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Matthew 27 - IVP New Testament Commentaries

Politics Versus Justice

Even skeptics should admit that Jesus undoubtedly appeared before Pilate; only the governor could order him crucified, and this required a prior hearing. Likewise, his own countrymen would normally perform the function of delator h s, or accusers, to charge him with sedition (Harvey 1982:16; see Sherwin-White 1978:47). Whatever the leaders' possible religious or personal motivations, the charge they bring against Jesus before Pilate here is political: by claiming to be a king, Jesus implied a worldly kingdom that would challenge Rome (for example, F. Bruce 1972b:199). This is easily the charge of lese majesty (Blinzler 1959:213; see also Bammel 1984:357), for which the normal punishment in the provinces was crucifixion (Blinzler 1959:238). What we know of ancient proceedings fits the Gospels' record of what happened.

This part of Matthew's account has less to do with Jesus than with Pilate, however: it is not Jesus but the character of Pilate that is on trial. Though Pilate knows the unjust motivation of the charges (v. 18) and receives a divine warning (v. 19), political expediency takes precedence over justice. We are guilty of the same crime whenever we side with views because they are popular in our society or political party even though we know that someone is suffering unjustly (whether the poor, the unborn, racial minorities, abused wives or children, crime victims, prisoners of war, refugees or others).

But the narrative does not implicate Pilate alone: the insistent people, blindly following their blind leaders (v. 20; compare 15:14; 23:16), embrace the moral responsibility Pilate seeks to evade. In the narrative world of Matthew, their acceptance of guilt for Jesus' blood on themselves and the generation of their children (27:24-25) directly invites the catastrophic events of 66-70 (23:29-39).Jesus Bravely Chose to Suffer for Us (27:11-14) Only the Roman governor could approve a capital sentence (see, for example, Sherwin-White 1978:32-43). Pilate's initial interrogation of Jesus clarifies the charge the Sanhedrin has brought to Pilate: Jesus claims to be a king, which Rome, like the priestly aristocracy, would understand in revolutionary terms (v. 11). The hearing is swift not only because Pilate is more concerned with the stability of his political position than with justice but also because Jesus refuses to defend himself. By Roman law, a defendant who refused to make a defense had to be assumed guilty (Lane 1974:551); yet Roman officials typically offered "a defendant three opportunities to respond before convicting by default" (France 1985:389), and Pilate offers Jesus at least two here (v. 13). It is no wonder, then, that Pilate is amazed by Jesus' silence (v. 14). Such astonishment on the part of judges appears also in Jewish accounts of defiant martyrs who--in contrast to their judges--valued God's kingdom more than their lives (Stanton 1974:36).We Cannot Pass Off Responsibility (27:15-23) But warned by his wife's dream, Pilate can avoid the conflict between justice and political expediency only by letting the crowds take responsibility for freeing Jesus. He apparently thought himself indulgent on special occasions; his otherwise brutal disposition, however, is evident in all the other brief Jewish reports of his activity that remain extant. Pilate presumably thought that it was safer to release Jesus, the "so-called Christ" (vv. 17, 22), than alternatives like Barabbas, who, like those ultimately executed with Jesus, was a "robber" (vv. 38, 44; Mk 15:7), the aristocracy's derisive title (shared by Josephus) for insurrectionists. Pilate probably saw Jesus in the terms suggested in John 18:36-38: as one of the relatively harmless wandering philosopher-kings known to him from Greco-Roman tradition. Roman officials were generally not inclined to execute (hence, perhaps, make martyrs of) those they saw as harmless fools (compare Jos. War 6.305).Both Pilate and the Crowds Were Guilty (27:24-26) Perhaps because the high priests have reported Jesus' popular appeal along with the charge, Pilate gambles that the people will prefer Jesus to Barabbas; if so, his hope is disappointed. Ancient literature is replete with examples of masses' being easily swayed by leaders (including these priests: for example, Jos. War 2.237-38, 316-17, 321-25) and being fickle in the populist favor they bestowed on various figures (as in Tac. History 1.32, 45; 3.85; Ps-Phocyl. 95-96). On a literary and theological level, Pilate may be offering this generation of Israel the "two ways," one of life and the other of death (7:13-14; compare Deut 30:15-19). Given the dangers of riots, Pilate's acquiescence to the masses at the Passover (Mt 27:24) was likely (R. Brown 1994:722).

Finally, Matthew underlines in obvious ways that the crowds shared the guilt for Jesus' execution--though he also refuses to let Pilate absolve himself as easily as Pilate desires. Pilate, having handed Jesus over to the crowds' wishes, is no less guilty than weak-willed Zedekiah, who hands over Jeremiah in Jeremiah 38:5. By accepting the bloodguilt on themselves and their children, however (compare 2 Sam 3:28-29; 21:6, 14), Matthew's crowds directly fulfill Jesus' warning in Matthew 23:29-36, thereby inviting the destruction of their temple at the end of the generation, in their children's days.

Pilate decrees the sentence, as his position required him to do (27:26): Ibis in crucem ("you will mount the cross"; Blinzler 1959:238). The preliminary scourging here was quite serious; it accompanied the death sentence and sometimes caused death by itself (see F. Bruce 1977a:445; R. Brown 1970:2:874 and 1994:851). Probably stripped and tied to a pillar or post, Jesus was beaten with flagella--leather whips made of thongs knitted together with pieces of iron or bone, or a spike; such a scourging left skin hanging from the back in bloody strips (Blinzler 1959:222). That Pilate handed him over or "delivered" him up to the soldiers (perhaps foreign auxiliaries) links him to Judas and the chief priests, who had also "handed Jesus over" (26:48, Greek; 27:2-3; see Patte 1987:376). Far from escaping responsibility, Pilate forms the next link in the chain of guilt in which members of all involved parties participated.

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