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Pilate tried to acquit Jesus

In comparing the Gospel accounts of Jesus' trial, we find that Pilate tried at least 4 times to have Jesus released:

See Luke 23:22

For the third time he spoke to them: “Why? What crime has this man committed? I have found in him no grounds for the death penalty. Therefore I will have him punished and then release him.”

& the apparently subsequent John 19:12 (this appears to correspond to Luke 23:23)

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.”

Pilate questions Jesus, sends Him to Herod, offers to release Him in honor of the feast, and parries each attempt by the Sanhedrin to execute Jesus.

Apparent motivations include:

  • His wife's dream (Matt 27:19)

  • His own fear at the claims made by & about Jesus (John 19:8)

  • The apparently recent instructions from Tiberius to not execute innocent people (see Philo "On the Embassy to Gaius" ch. 24 here)

Pilate seems pretty keen not to execute Jesus. After the Sanhedrin tells him "you are no friend of Caesar" & "we have no king but Caesar" Pilate's resolve finally crumbles.

Questions:

  1. Why was this statement about Caesar such a powerful trump card?
  2. What consequences would Pilate have faced if he had refused to comply?

Important note about this question: this is not a question about all Jews at the time or all Jewish people in general. This is a question about why the interactions between a handful of very specific people - the Sanhedrin and Pilate - played out the way they did.


Addendum from my research:

In this article Paul Maier suggests that Pilate had some level of protection while the powerful Roman official Sejanus was head of the Praetorian Guard (and Tiberius' right hand man), and thus could get away with some of the atrocities noted by Josephus & Luke.

Then Sejanus (along with a number of associates) was executed for conspiracy and Pilate had to be very careful not to incur Tiberius' ire. Pilate may have already been on strained terms with Rome before the trial of Jesus; thus, a delegation being sent to Rome was a significant and credible threat.

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    I have gone through the list of questions surrounding the general area of this question and I would say, myself, that this is not a duplicate of any other. Up-voted +1.
    – Nigel J
    Feb 24 at 4:57
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Important note about this question: this is not a question about all Jews at the time or all Jewish people in general. This is a question about why the interactions between a handful of very specific people - the Sanhedrin and Pilate - played out the way they did.

I'm not sure you can skip the context. You really need the full picture here to see why it played out like it did. I'll try to keep it brief, though

Judea as a region was having problems with revolts against Rome

About 150 years before this, there was a major revolt against the Selucid Empire, which was a remnant of the fragmented empire of Greece. That rebellion succeeded and brought about the Hasmonean Dynasty, where the Jews basically ruled themselves for a time. The Roman acquisition of Judah some time later was not welcomed by the Jews, and people kept yearning to throw the yoke of Rome off. Gamaliel (a member of the Sanhedrin not a party to Jesus' trial) mentions at least two contemporary revolts in Acts 5:36-37

Some time ago Theudas appeared, claiming to be somebody, and about four hundred men rallied to him. He was killed, all his followers were dispersed, and it all came to nothing. After him, Judas the Galilean appeared in the days of the census and led a band of people in revolt. He too was killed, and all his followers were scattered.

Jesus' following had many who wanted to see him lead a revolt and had plans to do press that issue

That was a major subtext in Jesus' arrest. Peter was willing (in theory) to follow Jesus to prison or death Luke 22:33

But he replied, “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death.”

And later in 22:38

The disciples said, “See, Lord, here are two swords.”
“That’s enough!” he replied.

The key here is that there were people waiting for Jesus to tell them to take up arms, and they had already armed themselves to some extent.

The Sanhedrin claimed to be more loyal to Rome than a Roman leader

The Sanhedrin wanted a public execution and Pilate has multiple reasons to balk at it

  • This wasn't much of a revolt (An inept fisherman cut off a guy's ear then everyone ran away)
  • Pilate's wife (a Jew) warns him not to execute Jesus
  • Jesus' lack of any serious protest

The full text of what happened next is important. John 19: 12-16

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.”
When Pilate heard this, he brought Jesus out and sat down on the judge’s seat at a place known as the Stone Pavement (which in Aramaic is Gabbatha). It was the day of Preparation of the Passover; it was about noon.
“Here is your king,” Pilate said to the Jews.
But they shouted, “Take him away! Take him away! Crucify him!”
“Shall I crucify your king?” Pilate asked.
“We have no king but Caesar,” the chief priests answered.
Finally Pilate handed him over to them to be crucified.

Pilate didn't crumble immediately, but he was close. It appears that the second statement sealed the deal. The problem for Pilate is that Rome is not going to get a full accounting of this (see how the Jews accused Paul of leading a revolt Acts 24:5). Instead, it will be generalized that Pilate failed to execute the leader of a revolt against Rome (they did have swords...). The dynamic here is fascinating because Pilate is arguing that he shouldn't kill the leader of a Jewish "revolt" and the Sanhedrin (to ensure Jesus' public execution) swear absolute loyalty to Caesar, and thus Rome.

To put it a different way, the Sanhedrin is spending political capital lavishly here. The Jews largely hated Rome (which had laid a yoke of taxation and control on them) and the Sanhedrin feared a Roman crackdown in response(John 11:48). By publicly running to the left of Pilate here in swearing more loyalty to Rome than a Roman governor, they had just damaged their own political position to some extent. At that point Pilate knew they were willing to go to any lengths to see Jesus dead and that he had no hope of winning the argument by mere persuasion.

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  • Thanks for the detailed historical analysis! The reason I included the "important note" disclaimer was that I did not want this to become a discussion that disparaged adherents of Judaism (and thanks to all involved in the discussion, it did not) Mar 5 at 5:24
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The members of the Sanhedrin are here blackmailing Pilate by saying that they will spread rumors about him or even directly inform the Emperor that he released the enemy of the Rome who claimed illegitimately that he was the king of Jews. The releaser of a political enemy would automatically be considered as a complacent to this enemy and thus also a co-enemy of the Emperor and Rome. Co-enemy=“not-friend”. Thus Pilate was afraid for his own life, for enemy of the Rome could be not only deprived of his official tenure, but also executed as a traitor. Pilate’s sin was that unlike Socrates few centuries before, he was not courageous enough to risk his own life for the sake of justice.

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The best explanation is provided by Ellicott (see below) to which the weak, vacillating, sycophantic Pilate was highly susceptible.

If thou let this man go, thou art not Cæsar’s friend. . . .—There was another weapon left in the armoury of their devices, against which no Roman governor was proof. The jealous fear of Tiberius had made “treason” a crime, of which the accusation was practically the proof, and the proof was death. The pages of Tacitus and Suetonius abound with examples of ruin wreaked on families in the name of the “law of treason.” (Comp. Merivale: History of the Romans under the Empire, vol. v., p. 143 et seq.) Here was One who had claimed to be a king, and Pilate was seeking to release Him. They knew, indeed, that it was a claim to be “king” in a sense widely different from any which would have affected the empire of Cæsar; but Pilate has refused to condemn Him on the political charge without formal trial, and he has refused to accept their own condemnation of Jesus on the charge of blasphemy. He dare not refuse the force of an appeal which says that he is not Cæsar’s friend, and suggests an accusation against himself at Rome. See Note on Matthew 27:2 for the special reasons which would lead Pilate to dread such an accusation.

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