The Threat That Got Pilate To Kill Jesus

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Posted: Mar 29, 2018 9:53 AM
The Threat That Got Pilate To Kill Jesus

Second of a three-part series. Read the first part here.

Let's look at the crucifixion, through these eyes. The Gospels clearly teach that Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor of Judea who presided over the trial of Jesus, made several attempts to release Him. 

"15 Now at the feast the governor was accustomed to release for the multitude any one prisoner whom they wanted.

16 And they were holding at that time a notorious prisoner, called Barabbas.

17 When therefore they were gathered together, Pilate said to them, "Whom do you want me to release for you? Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?"

18 For he knew that because of envy they had delivered Him up.

19 And while he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent to him, saying, "Have nothing to do with that righteous Man; for last night I suffered greatly in a dream because of Him."

20 But the chief priests and the elders persuaded the multitudes to ask for Barabbas, and to put Jesus to death.

21 But the governor answered and said to them, "Which of the two do you want me to release for you?" And they said, "Barabbas."

22 Pilate said to them, "Then what shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?" They all said, "Let Him be crucified!"

23 And he said, "Why, what evil has He done?" But they kept shouting all the more, saying, "Let Him be crucified!"

24 And when Pilate saw that he was accomplishing nothing, but rather that a riot was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the multitude, saying, "I am innocent of this Man's blood; see to that yourselves."

25 And all the people answered and said, "His blood be on us and on our children!"

26 Then he released Barabbas for them; but after having Jesus scourged, he delivered Him to be crucified."

 (Matt. 27:15-26 NAS)

Pilate's final decision to hand Jesus over to death was made after a fairly lengthy process of negotiation with the mob. Pilate found Jesus to be innocent and the passages in question portray him as reluctant to have Jesus crucified. But Pilate had a far greater incentive than justice to want to release the innocent Jesus: the choice before the people was not simply whether to release Jesus or not - it was to release Jesus or Barabbas. But Barabbas was a brigand, a revolutionary thief/murderer. The NAS rightly labels him an 'insurrectionist' who participated in the 'insurrection'.

"6 Now at the feast he used to release for them any one prisoner whom they requested.

7 And the man named Barabbas had been imprisoned with the insurrectionists who had committed murder in the insurrection."

(Mk. 15:6-7 NAS)

The Greek words are derivations of the word 'stasis' from which we get the word 'state'. Barabbas was a member of a movement that wanted to overturn one state (the one led by Pilate) and replace it with another. Furthermore, according to Matthew, he was 'notorious'.  

In modern parlance, Barabbas was a famous terrorist. He was an enemy of Roman order, which means he was Pilate's enemy and Pilate was his. Pilate had very strong incentives to crucify Barabbas rather than Jesus. Yet he spared the former and killed the latter.  If Pilate did not want to kill Jesus, why did he end up doing just that? 

It is not likely that Pilate did this out of respect for the sensibilities of Jewish leadership. Pilate was not of the kinder, gentler school of occupation. Pilate had a reputation for anti-Semitism: Philo of Alexandria believed that he and his political sponsor, Sejanus, had actually planned the elimination of the Jewish race.  

"160 for he knew immediately after his death that the accusations which had been brought against the Jews who were dwelling in Rome were false calumnies, inventions of Sejanus, who was desirous to destroy our nation, which he knew alone, or above all others, was likely to oppose his unholy counsels and actions in defense of the emperor, who was in great danger of being attacked, in violation of all treaties and of all honesty."

(Legat. 1:160 PHE)

Pilate had a thorough reputation for being hard on the Jews:

"299 XXXVIII. "Moreover, I have it in my power to relate one act of ambition on his part, though I suffered an infinite number of evils when he was alive; but nevertheless the truth is considered dear, and much to be honored by you.  Pilate was one of the emperor's lieutenants, having been appointed governor of Judaea.  He, not more with the object of doing honor to Tiberius than with that of vexing the multitude, dedicated some gilt shields in the palace of Herod, in the holy city; which had no form nor any other forbidden thing represented on them except some necessary inscription, which mentioned these two facts, the name of the person who had placed them there, and the person in whose honor they were so placed there. 

300 But when the multitude heard what had been done, and when the circumstance became notorious, then the people, putting forward the four sons of the king, who were in no respect inferior to the kings themselves, in fortune or in rank, and his other descendants, and those magistrates who were among them at the time, entreated him to alter and to rectify the innovation which he had committed in respect of the shields; and not to make any alteration in their national customs, which had hitherto been preserved without any interruption, without being in the least degree changed by any king or emperor."

