Its Easter Friday Today: This Is What Happened Behind The Scenes That Day 2,000 Years Ago


First, let’s look at the personality and background of the judge in this trial as this information will help us understand the trial’s motives and outcome. Pilate has come down to us as one of the more enigmatic figures of ancient Roman history. Little is known about his early years but it is now certain that he existed as prefect of Judea since a stone with his name on it was found during archaeological excavations in 1961. It is assumed that he was an Italian who was born to the Pontii clan in the vicinity of the town of Samnium in central Italy, as that is where this family name originates. All Pontii’s were members of the equestrian order, those who were rich enough to own horses, therefore we know Pilate was born into a family of high social rank.

As a young man Pilate carved out a military career for himself and probably rose through the ranks via friendship and patronage with Sejanus, a fellow equestrian and the powerful head of the 9,000 strong elite Praetorian Guard, the emperor’s final line of personal defence. Sejanus was thus a confidant of the emperor Tiberius himself. As a rising star on the edge of Rome’s inner circle, Pilate captured the affections of a young woman by the name of Procula, who was the illegitimate daughter of Claudia, third wife of Tiberius. Procula was also the granddaughter of Caesar Augustus. Pilate was indeed a social climber. It is most probable that Sejanus himself recommended Pilate for the position of prefect of Judea in the year 26AD as a good choice for protecting Judea, which was on the eastern edge of the empire, with Parthian influence beginning just 50km from the great lake of Galilee. Because of her social pedigree, Pilate obtained the rare privilege of taking his wife Procula with him on his assignment to this restive part of the empire.

At the time large numbers of Jews lived in Rome as well as Israel and this created a potential threat to the emperor Tiberius. Just 37 years earlier all Jews had been banished from Rome after the emperor’s sister publically declared her allegiance to the Hebrew god. Several years later they had been allowed back in the city and they came in large numbers. Tiberius needed a prefect who could handle the beliefs and famous dogmatism of the Jews delicately. So how did Pilate fare on that score? Almost immediately he arrived in Judea, there was trouble. Pilate proved to be a bad choice for this most delicate of diplomatic positions. He showed himself over and over again to be a coarse, antagonistic and tactless governor. His military background led him again and again to resort to a military solution to problems. He lacked the refined personality of the leading classes of Rome.

Soon after arriving in Judea, Pilate sent ensigns into the Roman military Barracks in Jerusalem. Immediately he was besieged by tens of thousands of protestors in his palace in Caesarea on the Mediterranean coast, and they would not move for a week. To them there could never be a graven image inside the holy city. On threat of death they still did not move so a stunned Pilate placated them with a humiliating back down. This episode was followed a few years later by the sacred treasury affair where Pilate, thinking to win favour with the people, took money from the “bank” of the great temple and used it to construct an aqua-duct into the city. When word spread that the source of the funds was temple offerings, crowds once again besieged Pilate. However this time there would be no back down and Pilate slaughtered them en mass. Finally, in a move designed to enrage, Pilate placed votive shields in honour Tiberius in king Herod’s Palace in Jerusalem. This time the priests appealed directly to Tiberius and, in a huge blow to Pilate’s ego and authority, he was ordered by Tiberius himself to remove them. By the time of the trial of Jesus of Nazareth Pilate was looking for any means possible to score points and antagonise this insubordinate Jewish leadership and nation.

Now we come back to the trial at hand. The text tells us in black and white that Pilate wanted Jesus acquitted at all costs (Luke 23:4). For example, he changed his stand first thing in the morning and reopened the trial (John 18:29). He even gave the case to Herod hoping it would not come back (Luke 23:6). He also pronounced Jesus innocent three times (Luke 22:22). Finally he ceremonially washed his hands of the case and passed the moral responsibility over to the priests (Matt 27:24). Why did Pilate re-open the trial and go through this whole gut-wrenching exercise?

Perhaps Pilate was looking for a political counterweight to the priests, and thought the rising popularity of the Galilean teacher might create this much needed division among the Jews. After all, the High Priest and his family wielded immense power over the nation and to split that power down the middle made his job easier. Or perhaps Pilate truly saw Jesus as innocent, and in a rare moment of altruism he pushed hard for his release. However, this doesn’t account for the late night deal with the priests. Perhaps it was Procula’s dream that challenged Pilate’s highly developed Roman superstitions. We will never know what actually motivated Pilate, but it is most likely the desire to drive a political wedge between the Jews and their leaders. This is the most obvious motive for a Roman Prefect in a troubled and prized province. Nevertheless the narrative plainly suggests Pilate also genuinely saw Jesus as innocent and set up by his enemies. So a lesser motive of justice was undoubtedly at play. Pilate was using this obvious innocence as his card to create the political wedge.

