In John 19 it states:

6 As soon as the chief priests and their officials saw him, they shouted, “Crucify! Crucify!” But Pilate answered, “You take him and crucify him. As for me, I find no basis for a charge against him.” 7 The Jewish leaders insisted, “We have a law, and according to that law he must die, because he claimed to be the Son of God.” 8 When Pilate heard this, he was even more afraid, 9 and he went back inside the palace. “Where do you come from?” he asked Jesus, but Jesus gave him no answer. 10 “Do you refuse to speak to me?” Pilate said. “Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?” 11 Jesus answered, “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above. Therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.” 12 From then on, Pilate tried to set Jesus free, but the Jewish leaders kept shouting, “If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar.”

Several commentators I have referred to seem to suggest, that Pilate's increased fear was based on his pagan religious beliefs in the potential that Jesus was some Herculean-like "son of a god." For example:

We need not suppose that Pilate was suddenly affected by the truth of Jewish monotheism; but he may readily have believed that the wondrous Being before him was enshrouded in a mystery of supernatural portent and pretension that he could not fathom, and before which he trembled. The idea of Divine energy enshrined in and wielded by human beings was not altogether foreign to heathen thought . . . (Pulpit Commentary)


He before feared to shed innocent blood, and now he became more afraid than ever to take his life; suspecting, probably, that the account which he heard of him might be true, and that he might be a divine person. For doubtless he had heard of some of the many miracles which Jesus had performed, and now, it seems, began to think that perhaps what had been currently reported was true, and that he really had performed the wonderful works ascribed to him. For it is very well known, that the religion which the governor professed directed him to acknowledge the existence of demi-gods and heroes, or men descended from the gods. Nay, the heathen believed that their gods themselves sometimes appeared on earth, in the form of men . . . (Benson).

It seems that Pilate up to this point is not very concerned with what is an internal Jewish matter, but with the new accusation (as per John's account) he (Pilate) seems more fearful. [I have emphasized in bold the section that the section that seems to support such a view].

However, there is what seems in John's narrative to be a growing agitation on the part of the Jewish leadership [in my italics] which raises the question: Could this growing fear be of a riot or tumult, rather than a superstitious response? [see Matthew 27:23-24]:

. . .But the mob roared even louder, “Crucify him!” 24 Pilate saw that he wasn’t getting anywhere and that a riot was developing.

Based on cultural and historical understanding of the times, which explanation is the more probable: the fear was religious, or the fear was of unrest?

  • I am relatively new to this, and hope this isn't a badly worded question. My desire is to find out what the scholarly take is to the reluctance of Pilate to execute Jesus.
    – r m
    Dec 21, 2016 at 20:04
  • My initial instinct would be that if we read this from a historical critical vs narrative critical perspectives we will arrive at different answers to the question. It is a good question and if I find time I may try to respond more robustly. Dec 21, 2016 at 21:54

6 Answers 6


The consensus of the Church Fathers is that Pilate was afraid because he realized that Jesus, in fact, could be the Son of God.

John Chrysostom (4th c.) comments:

Then Pilate is alarmed when he hears from them, that He made Himself the Son of God, and dreads lest the assertion may possibly be true, and he should seem to transgress; but these men who had learned this, both by His deeds and words, did not shudder, but are putting Him to death for the very reasons for which they ought to have worshipped Him. On this account he no more asks Him, What have you done? but, shaken by fear, he begins the enquiry again, saying, Are you the Christ? [sic] But He answered not. For he who had heard, To this end was I born, and for this came I, and, My Kingdom is not of this world [18:36-37], he, when he ought to have opposed His enemies and delivered Him, did not so, but seconded the fury of the Jews.

Homily LXXXIV on the Gospel According to John

Cyril of Alexandria (late 3rd/early 4th c.) writes:

The malicious design of the Jews had a result they little expected. They wanted to build up an indictment against Christ by saying that he had ventured to sin against the person of God himself. But the weighty character of the accusation itself increased Pilate’s caution, and he was more alarmed and more careful concerning Christ than before. He became more particular in his questions: what Jesus was and where he came from. I think he believed that, though Jesus was a man, he might also be the Son of God. This idea and belief of his was not derived from holy Scripture but the mistaken notions of the Greeks. Greek fables call many men demi-gods and sons of gods. The Romans, too, who in such matters were still more superstitious, gave the name of god to the more distinguished of their own monarchs, and set up altars to them, and allotted them shrines and put them on pedestals. Therefore Pilate was more earnest and anxious than before in his inquiry of who Christ was and where he came from.

Commentary on the Gospel of John, XII

(This ancient explanation is perhaps the basis of the Pulpit Commentary you quoted)

Finally, the later Byzantine commentator Theophylact of Ohrid writes:

Pilate was afraid, merely hearing the words, "He is the Son of God." But the Jews had witnessed Christ's divine deeds; yet they sought to destroy Him when they should have bowed down in worship. Pilate questions Jesus again, but in a different manner than before. Jesus had been accused of trying to set Himself up as a king, so at first Pilate asked, What has Thou done [John 18:35]? Now the Lord is accused of making Himself out to be the Son of God, so Pilate asks, "Where are You from? Who are You?" To this, Jesus makes no response. For He had already told Pilate, To this end was I born [John 18:37], and My kingdom is not from hence [John 18:36]; but Pilate did not open his heart and mind to understand.

