Jesus and the Gospel Tradition: The Passion Narrative, Pt 5 (Jn 18:28-19:16)

John 18:28-19:16

The recent daily note in this series examined the Roman “Trial” of Jesus before Pilate, as preserved in the Synoptic Tradition. The version of this episode in the Gospel of John has certain unusual details and elements which require a separate study, however brief. Apart from the issues of chronology related to the Passover festival (cf. the historical detail in 18:28, 39, along with the recent supplemental note), the Johannine account has a unique structure, and line of tradition, centered on the two exchanges between Jesus and Pilate in 18:33-38 and 19:8-11. The remainder of the narrative here, while differing in detail from the Synoptic, is fully in accord with the essential (historical) tradition shared by both.

The Structure of the Episode
  • Pilate goes out to the J. L. to hear their accusation/charge against Jesus (vv. 29-32)
    • Pilate goes in to question Jesus [Exchange #1] (vv. 33-38a)
      • Pilate goes out to the J. L.—his finding (innocence) and their call for judgment (guilt) (vv. 38b-40)
        • Pilate takes Jesus and has him whipped/scourged—the mocking (19:1-3)
      • Pilate goes out to the J. L.—his finding (innocence) and their call for judgment (guilt/death) (vv. 4-7)
    • Pilate goes in to question Jesus [Exchange #2] (vv. 8-11)
  • Pilate goes out to the J. L.—he grants their demand for judgment/punishment against Jesus (vv. 12-16)

There is a very precise, symmetrical structure to this episode in John’s Gospel; from the standpoint of the narrative, it plays upon the image of Pilate going out to the Jewish leaders (J. L.), and going in (i.e. inside the Palace) to deal with Jesus, presented in alternating scenes:

Cf. R. E. Brown, The Gospel According to John, Anchor Bible [AB] Vol 29, 29A, pp. 858-9.

Exchange #1—Jn 18:33-38

Each of the dialogue exchanges between Jesus and Pilate centers on a title which is part of the charge/accusation against Jesus by the Jewish embassy. The first is “King of the Jews”, which features in the Synoptic interrogation scene (Mk 15:2 par). As in the Synoptics, Pilate asks Jesus “Are you the King of the Jews?” (v. 33). Nothing in the narrative prepares us for this, since John does not have anything comparable to the Sanhedrin scene of the Synoptics in which the question of Jesus’ identity as the “Anointed One” (Messiah, presumably of the Davidic Ruler type) was addressed. The Lukan version of the interrogation before Pilate specifically makes this part of the accusation against Jesus (Lk 23:2). There is little reason to doubt that this political aspect of Jesus as the “Messiah” (and thus a would-be king of Judea) was the basis of the trial/interrogation by the Roman governor Pilate. John’s Gospel, unlike Luke’s, has little interest in the political implications. Rather, the author uses the title “King of the Jews” to emphasize a theological point related to Jesus’ true identity.

The dialogue begins from the political level of understanding; Pilate assumes that the title “king” (basileu/$) is being used in the customary ethnic and national/political sense—i.e. “king of the Jews“, of Judea. Jesus’ initial response in verse 34 plays on Pilate’s own understanding of the title, and of Jesus’ identity—”(Is it) from yourself (that) you say this, or did others say (it) to you about me?” The question draws out from Pilate the ethnic/national aspect of his way of thinking—i.e. Roman vs. Jew: “I am not a Jew, [am I]? Your (own) nation…gave you along to me” (v. 35). In his mind, Jesus’ actions must have similar national and political implications, as he asks “What (have) you do(ne)?”

