Why did Pilate refer to the fact that Jesus was called (by some) Christ/Messiah during his debate with the Sanhedrin...given that Pilate knew it was envy that motivated their accusations against Jesus in the first place?

Wasn't Pilate trying to get Jesus released? Wouldn't reminding the Sanhedrin of their reason for being envious of Jesus work against the goal of securing Jesus' release?

From Matthew 27:

17 Therefore when they were gathered together, Pilate said unto them, Whom will ye that I release unto you? Barabbas, or Jesus which is called Christ?

18 For he knew that for envy they had delivered him.

It seems like he would have been better off not mentioning a title that offended the Sanhedrin. Or is there some additional context that makes sense of this statement?

Addendum to expand/clarify the question

Verse 18 reads as though it is an aside by the author to explain verse 17. The parallel passage in Mark 15:10 comes across the same way.

The author believes that pointing out Pilate's knowledge of the Sanhedrin's envy will explain the previous verse...to me it makes the previous verse more confusing (hence the question above). Should verse 18 be read as an explanatory aside? And if so, how does verse 18 clarify verse 17?

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    I’ve always read it as Pilate spiting the religious leaders, like when he placed the words “king of the Jews” in three languages, and then says what I wrote I wrote after they asked him to say “wrote he said he is...”. I think he was just tired of their manipulations in forcing Pilate to part take in their dirty work. It was a petty retribution. Apr 5 '21 at 3:30
  • Are you aware of the audience to whom Pilate's words were addressed? Apr 5 '21 at 4:54
  • @chrylis-cautiouslyoptimistic- I understand that Pilate was engaged in debate with the Sanhedrin, and both sides were trying to play the crowds against the other. If you believe the audience unlocks the answer to this question, please feel free to chime in with an answer below? Thanks! Apr 5 '21 at 4:57
  • Why did Pilate refer to Jesus as Christ/Messiah ? - Because Jesus (Joshua) was, and still is, a fairly common Hebrew name, hence the necessity of specifying exactly which Jesus was meant, which was achieved by mentioning His cognomen, Christ.
    – Lucian
    Apr 30 '21 at 4:35

It appears that Jesus the Christ and Barabbas shared the same name: Jesus. I can think of a few line of 'evidence' for this.


The first is that some of the earliest manuscripts actually had "Jesus Barabbas." So if it wasn't original to the text itself, it seems nonetheless to have been an accepted tradition, explaining its inclusion in the text. On the unliklihood of this being added 'by mistake,' the NET Bible notes say:

Although the external evidence for the inclusion of “Jesus” before “Barabbas” (in vv. 16 and 17) is rather sparse, being restricted virtually to the Caesarean text (Θ Ë1 700* pc sys), the omission of the Lord’s name in apposition to “Barabbas” is such a strongly motivated reading that it can hardly be original. There is no good explanation for a scribe unintentionally adding ᾿Ιησοῦν (Ihsoun) before Βαραββᾶν (Barabban), especially since Barabbas is mentioned first in each verse (thus dittography is ruled out). Further, the addition of τὸν λεγόμενον Χριστόν (ton legomenon Criston, “who is called Christ”) to ᾿Ιησοῦν in v. 17 makes better sense if Barabbas is also called “Jesus” (otherwise, a mere “Jesus” would have been a sufficient appellation to distinguish the two).1

This reading goes back to even Origen's day. He wrote: "In many copies it is not contained that Barabbas was also called Jesus, perhaps rightly."

Pilate's Revenge

Whom will you that I release to you, Barabbas, or Jesus that is called Christ? For he knew that for envy they had delivered him.

According to Matthew, Pilate knew that the Jews had delivered Christ up out of envy. A repeat of Cain and Abel, if you will. So when it says, "for he knew," whatever he did beforehand was in light of that knowledge. Therefore, it may be that he specifically chose someone with the same name, and a last name that is what Jesus Christ claimed to be as well: "Son of the Father" (Ar. bar-Abba). Thus he forced the Jews to choose between the innocent lamb, or the notorious criminal - both of whom were "Jesus, son of the Father."

Moreover, the Jews condemned Jesus for claiming to be divine - to be the Son of God. Therefore, Pilate gave them the option only of 'Jesus, the Messiah' and 'Jesus, Son of the Father,' thus forcing them to choose to free the criminal whose very name was Son of the Father - and they would accept a notorious criminal even over the true Son of the Father, if it meant killing Him.

The Natural Reading

To qualify Jesus' name is otherwise inexplainable: if only one of them were called Jesus, "Barabbas, or Jesus?" who suffice.

The repitition of the very same qualification almost confirms that they had the same name:

And the governor answering, said to them: Whether will you of the two to be released unto you? But they said, Barabbas. Pilate saith to them: What shall I do then with Jesus that is called Christ? They say all: Let him be crucified.