The four Gospels give different versions of the trial with some details missing from each. Below is a reconstruction of the events of that Friday morning using all four gospels and putting them in the logical order where their statements fit. Gaps in one are often covered by another. However, it is very obvious from a reading of John’s account, that he was able to smuggle his way in with the large crowd that attended the Roman trial. This fits in well with his privileged position as a member of the priestly class himself (John 18:15). Also, given the crowd could have numbered five hundred or more, this was not that hard a feat to accomplish. The three synoptic gospels are therefore written as second-hand versions of John’s personal, eye witness explanation to his fellow disciples.

The first point to note in this most famous of all Roman trials, is that Pilate was ready for a trial on the day of preparation for the Sabbath (John 18:28). Court was not meant to be held on this day. Secondly, he was ready first thing in the morning. He knew they were coming. Now, to a first century reader the term “early in the morning” reads differently to what it does for us. These people normally rose and went to bed with the sun. So “early in the morning” was a lot closer to sunrise than what we would naturally assume it to be. Sunrise was at 6.05 am on that day, so court would have been sitting by 6.20 am at the very latest.

From this point on the following is the most logical sequence of events:

1. Pilate went out to the courtyard to meet the priests because they could not enter his palace just before the Passover meal and remain ceremonially clean. To their surprise the Roman governor declared “What charge do you bring against this man” (John 18:29). This is the opening statement of a Roman trial. Trials always started with a call for an Accusatio to be made by the offended party.

2.“They answered and said to him “If this man were not an evil doer we would not have brought him to you.” (John 18:30). 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 done the night before.

3. “Pilate therefore said to them “Take him yourselves and judge him according to your law.” (John 18:31). Pilate was taunting the priests because he knew full well they did not have the authority to carry out a capital punishment.

4. “The Jews said to him “It is not lawful for us to put any man to death.” (John 18:31) “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 the Messiah the king.” (Luke 23:2). This is the improvised Accusatio needed to keep the trial going.

5. Pilate pondered this last comment for a few moments for it actually made an impact on mis military mind. He then entered into the palace, called Jesus and said to him “Are you the king of the Jews?” (Matt 27:11, Mark 15:2, Luke 23:3, John 18:33). This is the second part of a Roman trial, the Interrogatio. It was this and only this accusation that Jesus claimed to be a king that carried any weight with Pilate. This was a direct challenge to the emperor Tiberius himself. It is therefore this statement alone that forced Pilate to continue with the trial.

6. Jesus’ reply intrigued Pilate. He slowly, deliberately and calmly declared “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.” In reply to this eloquent spirituality Pilate said to him “Are you a king then?” (John 18:36). The Galilean continued, “You say correctly that I am a king” (Matt 27;11, Mark 15:2, Luke 23:3). “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.”

7. Pilate now utters those famous words that have echoed down through history. They speak to Pilate’s own frustration with his personal search for life’s meaning through political service to the Emperor, service to the superstition of Roman mythology and his pursuit of wealth and status. With almost a sigh that suggests he has given up on this youthful quest he asks “What is truth?” (John 18:37). When he had finished speaking to the Galilean he was impressed, for he went out again to the Jews and said to them “I find no fault in him at all.” (Luke 23:4, John 18:38).

8. Pilate’s decision would normally be final. But in Luke’s gospel we find the priests protesting indignantly and in their mass anger they mention the fact that Jesus is a Galilean (Luke 23:4-5). This gave Pilate a way out of his dilemma by transferring the trial to Herod Antipas, the Roman puppet king of northern Israel. Herod had jurisdiction over the northern territory of Galilee and was down in the holy city for the great festival (Luke 23:5-7). Herod was soon disappointed that Jesus did not perform a miracle on demand, so wisely and cunningly sent Jesus back to Pilate (Luke 23:8-12).

9. The stakes were now high for Pilate and he could sense the game of cat and mouse coming to an uncomfortable close. In one last vain attempt at retrieving the trial and his pride, Pilate appealed to the tradition of releasing one criminal during the festival who was about to face execution. This again proved to be pointless as the crowd, at the behest of the priests, chanted for the release of a convicted murderer called Barabbas (Luke 23:18). Then, sensing they had the upper hand, the priests yelled abusively at Pilate, arrogantly challenging him over his loyalty to the emperor, saying “Any man who makes himself king is against Caesar. If you let this man go you are no friend of Caesar” (John 19:12). Checkmate!

