In Tents #16 Pilate’s Trial Before Jesus, Part 2

I ended last month’s post with a note about how little power Pilate has, not even the power to force a response from Jesus. That doesn’t mean, however, that Pilate’s power is inconsequential. Jesus’s death is a consequence. But we often treat Pilate as an inconsequential person, or an inconsequential power broker, maybe a bit of a bumbler who lets the crowd pressure him into executing a man he believes to be innocent.

We could even see him as a tragic hero, but I don’t think we usually do. He doesn’t rise to that stature, more of a bumbler, an unfunny Inspector Clouseau. For Luke, at least, he’s much more ominous than a bumbler. Consider Luke’s first mention of Pilate:

There were present at that season some that told him of the Galilæans, whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices (Luke 13:1).

Now remember when you read Heat of Darkness in high school and your English teacher pointed out how Marlow tells us about Kurtz for about 100 pages before we meet him. This builds our anticipation, she said. Luke’s introduction of Pilate does the same thing, though Luke is more terse, mentioning Pilate only once before we meet him. This may be because writing material was scarce. A sidebar in Biblica: The Bible Atlas says that in ancient times writing materials were not plentiful and scribes would write the story in outline, with enough detail to make the story coherent, but the whole story came in recitation, as the reciter filled in the gaps.

It’s an intriguing suggestion, and may have something to do with the lack of adverbs I discussed last month. The manner of speaking, the adverbial information, could be conveyed through the reciter’s voice.

I suspect the early reciters of Matthew’s gospel would not have conveyed a very positive impression of Pilate, especially considering the way the ending repeats and mirrors the beginning, as when the crowd quotes Satan’s words from 4:6 in Chapter 27:40

And saying, Thou that destroyest the temple, and buildest it in three days, save thyself. If thou be the Son of God, come down from the cross.

One of the thieves says the same thing, but there’s another repetition of the beginning, a mirror. Pilate’s wife sends him a message: “Have thou nothing to do with that just man: for I have suffered many things this day in a dream because of him.” (Matt. 27:19).

This is the mirror image of the angel instructing Joseph to have everything to do with his pregnant fiancé, and Pilate’s refusal to listen mirrors, that is, reverses, Joseph’s acceptance.

I mention all this to give a sense of how difficult the task of reinterpretation was for those wanting to divert attention from Pilate to the Sanhedrin and other Jewish leaders, and later all Jews. Or how difficult the task should have been. Or maybe how readily we reinterpret events when it suits us, and how powerful a reinterpretation can be.

Consider the answer to the question why would Pilate crucify a man he believed to be innocent. Matthew (or a redactor) says, “When Pilate saw that he could prevail nothing, but that rather a tumult was made,” (Matthew 27:24), while Mark (or his redactor) simply says, “willing to content the people” (Mark 15:15).

It is unimaginable that a military commander of the most powerful nation on earth would not have the means at hand, in his fortress, to easily crush any mob, especially a man known for his brutality. “Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the common hall, and gathered unto him the whole band of soldiers (Matt. 27:7). The Jewish Annotated New Testament renders band of soldiers as cohort and notes that a cohort was about 600 men. That is, the word’s not just an abstract term, it has a numerical meaning, like troop, regiment or division. Do we really expect ourselves to believe 600 well-trained soldiers couldn’t control a mob?

Which raises another question. How big was the fortress or courtyard? Thinking about it brought to mind an article I read in The Weekly Reader, probably in 6th grade, about a book called The Advance Man An advance man is an operative who goes into a town in advance of politician to make arrangements for the visit.

Two things I’ve remembered and thought of often. First, you make whatever promises you need to make sure things get done. It doesn’t matter whether you fulfill them, or even intend to. “There are some cities I can never go back to,” the Advance Man said.

Second, always hire a hall smaller than the anticipated turnout. It’s better to have 10,000 people turn out to a hall designed for 8,000 and have to turn thousands away because the candidate’s so popular than to have 15,000 show up to a 20,000 seat auditorium and have TV cameras showing that it’s a quarter empty.

If you have 600 soldiers at your command how much space can you fill up? It might be useful to consider one of Jesus’ last parables as a prophecy of his trial. In Matthew 16 Jesus starts telling his disciples that he has to go to Jerusalem and be crucified. In Chapter 22 he tells a parable about a wedding no one wanted to come to:

8 Then saith he to his servants, The wedding is ready, but they which were bidden were not worthy.
9 Go ye therefore into the highways, and as many as ye shall find, bid to the marriage.
10 So those servants went out into the highways, and gathered together all as many as they found, both bad and good: and the wedding was furnished with guests.

