly useless before Pilate (cp. Acts 18 :14-17).

The first of the accusations can hardly have meant "turning the Jews away from Rome", for that was the real meaning of the second charge. It could only mean "turning the people away from accepting our authority", in which case—quite apart from its vagueness-it was laughable as a basis for prosecution. Even if true, what would Pilate care?

The second charge was a deliberate lie, for less than a week earlier these men had heard Jesus teach: "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's". And Pilate, who doubtless had his secret agents, probably knew the truth regarding this.

The third accusation was true. It was the one on which they themselves had condemned Jesus; only now they gave it a strong political twist, to impress Pilate the more. But even as they said the words they must have had only uncertain hope that their charge would be upheld, for what was there of the political aspirant about this mild Galilean that Pilate should mete out the most savage of all sentences?

King of the Jews?

Pilate returned into the Praetorium io interrogate Jesus concerning the last of these matters, albeit with incredulity. "Art thou the King of the Jews?" he asked.

Jesus did not give immediate answer, but sought first to ascertain Pilate's motive in asking. Was he really interested in Jesus as a man with o mission? Or was he merely concerned to deal with his prisoner as impersonally and speedily as possible, one more legal decision in a boring endless routine: "Sayest thou this thing of thyself, or did others tell it thee of me?"

Pilate must have been startled. There was so little of the prisoner-in-the-dock demeanour about this man. With an affectation of brusque indifference he held Jesus at arm's length. He had no wish for this conversation to become uncomfortably personal. "Am I a Jew? (perhaps implying: 'Why should I think you a King? You don't look like one. Only a Jew could imagine that!') Thine own nation and the chief priests have delivered thee unto me (Why should Jewish rulers want to co-operate ruthlessly with Rome against one of their own people?). What hast thou done?"

Jesus answered: "My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight (contend by law?), that I should not be delivered to the Jews." So Jesus knew of Pilate's attempt to hand him back to the Jews! What impression would this leave on Pilate's mind. "But now (he added) is my kingdom not from hence."

The words have been much misunderstood, as implying an other-worldly kingdom, a purely spiritual realm. But actually Jesus was saying that his kingdom is not to rest on the wielding of human power such as Pilate's. Hoskyns paraphrases neatly: "Ho does not say that this world is not the sphere of his authority, but that his authority is not of human origin." But now (note the present tense: "is") he claimed no kingdom of the kind that Rome might resent. Yet there was in the words a plain implication that at some future time developments of a different kind could be looked for.

The Truth

Pilate fastened on this immediately: 'be you are a king then?" To which Jesus replied with an unequivocal affirmative: "Thou sayest that I am a king. To this end was I born and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth." How often these words also are misunderstood and misquoted! Jesus did not say that he was born and sent on his mission in order that he might be King, but in, order that he might testify to "The Truth". He continued: "Everyone that is of the Truth heareth my voice”

It was immediately evident that Jesus was not speaking of truth in an abstract philosophical sense, but was using the phrase as a specialised, semi-technical term with reference some particular "Truth", which found its expression and exposition in himself.

Without the Old Testament as a guide, these words of Jesus would be meaningless. There is a phrase repeatedly used (often along with “Mercy”) to allude to the Messianic Purpose declared to the Fathers of the nations in the Covenants of Promise. (See Notes)

Hence Jesus should be understood as saying: “My mission now is not to be king, but to testify to my future kingship. In me will be fulfilled all that was promised of old to Abraham, and David. And all who would share in the blessing of those promises must believe and obey my word.”

Thus Jesus “before Pontius Pilate witnessed a good confession (1Tim 6:13, cp Is. 55:4; Rev 1:5).

Pilate, accustomed to associate “kingdom” with “power” rather than “truth”, now recognized even more clearly that Jesus was speaking with reference to some particular “truth” outside his own knowledge. “What is truth?”, he asked. Sir Francis Bacon was altogether wrong in his reading of the gospel here. Far from “jesting”, Pilate was never more serious in his life. Nor is it true that “he would not stay for an answer”. The tense of the verb John’s narrative probably implies that he kept pressing his question. The subsequent course of the trial shows how anxious Pilate was.

From this moment onward, whatever his inner reaction, there was no mistaking the policy he was now bent on following. He went out again to the Jews, and Jesus was led before them all. “I find no fault (RV: crime) at all”. Not Guilty! Pilate was not definitely going back on his agreement with the rulers. Yet he surely knew that in doing so he was risking a riot – and at Passover too!

The priests immediately raised a great clamour of wild and baseless accusations. "They were the more fierce, saying, He stirreth up the people, teaching throughout all Jewry, beginning from Galilee to this place (the temple)."

These words constitute a marvellous witness by the Lord's enemies to the superhuman effort he had made within the past few months to bring his appeal to the ears of all, so that everyone in Israel might have opportunity to accept him as the Son of God. But the phrase "he stirreth up the people" (s.w. Mk.15 :11!) was as misleading as it well could be. For Christ's last missionary journey had apparently failed; for the most part his appeal had fallen on deaf ears.

The many and varied accusations now being hurled against him bore witness to the nervous apprehension of these wicked men!: "Answerest thou nothing? "Pilate challenged him," behold how many things they witness against thee." This incitement to defend himself by exposing the weakness of the prosecution (and how easily and completely he could have done it!) showed only too clearly that the governor wason his side. "But Jesus yet answered nothing; so that Pilate marvelled" (s.w. Is.52 :15). As long as the governor's mind was open to instruction and as long as he was prepared to follow his own limited understanding of right and wrong, Jesus was willing to talk with him. But before these men who had already proved their wilful blindness and obdurate hatred, Jesus used only the rebuke of silence, even as he had done when before the Sanhedrin.

