Adoramus te Christe, et benedicimus tibi.
“We adore thee, O Christ, and we bless thee”
Quia per sanctam Crucem tuam redemisti mumdum.
“Because by thy Holy Cross, thou hast redeemed the world!”
So when Pilate saw that he was gaining nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood, see to it yourselves.” -Matthew 27:24
The morning after His trial before the High Priest and the Sanhedrin, Caiaphas and the other Jewish religious leaders brought Jesus before Pontius Pilate, the Roman praefect of the province of Judaea. They already decided that Jesus had to die for claiming to be the Son of God. They could not, however; execute Him under the Law of Moses, which requires that there be two corroborating witnesses for a capital offense. Thus, they had to bring Jesus before Pilate on a charge of sedition.
They were afraid. Many people believed that Jesus was the prophesied Messiah, the descendant of King David who would liberate Israel, return it to its former glory and drive out the Romans.
The Romans appointed the High Priest and allowed him and the Sanhedrin to control Jewish religious affairs with relative autonomy. Caiaphas and the ruling priestly class owed their positions to the Romans because they were seen as being loyal to Roman rule. It was for this reason that Jesus called them “a wicked and corrupt generation,” because they collaborated with the pagan occupiers of their nation. A revolt would have caused Caiaphas and most likely many of the high ranking members of the Sanhedrin to lose their positions. There was even the possibility that the Romans would have disbanded the Sanhedrin. For Caiaphas and the rest of the Sanhedrin to maintain their positions, Jesus had to die.
The Possibility of Rebellion
There was even more at stake than loss of positions. There had been rebellions before, and the Romans had put them down with brutality. The historian Flavius Josephus records that the Romans crucified 2,000 Jews following a rebellion that occurred in the early years of the life of Jesus. There were subsequent rebellions but they were relatively small, with only a handful of diehard followers. All the Gospels describe Bar Abbas as having committed murder during an insurrection. Although the Greek word lestes, used to describe the men who will be crucified on each side of Jesus, is usually translated as “thief” it can also mean “insurrectionist” or “rebel,” and some translations use that instead of “thief.” The two men were likely part of the same insurrection in which Bar Abbas was captured and may have been captured with him.
Jesus had many followers and a rebellion led by Him would have been much larger. It could have been much more successful as well; and that success would cause Rome to send her legions and deal such a crushing blow to Judea that there would never be another rebellion, ever. They would destroy Jerusalem and, more importantly, the Temple. One man had to be crucified to prevent the crucifixions of thousands more.
Pilate Questions Jesus
Pilate questioned Jesus. As the praefect of Judea, he had to take sedition seriously. But when he asked Jesus if He is a king, Jesus simply stated that His kingdom is not an earthly one, and pointed out that if He were an earthly king, His followers would be fighting to save His life. Pilate thought Jesus might be innocent but he could not simply let him go.
Pilate was a shrewd man. He knew that the Jewish leaders wanted Jesus dead for fear that he would lead a rebellion but he did believe that Jesus would actually ever lead a rebellion. He probably realized that the Jewish leaders were jealous of Jesus for the size of His following and afraid that His teachings would diminish their own religious influence. But he also knew that he could not simply dismiss the charges against Jesus out of hand.
More Political Considerations
Pilate had to be more conciliatory to the Jewish leaders because he needed their cooperation to effectively run the province. Pilate’s predecessor Valerius Gratus had replaced the High Priest three times before finally appointing Caiaphas in A.D 18. Caiaphas had served as high priest for eight years when Pilate became prefect and would remain High Priest for the entirety of Pilate’s decade long term. Caiaphas was clearly someone with whom Pilate felt that he could work well. Pilate would not have wanted to squander this good will, especially on a prisoner whom the priests had brought to him with the accusation of sedition against Rome. So, he tried to outmaneuver the High Priest and his entourage.
“Give Us Bar Abbas!”
It is for this reason that Pilate offered to release Bar Abbas. He knew that the Jewish leaders feared that Jesus will lead a rebellion. So instead he offered a prisoner who actually had led one. He is telling the Jewish leaders that as the Roman governor, he does not consider Jesus to be as much of a threat as they are making Him out to be. Bar Abbas was a true threat to Roman power and given the choice between the two, Pilate assumes that the High Priest, focused on keeping the peace and preventing a rebellion, will choose Jesus.
