Ever had one of those days where you wake up to an ordinary morning, you already know how the day is going to go, nothing out of the ordinary, and as you start going through the morning the crises roll in. A phone call, an email, a knock on the door and your day is turned completely upside down. You are thrust into making huge decisions with no time to prepare, emotions flip-flopping, noise, hand-wringing, pressure.
That is what happened to Pontius Pilate.
God had prepared a day of reckoning that Pilate had no idea was coming. For him it was just another Friday, with the gymnasium and spa on his agenda, and maybe wine, feasting, and entertainment for the evening. But he was instead going to experience the greatest crisis of his life, coerced into making a life-or-death decision of incalculable proportion and consequence.
According to Jo-ann A. Brant,* the confrontation with Pilate forms a chiasm of seven scenes brought on by the temple elite being unwilling to enter Pilate’s palace.
A Exterior: John 18:29-32, Jesus is brought to Pilate with a demand for execution; Pilate refuses.
B Interior: John 18:33-38, Pilate asks about Jesus’s royal claim.
C Exterior: John 18:38-40, Pilate finds Jesus innocent, but the temple elite choose Barabbas.
D Interior: John 19:1-3, Soldiers scourge and scorn Jesus.
C’ Exterior John 19:4-8, Pilate finds Jesus innocent, but temple elite charge capital crime.
B’ Interior John 19:9-11, Pilate asks about Jesus’s origins.
A’ Exterior John 19:12-15, Temple elite demand Jesus’s execution; Pilate agrees.
In this chiasm, Pilate and the religious authorities begin at odds—Pilate is the one with civic authority and access to the means for execution, and he refuses the religious authorities’ request. Twice Pilate inquires into Jesus’s credentials and claims, and twice Pilate finds Jesus innocent. But, by the end of the chiasm, against his better judgment, Pilate has been maneuvered into complying with the temple elite.
Judgement of Rome
Shafts of light poured into the Sanhedrin’s judgment hall, streaming from the bank of windows along the eastern wall. Caiaphas nodded to the captain of the guard, who roughly shoved Jesus toward the door as the two sentinels took their prisoner by his chains.
It was not a long walk across the vast expanse of marbled pavement that connected the temple mount’s various buildings. Sunlight gleamed from the golden columns of Solomon’s porch, and caused the white marble walls to emanate a soft white light. Birds sung to the dawn, as a crisp cool breeze ruffled through the leaves of trees and bushes. Faint bleating came from the flocks dotting the light green hillsides rising up from the Kidron valley, and already faithful pilgrims had begun to climb the steps to the Court of the Gentiles, and into the many mikvehs surrounding the temple precinct.
Canny kiosk venders had already opened their stalls before morning light, hanging tinkling souvenirs, fragrant meats and unleavened breads, new prayer shawls and veils, small viands of perfume and oils. The wine merchant had propped up pristine amphorae, from as far away as Crete, from nearby Cyprus, and their own Galilee. The heady scent of fresh frankincense and myrrh wafted from the incense stall, white curls of smoke trailing up from small dishes. And even now, coming across the bridge from the city were shepherds driving their yearlings toward the courtyard market, and money changers were emerging from the inner temple treasury, where the official temple shekels were kept. Pigeon and dove chandlers were also arriving, transferring their cargo in wicker baskets amidst much cooing and flapping.
John had slipped along the back wall of the courtroom, as the servants had gone back to their tasks and duties. The guard was escorting Jesus to the Praetorium, and John could not but follow them, from a distance. Annas strode ahead, Caiaphas by his side with two of Annas’s sons, John and Alexander. Others, scribes and instructors in the law, joined the company, and spoke in low voices.
They had found the justification they needed to put Jesus to death under Jewish law. Now, they were ready to bring Jesus to the prefect, Pontius Pilate. For the past three years, he had been governor of Judea, Idumea, and Samaria, and the relationship was rocky. John was certain their encounter would be unpleasant, for the procurator had come with a reputation for brutality and quickly proved the the truth of it.
They knew Pilate’s primary function was military, but as a representative of the empire he was also responsible for collecting the imperial taxes and had limited judicial functions. Most of the day-to-day governing, Emperor Tiberius had insured, was in the hands of the Sanhedrin and the presiding High Priest. But the power of the cross, of Roman execution, remained under Pilate’s jurisdiction.