10. The dilemma Pilate faced was now chillingly 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 execution. Alternatively he could once again cave in to the priest’s demands and walk away alive but with his pride power and ego wounded in the process. It was his neck, or the neck of a simple teacher from the borderlands of the empire. In the end there was no choice. The fate of Jesus was sealed and Pilate, sitting on the judgement seat at that part of the palace called the Stone Pavement, washed his hands in disgust (Matthew 27:24). In wrapping up the trial he declared sarcastically “Here is your king!” The abuse and arrogant attitude of the priests simply got louder and bolder with this wisecrack and acknowledgment of tactical defeat. They demanded crucifixion, and they wanted it immediately. (John 19:14-15) They got what they wanted.

11. At this point Jesus became a death row prisoner with zero rights as a human (John 19:16). He was handed over to the Roman garrison for their cruel pleasure. Firstly, he was mockingly clothed in purple, the colour of royalty and taunted. Then a jagged platted wreath taken from a nearby thorn bush was driven into his head. Finally, he received 39 lashes with a cat-o-nine tails, leaving his back chopped to bloody pieces (Matt 27:27-31, Mark 15:16-20). With the torture now complete, preparations began for the ultimate cruelty of the crucifixion.

12. Thoroughly humiliated, Pilate initiated one final act of political spit designed to deeply upset the Jews. He authorised a sarcastic notice be nailed to the condemned man’s cross which read “JESUS OF NAZARETH, KING OF THE JEWS” in Hebrew, Latin and Greek (John 19:19-22). 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. It was now around 7.30-8.00 am in the morning.

There are several technical points to note from this trial worth recording. First, we can conclude that Plate himself had already heard much about the teacher from Galilee and his reputed power over people and nature. Was this trial his only introduction to Jesus and his reputation? The records we have suggest that some of Pilate’s own soldiers had already been in contact with, and gathered information about the Galilean (Matt 8:5-13). It is obvious Pilate has great respect for the man by the time the trial is over. It can also be assumed that the conversation between Procula and her husband early that morning regarding her dream was the final trigger for Pilate’s determination to make it difficult for his enemies. Finally, it is also evident that John not only attended the Roman trial but was also the one who later pieced together, from Roman guards and other officials, the private conversations between Pilate and Jesus that were conducted away from the priests in the Praetorium.

We also need to also clarify when the crucifixion took place as most commentators suggest around 9.00 am. However, in Johns account it says it was at the “sixth hour” which is often translated as around noon as time was only ever approximate in this era. This is clarified when we see that back in John 4:52 John uses “the seventh hour” to describe the time of day. This phrase was not used in the Jewish time reference system. This tells us he was at times using the Roman system of counting time for his gospel. The Romans counted time as we do, from midnight onwards. Both systems were in use in ancient Israel. So when John says Jesus was condemned at the “sixth hour” it refers to a time much closer to 6.00 am than midday. This makes more sense when we understand the condemned men were left hanging on their crosses for around six hours and there was still time to bundle them off to a grave before sunset. John himself describes the trial at beginning early in the morning (John 18:28). So it is highly doubtful it lasted six hours!

Little is known of Pilate’s life after this event. We do know he spent 11 years as prefect in Judea and left in 37AD. Tradition says that not long after leaving Judea he was either banished to modern day France or asked to commit suicide after coming out on the wrong side of a political scandal. Tradition also says his wife Procula became an early follower of Jesus. We will never really know the fate of either of them.


It is now time to tell the next part of the tale from a slightly different angle, that of the followers of Jesus. Nine of his disciples who attended the last supper and the garden are now missing, probably hiding in Bethany. One has committed suicide and two have smuggled themselves into the city where they are looking after the five women. These were those who followed the drama all the way to the cross and the grave and we now switch our attention to their story.

