Pontius Pilate gave the title “King of the Jews” to Jesus at His crucifixion. Whether he did it to point out the hubris of the Jews or to intentionally anger the religious leaders is unknown. Regardless, a sign reading The King of the Jews in three languages, Hebrew, Latin, and Greek, was attached to the cross. This event is recounted in exquisite detail in John 19:15-22. Pontius Pilate, the Roman Prefect, ruled Judea from 26 to 37 CE and presided over the trial and crucifixion of Jesus. He wielded Roman power in Judea during the reign of Archelaus, one of the three sons of Herod the Great. Following the death of Herod, Caesar Augustus approved the requests of Herod concerning his sons. Instead of Archelaus becoming king with his brothers becoming tetrarchs, Augustus changed the arrangement; “Archelaus would indeed become the ruler of Judea, but with the rank of Ethnarch, not King. Philip was named the Tetrarch of Batanaea, Trachonitus, Auranitus, Gaulanitis, Panias, and other territories east of the Jordan. Antipas, who became simply known as Herod, became the tetrarch of Galilee.” [i]
In 6 CE, Rome, because of the multitude of problems facing Archelaus, removed him from office. Rome then had to decide how to govern Judea. Rebuffing the idea to bring Judea under the control of the Roman legate of Syria, P. Sulphicius Qurinius, Caesar Augustus appointed a prefect to rule the region who answered directly to him, thus eliminating the requirement to select a new ethnarch or king. This meant also that Rome could maintain closer attention to the region. One of the first duties for Qurinius was “liquidating Archelaus' estate and holding a census to determine the amount of tribute that the new province would be assessed to pay into the Imperial Exchequer.” [ii] Scholars think it was this census to which the Gospels referred when Jesus was born (Luke 2:1). The Jews launched a revolt against the census that Varus, the Roman governor of Syria, finally defeated with three legions of troops. Parts of the Temple were destroyed, and the Zealot movement came into existence, which persisted for a number of years. One of the disciples, in fact, was a member of this group. The Romans crushed several more resistance groups and, after establishing some measure of peace, installed Coponius as the first prefect of Judea.
One of the primary responsibility of the prefect was to ensure the flow of revenue to Rome from the domains and provinces of the Empire. These revenues included taxes and tolls including per capita taxes, land and property taxes, market-place tariffs, and excise taxes. To maintain order and discipline, the prefect had a sizeable military force at his disposal equivalent to a regiment of troops consisting of five cohorts each with six hundred men under the command of a tribune. As a note, the men under the command of the prefect were not Roman legions but auxiliary troops. Rome placed cohorts at strategic locations throughout Judea with one unit in Jerusalem on a permanent basis. At major Jewish feasts, the prefect would move his headquarters to Jerusalem with an extra Roman detachment to discourage trouble or messianic fervor. Rome gave the prefect authority to decree the death penalty on the civilian population.
The prefect enabled Rome to put limits on the Jewish nation concerning their political and national independence; however, the religious leadership found this arrangement beneficial. Under the rule of the prefects, “the Jews had larger room to manage their own affairs in their own way than under Herod.” [iii] The high priest and Sanhedrin gained authority to the point of being able to enforce capital punishment. “Cases between Jew and Jew were left to the adjunction of their own tribunals, from the village judge up to the high court in Jerusalem.” [iv] In 9 CE, the Romans replaced Coponius with Marcus Ambivius. He ruled from 9 to 12 before Annius Rufus replaced him and ruled from 12 to 15. Augustus purposefully replaced prefects on a fairly rapid cycle to decrease the opportunity for rapacity. Tiberius became Caesar in 14 upon the death of Augustus. Valerius Gratus was his first appointment as prefect of Judea, and he ruled from 15 to 26. In 26, Pontius Pilate was named to the position of Prefect, and he presided over the trial and crucifixion of Jesus. For many years, scholars thought the proper title for Pilate was that of procurator, which is based on Roman historical records, but an inscription found in the early 1960s revealed the correct title for Pilate to be prefect. Three sources, the New Testament, Philo, and Josephus, provide information as to why Pontius Pilate gave such a title to Jesus and ordered it affixed to the cross.
Quite a bit is known of Pontius Pilate from the New Testament, the writings of Philo, and Josephus. According to Philo, Herod Agrippa referred to Pilate as “naturally inflexible, a blend of self-will and relentlessness” [v] in a letter to Caesar Gaius in 40. Early in his tenure, Pilate managed to enrage the Jews by utilizing military shields or standards into the palace with the likeness of Caesar Tiberius. This was in contrast to previous Roman sensitivity to the Jewish religion and custom. When the Jews noticed the idolatrous standards, they harassed Pilate in Jerusalem and even followed him to Caesarea to protest. Upon realizing the Jews would not recant, even upon threat of death, Pilate removed the offensive items. Several other incidents, including a controversy over payment for an aqueduct for Jerusalem and an attack on a group of Samaritans on Mount Gerizim resulting in many deaths, prompted Rome to remove him from office.
