The Roman Trial of Jesus

The first point to note is that Pilate was ready for a trial on the day of preparation for the Sabbath. Court was not meant to be held on this day. Secondly, he was ready first thing in the morning. He knew they were coming. The four gospels give different versions of the trial with some details missing from each. Below is a reconstruction of the trial using all four gospels and putting them in the logical order where their statements fit:

  1. “Pilate went out to them and said “What charge do you bring against this man” (John). This is the opening statement of a Roman trial. They always started with a call for an accusatio to be made by the offended party.
  1. “They answered and said to him “If this man were not an evil doer why would not have brought hum u to you.” (John). The priests were taken aback by Pilate’s re-opening of the trial and were mentally thrown off guard due to the assumption they had a deal.
  1. “Pilate therefore said to them “Take him yourselves and judge him according to your law.” (John). Pilate is taunting the priests because he knew full well they did not have the authority to carry out a capital punishment.
  1. “The Jews said to him “It is not lawful for us to put any man to death.” (John) “And they began to accuse him by saying “We found this man perverting our nation and forbidding to give tribute to Caesar, and saying that he himself is Christ a king.” (Luke). This is the improvised accusatio needed to keep the trial going.
  1. “Pilate therefore entered again into the palace and called Jesus, and said to him “Are you the king of the Jews?” (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John). This is the second part of a Roman trial, the Interrogatio. It was only this final part of their accusation that carried any weight with Pilate as it was a direct challenge to the emperor himself. It is therefore this statement alone that forces Pilate to continue with the trial.
  1. “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom was of this world my servants would fight, so that I would not be delivered to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from here.” Pilate therefore said to him “Are you a king then?” (John). “You say correctly that I am a king” (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John). “For this cause I was born and for this cause I have come into the world, that I would bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice.” “Pilate said to him “What is truth?” (John) and when he said this to him he went out again to the Jews and said to them “I find no fault in him at all.” (Luke, John).
  1. In Luke’s gospel only we find thee priests protesting Pilate’s decision, which would normally be final, and in their argument they mention the fact that Jesus is a Galilean. This gave Pilate a way out of his dilemma by transferring the trial to Herod as he had jurisdiction over the territory of Galilee and was in the city for the festival. Herod, disappointed that Jesus did not perform a miracle sends Jesus back to Pilate.
  1. At this point the other gospels again pick up the trial by moving to the issue of the release of Barabbas. The dilemma Pilate faced was now very clear. He could release Jesus and have the Jewish leadership once again appeal to Caesar as they did in the motive shields affair. This would result in Pilate’s removal at least and execution at worst. The alternative was to once again cave in to the priest’s demands and walk away with his pride and ego wounded in the process. The fate of Jesus was sealed and Pilate washed his hands in disgust.
  1. At this point Jesus, for all intents and purposes, is on death row. In one last vain attempt at justice, Pilate appeals to the tradition of releasing one criminal who was about to face execution. This again proved to be pointless as the crowd chooses Barabbas. Jesus is delivered over to the entire Roman garrison to be whipped to within an inch of his life as was their custom with convicted criminals facing the death sentence. He is clothed in purple, has a jagged crown of 10 centimetre thorns shoved into his head, and he receives 39 lashes with a cat-o-nine tails, a whip platted with pieces of bone or lead, leaving his back chopped to pieces (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John).

It is around 9.00am in the morning by the time this trial is complete. The crucifixion is less than an hour away.

There are several points to note from this trial worth recording. Firstly, looking at all four gospel narratives strongly hints that John, who was known to the high priests family on a first name basis (John 18:15), was the only follower of Jesus present at the Roman trial and he is the source for the other gospel writers. John was also most likely the one who later on pieced together from Roman guards the private conversations between Pilate and Jesus that were conducted away from the priests in the Praetorium. Secondly it can be assumed that the conversation between Procula and her husband early that morning regarding her dream was the trigger for Pilate’s determination to make it difficult for his enemies. Finally, can we conclude that Plate himself had heard much about the man from Galilee and his power over people and nature? The answer has to be yes. Was this his first and last attempt to deal with Jesus in accord with his moral reputation? We will never know, but the records we have suggest as much. It is obvious he has great respect for the man by the time the trial is over.

In one final act of political spite, Pilate organised a notice, designed to offend, be nailed to the condemned mans cross which read “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews” in Hebrew, Latin and Greek. On finding out about the offence, the priests once more fought for the upper hand by demanding it be amended. Pilate had lost the war but was determined to win this one last battle and refused to budge.

…I trust you enjoyed reading this as much as I did discovering it all.

Kevin