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The IVP New Testament Commentary Series – The Trial Before Pilate (23:1-5)
The Trial Before Pilate (23:1-5)

With Jesus in hand and a guilty verdict in place, there is only one more hurdle to Jesus' removal. The leadership needs the Roman government's support. A plan that has long been in the works now requires a deft political touch (6:11; 11:53-54). A death penalty could not be executed unless Rome issued it (Josephus Jewish Wars 2.8.1 117; Jn 18:31). So the leadership takes Jesus to Pilate. The charges must be formulated in a way that causes Pilate, as procurator and protector of Roman regional concerns, to be worried about his future as governor if he does not stop Jesus. Such capital crime rulings were often made when Pilate would make assize judgments as Roman governor (Kinman 1991).

The trial before Pilate was not unusual in its style. Luke's account reflects the threefold structure of Roman trial procedure: charges, cognito (examination) and verdict (Neyrey 1985:77). Intrigue surrounds the rejection of Jesus. The leaders' maneuvering reaches its high point here.

The three charges are stated in verse 2. Only one of them is even partially true: "We have found this man subverting our nation." The Greek speaks of "perverting our customs," a charge slightly broader than the political tone of the NIV. Issues of Jewish law and politics are in view. This charge reflects two realities. First, the leaders are uncomfortable with Jesus and regard him with contempt. That is why they do not name him but refer to him as "this one" instead (22:56, 59). These words are a far cry from their public affirmations of respect to Jesus in 20:21. Second, they regard him as a threat to their nation's tradition. He misleads the people. This statement reverses Jesus' charge in 9:41. Such unrest would be of concern to Pilate, because anyone who stirred up Jewish religious sensibilities could be a source of political upheaval.

"He opposes payment of taxes to Caesar." This charge concerning the poll tax is patently false, as 20:25 has already shown. But the charge is clever, because Pilate's major political responsibility is the collection of taxes for Rome. A second element in the charge is also a source of concern. The taxes go to Caesar, raising the issue of Pilate's personal loyalty or disloyalty. Failure to act against one who opposes Caesar would mean one is not a friend of Caesar either. Servants of Rome unfaithful to Caesar are not servants for long!

The third charge is that he "claims to be Christ, a king." Here the threat of an opposing ruler is made explicit. Is Pilate being careless on his watch, allowing revolution to foment under his very nose? Jesus is painted as a dangerous revolutionary. It is Pilate's obligation to Caesar to stop him.

Seen in light of Pilate's responsibilities, these charges are serious, especially since the Jewish leadership portrays itself as sensitive to Roman concerns here. Politically and personally, these charges push all the right buttons. So Pilate moves to examine Jesus.

Luke has a very abbreviated version of this encounter, in which Pilate focuses only on Jesus' claim to kingship. The first charge is not really central to Pilate, since he is not a Jew. The second can be handled by going directly to the third question about kingship. Does Caesar have a rival or not? John 18:33-38 shows a longer questioning in which Jesus responds to the kingship charge by stating that his kingdom is not of this world. Luke in contrast has Jesus answer Pilate's question whether he is king of the Jews with a qualified affirmation, "You have said so." As before, the NIV renders the force of the indirect reply, "Yes, it is as you say." Though there is truth in the charge, it is not the direct threat that the Jews imply.

Pilate seems not terribly concerned after his examination. His judgment is that he finds no basis for a charge against this man. Pilate will declare Jesus innocent several times in this chapter (vv. 14-15, 22). This should bring the trial's end and Jesus' release, but Luke is proving that Jesus was an innocent sacrifice. If justice had prevailed, the arrest would have ended here and Jesus' ministry would have resumed. But the Son of Man is not treated with justice. Sinful humanity rejects him and overrides any concern for justice. Though Rome is not without blame, the real responsibility lies with the Jewish leadership. Insistently they keep noting that he stirs up the people. Luke uses an imperfect tense here (epischyon) to show that they press their case with continual pleading. Pilate needs to understand that law and order, not to mention his own job, are at stake.

Under such pressure, Pilate does what many politicians do: he passes the buck and lets someone else make the tough call. When Pilate discovers that Jesus is Galilean, he sends Jesus over to Herod. Let the Jewish ruler decide the matter; let him take the heat. If any political mistakes are to be made, they will be made in consultation with the region's ethnic political leaders. If Pilate has problems later, he can always say, "Herod made me do it."

So political and social forces are swirling like a tornado around Jesus. Despite his innocence, the trial proceeds. Sin has a way of ignoring or deferring Jesus' claims. Political expediency will make Jesus a sacrificial lamb.

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