As Pilate was the prefect in Jerusalem, he was responsible for maintaining order in the city and region. The Jews brought Jesus to Pilate early in the morning after hearings before Annas and Caiaphas, the High Priest. Annas, the father-in-law of Caiaphas, was a former High Priest and thought by some Jews to be the legitimate holder of the office. In the Gospel of John, Pilate came into the picture in Chapter eighteen when the Jewish leaders delivered Jesus to him. It is unclear where this event occurred. Two possible places were the Praetorium, which was at the Antonia Fortress at the northwest corner of the Temple, and Herod’s palace near the Jaffa gate west of the Temple. It was not unusual to have such activity of such importance early in the day because Pilate, as a Roman official, often began the day’s work at dawn to complete the tasks as soon as possible. It would appear Pilate had some knowledge of the events unfolding since soldiers were part of the group who arrested Jesus (3:12), and the prefect would likely have had to approve this action.
As any judge or arbitrator would, Pilate asked for the charges against Jesus, which were sufficient to bring Him before Roman justice. This legal step seems to indicate that the hearing before Annas had produced an indictment, although we do not know this with certainty. The response of the religious leaders seems to have been one of anger as seen in John 18:29-30, because Pilate, rather than accepting their ruling of Jesus, chose to have his own investigation. The prefect had every right to demand such a trial. If Pilate wanted to investigate further, the religious leaders had no choice but to defer to his wishes. The likely reason for this acrimonious exchange was that the religious leaders thought because Pilate had authorized soldiers to arrest Jesus, he would continue to cooperate, but Pilate proceeded to conduct a hearing. It soon became apparent Pilate had no intention of humoring the Jews or to arbitrarily rule in their favor. Instead, he forced their hand demanding the Jews judge Jesus according to their laws. This desire by Pilate to not involve Rome was typical of the Romans, who had little zeal for involvement in local and civil matters, as well as a degree of capriciousness toward the Jews. It is difficult to discern whether Pilate knew the Jews had already judged Jesus and were now seeking appropriate punishment for blasphemy.
The Jews explained they lacked the authority to condemn a person to death as noted in John 8:31-32. It was likely this moment that Pilate realized their true intentions. While the Jews did possess the authority to execute law breakers, even Roman citizens, this was only for anyone who wrongly entered or profaned the Temple. This was one of the earlier charges against Jesus (Mark 14:57-59), which resulted in the death penalty, but other charges would be leveled against Jesus that replaced that one. John notes the scenario of the Jews seeking authorization from Rome to execute Jesus was in the control of God. This desire for His execution was because Jesus had already said He would be raised up (John 12:32), meaning crucifixion, which was not the typical method of capital punishment for Judaic justice, but it was for the Romans. “If the Jews had not lost the right of capital jurisdiction, their rulers could have carried out the death sentence in accordance with precedent, which would have been by stoning, the penalty prescribed for blasphemy.” [vi]
Pilate returned to question Jesus again. This time, instead of handling the matter outside his quarters, he brought Jesus inside. Pilate posed four questions to Jesus concerning His identity and mission. All four Gospels record the first question: was Jesus the king of the Jews? Pilate probably asked this question first because of the nature of the allegations by the Jews. Jesus did not deny the kingdom, but John 18:36-37 records Jesus telling Pilate that His kingdom was not of this world. Pilate seized on those words and asked whether Jesus was a king. Jesus affirmed the statement but focused again on the spiritual aspect of His kingdom as opposed to a physical realm. He pointed out that neither He nor His followers were participating in any military activity such as recruiting soldiers or mercenaries, gathering weapons, or other activity which could mean preparation for an insurrection. As John 18:38-40 describes.
Pilate then went to the religious leaders and told them there was no guilt in Jesus and began searching for a compromise. The line of questioning indicates that Pilate had no desire to accept the testimony from the religious leaders but was seeking to understand the situation. His solution was to release a prisoner at the Passover. However, the Jews rejected Pilate’s offer to free the King of the Jews, whom he had apparently concluded to be innocent of the charges, and they called for the release, not of Jesus, but of Barabbas, a robber and participant in a rebellion. It was apparently not out of the ordinary for authorities to release prisoners at special events such as the Passover since none of the Gospels mark this as unusual. To placate the crowds, Pilate decided to punish by flogging Jesus.
After this punishment, Jesus was brought back to Pilate in considerably worse condition than before wearing a purple robe and crown of thorns. Pilate continued to mock the Jews by presenting Jesus and said, “Behold the Man!” “The Man” is likely another Johannine phrase meant to remind the reader that Jesus was the second Adam, God’s Son. He again declared Jesus had no guilt, probably hoping the visible results of the harsh treatment would mollify the religious leaders, but it was not to be. Instead, the chief priests and their followers again called for the crucifixion of Jesus, to which Pilate repeated that he had found Jesus to have no guilt. Pilate challenged the religious leaders to crucify Him themselves, but he saw no reason for the punishment. Hendriksen comments that Pilate “hates these Jews, who have caused him so much trouble. At the same time, he fears them. Otherwise, he would have released the prisoner long ago. Moreover, they know that he is afraid of them.” [vii] At this point, Pilate had proclaimed the innocence of Jesus three times. Faced with this dilemma, the religious leaders resorted to Jewish law and charged Jesus with claiming to be the Son of God (19:7), which was punishable by death.