After his Roman trial, Jesus was finally and agonisingly dragged through the narrow streets of Jerusalem at the head of a death procession. Apparently he stumbled under the weight of the heavy cross-bar he was dragging. So an onlooker, Simon of Cyrene, was forced to carry it for him (Mark 15:21). The stunned citizens of Jerusalem looked on in disbelief. Their hero Jesus, who had the city in his hand for a week was about to be executed! On the party trudged, through the city gates and up the hill to his place of death called Golgotha or “The Skull”, which lay a few hundred metres outside the city walls. There he was stripped naked and hauled, with two others, onto Rome’s favourite instrument of torture and death. His feet were hammered to a large tree trunk with a 20cm iron spike. His wrists suffered the same fate as they were firmly secured to the crossbar. The frame was lifted up and then dropped into a hole in the rock used many times previously for the same capital punishment. From that moment, at around 9.00 (Mark 15:25) until his death at around 3.00pm, Jesus’ only way of breathing was to push up on his spiked feet feet so his lungs could fill with air, each and every breath was pure agony.

As the hours passed and his life ebbed away, the usual crowd watched on. There were the four Roman soldiers left behind on duty and who’s privilege it was to take ownership of the prisoners clothes (John 19:23-24). We know for certain that only four Roman soldiers were on duty. This is because they split his clothing four ways and then gambled for his undergarment (John 19:23-24). The thrill seekers, who came to all these grizzly events, were there (Matt 27:39-40). The chief priests were also present and were shouting one last round of abuse (Matt 27:41-43) as they waited expectantly for their great enemy to die. Undoubtedly some who were welcoming him into the city as a hero a few days earlier were there also, with saddened faces. Finally, four or five of his loyal followers hung in the shadows to see the gruesome scene to the end. These were the disciple John, Mary the mother of Jesus, her sister, Mary the wife of Clopas (John 19:25), Mary Magdalene and possibly Mary mother of Joses (Mark 15:47).

As the day wore on and this last group kept up their vigil of respect for their dying leader, a remarkable event occurred. As Jesus hung with intense agony on the cross, he said to his mother “Behold your son” (John 19:26) in reference to John who stood with her and the others. In ancient Israel the words of a dying man were legal testimony, so in this one short statement the eldest son of Joseph transferred his filial responsibility for the future welfare of his mother to his best friend John. In short, Jesus was asking Mary to adopt John as her son. This strongly suggests that Joseph had died some years before this event and Mary was a widow. Jesus, as the eldest in a family of at about five boys and three girls (Matt 8:55-56), bore the responsibility to care for his mother in her old age and fulfilled this duty through this last act of kindness. From that day on the mother of Jesus went to live with John (John 19:27).

At around 3.00pm (Matt27:45), after six hours of pushing his lacerated back up against rough-sawn timber while balancing on spikes for every desperate breath, Jesus was near death. Finally, in answer to the insults and mockery of soldiers and priests, Jesus cried out “my God, my God, why have you deserted me” (Matt 27:46). The huge loss of blood left him now parched with thirst so he called for water (John 19:28). He was offered a sample of the alcoholic drink the soldiers had with them. The gospels call it “vinegar”, but it was in fact a tart, sour wine mixed with water called posca which was a favourite of soldiers at that time (Matt 27:46-49). He then breathed his last with “It is finished”. Mary, distraught at the suffering of her first-born was soon taken away in the arms of her newly adopted son.

It is interesting to note that the same day that Jesus died on the cross thousands of sheep were being ceremonially slaughtered across the city and especially at the great temple. The blood of sacrificial lambs was flowing in preparation for the greatest of annual Jewish feasts. The Passover required the death of a lamb, the collecting of its blood and the sprinkling of that blood across the doorway of each home in the tradition called the Pesaḥ Miẓrayim. This was in memory of the night Israel was spared the angel of death that consumed the first-born of all in the land of Egypt some 1,400 years earlier. The Passover celebrated their escape from Egypt into their promised land, from national slavery to national freedom. At the time of Jesus’ death thousands of ovens and fires were blackening the sky of the city in preparation for the great barbeque.

Crucified criminals would normally have suffered on a cross for another a day or two before finally succumbing to thirst, exhaustion or blood loss and given up the will to live. Their bodies were then thrown into a common mass grave with birds of prey circling overhead. However, the next day was a special Sabbath as it was also the annual Passover festival, so no removal and burial could take place for 24 hours after sunset that day. The priests therefore asked Pilate for the legs of the criminals to be broken. This would suffocate them in a few minutes as they could no longer push up on their feet to get a breath. The bodies could be quickly buried before sunset (John 19:31).

