The chief priests convince Pilate to allow the execution of Jesus
Jesus stood before the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, who asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?”
“You have said so,” Jesus replied.
When he was earlier accused by the chief priests and the elders of the people, Jesus had refused to answer. Pilate asked him, “Don’t you hear the testimony they are bringing against you?” To the great amazement of Pilate, Jesus gave no reply, not even to a single charge made against him.
Now it was the governor’s custom at the Passover festival to release a prisoner chosen by the people. At the time, they had a well-known prisoner named Barabbas. When the crowd gathered, Pilate asked them, “Which one do you want me to release to you? Barabbas or Jesus, the one who is called the Messiah?”
Pilate knew it was out of self-interest that the chief priests had handed Jesus over to him.
While Pilate sat on the judge’s seat, his wife sent him a message: “Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him.”
But the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus executed.
“Which of the two do you want me to release to you?” asked Pilate.
“Barabbas,” they answered.
“What shall I do then, with Jesus, who is called the Messiah? Pilate asked.
They all answered, “Crucify him!”
“Why? What crime has he committed?” asked Pilate.
But they shouted louder, “Crucify him!”
When Pilate saw he was getting nowhere with the crowd, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “It is your responsibility!”
All the people answered, “His blood is on us and our children!”
So Pilate released Barabbas to them. He had Jesus flogged and handed him over to be crucified.
What the story means to us today
A tragic turn of events was required to complete God’s plan
The crucifixion of Jesus was a tragic injustice. Not only was he convicted by the chief priests of the trumped-up charge of blasphemy, but they took it a step further and convinced Pilate to execute Jesus based on a different trumped-up charge – treason.
Pilate believed Jesus to be innocent and fought to have him exonerated. When he failed to convince the people that Jesus was innocent, he cowed to their demands to protect his position of power.
Clearly, it took much effort and the perfect turn of events to ensure Jesus was crucified. But we know that Jesus’ death was a part of God’s plan all along. The lamb must be symbolically sacrificed to create a new covenant based on forgiveness rather than Old Testament physical sacrifices. God guided the events of the day to ensure his plan was completed.
Deeper thoughts and additional considerations
Why did Pilate ask Jesus if he was the “king of the Jews”?
Luke 23:2 tells us that the chief priests and elders of the people told Pilate that Jesus was “suberting our nation” and that he opposed paying taxes to Caesar – and that he claimed to be the Messiah, or in their words, the king of the Jews. Thus the charge Pilate was acting on was the issue of Jesus’ kingship, a potential “threat” to the Roman authority.
In John’s version of the events, we see Jesus provide an explanation for Pilate, telling him that he is a king but not in the manner Pilate might have foreseen. Jesus tells Pilate that his “kingdom is not of this world,” clearly implying that he was no threat to Pilate nor Caesar’s rule.
The chief priests’ strategy was clear. Labeling Jesus a “king” was politically charged and more dangerous to Pilate (and Caesar) than labeling Jesus the Messiah. Charging Jesus in this manner aligned more with treason than blasphemy, a threat to Caesar’s leadership that Pilate would be unable to ignore.
The custom of releasing a prisoner to the Jewish people during the Passover festival
Little is known about the custom of releasing a prisoner to the people during the Jewish Passover festival. The only mention thus far is in the Bible. However, the Bible specifically notes that it was a custom of “the governor” – Pilate. It may have been a ritual part of the celebration for only a few years of Pilate’s reign or granted sporadically on his whim.
The prisoner – Barabbas
The name “Barabbas” means “son of Abba” or “son of the father,” possibly indicating Barabbas was the son of a well-known rabbi. In some manuscripts, his full name was recorded as “Jesus Barabbas.” Jesus was a common name at the time, so scribes may have omitted the name “Jesus” in reverence for Jesus Christ.
Matthew tells us that Barabbas was “notorious, and other New Testament verses suggest he was well known. He may have been convicted of something serious such as murder or insurrection (or, according to Luke, a combination of both). This would align with the remainder of the story, where we find Jesus crucified alongside two criminals who also must have been guilty of something more serious than robbery or theft to be sentenced to death. If they too were insurrectionists, it may have been that Barabbas should have occupied the cross that Jesus was placed on but, by the will of the people, was set free instead.
Why would it be considered out of the chief priests’ “self-interest” that Jesus be executed?