With this charge by the religious leaders, it is possible Pilate thought that what Jesus said earlier to Pilate about His kingdom may have contained more truth than he first realized and possibly a more serious threat to Pilate and Rome. The word “kingdom” has considerably different implications today than it did then. It is crucial to understand what the word meant at the time of Jesus to comprehend the full meaning and context. It meant a nation under the rule of a monarch, a king or queen with absolute power and authority over those within the domain of the kingdom. Civil liberties, political liberties, and individual rights were often minimal, including legal justice, due process, and the opportunity to live free. Regardless of how those who lived in the kingdom thought or felt their obedience was mandatory because of their relationship to the king. If the sovereign even suspected any subjects were disloyal or rebellious, action would be taken to eliminate the malcontents or, if the problem grew to a significant degree, the insurrection.
An example of this type of behavior was when Herod the Great (37-4 BCE), upon learning of the birth of a new king at the town of Bethlehem, gave the order to kill all of the male children under the age of two. Obeying an angel who warned them, Joseph, Mary, and Jesus had already fled to Egypt before this tragedy. At the time of Jesus, the Jews were under the rule of the Romans, and this caused anger and frustration on the part of the Jewish population. Jesus had to guard against this when He spoke of a kingdom, for it was easy for His message to be misunderstood as a call to rebel against the Romans. In fact, the Zealots, a small Jewish sect, sought just such a course of action: resistance against the Romans. Another danger for Jesus when speaking of the kingdom was an enemy or detractor going to the Romans and, deliberately misinterpreting His words, suggesting an actual or imminent revolt that the Roman would seek to crush.
Those who lived in the Promised Land at the time of Jesus were subjects of Rome, as the Roman Empire had control over a large portion of the known world in their quest for strategic dominance. Foreign troops would swagger around and command Jews and non-Jews (Gentiles) alike to carry backpacks and equipment. Arrogant Roman centurions and other officers would offend and scorn their subjects. In the case of the Chosen People, the submission was galling because it was to a foreign Gentile power. The Gospel notes that when Pilate heard the new accusation he became afraid, now beginning to understand the underlying issue. Jesus was taken back before Pilate for another interrogation in which He gave no response. The non-response prompted Pilate to warn Jesus of his authority to release or crucify, to which Jesus replied that Pilate lacked the authority, which came from above.
It is fairly obvious now Pilate was beginning to understand the ramifications of the situation, and so he renewed his attempts to release Jesus. Pilate was trying to extricate himself from any responsibility for the death of Jesus, whom he recognized as not guilty of either sedition or blasphemy. The underlying dilemma for him was that unlike “many of his peers in office being only an equestrian left him especially vulnerable apart from Sejanus’ patronage. More to the point, Pilate has already incurred the hatred of the Jewish people and had on some other occasions backed down to pacify them, especially if threatened with an appeal to the emperor.” [viii] Likely knowing Pilate only had the support by Sejanus; the religious leaders insisted that if Pilate were to release Jesus, he would be no friend of Caesar. This action my the religious leaders prompted Pilate to bring Jesus out again to the judgment seat and proclaim to the Jews, “Behold your king!” This led to yet another confrontation with the religious leaders who, in response to Pilate’s question of whether he should crucify their “king,” replied that they had no other king but Caesar. Finally, Pilate gave Jesus over to the religious leaders for capital punishment.
Sometime during this time Jesus received the second, more serious flogging before carrying His cross to the site of execution. After the crucifixion, with Jesus on the cross between two thieves, Pilate ordered his soldiers to affix a board upon which the words “King of the Jews” written on His cross. The reason for the three languages was that “Aramaic was the language commonly in use in Judea; Latin was the official language of the Roman occupying force; and Greek was the international language of the empire, understood by most Diaspora Jews as well as Gentiles.” [ix] Pilate may have meant the words as recognition of the true identity of Jesus or to insult the Jewish religious leaders. “In spite of the hypocritical allegiance to Caesar through which the Jewish leaders won their legal goal, John portrays Pilate as manifestly realizing that they had used a legal ploy to beat him.” [x] This word-play is another Johannine example of double meaning in the events. He records Pilate unwittingly ascribing the correct title to Jesus as the King of the Jews. “In the context of his representation this inscription is not only a means of Pilate’s revenge on the Jews who had forced him to condemn Jesus, and to whom he directs this insult, but through this inscription it is demonstrated that the condemnation of Jesus is at the same time the judgment of Judaism.” [xi] When they came to him to demand the removal of the sign, Pilate refused. This action only served “to portray his pathetic weakness all the more clearly. His famous line – what I have written, I have written – sounds, in the context, merely petulant and childish.” [xii]