In our study on the Johannine view of sin (hamartía, vb hamartánœ), we turn now to the final references in the Gospel.
The second to last sin-reference occurs at the end of the scene between Jesus and Pilate in the Passion narrative (18:28-19:16). As R. E. Brown (The Gospel According to John XIII-XXI, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 26, pp. 858-9, drawing upon the work of earlier scholars) has noted, this scene is structured according to the spatial aspect of events taking place either in the outer court (outside) or the inner room (inside) of the praetorium. The scenic shifts, with the corresponding structural units of the narrative, may be outlined chiastically as follows:
- 18:28-32—The Jewish delegation seeks Jesus’ death [outside]
- 18:33-38a—Interrogation of Jesus (Dialogue 1) [inside]
- 19:9-11—Interrogation of Jesus (Dialogue 2) [inside]
- 19:12-16a—Pilate complies with the Jewish delegation’s request for Jesus’ death [outside]
- 18:28-32—The Jewish delegation seeks Jesus’ death [outside]
The entire scene is centered upon the title “the King of the Yehudeans” (ho basileús tœ¡n Ioudaíœn), and Jesus’ identity as this “king”. It is presented most vividly by the central episodes:
Thematically, all of this is rooted in the historical tradition, regarding the basis for the charges brought against Jesus to the Roman authorities (Mk 15:1-20ff par; see esp. verse 2), and ultimately proving to be the reason for his death-sentence (v. 26 par; Jn 19:19-22). The Gospel of John is faithful to this tradition, but typically develops it in light of the distinctive Johannine theology.
We see this most clearly in the parallel Dialogue-sections of 18:33-38a and 19:9-11. In each of these, the idea of Jesus’ kingship is treated, in a manner similar to what we find in the Johannine Discourses. As I have previously discussed, the Discourses follow a basic literary format:
- Statement/saying by Jesus
- Response by his audience indicating a lack of understanding (i.e., misunderstanding)
- Exposition by Jesus, in which he explains (or begins to explain) the true/deeper meaning of his words
The two Dialogue-scenes here, when taken together, form a mini-Discourse, according to the Johannine format. Instead of beginning with a statement by Jesus, there is a question by Pilate: “Are you the king of the Yehudeans?”. This question forms the basis of the discourse, which opens up on the issue of Jesus’ identity—that is, as the Anointed One (Messiah, i.e., king of the Jews) and the Son of God (see the confessional statements in 11:27 and 20:31).
The discourse-motif of misunderstanding is introduced, here through the initial response of Jesus to Pilate: “Do you say this from yourself, or did others say (this) to you about me?” (v. 34). In either case, the implication is that Pilate does not truly understand the nature of Jesus’ kingship. This is expressed in the dialogue that follows (vv. 35-38a), in which two explanatory statements by Jesus are framed by three questions by Pilate, each of which reflects a lack of understanding:
As indicated in the outline above, the first two questions by Pilate relate to the two components of the title “the king of the Jews”. The first (v. 35) relates to “…of the Jews”, assuming that the kingdom/kingship of Jesus is ethnically oriented, being tied to the Israelite/Jewish nation and people. By contrast, Jesus makes clear in his response (v. 36) that his kingdom “is not of this world” (ouk estin ek tou kósmou).
This response leads Pilate to wonder whether, or in what way, Jesus is actually a king (i.e., the first component of the title, “the king…”). The Greek syntax of his question (v. 37a) is a bit difficult to translate in English; literally, it would be something like: “(Is it) not then (that) you are a king?”. Many translations would convert the negative compound particle oukoún (“[is it] not then…”, which occurs only here in the New Testament) into an affirmative—e.g., “So you are a king?”. In any case, this raises a question regarding the nature of Jesus’ kingship. In the explanation that follows (v. 37b), Jesus tells us something about the kind of king he is; his words summarize (in general terms) the mission for which he (the Son) was sent to earth by God the Father:
“Unto this [i.e. for this purpose] I have come to be (born), and unto this I have come into the world—that I should give witness to the truth. Every (one) being [i.e. who is] of the truth hears my voice.”
