The chiasm outlined by Jo-Ann A. Brant has a classic seven-point structure.
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
We are still in the arc of the third line in Brant’s chiasm. For the purposes of John’s gospel, much of what happened during the hour of that arc was left out so the reader could see the tension between the religious and civil authorities, and Jesus’s calm control over events that -seemed- beyond the scope of his rule.
I am including all the events John omitted because his original audience knew those events well. Some of them may have even been in Jerusalem at the time and witnessed at least the public court scene. They would have understood what John was doing with his timeline, and the chiasm he constructed. We will gain understanding if we can keep his chiasm in view as we remember -everything- together.
John continued to lean against the cool of the stone column as he watched from the back of the room. The air had grown thick and close with the press of people all around him, straining forward to see, murmuring in conversations, making it all but impossible to know whether the rabbi had answered any of the tetrarch’s taunts and teases. His head felt heavy, and his legs strangely weak. John rubbed his face with both hands, trying to bring some focus to his thoughts.
Suddenly, there was commotion—the soldiers were laughing raucously, as were the people near the front. Movement caught John’s eye, and he saw the procurator walking quickly out of an exit close to the front of Herod’s great hall. Minutes later, the chief priests and elders were elbowing there way through the crowd not far from where he was standing, a number of temple guard pushing people away as the religious rulers passed.
John watched their exit even as he strained forward to see what was happening in the front. It seemed the venue might be changing soon, but John had hoped to catch a glimpse of the Master and perhaps encourage him with at least knowing one of his own was there. But soon, his decision was made for him, as Herod’s cohort escorted Jesus through the arch towards the Praetorium. Herod was already taking the lady Herodias by the hand and leading her through to their royal quarters, and the crowd already making their way through the public gate that would lead around the palace to the Praetorium’s court.
John allowed himself to be moved along with the people, not really sure what would happen next. Once at the judgement hall, he watched in horror as the chief priests Annas and Caiaphas led the people in a chant to free Bar Abbas. All around him, people swayed and thrummed rhythmically, louder and louder. Pilate’s voice was barely audible as he put it to the people. Should he not release the one called Christ to them? But John knew these people did not care for the kingdom the rabbi taught of. The Master had not entrusted himself to such as these, though one of their number had become a disciple, Simon the Zealot. If only he were here now, John thought, he would know what to do. But John was alone. Even Peter was gone, for all had fled their leader.
Pilate had now stepped to the very edge of his dais, his austere Roman face stony with distaste, his shoulders taut. He raised one arm up and out, the figure of a Caesar, Then what do you all want me to do with the one you all call the King of the Judeans! It was more challenge than request. Pilate’s imperial disdain and clear dislike of them was palpable.
John found himself dropping his head in shame. Had they been above, on the Lord’s holy hill, on the steps of the Almighty’s holy house, those people there, faithful believers in the Lord, faithful worshipers of the Almighty, they would have cried out for the Master. They who had waved palm branches and laid down cloaks, they who had sung hosannas, they would have rushed to surround the rabbi and petition for his release. The chief priests had never been able to arrest their beloved healer and powerful teacher in the temple precincts. Even their own guard had refused them.
But here, here below in the affairs of the Roman court, where politics and deceit, where envy and greed and craft were gods, here the people turned against the Master and cried instead for a nationalist hero, one who gloried in killing.
Annas’s mouth had fallen open in mock surprise. He turned with great flare towards the procurator sweeping his arms out in theatrical symbology. Crucify him! Caiaphas was nodding, vigorously, and the elders quickly adding their support, Crucify him!
Again the governor spoke, his brows drawn together and his mouth pulled down, What shall I do, then, with Jesus? He used the prisoner’s name that he might have some humanity, that he might be seen as a person before them. Who is called -Christ-? Pilate knew this was a loaded word for the people arrayed before him. They look to their Messiahs to free them from what they perceive as Roman tyranny, Pilate thought grimly. But, this rabble needs Pax Romana.
But the temple elite had already roused the people in a new chant, Crucify him! Crucify him! Crucify him! They shouted the words over and over, till the syllables became mere sounds of ecstatic triumph, for it was clear Pilate was reluctant. By sheer force of numbers, by dint of pounding perseverance they would best the governor and bend him to their will. Every time Pilate would make his appeal, they shouted louder and longer until they were as one, a mighty gale force of insistence. John was growing nauseous from the stench and heat of sweat, pressed in by the crush and swaying.
Crucify him! Crucify him! Crucify him!
What evil did he do?
Crucify him! Crucify him! Crucify him!
I found not even one thing in him to warrant death.
Crucify him! Crucify him! Crucify him!
Then punishing him, I will release him.
This caused an even greater fervor, screams, the throwing of small stones, such a furor Pilate feared the mob would break out in unfettered violence. His guard would be no match in this space, and his dais suddenly felt vulnerable and unprotected.
The captain of his cohort, who had come with him, had already summoned Herod’s armed men, and now, at the prefect’s slight nod, they moved together as a phalanx on either side of Pilate, a quiet show of weaponry, discipline, and strength, their shields on one side, their long swords on the other. Annas, Caiaphas and their company had to move quickly so as not to be shoved aside. Then Pilate raised his arm again, the people quieted, and a servant summoned from among the many who had long since come to wait along the wall behind the dais.
As the people watched in curiosity, an ornate table was brought and placed with ceremony on the dais, next to the Seat of Judgment. A few moments later and a Tyrian purple veil threaded with gold was draped over the table, a golden basin placed upon it. Two more servants arrived, one with a sparkling pitcher of Egyptian glass, and another with a snowy white Egyptian cotton cloth. The Procurator held his hands over the basin as another servant gently rolled back his sleeves.
I am completely without fault and guiltless from this one’s blood. Take heed, all of you!
Pilate did not look at the people as he spoke but rather fixed his eyes on the sparkling pitcher the servant lifted aloft. From it soon poured a coruscation of clear water over his hands. John could see the sunlight cast prisms of color through the fountain flow, and heard the musical tinkling of it as it splashed into the bowl.
The religious rulers had by this time found a way to muscle through the guard until they, too, stood in front, before the people. Annas declared loudly, The blood of him be upon us and upon our children! He again held out his arms, but this time it was to encompass the people, and the Sanhedrin’s representatives standing with him. Caiaphas nodded, then finally also spoke, yes, upon us. And with a small hesitation, and upon our children.
The people soon took up the cry, if a little more slowly than Annas might have liked. But his torn robes, and those of Caiaphas and the other members of Sanhedrin had spoken volumes. This was a serious matter and serious measures must be taken.
Pilate’s stern face was set in somber tones as he slowly dried his hands, then turned to the captain. Those in front heard him say quietly, Release Bar Abbas. Then he turned and left the judgment hall, walking through his private door into the judge’s chambers.
[Story taken from Luke 23:20-25; Matthew 27:21-26; Mark 15:12-15]
[Pilate washes his hands | The Brooklyn Museum, James Tissot, Public Domain]