(Legat. 1:299-300 PHE)

According to Eusebius (italics mine):

"...Sejanus, who was then in great favor with Tiberius, had made every effort to destroy the whole nation of the Jews from the foundation, and that in Pontius Pilate under whom the crimes were committed against our Savior, having attempted everything contrary to what was lawful among the Jews respecting the Temple at Jerusalem, which was then yet standing, excited them to the greatest tumults."

Source

The ancient sources agree that Pilate was a hard-liner, hostile to Jewish interests, and the protégé of a known anti-semite, he capitulated to political pressure from a group of people for whom he had no respect and whom he previously had intentionally submitted to acts of unnecessary humiliation. Why did he capitulate that time? The answer is found in the details of Pilate's dialogue with the mob:

"…Pilate made efforts to release Him [Jesus, ed.] , but the Jews cried out, saying, "If you release this Man, you are no friend of Caesar; everyone who makes himself out to be a king opposes Caesar."

13 When Pilate therefore heard these words, he brought Jesus out, and sat down on the judgment seat at a place called The Pavement, but in Hebrew, Gabbatha.

14 Now it was the day of preparation for the Passover; it was about the sixth hour. And he said to the Jews, "Behold, your King!"

15 They therefore cried out, "Away with Him, away with Him, crucify Him!" Pilate said to them, "Shall I crucify your King?" The chief priests answered, "We have no king but Caesar.""

16 So he then delivered Him to them to be crucified."

(Jn. 19:12-16 NAS)

The key to what is going on is in the phrase "friend of Caesar". Amicus Caesaris is technical language for loyal members of the administration, such as knights, counselors, Senators, et cetera. (Source)

The mob was clearly making a threat against Pilate. They are threatening to label him as disloyal to the Emperor. However, the locals had complained to the Emperor about Pilate before:

"301 But when he steadfastly refused this petition (for he was a man of a very inflexible disposition, and very merciless as well as very obstinate), they cried out: 'Do not cause a sedition; do not make war upon us; do not destroy the peace which exists.  The honor of the emperor is not identical with dishonor to the ancient laws; let it not be to you a pretense for heaping insult on our nation.  Tiberius is not desirous that any of our laws or customs shall be destroyed.  And if you yourself say that he is, show us either some command from him, or some letter, or something of the kind, that we, who have been sent to you as ambassadors, may cease to trouble you, and may address our supplications to your master.'

"302 But this last sentence exasperated him in the greatest possible degree, as he feared lest they might in reality go on an embassy to the emperor, and might impeach him with respect to other particulars of his government, in respect of his corruption, and his acts of insolence, and his rapine, and his habit of insulting people, and his cruelty, and his continual murders of people untried and uncondemned, and his never ending, and gratuitous, and most grievous inhumanity."

(Legat. 1:301-302 PHE)

But Pilate continued to act as a brutal dictator, unmoved by the entreaties or threats of the people, though Pilate did remove the offending Pagan emblems, (Philo and Josephus disagree as to why, the former pointing to a command of the Emperor and the latter pointing to the persuasion of the people)  Pilate remained oppressive towards his subject people:

"59 But they threw themselves upon the ground, and laid their necks bare, and said they would take their death very willingly, rather than the wisdom of their laws should be transgressed; upon which Pilate was deeply affected with their firm resolution to keep their laws inviolable, and presently commanded the images to be carried back from Jerusalem to Caesarea.

60 But Pilate undertook to bring an aqueduct Jerusalem, and did it with the sacred money, and took the water of the stream from the distance of twenty-five miles. However, the Jews {a} were not pleased with what had been done about this water; and many ten thousands of the people got together, and made a clamour against him, and insisted that he should stop that design. Some of them, also, used reproaches, and abused the man, as crowds of such people usually do.

61 So he outfitted a great number of his soldiers in their clothes, who carried daggers under their garments, and sent them to a place where they might surround them. So he bade the Jews himself go away; but they boldly casting reproaches upon him, he gave the soldiers that signal which had been beforehand agreed on;

62 who laid upon them much greater blows than Pilate had commanded them, and equally punished those who were tumultuous, and those who were not, nor did they spare them in the least; and since the people were unarmed, and were caught by men prepared for what they were about to do, there were a great number of them slain by this means, and others of them ran away wounded; and thus an end was put to this sedition."

(Ant. 18:59-62 JOE)

So for whatever reason, the earlier threats of the people to play the 'amicus Caesaris' card did not change Pilate's attitude. So why did he respond to that threat now?