This leads in to the dual statement by Jesus in vv. 36-37; it has the same place and function as the expositions of Jesus in the earlier Discourses, in which he explains the true, deeper meaning of his words. In this instance, he explains the sense in which he is a king—that is, the true nature of kingship and his own true identity. The first part of this exposition deals with the nature of kingship and the idea of a kingdom. The structure of Jesus’ statement is interesting in its logical symmetry:

    • “My kingdom is not out of this world(-order)”
      —”If my kingdom were out of this world(-order)…”
    • “But now my kingdom is not from this (place)”

The conditional, hypothetical statement in between (“If my kingdom were…”) reflects precisely what is denied by the surrounding declarations. The sort of political, partisan action assumed by the conditional statement is completely foreign, even antithetical to Jesus’ kingdom. This, of course, was illustrated vividly by the rash and violent action by Peter with the sword in the earlier Garden scene (vv. 10-11), and has, sadly, been repeated by Christians and non-Christians alike throughout the ages. Such violence and partisan power-struggles are part of the world—the current world-order, which is dominated by darkness (1:5; 3:19; 8:12; 12:35, 46; 13:30b; cf. also Lk 1:79; 22:53 and 23:44 par). Jesus declares flatly “My kingdom is not of/from this world”.

The second part of the exposition is introduced by another question from Pilate. Since Jesus speaks of “my kingdom”, Pilate naturally asks him “Are you not then a king?”. This moves the discussion more decidedly in the direction of Jesus’ identity (cf. below). With his response in verse 37, Jesus make no further mention of his kingdom or being a king, telling Pilate “You say that I am a king”; instead he makes a powerful statement regarding his purpose in the world, which epitomizes the theological portrait of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel:

“Unto this [i.e. for this purpose] I have come to be (born) and unto this I have come into the world that I might bear witness to the truth—everyone being out of [i.e. who is from] the truth hears my voice”

Exchange #2—Jn 19:8-11

The second exchange relates to the second title—”Son of God”—which is part of the Jewish Council’s charge against Jesus: “…according to the Law, he ought to die, (in) that he made himself (to be the) Son of God” (19:7). The mention of the title “Son of God” causes fear in Pilate—doubtless a superstitious kind of fear, but one which fits the Johannine portrait of Jesus, whose commanding (divine) presence and authority caused the soldiers in the Garden scene to shrink back and fall to the ground at the sound of his voice and the declaration “I am” (18:5-6). And, indeed, it is the very theme of authority (e)cousi/a) which is central to this portion of the dialogue. It begins with another question by Pilate—this time specifically addressing Jesus’ identity (cf. above): “Where are you (from)?” (v. 9), to which Jesus gives no answer (cf. Mark 14:61; 15:5 par). This provokes Pilate to make his own declaration, expressing his political (worldly) authority as Roman Imperial governor:

“Do you not see [i.e. know] that I hold (the) authority [e)cousi/a] to loose you from (custody) and I (also) hold the authority to put you to the stake?” (v. 10)

The noun e)cousi/a fundamentally refers to something which is in a person’s power, i.e. that he/she has the ability to do—literally it means something which is (or comes) out of [e)k] a person. Pilate refers specifically to the power/authority he holds (vb. e&xw) personally. However, quite often the noun is used in the sense of something which a person is allowed or permitted to do (i.e. by a higher authority). Jesus develops this aspect in his reply to Pilate:

“You (would) hold no authority (at all) against me, if it were not [i.e. had not been] given to you from above [a&nwqen]” (v. 11a)

The use of the adverb a&nwqen (“from above”) is of tremendous theological significance in the Gospel of John, being used in the Discourse of Jn 3:1-21 (vv. 3, 7)—i.e. the idea of a person (believer) coming to be born “from above”. It appears again in 3:31, part of a powerful Christological statement (by John the Baptist?) which is similar to Jesus words here, especially if they are combined with the earlier declaration in v. 37 (cf. above):

“The one coming from above is over (and) above all (thing)s; the one being out of [i.e. from] the earth is (indeed) out of the earth and speaks out of the earth. The one coming out of heaven [is above all things]; he witness of what he has seen and heard, and (yet) no one receives his witness”

With Jesus’ concluding statement, the scene returns to the traditional motif of the responsibility for Jesus’ death being upon the Jewish leaders, rather than Pilate (on this aspect of the Gospel tradition, cf. the recent daily note).