The Explanation of the Gospel According to St. John (tr. Chrysostom Press, 2007), p.280


A part of Pilate's fear no doubt stemmed from the demeanor of the man before him. Doubtless many times previously, men under this mans judgement had quaked, raged, pleaded for mercy or denied the accusations against them. But this man, Jesus of Nazareth, did none of these perfectly normal and expected things. He stood passively while charge after charge was leveled by powerful priests desiring his death. He confidently stated that Pilate, though he was governor and judge, had no authority over Him "...unless it had been given you from above; for this reason he who delivered Me to you has the greater sin.", and hinting that Pilate was about to commit some wrong. (Pilate may have seen this "wrong" as either some level of spiritual sin against an unknown deity, or simply a miscarriage of justice which, in the eyes of Rome, could potentially cause removal from his post as governor.

The private message from his wife advising him to "...have nothing to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him." (Matt. 27:19) further heightened his sense that this was not an ordinary trial, a just accusation or a simple verdict. Pilate was FAR from stupid, but unfortunately, he did not have insight into the spiritual battle taking place in his judgement hall that morning. He rightly feared that, whatever decision he rendered, powerful forces would be extremely unsatisfied with it, and consequently, with him.

Though Scripture records that he tried to side step his responsibility by "washing his hands of the matter", tradition tells us that he spent the rest of his days INCESSANTLY washing his hands, dozens of times each day, as though trying to remove some "stain" that would not leave him.


He feared to kill Him knowing He was innocent: 1. His wife warned him that she had a troublesome dream proclaiming His innocence. 2. Pilate knew He was not a threat to caesers throne by claiming His Kingdom was not of this world 3. Pilate knew He was not trying to start an uprising as He told Him that if His kingdom were of this world, He would have His servants fight to not be handed over to the Jews so Pilate saw Him as no physical threat to the empire

But He also feared to kill Him because all the evidence placed before him of Jesus proclaiming to be the Son of God and that Pilate had no power over Him unless it was granted from heaven.

But out of all these reasons to fear to put Jesus to death after trying many times to avoid what he feared to do for such reasons, the fear of man overided his fear of God and Jesus to be whom He proclaimed to be.

The Jews threatened to report and accuse him to be no friend of Caeser as disloyal if he did not go through with the death sentence as well as the threat of riot from the Jews. It is the fear to deal with the ranks above him that ultimately caused him to go through with the death sentence as was God's decree to take place.

Pilate feared man over God even though knowing he would be sinning in killing Jesus, as do all those enslaved to sin as there is no fear of God in them. Unless God has chosen them to understand the truth to repent and believe.

  • Thanks for your answer. Some hints for the future. Your answer was good but in the future, try to reference your evidence, ie refer back to the scripture texts, eg, based on verse x this is my conclusion. Also, make sure you directly answer the requester's questions.
    – alb
    May 6, 2018 at 23:30

What Was Pilate's Fear Based On?

John 19:7-8 (NASB)

7 "The Jews answered him, “We have a law, and by that law He ought to die because He made Himself out to be the Son of God.”8 Therefore when Pilate heard this statement, he was even more afraid."

Posthumously declared "Divus Filius" or Son of God

Julius Caesar was posthumously granted the title Divus Iulius (the divine/deified Julius) by decree of the Roman Senate on 1 January 42 BC. , Mark Antony had been appointed as his priest.[126] Both Octavian and Mark Antony promoted the cult of Divus Iulius. After the death of Caesar, Octavian, as the adoptive son of Caesar, assumed the title of Divi Filius (son of a god). (From Wikipedia)

At the time of Jesus trial,Tiberius was the Roman Emperor, who also inherited the title of Divi Filius. Tiberius was a ruthless emperor, killing anyone he considered his enemies. So when the Jews implied that Pilate would be disloyal to the Emperor if he did not convict Jesus,Pilate became even more afraid.

Anyone claiming to be the Son of God would be tantamount to treason and with the crowds yelling: “If you release this Man, you are no friend of Caesar; everyone who makes himself out to be a king opposes Caesar.”(John 9:18 NASB). Pilate eventually, succumb under pressure and ordered Jesus’ execution


"My desire is to find out what the scholarly take is to the reluctance of Pilate to execute Jesus."

Critical scholars like Ehrman think that Pilate was likely not reluctant at all, but that he was portrayed that way by gospel writers who wanted the blame to fall primarily on the Jews. Evidence for this is that Pilate is made to seem more and more innocent when the gospels are lined up chronologically.


Hard and fast rule in upper levels of government management is that when you are given a position (whatever it may be), you can't allow bad news to leak upward. The 'higher-ups' will accuse you of not being able to take care of matters and replace you. The rent a mob (just like today) would have burned the city down if they weren't satisfied. So it was easier to let Jesus be crucified than deal with the mob.

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