The mention of Galilee by the priests opened up to the mind of Pilate the possibility of another solution to this vexatious problem. The civil-service mentality which is always ready to pass on responsibility to another department is no new phenomenon. "As soon as he knew that Jesus belonged to Herod's jurisdiction, he sent him to Herod, who also was at Jerusalem at that time." The word "also" here in Luke's narrative intimates neatly that neither Pilate nor Herod were in Jerusalem just then as a matter of choice. Pilate's headquarters were normally in Caesarea. It was the restless, uncertain character of Jewish crowds at Feast times which made imperative his presence in Jerusalem at Passover. And Herod, of Edomite extraction, had no real sympathy with Jewish religious zeal. It was purely to ingratiate himself with Jewish public opinion that he took any notice at all of Passover.

Doubtless Pilate, as he sent Jesus to Herod, reasoned that, whatever the latter's decision he himself would be the gainer. If Herod condemned Jesus to death or set him at liberty, the case was no longer his own responsibility. Even if, as actually turned out to be the case, Jesus was returned to him uncondemned, his own hands would be strengthened; there would be yet another cogent reason for setting Jesus free.

Herod too was gratified at this unexpected courtesy from Pilate, with whom he was invariably at loggerheads. Herod moreover was full of curiosity to know more about this Jesus of Nazareth, not only because of an earlier superstitious belief that this might be John the Baptist risen from the dead (Mk.6 :16), but also because of the wild rumours which were already rife in the city about an astonishing miracle wrought by this man even whilst under arrest the night before.

This new development also offered to the sensual, jaded king the possibility of some fresh diversion: "He hoped to see some sign done by him". What sign?—the healing of his own vice-ridden body? But to this evil and adulterous man there was to be no sign given save the sign of the prophet Jonah (Mt.12 :39,40).

Meantime in an anteroom the chief priests, sent by Pilate as counsel for the prosecution, were gnawing their fingers with vexation and anxiety, fearing (because of Mk.6 :20) that they might lose their victim. When at length they were given access to the king (contrast Jn. 18:28), the very vehemence of their accusations must have made Herod suspect that this case was not just what they represented it to be. Besides, he was too shrewd a man to risk giving offence needlessly to any section of Jewish opinion. So he resolved not to become entangled in the affair at all.

Even so, there was no reason why he should not contrive a little entertainment from this unusual situation. So he and his courtiers proceeded to indulge in buffoonery of the crudest sort. They attempted all kinds of mockery against this silent man before them. But at length, wearying of it, Herod sent the prisoner back to Pilate. At the last moment, however, he consummated his clowning with a rare flash of inspiration. Unfastening the magnificent robe he was wearing, he flung it about the shoulders of Jesus and bade the guard return him thus to the governor.

The word "gorgeous" which Luke employs to describe the robe is one which is elsewhere used of the bright raiment of angels and of the fine linen,clean and white, of glorified saints. Maybe it was something like the "royal apparel" —a sequin-covered robe, according to Josephus —in which another Herod was arrayed on that fatal day some years later when he was acclaimed by the adulatory mob as "god and not man." In any case there was a marvellously appropriate, though unconscious, prophecy about his action. It is not difficult to imagine the look, first of astonishment and then of grim humour, on Pilate's face when he beheld his prisoner returned to him arrayed like a King of the Jews, in dazzling raiment proclaiming his innocence.

The maneuver of sending Jesus to Herod, whilst not as completely successful as he had hoped, was not unhelpful. "The rulers had taken counsel together against the Lord and against his anointed" (Acts 4 :26,27), and accordingly "that same day Pilate and Herod were made friends together."

Notes: Mk. 15:1-5

Took counsel. Gk, aorist probably implies nothing long drawn- out.

Led away. It has been suggested that Jesus was now in a state of semi-collapse, and had to be carried. The Greek apenengkan (Mk.15 :1) could readily mean this. But Lk.23 :1 has "led, or brought", the same Gk. word as in ls.53;7LXX.
Many things. Implies that at their next opportunity they added other accusations.
Answered nothing. The Gk. is very emphatic.


They were the more fierce. Literally: "the more strong" or perhaps "overpowering" (and Pilate became the more weak).
Sent (v. 11,15) implies "sent as to a superior;" e.g. Acts 25 :21.
Vehemently accused him. Gk: literally, "well stretched-out", i.e. full blast. The only other occurrences: Acts 18:28; Josh.6:8; Ecc.7:7.
Mocked him. Esau getting his own back on Jacob! — Herod was an Edomite.

The details of this incident (Lk.23 :8-12) must surely have come from an eyewitness (cp. Mk.6 :14-29; and see Lk.8:3).


What hast thou done? And to this question the reader has to supply his own reply: Many a miracle of compassion!
This world. Here again kosmos may be used with reference to the Jewish world; cp.7:4; 12 :19; 16:8,11; 18 :20.
Thou sayest. For interpretation compare Mt.26:64 and Lk.22:70 with Mk. 14 :62.

The Truth. Out of a tremendous number of passages which relate to this idea the following may be considered: Gen.24:27;32:10; Ex.34 :6; 2 Sam.2.-6; 15:20; Ps.31 :5; 40:10,11; 69:13; 89:14; 91:4; 132:11; Micah7:20.

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