Jesus and the Gospel Tradition: The Passion Narrative, Pt 5 (Mk 15:1-20 par)

The Interrogation (“Trial”) of Jesus before Pilate

Mark 15:1-20; Matthew 27:1-31; Luke 23:1-25

When we turn to the Roman “Trial” of Jesus—that is, his interrogation/examination before the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate—we note immediately the parallelism between this episode and the earlier Sanhedrin scene. This comes out most clearly in the Synoptic version, as represented by Mark and Matthew. There is a basic similarity of structure/outline:

Even more precise is the structure of the interrogation scenes:

  • Testimony given against Jesus—14:56-59
    —Interrogator asks: “Do you answer nothing?” / Jesus is silent—14:60-61
    • Question: “Are you the Anointed One…?”—14:61b
      —Jesus’ answer: “You said (it)”—Matt 26:64a (cp. Mk 14:62a)
    • Question: “Are you the King of the Jews?”—15:2a
      —Jesus’ answer: “You say (that)”—15:2b
  • Testimony given against Jesus—15:3
    —Interrogator asks: “Do you answer nothing?” / Jesus is silent—15:4-5

There can be little doubt either of the close relationship between the titles “Anointed One” (i.e. Messiah) and “King of the Jews” in the questions asked by the High Priest and Pilate, respectively (they are connected in Lk 23:2). Both refer essentially to the same (Messianic) idea—of a ruler from the line of David who will appear (at the end-time) to deliver God’s people (the faithful of Israel) and bring Judgment on the nations. Any claim of kingship would have been viewed by the Roman government as a direct challenge to imperial authority in the provinces (of Judea, etc). The Gospel of John develops this theme of Jesus as “King of the Jews” considerably, as will be discussed in a separate note. It is also only in John’s account that the religious/theological charge emphasized in the earlier Sanhedrin scene is brought out again in this episode. These two aspects, the two halves of the Council’s question—Messiah/King and Son of God—define the structure of the Roman trial/interrogation in John’s version.

With regard to the Synoptic tradition in Mark/Matthew, the structure has been outlined above:

    • The Interrogation of Jesus by Pilate (“Are you the King of the Jews?”)—Mk 15:1-5
    • The Judgment, pronounced by the people/crowd—Mk 15:6-15
    • The Mocking/Mistreatment of Jesus (“Hail, King of the Jews!”)—Mk 15:16-20

There are here two important themes: (1) the motif of Jesus as “King of the Jews”, and (2) the emphasis on the crowd (i.e. the Jewish people) as the ones who pronounce judgment on Jesus. This latter theme is as clear in the Gospel (and early Christian) tradition as it is uncomfortable for most Christians today. There was a decided tendency by early (Gentile, non-Jewish) Christians to mitigate Pilate’s role in the death of Jesus, casting him as a sympathetic figure and placing the responsibility squarely on the Jewish leaders and people as a whole. The extent to which this is manifest in the Gospels is controversial and continues to be debated. Generally, however, the later Gospels (esp. Matthew, cf. below) seem to show evidence of this tendency in developing the tradition. Even in the (earlier) Gospel of Mark, the central role of the crowd in this episode is clear enough (15:8-15). It also helps to explain the prominent inclusion of the historical tradition regarding Barabbas. The Gospel writer goes out of his way to explain that Barabbas was a violent rebel who has committed murder (v. 7; Lk 23:19 [Matthew is less precise]). When given a choice between a murderer and Jesus, the people choose the murderer!

The sympathetic portrait of Pilate indicated by Mk 15:8-10ff is developed considerably in Matthew and Luke. Matthew includes two important additions:

    • The introduction of Pilate’s wife who refers to her auspicious dream (declaring Jesus’ innocence, 27:19), and
    • The vivid exchange between Pilate and the crowd in vv. 24-25; the crowd’s climactic declaration is ominous indeed:
      “(Let) his blood (be) upon us and upon our offspring!”
      No thoughtful Christian can read this today without, I think, feeling a bit uncomfortable about its inclusion in the Gospel.