Inflexible, stubborn, and cruel, Pilate brooked no trouble, particularly during the festivals. He had come each year from Caesarea to Jerusalem to keep order during Passover, though he kept a low profile, preferring to spend his time in his luxurious palace beside Fort Antonia. Nevertheless, he could be counted upon to execute troublemakers without a trial. In fact, he had become known for his violence, his abusive behavior, countless executions, and savage ferocity with any he suspected or disliked.
Time and again, he had found himself the trigger for near insurrections among the Judeans for his insensitivity to their customs and religious feeling. He allowed his soldiers to keep the idols and amulets of their various gods in their homes and forts, including this fort here, adjacent to the temple. He permitted his soldiers whatever food and amusements they wanted. He had also funneled money from the Temple to build an aqueduct, finally sending his soldiers go among the crowd to kill whoever protested.
No, Pilate was no friend of Judeans.
But the temple elite needed his approval for their plans, and now hurried with a sense of purpose and urgency, their torn robes and hastened pace attracting the attention of those gathering in the courtyards. They knew business had to be taken care of early in the day, before the prefect left for his gymnasium and bath.
A number of others had also begun to follow the guard, the chief priests and their cortege towards the Praetorium. Soon, John was just one among their number, hidden by a small crowd of onlookers. Once arrived, they stood arrayed close behind the priestly retinue in order to hear.
Caiaphas and Annas, in the front, stopped short of the palace entry hall, and called out to the door keepers We have come to see the procurator, Pontius Pilatus. It went without being said they would not enter the Gentile’s house, filled as it was with idols, unclean foods, certainly leaven, and touched by innumerable unclean persons. They could not afford the contamination, for as priests, their Passover work was paramount. They must be able to bless the lambs for slaughter, and oversee the purification of all the temple things. No one else could do this for them. They also wished to eat the Passover with their families, and not have to wait a fortnight to become ceremonially clean, to eat the Passover alone.
Again, Caiaphas nodded to the captain of the guard, who understood that while they waited for the governor, he was to take Jesus round to the back of the palace and brought inside by Pilate’s soldiers.
Inside, a servant was timidly rousing Pilate from his slumbers, and his wife, also awakened, calling from her own chambers What is the reason for this early disturbance? Perhaps, in that moment, the servant told them both a prisoner named Jesus had been brought in by the Sanhedrin. Perhaps it was then she fell back into a troubled sleep.
An uncourteous man to begin with, Pilate was in no mood. With an irritated clap, servants were summoned, a fresh toga draped around him, a fresh robe against the morning chill, his hair arranged, his sandals freshly oiled and tied around his legs. As Pilate angrily made his way to the palace entry hall, servants hastily prepared light wine infused with refreshing herbs, fruit and cheeses, bread, olives, and slices of fish on a broad board beside the chair in his morning room.
Finally, John saw the governor step out onto his wide veranda, lean and elegant, his Roman features dark with ire. John moved in to hear his accented Greek, What accusation are you all bringing forward against this person? His voice was sharp, impatient, as he pointed to the receding guard, taking Jesus to the area where the accused waited for questioning.
Caiaphas walked forward, his torn garments exposing his chest, and stopped before the prefect. Also raising his hand, John saw it tremble as Caiaphas pointed to Jesus with great drama and pathos. If he wasn’t one who does wickedness, then we would not have handed him over to you. The high priest had allowed injured dignity to color his words, and his voice, lifting his face, so that his beard also trembled.
Pilate made a sound of disgust, waved his hand dismissively at the high priest, and turned as though to go inside. You all take him yourselves, he called, looking at Annas meaningfully, and the others beside him, his back half-turned from Caiaphas, in clear disregard. And judge him against your own law.
But Annas shouted with the full force of his deep voice even as Pilate was making his way back inside, It is not allowed to us to put anyone to death!
That arrested the procurator midstep. He stopped, turned, looked at Annas, and then at Caiaphas for a long, long moment before finally going inside.
This is the word Jesus gave us, John thought, as he looked in the direction they had taken his rabbi. Jesus had indicated to them what kind of death he was going to die. Now, John, knew, he was watching the fulfillment of prophecy unfold before his very eyes.
*Jo-Ann A. Brant, John, in the paideaia Commentaries on the New Testament. Baker Academic, 2011
[Story taken from John 18:28-32, with additions from the synoptic gospels]
[Jesus brought by the Sanhedrin to Pontius Pilate: By Mihály Munkácsy – Mihály Munkácsy, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=230979%5D