Moreover, in Greek, "who is called" (ton legomenon) is the typical way to give surnames and differentiations (e.g. "the Simon called Peter").

What I've argued is not that this was originally included in the Gospel, but that his name really was Jesus Barabbas, and that this explains what is written - both the variant, and the qualification to Jesus' name (twice in the same trial).

1 Citation taken from Jon Ericson's answer here.

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    Indeed: Bar-abbas was almost certainly a family name ("Son of Abbas") and it would certainly make sense for there to be a given name as well. And it's at least conceivable that the writers of the gospels would not want to immortalise the insurrectionist with the name of the Messiah, and so simply refer to him by his surname. Apr 5 '21 at 12:59

Pilate was not a very smart man (according to the historical records we have) and here he makes a token gesture at justice.

The Sanhedrin hated Jesus but the people loved Him. It was the people who had hailed Jesus as king of the Jews and Messiah less than a week earlier at the triumphal entry to Jerusalem.

Thus, Pilate attempts to appeal to the masses as distinct from the leadership; it was the leadership who had refrained from arresting Jesus earlier "because of the people" (eg, Mark 11:18).

Barnes reaches a similar conclusion:

He was therefore desirous of releasing him. He expected to release one to the people. He knew that Jesus, though condemned by the chief priests, was yet popular among the people He therefore attempted in this manner to rescue him from the hands of the priests, and expected that the people would prefer Him to an odious and infamous robber and murderer. Had the people been left to themselves it would probably have been done.

Jesus, which is called Christ - That is, Jesus, who claims to be the Messiah. Pilate probably did not believe it, or care much for it. He used the name which Jesus had acquired among the people. Perhaps, also, he thought that they would be more likely to ask him to be released if he was presented to them as the Messiah. Mark Mar 15:9 adds that he asked them whether they would that he should release "the King of the Jews?" It is probable that he asked the question in both ways. Perhaps it was several times repeated, and Matthew has recorded one way in which it was asked, and Mark another. He asked them whether they would demand him who "was called the Christ," expecting that they would be moved by the claims of the Messiah - claims which, when he entered Jerusalem in triumph, and in the temple, they had acknowledged. He asked them whether they would have the "King of the Jews" probably to ridicule the priests who had delivered him on that charge. He did it to show the people how absurd the accusation was. There Jesus stood, apparently a poor, inoffensive, unarmed, and despised man. Herod had set him at naught and scourged him, and sent him back. The charge, therefore, of the priests, that he was a "king" opposed to the Roman emperor, was supremely ridiculous; and Pilate, expecting that the people would see it so, hoped also that they would ask that he might be released.

Addendum - "Envy"

There is a delicious irony in the story of Jesus' trial before Pilate because it became a contest between two groups over popularity.

Before examining this, we must recall that Roman law was primarily about the "Pax Romana" - keeping the famous Roman peace. Essentially, this meant that Roman law reduced, in most places to a single dictum: It allowed people to do anything they liked provided it did not create a riot nor threaten the government. If Pilate was found to either have encouraged either, or did not prevent a foreseeable incident, then he would be found incompetent.

Everyone knew this. Everyone also knew that Jesus' popularity was rising rapidly and thus undermining the perceived authority of the Sanhedrin. This situation is succinctly summed up in Matt 26:3-5 -

At that time the chief priests and elders of the people assembled in the courtyard of the high priest, whose name was Caiaphas, and they conspired to arrest Jesus covertly and kill Him. “But not during the feast,” they said, “or there may be a riot among the people.”

See also John 11:47, 48 -

Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin. “What are we accomplishing?” they asked. “Here is this man performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.”

Thus, the Sanhedrin became deeply envious of Jesus' authority (= popularity) with the people. Here is the irony - a list of stark contradictory facts:

  • The Sanhedrin accused Jesus of blasphemy (internally) but then that became sedition before Pilate
  • Pilate said three times that Jesus was innocent of sedition
  • Barabbas was guilty of sedition
  • Pilate, for fear of a riot (Matt 27:24 - a well-known agitation trick!) released the one guilty of sedition and condemned the one innocent of sedition - all at the behest of the Sanhedrin because of popularity.

Thus, both the judge and accusers of Jesus were dishonest in being driven by popular appeal - a very dangerous arbiter of justice!