Pilate gave permission for this to proceed and two sets of legs were duly smashed. But when it came to Jesus they found him already dead. Just to make sure of the fact they thrust a spear deep into his rib cage and up into his heart, only to see “blood and water” ooze from the wound (John 19:34-36). This seemed like a miracle at the time, but was in fact no miracle at all. With the benefit of modern medicine it is now a known medical condition called pericardial effusion whereby, under extremely low blood pressure at the point of death causes fluid to build up around the heart. The fact that it is recorded and now understood suggests great accuracy in the telling of the story.

With the sun beginning to set, the drama now took an interesting and unexpected turn. An aging and infirm member of the Sanhedrin (Mark 15:43) asked Pilate for the body of Jesus for burial in his newly hewn, personal tomb. It is ironic that a member of the ruling elite itself, the council that orchestrated the capital punishment, saved Jesus from the commoner’s grave. This man was named Joseph, a man of some wealth (Matt 27:57) from the now non-existent village of Arimathea. Joseph had not consented to the Sanhedrin’s actions and must have sat there with great consternation watching the Jewish trial unfold. In modern terms Joseph would be called a secret believer. Pilate, surprised that Jesus was already dead, consented to this old man’s noble request. (Mark 15:44-46, Luke 23:50-54). Joseph collected his good friend Nicodemus, also a dissenting member of the Sanhedrin, and together they set about their melancholy task (John 19:39). What they were too afraid to do in life, they now made public in death, thereby forfeiting both their positions on the Sanhedrin and their lifetime of social privilege. They would now be outcastes along with the rest of the followers of the dead man. Normally, the body of a dead criminal was a Roman possession, but with the intervention of these two men, the body became a Jewish possession and responsibility.

The women who watched this development unfold could now see one last opportunity to pay their respects opening up. It seems this group were informally led lead by Mary Magdalene, as she appears in all four gospel accounts of the story. They had stood at a distance and watched the ordeal of the crucifixion of their leader. Now they decided to stay on after Mary and John’s departure, watching as Joseph’s workers took down and hastily wrapped the body of the dead prophet in a single linen cloth (Matthew 27:59) before taking it to Joseph’s own personal tomb about a few hundred metres  away. As they followed this small procession, they marvelled at the lack of proper preparation for burial that the body of Jesus was receiving. This was due to the quickly setting sun, after which all work would cease due to the commencement of the Sabbath. So, as they walked behind the burial team, they hatched a plan to rectify the situation straight after the Sabbath in order to pay their last respects to their leader (Luke 23:55-56). At the tomb they watched as a large stone, weighing up to a tonne, was rolled down an incline and across the entrance of the tomb to keep out scavenging animals and tomb raiders (Matthew 27:60).

At 5.00pm, with 15 minutes to go before sunset and the closing of the city gates, the women quickly scurried back to their place of residence to prepare the spices and wrappings needed for a proper Jewish burial. This would have involved collecting around 30 kilograms of myrrh and aloes, which were the preservative spices of that era (John 19:39). These were going to be tightly stuffed into a series of long linen sheets wrapped tightly around the body so that the end product was a form of mummification. In the Jewish tradition the head of the deceased was wrapped separately to the body in its own linen cloth (John 20:6). Because of this hastily hatched plan to finish the burial first thing Sunday morning, it is quite obvious that none of the women were in any way expecting a resurrection.

Now the women, all Jerusalem, and every other player in this historical event, except of course for the Romans, ate the sacred meal and then waited with baited breath a full 24 hours for the self-imposed lockdown of the Passover Sabbath to pass. Everyone knew the day after the Sabbath was going to involve a great commotion, rumours, outrage, and possibly calls for revenge. But for now, the whole city was shut down from sunset Friday until sunset Saturday as people stayed in and near their homes for a whole day of quiet religious reflection.

There were two reasons people obeyed this unusual religious observance. Firstly it was to honour the creator Yahweh because he also took rest after making the universe (Genesis 2:2). Secondly, it honoured the escape of the Hebrews out of Egypt some 1,440 years earlier. For them Egypt was a 400 year ordeal of slavery, toil and heartache. Yahweh had miraculously delivered them into Israel, the fabled Promised Land; their very own piece of permanent real estate. The Passover was an annual reminder of this act that required the death of a lamb and an elaborate ceremonial meal.

As a final footnote, Jesus was not dead for three days but around 40 hours, from 3.00pm Friday until about 5.30 Sunday morning. This is exactly one full Sabbath with a few hours added to each end, a coincidence not lost on the disciples over the next six weeks as they tried to piece together the significance of all these happenings.

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