How many people could 600 soldiers prepare to come to the praetorium?

The Biblica sidebar I mentioned also says that Bible stories typically fall into three parts, and so, it seems do blog series. We’ve set the stage, next month we’ll go into the courtroom, onto the balcony, and see how Pilate stagemanages the crowd, and the ritual of handwashing.

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5 Responses to In Tents #16 Pilate’s Trial Before Jesus, Part 2

  1. Th. says:


    Interesting stuff, Harlow. I’m enjoying these even if I’m not saying much.

  2. Dennis Clark says:

    So, still raising our expectations, huh? I’m sure you’ll come to this next time, if you haven’t already, but there’s also the matter of the offer to free one prisoner. Pilate knows full well that Bar Abbas has been his prisoner for a long time, whilst Jesus just came into his possession. One is a cold fish, one is a hot tamale. Whoever it is telling Pilate to crucify Jesus, whether it’s a mob or a cohort of Roman soldiers, the decision rests with Pilate. You know how in the movies when the villain tells the hero “Now I can shoot this here fair maiden, or you can strip off your duds and get down in the dust and ork about like a sea lion, it’s your choice. Whaddya wanna do?” It isn’t the hero’s choice — the villain holds the gun and has his finger on the trigger.

    • Harlow Clark says:

      Dennis, Thanks for your comment. I wrote a reply within a few days, but it wasn’t quite complete. Looking at it today I realized it just needed a sentence about Pilate’s disregard for both innocence and truth, so here’s the reply.

      Yes, still raising expectations. I hope to satisfy the raised expectations in June, but may not be able to wrap up Pilate’s trial till July. That offer to free one prisoner is interesting and perplexing. I read one scholar, maybe Willis Barnstone in The New Covenant, vol. 1 who says there’s no record outside the Gospels of any custom of freeing a prisoner at Passover, no such custom recorded anywhere in Roman annals. What I suspect is that the Jews made such an annual request of Pilate, perhaps based on the forgiveness of debts in the sabbatical and jubilee years.

      That’s a good point that the choice is Pilate’s. It puzzles me that we don’t talk more about that. The portrait we get of him in the Gospels is not nearly as positive as we suspect, and it’s a testament to the power of an interpretive tradition that we don’t talk all that much about Pilate’s guilt. I remember how disappointed I was the first time I read John at how Pilate shrugs his shoulders, says, “What is truth?” (John 18:38) and turns away from Jesus.

      The evidence that John intends us to be shocked by that might be that while we know that Pilate said “What is truth?” and said, “I find no fault in him,” we don’t think of those two statements as going together. But they’re part of the same verse, as if John is telling us Pilate cares no more about Jesus’ innocence than he does about truth.

      While you were tramping around Texas all those years ago teaching people to worship something higher than an oil well and wishing for a horizon taller than said wells I was fascinated by your library, especially Pogo, though I found The Jack Acid Society Black Book more difficult than the others and never got all the way through it. I could tell from the word acid that the society was meant to be unpleasant, and I may even have vaguely connected it with the John Birchers, about whom I only knew the name and that they were unpleasant, though I recognized the pun on jack-assed a few years ago.

      There were also 3 non-cartoon books I looked at repeatedly (besides Will Cuppy’s The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody which I read years later–I think I found my copy in a used bookstore in New Haven CT at the end of my mission), The Bridge at Andau by James A. Michener, The Bridge by Manfred Gregor, and Barabbas, by Pär Lagerkvist. I read the first two, twice and once respectively, but only read the ending of Barabbas, many times, fascinated by the image of Barabbas on the cross, wondering how he got there, and imagining he had resumed his revolutionary activities.

      It occurred to me, thinking about your reply and some other things, that maybe Pilate doesn’t free Barabbas at all–maybe he’s just holding Barabbas’s release up as a teaser to get the sea lions to ork louder.

      • Dennis says:

        Well, as for the teaser, Matthew 27.26 reads “Then [i.e. after washing his hands] released he Barabbas unto them: and when he had scourged Jesus, he delivered him to be crucified” — which is followed by the robe of scarlet, crown of thorns, scepter of reed and royal procession to Golgotha, where they offer him “vinegar to drink mingled with gall” (I wonder if they got the gall from Pilate, who certainly had enough and to spare). But if you’re right about Pilate packing the courtyard, the release “unto them” need not have meant freedom for Barabbas, just a stuffing of the rabbit back into the hat.

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