Pilate underestimated the resolve of the Jewish leaders to destroy Jesus. Moreover, he did not take into account the crowd or their agitation. As Pope Benedict XVI points out in Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week, contrary to popular belief, the crowd that acclaimed Jesus as king when He entered Jerusalem has not suddenly turned on Him. That group was likely composed primarily of Galilean pilgrims who had accompanied Jesus up to Jerusalem. They were likely still asleep at this point. The crowd at the trial of Jesus before Pilate is composed of inhabitants of Jerusalem. They were afraid of Jesus when He arrived in the city.
They have also witnessed Bar Abbas rise up against Roman occupation. Now, their religious leaders are urging them to choose Bar Abbas over a man who has not lifted a finger against their oppressors yet stands accused of blasphemy. It is easy to see how the people of Jerusalem must have thought that their leaders were finally throwing their support behind efforts at winning freedom from the Romans. Therefore, they were more than happy to be manipulated into voicing their support for Bar Abbas.
This choice between Jesus and Bar Abbas is a choice between the true Kingship of Our Lord Jesus Christ, whose crown is of thorns and whose throne is His Cross, and the false messianism that offers worldly power and freedom from both persecution and suffering. It is a choice that will be made again and again over the course of the subsequent two millennia. Every time Christians seek political power in order to avoid persecution, to avoid the Cross, they reject Christ in favor of Bar Abbas.
Son of God
Not only did the High Priest and Jewish leaders call Pilate’s bluff but they upped the ante. Part of the charge against Jesus was that He “made Himself the Son of God.” To a Jew, of course, this is a blasphemous repudiation of the strict monotheism of Judaism. Yet, to a pagan Roman like Pilate, the idea that a seemingly ordinary man could be the son of a god is not far-fetched at all. This is why Pilate becomes afraid and asks Jesus, “Where do you come from?”
However, Pilate had another reason to be scared. To a Roman, the “Son of God” was an imperial title for Caesar. In 42 B. the Senate deified Julius Caesar. Octavian, later known as Caesar Augustus, adopted the title was filius divus Iulii (son of the divine Julius) Augustus himself was deified by his successor Tiberius. Therefore, it could be argued that anyone who called Himself the “Son of God” was setting himself against the authority of Caesar and usurping one of his titles.
Friend of Caesar
Caiaphas drives this point home by telling Pilate, “If you release this man, you are no friend of Caesar.” In Rome, Friend of Caesar (amicus Caesaris) was a semi-official honorific title. The Jewish leadership was reminding Pilate that his political career could easily be stalled if he does not condemn Jesus. He might never be as powerful or influential as he desired to be.
There is no indication that Pilate was an ambitious man. Moreover, Judaea was a far flung and relatively minor province of the Roman Empire. Tiberius might never have found out what happened on that Friday morning. But the agitation of the crowd could have quickly turned into unrest, unrest into a riot and a riot into full scale rebellion. Jerusalem was a city that could quickly erupt into rebellion at the slightest Roman provocation, especially at Passover. The refusal of a solicited request to release a man seen to be a liberator, especially after that request was ratified by the religious leadership, would have been just such a provocation.
The prime directive of a Roman governor was to keep the peace in his province. A governor who could not do this was seen as incompetent or worse, treasonous. Pilate already had dealt with one uprising relatively recently: the one in which Bar Abbas, and likely the two “thieves,” had been captured. He does not need another one. That, especially if it came as a result of his release of man seen to be an opponent of Caesar, would ensure a that he was removed from office or worse, executed.
The hypocrisy of the High Priest and other Jewish religious leaders is on full display here. Jesus is the Messiah, a descendant of King David, and therefore the rightful king of Israel They reject the true Son of God as a blasphemer because He is a threat to their power and comfort and yet they accept a son of a false god as their ruler by saying “We have no king but Caesar.” This makes matters even worse for Pilate.
So Pilate washes his hands and declares himself to be innocent of the blood of Jesus. “See to it yourselves.” How many times have we been faced with the prospect of doing something that was right but unpopular, the consequences of which would have been great personal or even professional cost? How many times we said “It’s not my problem” or “There’s nothing I can do?” How many times have we metaphorically washed our hands?
For all the times that we have refused to embrace our crosses and rejected You in favor of the worldy power offered by Bar Abbas, forgive us, Lord. For all the times we did not do what was right out of fear of unpopularity and wordly consequences, forgive us, Lord. For all the times we did not speak for the unjustly accused and the innocent, forgive us, Lord.
Stabat Mater dolorosa
iuxta Crucem lacrimosa,
dum pendebat Filius.