Luke’s version (23:1-25) is more complex, with a number of important differences between the Synoptic account in Mark/Matthew:

    • The interrogation scene (vv. 1-5) includes more precise accusations about the danger Jesus poses to Roman authority and the peace of the region, involving both political (v. 2) and religious (v. 5) charges.
    • Luke is unique in including the tradition that Pilate sent Jesus to Herod Antipas, to be judged (or examined) as one under Herod’s jurisdiction (vv. 6-12). In Luke’s version the mocking is done by Herod’s, not the Roman, soldiers (v. 11). Ironically, it is stated that this exchange resulted in friendship/reconciliation between Pilate and Herod (v. 12).
    • In the judgment scene (vv. 13-25), it is the group of Jewish leaders—representatives of the Council (v. 13)—and, apparently, not a crowd of the people as a whole, who demand Jesus’ death and the release of Barabbas. This emphasis, along with the inclusion of Herod (together with Pilate), is probably intended by the Gospel writer to bring Psalm 2:1-2 to mind, and is surely influenced by that Scripture (cf. Acts 4:25-28).

A significant point in the Synoptic versions is that the interaction between Jesus and Pilate is limited to the brief exchange in the interrogation scene (Mk 15:2-5 par), which, as noted above, was consciously shaped to match the Sanhedrin interrogation scene precisely. The situation is quite different in the Gospel of John, which records an extended dialogue between Jesus and Pilate, including some of the most memorable and striking verses in the entire Gospel. Because of this unique situation, I am devoting a separate note in this series to a discussion of John’s version of the Roman “Trial”.

“And you shall call His Name…”: Matthew 2:2, 4

Matthew 2:2, 4

The next section in the Matthean Infancy narrative—2:1-12—records the visit of the Magoi (ma/goi, i.e. “Magi, Wise Men”) and the homage they pay to the newborn child in Bethlehem. There are two important names, or titles, in this narrative, which are the subject of two questions—each centered on the basic question “where?” (pou=), i.e. “where will we find…?”:

  • By the Magoi:
    “Where is the one brought forth (as) king of the Yehudeans [i.e. Jews]?” (v. 2)
  • By Herod:
    “Where (is) the Anointed (one) coming to be (born)?” (v. 4)

Each of these titles will be discussed in turn.

“King of the Jews” ([o(] basileu\$ tw=n  )Ioudai/wn)

In the historical-cultural context of Greek and Roman control over Syria-Palestine, there was a strong nationalistic aspect and significance to the use of this title—as, for example, by the Hasmonean rulers (priest-kings) of the 2nd and 1st centuries B.C. (Josephus, Antiquities 14.36, etc). As a semi-independent ruler, under Roman oversight, Herod himself was known by this title (Antiquities 16.311, etc). By the time of Jesus, the Messianic sense of this title would have been recognized and emphasized; consider these two basic elements of its meaning:

  • David‘s kingdom centered in Judah (Jerusalem)
  • The Jewish character of the Messianic king/ruler figure-type—rule centered in Judah/Jerusalem, and spreading/extending to all of Israel and the surrounding nations

This conceptual framework is central to the narrative (in Luke-Acts) of the early Christian mission (cf. Luke 24:46-49ff; Acts 1:4, 8, 12ff; 2:1-12ff, and the overall structure of the book of Acts). There are two passages quoted (or alluded to) in this section (Matt 2:1-12) which were unquestionably given a Messianic interpretation by the time of Jesus and the Gospels:

  • Micah 5:2ff—cited within the action of the narrative; three main points are brought out in this passage:
    • a ruler is to come out of Bethlehem
    • he will rule over (all) Judah
    • he will shepherd the people of Israel (cf. 2 Sam 5:2)
  • Numbers 24:17—the image of the star and the rod/sceptre (of rule) that will come out of Jacob/Israel. For the use of the star image in Matt 2:1-12 (vv. 2, 7, 9-10), cf. the upcoming note in the series “The Old Testament and the Birth of Jesus” and also below. It is interesting that Philo (Life of Moses I.276) refers to Balaam as a Magos (ma/go$).