Pilate knew he was being used by the Jewish leaders. The chief priests and elders convicted Jesus of blasphemy to eliminate a perceived threat to their rule and faith. Pilate was quite aware that Jesus was being falsely accused of treason to obtain a verdict worthy of execution. If he found Jesus innocent, he risked starting a riot and contending with Roman ire. But if he found Jesus guilty, he knew he would be sentencing an innocent man to death.
Pilate’s wife sends a message from a dream
It is likely that a magistrate’s wife was not allowed to enter the judicial proceedings. Thus Pilate’s wife would have to send a message to reach him. Since he was conducting a judicial proceeding, her interruption shows she considered her message to be urgent.
Regardless, while Pilate dealt with his wife’s message, the chief priests may have used the time to speak with the crowd and convince them to ask for the release of Barabbas instead of Jesus. This would be indicative of God’s continuing guidance in the events that unfolded.
The chief priests and elders of the people convince the crowd to have Jesus executed
Both Matthew and Mark say the Jewish leaders influenced the crowd’s decision to choose the release of Barabbas over Jesus. We know that Jesus was a popular figure at the time (and thus a threat to Jewish leaders), and we are told that Barabbas was a “notorious” criminal. The decision to be made would have involved two popular celebrities. It’s easy to imagine the ease with which the chief priests encouraged the crowd to choose death for Jesus – whom they charged with blasphemy – a much more serious offense to the Jewish citizens than any other crime.
The blood on Jewish peoples’ hands – not Pilate’s
Pilate symbolically washes his hands to indicate his disagreement and implied innocence in the matter. Ironically, washing hands to show absolution was a Jewish custom and not one believed to be associated with Romans at the time. Still, the gospels list various solutions Pilate proposed before ultimately giving in and washing his hands of the whole affair.
Luke tells us that Pilate sent Jesus to Herod, hoping for Jesus’ release. Pilate suggested paschal amnesty and proposed scourging instead of death. John says he even tried to redirect the case back to the Jewish authorities. Pilate took great lengths to convince the people to let Jesus go.
The “crowd,” influenced by Jewish leaders, bore much of the responsibility in Jesus’ crucifixion and even willingly accepted “his blood on us and our children.” Matthew says every single person in attendance accepted the responsibility.
Still, under pressure from the Jewish authorities and crowd, Pilate made the final call, a cowardly judgment made to pacify the civilians and maintain the peace he was responsible for ensuring. As Matthew clearly states, all who were involved bore some responsibility for Jesus’s death, not just the chief priests or the Jewish crowd.
Does this mean the Jewish nation as a whole bears responsibility? If you believe this, ask yourself, “What about the Jews who converted to Christianity?” Were they somehow exempt from the guilt because they ultimately converted?
An anti-Semitic view should not be taken. The Jewish nation should not be blamed for Jesus’ death. Doing so would distort the purpose of Jesus’ death, the ultimate sacrifice that had to be met according to God’s plan.
Why was Jesus flogged before being released to be crucified?
Flogging, our scourging, was a demented form of punishment that would bring the victim close to death. It was a common practice before the governor made the final pronouncement, “You will mount the cross.”
The victim would be stripped of all clothes and tied face-forward to a wooden post. The whip was constructed with plaits embedded with bone, rock, and metal fragments that would rip the victim’s skin to shreds. The historian Josephus said the damage to the body was so severe, that bones would sometimes be exposed.
Undoubtedly, flogging was used to weaken the victim before the crucifixion (as was breaking of the legs if it took too long to succumb to hanging). In Jesus’ instance, flogging came as no surprise because Jesus had already predicted it in Matthew 20:19:
“They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified.”
Why did Pontius Pilate cater to the chief priests’ demands?
For a Roman leader who hated the Jews, Pilate seemed to cow to their demand to execute Jesus. This surprises some because historical sources record him as a cruel and ruthless leader. However, some historical sources mention his rule as fairly benign.
We know that at a few points in Pilate’s career, he was severely reprimanded by Tiberius, in some instances because of his actions against the Jews. His agreement to execute Jesus may have been an attempt to appease the Jews and avoid another rebuke by Tiberius Caesar.
And, of course, we should not forget that Jesus himself was Jewish. Pilate’s act was a sentence to execute a Jew, which would perfectly align with historical references to Pilate as an anti-Semite.
Finally, verse 19 tells us that Pilate’s wife warned him against ruling against that “innocent man.” Pilate may have simply been following his wife’s lead.
The science behind the story
Who was Pontius Pilate?
Pontius Pilate is referred to in this story as “governor.” He was the fifth governor of the Roman province of Judaea. More specifically, he was the prefect or procurator by Tiberius Caesar from 26 AD through 37 AD. Prefects acted under Tiberius in judicial matters, somewhat like judges do today. Their primary duty was to keep order in the province.
