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).
IVP New Testament Commentaries are made available by the generosity of InterVarsity Press.
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