The Pulpit commentary summarizes it this way -

Verse 18. - For he knew. He had recourse to this expedient because he was well acquainted with the motives which led the Sanhedrists to desire his death. They had shown their envy of Christ's influence with the people; they were jealous of his reputation and success; grudged him his marvellous powers; were embittered by his attacks on rabbinism, and the undermining of their popularity. Pilate saw much of this; he penetrated behind their flimsy pretence of averting some possible danger from the Roman dominion, and he laboured in this indirect way to save the victim of this vindictive plot. Of course, Pilate could not fully appreciate Christ's character, nor enter into the question of his supernatural claims; he saw only that he was brought before him from the basest motives, that no real offence was proved against him, and that no fear could be entertained of his heading a popular tumult. Matthew 27:18

  • Playing the crowd is a very useful observation, thank you. What is your reasoning behind the view that Pilate was not very smart? Apr 5 '21 at 5:00
  • @HoldToTheRod - Pilate was vacillating, obsequious to Roman authority, readily manipulated, etc. Any such person is does not see the realities in the world around him and so is not smart.
    – Dottard
    Apr 5 '21 at 5:33
  • Good answer. Re: intelligence — the above explanation, if it's really what Pilate thought, makes some sense if the people see events from the Romans' perspective. But throwing around religious terms and opposing religious leaders turned out not to be a good strategy with the Jewish people. If Pilate had any political savvy and had paid much attention to the history of the people he lived among, he would have known he was earning no favours by using the Messianic terms in an ironic sense — stripping a man, beating him half to death, and then basically saying, "Some king, amirite guys?" Apr 5 '21 at 13:14
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    There's almost nothing in the historical record, certainly nothing about him being smart or not. But he did remain as Governor of Judea for about 10 years, so he can't have been that incompetent.
    – James K
    Apr 5 '21 at 14:10
  • @LukeSawczak I doubt that either Pilate or the Jews whom he was addressing understood "Christ" as a religious title like we do today. As Barnes indicates in the above quote, Pilate seems to use "so-called Christ" and "King of the Jews" interchangeably. The question at the trial is whether Jesus is a Jewish christ who intends to lead a revolt against Roman rule, not his role in prophesy.
    – David42
    Apr 5 '21 at 16:08

The surrounding verses provide valuable context:

15 Now at the feast the governor was accustomed to release for the crowd any one prisoner whom they wanted. 16 And they had then a notorious prisoner, called Barabbas. 17 So when they had gathered, Pilate said to them, “Whom do you want me to release for you, Barabbas or Jesus who is called Christ?” 18 For he knew that it was out of envy that they had delivered him up. […] 20 Now the chief priests and the elders persuaded the people to ask for Barabbas and destroy Jesus. (RSV)

Here and the following verses (22, 24) make it clear that Pilate is speaking not to the Sanhedrin but to the massed crowd, the very ones whose attention aroused the envy of the Jewish elites. He apparently seemed to believe that reminding them of their "fandom" would get them to demand Jesus's release, but the political moment had passed.


This interpretation is based on the hypothesis that the identifier Pilate added to Jesus’ name represents the charge or the accusation against him. Asking the crowd to choose which person they wanted to release, Pilate distinguished Jesus by the charge that was made against him, i.e., that he was called Christ. Barabbas was a “notorious prisoner”; the charges against him were presumably well known and did not need to be stated (Mt 27:16, Mk 15:7).

  • 17 Therefore when they were gathered together, Pilate said unto them, Whom will ye that I release unto you? Barabbas, or Jesus which is called Christ?

But if the hypothesis holds true, then there is a problem with how the charge is stated. The accusation against Jesus was not that he was called Christ, but that he called himself Christ. Verse 18 gives an explanation for this discrepancy, which is that Pilate knew the real motive and was stating the true accusation against Jesus.

  • 18 For he knew that for envy they had delivered him.

Thus, Pilate understood that Jesus’ accusers envied him for being called Christ, and that the charge against him, that he called himself Christ, was merely a cover for their envy. Later, the dispute between Pilate and the chief priests over the inscription on the cross exposes the discrepancy in their perspectives more clearly.

  • Pilate also had an inscription written and put on the cross. It read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” 20 Many of the Jews read this inscription, because the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, in Latin, and in Greek. 21 Then the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, “Do not write, ‘The King of the Jews,’ but, ‘This man said, I am King of the Jews.’” — John 19:19-21

Pilate was clearly aware of the injustice and the irony of the situation. A person who seemed to question the very existence of truth itself (Jn 18:38), Pilate became an unlikely witness to the truth:

  • I have examined him in your presence and have not found this man guilty of any of your charges against him. 15 Neither has Herod, for he sent him back to us. Indeed, he has done nothing to deserve death. — Luke 23:13-15


It is unlikely that Pilate’s insights were gained through his own wisdom or moral character. Rather, the text hints, through the dream of Pilate's wife, that God’s hand was at work behind Pilate’s testimony:

  • And while he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent him a message, saying, “See that you have nothing to do with that righteous Man; for last night I suffered greatly in a dream because of Him.” — Matthew 27:19

Pilate’s statements regarding Jesus’ true charge, his assertions of Jesus’ innocence, and his insistence on keeping the wording of the inscription on the cross unchanged – perhaps these are meant to be understood as signs that God did not remain silent that day.

  • Do not be silent, O God of my praise. 2 For wicked and deceitful mouths are opened against me, speaking against me with lying tongues. 3 They beset me with words of hate, and attack me without cause.— Psalm 109:1-3

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