A few non-Christian historical sources write about Pilate. Some portray him as a cruel leader who despised the Jews. His relationship with Jesus is also mentioned. Both the historians Josephus and Tacitus recorded Pilate’s conviction of the man called “Christus.” The historians Pliny the Younger and Suetonus also vaguely referred to Pilate’s sentence against Jesus.
The location of Jesus’ trial before Pontius Pilate
Given the details provided by the gospels, the setting for Jesus’ appearance before Pilate may have been in the Tower of Antonia, located on the northwest corner of the Temple. More likely, however, it took place in Herod’s old palace on the west side of Jerusalem. It is known that Roman governors stayed in Herod the Great’s former palace when they visited Jerusalem.
11 Meanwhile Jesus stood before the governor, and the governor asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?”
“You have said so,” Jesus replied.
12 When he was accused by the chief priests and the elders, he gave no answer. 13 Then Pilate asked him, “Don’t you hear the testimony they are bringing against you?” 14 But Jesus made no reply, not even to a single charge—to the great amazement of the governor.
15 Now it was the governor’s custom at the festival to release a prisoner chosen by the crowd. 16 At that time they had a well-known prisoner whose name was Jesus Barabbas. 17 So when the crowd had gathered, Pilate asked them, “Which one do you want me to release to you: Jesus Barabbas, or Jesus who is called the Messiah?” 18 For he knew it was out of self-interest that they had handed Jesus over to him.
19 While Pilate was sitting on the judge’s seat, his wife sent him this message: “Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him.”
20 But the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus executed.
21 “Which of the two do you want me to release to you?” asked the governor.
“Barabbas,” they answered.
22 “What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called the Messiah?” Pilate asked.
They all answered, “Crucify him!”
23 “Why? What crime has he committed?” asked Pilate.
But they shouted all the louder, “Crucify him!”
24 When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “It is your responsibility!”
25 All the people answered, “His blood is on us and on our children!”
26 Then he released Barabbas to them. But he had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified.
27:11 Then Jesus stood before the governor, and the governor asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?” Jesus said, “You say so.” 27:12 But when he was accused by the chief priests and the elders, he did not respond. 27:13 Then Pilate said to him, “Don’t you hear how many charges they are bringing against you?” 27:14 But he did not answer even one accusation, so that the governor was quite amazed.
27:15 During the feast the governor was accustomed to release one prisoner to the crowd, whomever they wanted. 27:16 At that time they had in custody a notorious prisoner named Jesus Barabbas. 27:17 So after they had assembled, Pilate said to them, “Whom do you want me to release for you, Jesus Barabbas or Jesus who is called the Christ?” 27:18 (For he knew that they had handed him over because of envy.) 27:19 As he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent a message to him: “Have nothing to do with that innocent man; I have suffered greatly as a result of a dream about him today.” 27:20 But the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus killed. 27:21 The governor asked them, “Which of the two do you want me to release for you?” And they said, “Barabbas!” 27:22 Pilate said to them, “Then what should I do with Jesus who is called the Christ?” They all said, “Crucify him!” 27:23 He asked, “Why? What wrong has he done?” But they shouted more insistently, “Crucify him!”
27:24 When Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but that instead a riot was starting, he took some water, washed his hands before the crowd and said, “I am innocent of this man’s blood. You take care of it yourselves!” 27:25 In reply all the people said, “Let his blood be on us and on our children!” 27:26 Then he released Barabbas for them. But after he had Jesus flogged, he handed him over to be crucified.
11 Now Jesus stood before the governor. And the governor asked Him, saying, “Are You the King of the Jews?”
Jesus said to him, “It is as you say.” 12 And while He was being accused by the chief priests and elders, He answered nothing.
13 Then Pilate said to Him, “Do You not hear how many things they testify against You?” 14 But He answered him not one word, so that the governor marveled greatly.
15 Now at the feast the governor was accustomed to releasing to the multitude one prisoner whom they wished. 16 And at that time they had a notorious prisoner called Barabbas. 17 Therefore, when they had gathered together, Pilate said to them, “Whom do you want me to release to you? Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?” 18 For he knew that they had handed Him over because of envy.
19 While he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent to him, saying, “Have nothing to do with that just Man, for I have suffered many things today in a dream because of Him.”
20 But the chief priests and elders persuaded the multitudes that they should ask for Barabbas and destroy Jesus. 21 The governor answered and said to them, “Which of the two do you want me to release to you?”
