Luke 23: 1-5 – Jesus before Pilate

The trial before the Sanhedrin is over (Lk 22: 66-71), but the supreme Jewish authority, according to Luke, did not pass a death sentence on Jesus (but cf. Mk 14: 63-64; Mt 26: 65-66). After the session the Sanhedrin brought Jesus before Pilate, the Roman authority in Palestine (Lk 23: 1). As in the case of the Jewish trial, the evangelists are not interested to report every detail of the Roman trial. In gospels of Mark and Matthew (Mk 15: 2; Mt 27: 11) the trial begins abruptly with the question of Pilate: “Are you the King of the Jews?” How did Pilate know that this was the charge levelled against Jesus by the Jews? Unlike Mark and Matthew the author of Luke, the historian, clarifies the course of events and begins by listing the accusations first (Lk 23: 2). Pilate’s question (Lk 23: 3) which follows the accusations can be understood as quite natural.

The charges brought against Jesus by the Jewish leaders (Lk 23: 2) are clearly political in character. The three-fold accusation present Jesus as political rebel or revolutionary.

  1. Jesus perverts the nation. This general accusation is meant to be understood in a political sense, namely, Jesus as a subversive element inciting the Jewish nation to revolt against Rome.
  2. Jesus forbids payment of taxes to Caesar. The general accusation comes to be specified here and in what follows.
  3. Jesus claims to be an anointed King.

Among the synoptic gospels Luke alone gives details of the accusation before Pilate (cf. Mk 15: 3). Although the Lukan source for these accusations is not clear, the political character of the charge brought against Jesus seems to be part of the pre-synoptic tradition. In the Johannine narrative of the Roman trial too Jesus is accused of being an ‘evil doer’ (Jn 18: 30). All emphasis in the trial scene in gospel of John is on the “Kingship” of Jesus (cf. Jn 18: 3319: 15). Besides, the title on the Cross “The King of the Jews,” which is mentioned in all four gospels also suggest the political character of the charge against Jesus in the primitive passion tradition. As for the charges themselves in Luke 23: 2, the second accusation about Jesus forbidding payment of taxes to Caesar is a blatant lie when compared with what Jesus had said in Luke 20: 20-25. The first and the third charges are gross misrepresentations of the work and claims of Jesus. In the trial before the Sanhedrin (Lk 22: 66-71) Jesus did not accept the Messianic title in a political sense intended by the authorities. It s true that at his solemn entry in Jerusalem the people hailed Jesus as King: “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord” (Lk 19: 38). But the accusation of Jesus’ claim to be a king (Lk 23: 2) is a transposition to the political sphere, the Messiahship of Jesus and as such it is a deliberate misrepresentation of his Messiahship.

Pilate’s question in Luke 23: 3, “Are you the King of Jews?” is also political, to which Jesus answers, “you have said so.” Jesus does not give a direct answer to Pilate’s question. Jesus neither affirms nor denies the title attributed to him. Jesus is indeed the Messiah, the King of the Jews but it away different from what Pilate wanted to know. It is interesting to observe that this was the only question that Pilate asked Jesus during the entire trial. Luke is not interested to record everything connected with the trial of Jesus before Pilate. He is rather keen on emphasizing the innocence of Jesus. Taking Jesus’ reply for a “no,” Pilate declares the innocence of Jesus: “I find no crime in this man” (Lk 23: 4). This is the first declaration of Jesus’ innocence. Again, in the course of the trial Pilate will declare three more times (cf. Lk 23; 14, 15, 22) that Jesus is innocent. Luke also records similar declarations of the Roman officials about Paul’s innocence in Acts of the Apostle 23: 29; 25: 25; 26: 30-32 etc. All this reflects Luke’s own loyalty to Rome, and at the same time Luke emphasizes the innocence of Jesus.

Even after Pilate’s declaration of Jesus’ innocence, the Jewish leaders repeat their accusation of Jesus (Lk 23: 5). He stirs up the people by his teaching throughout all Palestine, from Galilee to Jerusalem. This charge, again, is a misrepresentation of Jesus’ teaching. The mention of “Galilee” also point to the political character of the charge. At any rate it seems to suggest to Pilate to transfer the case to Herod.

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