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Biblical Account of Jesus' Trial

A. R. Chaudhry
The Review of Religions, April 1993

The Jewish authorities, being themselves deprived of the power of life and death by the Romans, endeavoured to gain over the Roman Procurator for their purposes, by bringing the man whom they wished to destroy for hierarchical reasons, into suspicion with the Romans on political grounds. The political character of the Jewish idea of the Messiah made it possible to do this. The Jewish authorities, therefore, represented to Pilate in a politically dangerous light the success which Jesus met with gaining followers among the people, the concourse which attended his lectures, the homage which had been given to him on his entrance into the capital.

Accounts of the trial, however, vary considerably in details. In the morning Jesus is led away to the Roman Procurator, Pontius Pilate. Matthew and Mark relate that he was bound preparatory to his being conducted thither. John says that Jesus was bound immediately on his arrest in the garden, while Luke says nothing about his being bound. When the prisoner reached the Praetorium, the Jews, according to John, are reported to remain without, from fear of Levitical defilement whereas Jesus was taken into the interior of the building. This would involve a two way traffic for Pilate who must alternatively have come out when he would speak to the Jews, and have gone in again when he proceeded to question Jesus (John xviii, 28). The synoptists, however, represent it differently. They put Jesus, Pilate and Jews all facing each other in one locality. According to them Jesus immediately hears the accusations of the Jews, and answers them in the presence of Pilate.

The Evangelist seems to have worked up the whole scene before Pilate with special care. He makes the Jews to remain outside the judgment hall and puts Pilate in a position where he is required to go in and come out again and again in order to complete his inquiry. This gives the scene a dramatic effect, not to say a theatrical character. The question, as to who is supposed to have given to the Evangelist who stood with his countrymen outside, a description of the conversation between Jesus and Pilate in the interior of the judgment hall, remains unanswered.

According to all the Gospels Pilate puts his first question to Jesus: Art thou the King of the Jews? In Matthew and Mark this question is not introduced by any accusation from the Jews; in John mention is made of Pilate's stepping out of Praetorium and asking the Jews as to what accusation they had brought against Jesus. The Jews insolently reply back: If he were not a malefactor, we would not have delivered him up to thee. It is an answer by which the Jews could not expect to facilitate their obtaining from the Roman Procurator a ratification of their sentence. It could embitter him all the more. But Pilate shows here a surprising mildness by saying that they could take him and judge him according to their law-apparently not supposing his crime involving punishment of death. The Jews opposed this permission and on this Pilate re-enters and puts a definite question: Art thou the King of the Jews? John has no suitable introduction. Only Luke brings forth this character in his description. He first adduces the accusations of the Sanhedrists against Jesus, that he stirred up the people and encouraged them to refuse tribute to Caesar, giving himself to be Christ a King.

This attempt of Luke to make us understand how Pilate put that question to Jesus, leaves us in a greater darkness as to how Pilate, immediately on the affirmative answer of Jesus, could without any further inquiries declare to the accusers that he found no fault in the accused. He should first of all, have ascertained the grounds or the want of grounds for the charge of exciting the populace, and also should have made clear the sense in which Jesus claimed the title of the King of the Jews, before announcing: I find no fault in this man. According to Matthew and Mark, Jesus affirms that he is the King of the Jews and they add here his silence in opposition to the various accusation of the Sanhedrists - a silence which surprises Pilate. They, however, do not mention about the declaration of Pilate that he found no fault with him but merely hint the Procurator's attempt to set Jesus at liberty by coupling him with Barabbas.

John, however, continues his narrative in a different manner. According to him when Pilate asks Jesus whether he be really the King of the Jews, the reply is a counter question from Jesus whether he says this himself or at the suggestion of another. In an accused person, however conscious of innocence, such a question cannot be held warrantable. It is too definite to be a mere repulse of the accusation and too indefinite to be regarded as an inquiry whether the Procurator intended the title `King of the Jews' in the Roman sense or in Jewish sense. Pilate good-naturedly adds that it is the Jews and their rulers by whom Jesus has been delivered to him and that he is therefore at liberty to speak more particularly of the crime which these lay on his charge. Jesus' answer that his kingdom is not of this world might certainly induce the Procurator a conviction of his innocence. On the further question of Pilate, whether, since Jesus has thus ascribed himself a kingdom, although no earthly one, he then claims to be a king. He replies that he is so, but only in so far as he is born to be a witness to the truth, whereupon Pilate asks his famous question: What is the truth? John's narrative of the case is more convincing in the sense that Pilate had come to the conclusion from the answers given to his questions that Jesus was innocent though the other Gospel writers could not from their building up of the case give the exact impression as to how Pilate could come to such a decision, without any investigation.