This answer, which reflects the Johannine theology (and Christology), is expressed somewhat cryptically; the Johannine (Christian) reader will understand it, but those (like Pilate) who belong to the world clearly will not, as Pilate’s concluding question demonstrates: “What is (the) truth?” (v. 38).
At issue is Jesus’ identity as the Messiah (“King of the Jews”) and the Son of God. The first title and point of identification is dealt with in the first Dialogue-section; the second becomes the focus in the second section (19:9-11), as Pilate hears that Jesus had been calling/considering himself to be “the Son of God” (v. 7). This moves the issue further into the sphere of the Johannine theology, as does Pilate’s next question, in response: “Where are you from?” (póthen eí su;). This question reaches to the heart of the Johannine Gospel. Even though Jesus gives no response (and here the Gospel echoes the Synoptic tradition, Mk 15:4-5 par), the answer can be assumed by the Johannine reader: Jesus is from heaven, being the Son (of God) sent to earth by God the Father.
This reinterpretation of the Gospel tradition, in terms of the Johannine theological idiom, allows us to understand the climactic sin-reference of verse 11 in its proper context. Sin (hamartía) should not be understood simply in its ordinary conventional sense, as ethical/religious wrongs, misdeeds, failures, etc. Rather, it refers principally to sin in its distinctive theological sense in the Gospel—that is, of a failure or refusal to trust in Jesus as the Son of God.
In the previous studies on this subject, we have seen how the Gospel writer, in a number of passages, plays on these two aspects of the meaning of sin. I believe that verse 11 represents another such example of this dual-meaning. The conclusion of the dialogue between Pilate and Jesus hinges on the motif of authority (the noun exousía), which naturally relates to the idea of kingship. The noun exousía can be difficult to translate into English. It fundamentally refers to a person having the ability (i.e., from one’s own being) to do something; often the sense is that this ability is given to a person by a superior, meaning it is something that the person is allowed or permitted to do. This relates to the authority that Pilate (as the Roman governor) has over Jesus. Pilate expresses this one way (v. 10), and Jesus another (v. 11). Here is Jesus’ response to Pilate:
“You would not hold authority [exousía] on/against me, if it were not given to you (from) above.”
God (from heaven) has given to Pilate the ability to sentence Jesus to death, and to have him killed. Pilate himself has no intrinsic power over Jesus, who, as the Son, has been given the authority (from the Father) to lay down his own life (10:17-18).
As the local representative of Roman imperial authority, Pilate represents the world—in the full (negative) Johannine understanding of the term kósmos (“world-order”). In the narrative, there are actually two basic manifestations of the world: (1) the Judean/Jewish government, represented by the delegation to Pilate, and (2) the Roman government, represented by Pilate himself. Both reflect the darkness and evil of the world, being fundamentally opposed to God.
Each of the representatives commit sin, in the Johannine theological sense, but do so in different ways. Pilate fails to trust in Jesus as the Son of God, but due to a lack of understanding rather than any outright hostility against Jesus. The dialogue makes this clear (see the discussion above). Moreover, on two occasions in the narrative, he admits that he can find no evidence of guilt for Jesus, yet he remains unable to trust, and ultimately complies with the Jewish delegation’s request for Jesus to be put to death.
The sin of the Jewish delegation has a different emphasis: they are hostile to Jesus, and definitely refuse to trust in him as the Messiah and Son of God. Their sinfulness, which resembles that of the hostile opponents in chapters 8 and 9 (see the previous studies), is greater than Pilate’s in this regard. Jesus states this in his closing words: “Through this [i.e. for this reason], the (one)s giving me along (to you) hold greater sin”. The delegation’s lack of trust has gone beyond simple blindness (i.e., failure to understand), to be expressed as a hostile refusal to trust—indeed, even so far as refusing to admit their own sinful blindness. On this, cf. the prior study on chap. 9, along with the follow-up (on 9:41 and 15:22-24).
Next week, we will look at the final sin-reference in the Gospel (20:23).