They said, “Barabbas!”
22 Pilate said to them, “What then shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?”
They all said to him, “Let Him be crucified!”
23 Then the governor said, “Why, what evil has He done?”
But they cried out all the more, saying, “Let Him be crucified!”
24 When Pilate saw that he could not prevail at all, but rather that a tumult was rising, he took water and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, “I am innocent of the blood of this just Person. You see to it.”
25 And all the people answered and said, “His blood be on us and on our children.”
26 Then he released Barabbas to them; and when he had scourged Jesus, he delivered Him to be crucified.
11 Jesus was placed before the governor, who questioned him: “Are you the ‘King of the Jews’?”
Jesus said, “If you say so.”
12–14 But when the accusations rained down hot and heavy from the high priests and religious leaders, he said nothing. Pilate asked him, “Do you hear that long list of accusations? Aren’t you going to say something?” Jesus kept silence—not a word from his mouth. The governor was impressed, really impressed.
15–18 It was an old custom during the Feast for the governor to pardon a single prisoner named by the crowd. At the time, they had the infamous Jesus Barabbas in prison. With the crowd before him, Pilate said, “Which prisoner do you want me to pardon: Jesus Barabbas, or Jesus the so-called Christ?” He knew it was through sheer spite that they had turned Jesus over to him.
19 While court was still in session, Pilate’s wife sent him a message: “Don’t get mixed up in judging this noble man. I’ve just been through a long and troubled night because of a dream about him.”
20 Meanwhile, the high priests and religious leaders had talked the crowd into asking for the pardon of Barabbas and the execution of Jesus.
21 The governor asked, “Which of the two do you want me to pardon?”
They said, “Barabbas!”
22 “Then what do I do with Jesus, the so-called Christ?”
They all shouted, “Nail him to a cross!”
23 He objected, “But for what crime?”
But they yelled all the louder, “Nail him to a cross!”
24 When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere and that a riot was imminent, he took a basin of water and washed his hands in full sight of the crowd, saying, “I’m washing my hands of responsibility for this man’s death. From now on, it’s in your hands. You’re judge and jury.”
25 The crowd answered, “We’ll take the blame, we and our children after us.”
26 Then he pardoned Barabbas. But he had Jesus whipped, and then handed over for crucifixion.
11 And Jesus stood before the governor: and the governor asked him, saying, Art thou the King of the Jews? And Jesus said unto him, Thou sayest. 12 And when he was accused of the chief priests and elders, he answered nothing. 13 Then said Pilate unto him, Hearest thou not how many things they witness against thee? 14 And he answered him to never a word; insomuch that the governor marvelled greatly.
15 Now at that feast the governor was wont to release unto the people a prisoner, whom they would. 16 And they had then a notable prisoner, called Barabbas. 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. 19 When he was set down on the judgment seat, his wife sent unto him, saying, Have thou nothing to do with that just man: for I have suffered many things this day in a dream because of him. 20 But the chief priests and elders persuaded the multitude that they should ask Barabbas, and destroy Jesus. 21 The governor answered and said unto them, Whether of the twain will ye that I release unto you? They said, Barabbas. 22 Pilate saith unto them, What shall I do then with Jesus which is called Christ? They all say unto him, Let him be crucified. 23 And the governor said, Why, what evil hath he done? But they cried out the more, saying, Let him be crucified. 24 When Pilate saw that he could prevail nothing, but that rather a tumult was made, he took water, and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this just person: see ye to it. 25 Then answered all the people, and said, His blood be on us, and on our children. 26 Then released he Barabbas unto them: and when he had scourged Jesus, he delivered him to be crucified.
• Pilate presenting Jesus Christ to the public (Behold the Man) via Art in the Christian Tradition by Antonio Ciseri with usage type - Public Domain, Circa 1880
• Jesus Christ presented to Pilate for judgement via Universiteitsbibliotheek Gent by Unknown Author with usage type - Public Domain, 1600
• Jesus Christ in front of Pilate via Wikimedia Commons by Mihaly Munkacsy with usage type - Public Domain, 1881
• The "Pilate Inscription" from Caesarea Maritima, Israel via Wikimedia Commons by Marion Doss with usage type - Creative Commons License, November 24, 2005
• Jesus in Pilate's court via Wikimedia Commons by Jose Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro with usage type - Creative Commons License, September 18, 2016
• Christ before Pontius Pilate who is washing his hands of the guilt of the crime via American Art by Unidentified with usage type - Creative Commons License, May 19, 2015