As the next step in order of narration, all the evangelists with the exception of Luke introduce the character of Barabbas. Luke has an episode peculiar to himself. According to him when Pilate had declared the innocence of Jesus, the chief priests and their adherents persisted that Jesus had been stirring up the people from Galilee to Jerusalem. Pilate immediately thereupon catches the word `Galilee' and asks Jesus if he was a Galilean. Jesus conforms it and Pilate seizes it as a welcome pretext for ridding himself of the ungrateful business of trying Jesus. He sends Jesus to Herod Antipas, the Tetrarch of Galilee, who at that time was in Jerusalem in observance of the feast. Herod asked Jesus several questions about the accusations brought against him by the Sanhedrists but Jesus did not give any answer. He was mocked by the soldiers, arrayed in a gorgeous robe and was sent back to Pilate. This, in no doubt, is the astonishing narrative of Luke. If Jesus was a Galilean there was no possibility of his keeping quiet before Herod to whom the answers were due. It is also surprising that Herod should have sent back the prisoner without further procedure having been followed. Again why do the rest of the evangelists say nothing of the entire episode? Why John who is supposed to be the apostle should have failed to make a mention of it when we see that he did not scorn to mention the back door leading away Jesus to Annas. The silence of other Evangelists in a portion of the common history dealing with the fate of Jesus and the internal difficulties of the narrative arouse great suspicion.

Going back to the trial we are told that Pilate on the return of the prisoner from Herod called the Sanhedrists and the people and informed them that the judgment of Herod was in accordance with his own and expressed his wish to dismiss Jesus with chastisement. Since it was customary to release a prisoner on the occasion of the feast, Pilate offered to act as such and suggested them that the choice lay between him and a notable prisoner, Barabbas, whom John designated as a robber but Mark and Luke considered him as the one who was imprisoned for insurrection and murder. This plan failed as the people with one voice desired the release of Barabbas and the crucifixion of Jesus.

Matthew at this stage interposes a ceremony and a colloquy. According to him Pilate calls for water, washes his hands before the people and declares himself innocent of the blood of this just man. Such a washing of hands, as a protestation of purity from the guilt of shedding blood was a custom specifically Jewish and therefore Pilate wishing solemnly to declare his innocence washed the hands according to a known usage which was a symbolic act.

Matthew and Mark further tell us that Pilate now caused Jesus to be scourged and then he was delivered to be crucified. In Luke it has a different character. Here Pilate repeatedly makes the proposal: Having chastised him I will let him go. Whereas, according to the former, the scourging has the appearance of a mere accessory of crucifixion, in the latter, it appears to be intended as a substitute for crucifixion. Pilate wishes by this chastisement to appease the hatred of the enemies of Jesus. He induces them to desist from demanding his execution. In John, Jesus is scourged and exhibited to the people with the purple robe and the crown of thorns. Pilate seems to try here if Jesus' pitiable aspect and the repeated declarations of his innocence will mollify the embittered minds of the Jews. His attempt, however, fails once again. Here too the account differs from the third Gospel in that instead of the scourging being a mere proposal of Pilate, it actually takes place and becomes an additional act in the drama.

It is to be noted that all through this scene of trial before the Procurator one thing in particular comes to light. It is the consistent attempt of Pilate to save the life of the Messiah. Pilate appears on the stage determined to help Jesus from the proposed torture. He had been influenced to adopt this course in consequence of the disturbing dream of his wife who must have spoken to her husband in the morning before his arrival in the Praetorium and must have educed a promise from him to favour the accused. She is reported by Matthew to have sent a warning to Pilate reminding him to incur no responsibility in relation to that just man. Since dreams are regarded as a special dispensation from heaven so herein lay the motive of Pilate to adopt all means in his power to save Jesus from death and suffering. He persuades the hate-ridden authorities of the Jews to try Jesus according to their law and power. He knew full well that if the Jewish authorities would accept this proposal they could not inflict the penalty of death on him since they had no legal powers for that. They would certainly inflict a lighter punishment to which they were privileged. Having failed in this attempt Pilate tries Jesus inside the Praetorium in seclusion and gives the summary decision that he found no guilt in the accused. No form of allegation, not even the political reason, could change Pilate's mind. Even the demeanour of Jesus in giving irrelevant answers in the course of trial could not shake him. Pilate sends Jesus to Herod and on receiving the prisoner back, once again calls together the Sanhedrists and the people, and declares, alleging in his support the judgment of Herod as accordant with his own, his wish to dismiss Jesus with chastisement. The Jews still persist that Pilate must pronounce the sentence of crucifixion on him. At this Pilate renews his effort and switches on to a new plan of liberating the accused by coupling him with Barabbas and offering them to exercise their choice. The Jews preferred the release of Barabbas rather than that of Jesus. Pilate appeals to them by bringing the prisoner in their presence, hoping to excite their compassion with the words: Behold the man. This effort also fails and Pilate reluctantly hands over the prisoner for crucifixion.