The presence of the Magoi offering gifts and coming to Jerusalem to find the “King” may also reflect Psalm 72:10f and Isa 60:6, whereby the wealth of the nations comes to Jerusalem as homage to God (and his Anointed Ruler).

“The Anointed (One)” (o( xristo/$)

This was already used as the name/title of Jesus in Matt 1:1, 18, very much reflecting the common early Christian usage. I discuss the important title [o(] xristo/$ (“Anointed [One]”)—its background, interpretation and application to Jesus—at considerable length in the series “Yeshua the Anointed”. Cf. also the recent note on Luke 2:11.

The star/sceptre in Num 24:17 was especially prominent as a Messianic symbol (and prophecy) at the time of Jesus. This is best seen in the Qumran texts, esp. CD 7:18-20; 1QM 11:5-7; 1QSb 5:27, but also in other literature of the period, such as the Jewish (or Jewish/Christian) Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs (Levi 18, Judah 24). Mention should also be made of the early-2nd century A.D. Jewish revolutionary ben Kosiba, who was known as bar Kochba (“son of the Star”)—cf. Justin, First Apology 31.6; j. Ta±anit 4:8, etc—as well as the Aramaic versions (Targums) of the Old Testament (Onkelos, Neofiti I, pseudo-Jonathan, Jerusalem II). Cf. Brown, Birth, p. 195; Collins, Sceptre, pp. 202-3. Even though Num 24:17 is not cited as such in the New Testament, it is likely that early (Jewish) Christians would have recognized an allusion to it in Matt 2:1-12.

The other Scripture cited in the passage, Micah 5:2ff (+2 Sam 5:2), is quoted in response to Herod’s question. Herod the Great was of Idumean lineage, and so, to a large extent, would have been considered a foreigner by many Jews. He would have felt especially threatened by the Davidic ruler idea; and, indeed, there is a rough parallel to the Matt 2 episode in Josephus’ Antiquities 17.43 (cf. also Ant. 17.174-8; War 1.660; Brown, Birth, pp. 227-8), which, at the very least, illustrates his paranoid and violent character. There is a kind of irony expressed in Matt 2:8, where Herod, under a deceptive guise, declares his intention to give homage to this child, this new ruler.

The star marks both the time and place of the Messiah’s birth (vv. 2, 7, 9-10), specifically fulfilling the prophecy (or prophecies) mentioned above. For similar ideas and parallels in Greco-Roman myth and literature, see e.g., Aeneid 2.694; Suetonius Augustus 94; and note especially the prophecy mentioned by Josephus in War 6.310ff (cf. also Tacitus, Histories 5:13). Cf. Brown, Birth, pp. 170-1.

The two titles—”King of the Jews” and “Anointed (One)”—are combined again, at the end of Jesus’ life, during the episodes of his “trial” and death. In the Gospel of Matthew, the references are Matt 26:63; 27:11, 17, 22, 29, 37 (also 42), but there are parallels in all of the Synoptic Gospels, as well as the Gospel of John. These titles, taken together, identify Jesus in no uncertain terms as the Davidic-ruler figure type, otherwise expressed in Gospel tradition by the separate title “Son of David” (cf. Matt 1:1, 20, also 12:23; 21:9, 15; 22:42, etc & par). This title will be examined in more detail in the upcoming notes of this series.

References above marked “Brown, Birth” are to R. E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, Anchor Bible Reference Library [ABRL] (1977 / 1993). Those marked “Collins, Scepter” are to John J. Collins, The Scepter and the Star: The Messiahs of the Dead Sea Scrolls and Other Ancient Literature, Anchor Bible Reference Library [ABRL] (1995).