Luke 23:1–25: Jesus Before Pilate, Jesus Before Herod, Pilate Delivers Jesus to be Crucified
In the previous passage Jesus had been tried by the Jewish Council, and now he’s going to be handed over for trial by the Romans: First by Pilate, then by Herod, and then back to Pilate again.
First, the religious leaders bring him to Pontius Pilate, who is the Governor of the Roman province of Judea. In their own trial, in the Jewish Council, the focus had been on whether or not Jesus was the Christ, but the accusations they bring to Pilate are more geared toward things that a Roman Governor would care about:
- They say Jesus was “misleading” the nation (essentially meaning insurrection; i.e. I think they’re accusing Jesus of fomenting revolt against the Romans); this is untrue
- They say he was forbidding people to give tribute to Caesar; not only is this untrue, he’d actually been saying the opposite
- They say he is claiming to be Christ, a king
Again, on that last point, whether or not Jesus is “the Christ” is a religious question, but since they understand that “the Christ” is going to be the king of the nation of Israel, they are bringing this accusation to the Romans, since such a claim would be treasonous (and therefore deserving of the death penalty).
So having been accused of claiming to be a king, Pilate asks him point blank in verse 3: “Are you the king of the Jews?” But Jesus answers in a similar way to how he’d answered the Council in the previous chapter: He doesn’t say yes or no, he says, “You have said so.”
Before the Council, this had been enough of an answer: He was claiming to be the Christ, that’s blasphemy, so he deserves death. Pilate, however, doesn’t take it that way, he tells Jesus’ accusers that he finds no guilt in him, regardless of any claims about being “the king of the Jews.” But they’re adamant: he’s been stirring up the people of Judea, all the way from Galilee to here!
Pilate picks up on that, though, and when he realizes that Jesus is from Galilee he decides that Jesus belongs to the jurisdiction of Herod Antipas, not his. So he doesn’t pass judgement on Jesus at all, he simply sends him over to Herod.
This turns out to be great news for Herod, because he’d already been wanting to see Jesus. (Not for any religious or moral reasons; he was hoping that Jesus would do a sign for him.) So Herod questions Jesus, and the chief priests and the scribes are there all the while accusing him, but Jesus doesn’t give any answers.
So Herod (and his soldiers) start treating Jesus with contempt, and mocking him, before putting some “splendid clothing” (verse 11) on him and sending him back to Pilate. (The splendid clothing is, again, making a mockery of Jesus. “You’re claiming to be a king?” Herod is saying, “then we’ll dress you like one!”)
Verse 12 tells us that Herod and Pilate—who had previously “been at enmity with each other”—now become friends. Which is… and odd footnote, to my eyes. A friendship which blossoms out of a mutual clearing of an innocent man…
In any event, now that Jesus is back in front of him, Pilate makes his final judgement—or so he thinks:
Pilate then called together the chief priests and the rulers and the people, and said to them, “You brought me this man as one who was misleading the people. And after examining him before you, behold, I did not find this man guilty of any of your charges against him. Neither did Herod, for he sent him back to us. Look, nothing deserving death has been done by him. I will therefore punish and release him.” (verses 13–16)
The people, however, have fully turned on Jesus by this point, so they want him put to death:
But they all cried out together, “Away with this man, and release to us Barabbas”—a man who had been thrown into prison for an insurrection started in the city and for murder. Pilate addressed them once more, desiring to release Jesus, but they kept shouting, “Crucify, crucify him!” A third time he said to them, “Why? What evil has he done? I have found in him no guilt deserving death. I will therefore punish and release him.” But they were urgent, demanding with loud cries that he should be crucified. And their voices prevailed. So Pilate decided that their demand should be granted. He released the man who had been thrown into prison for insurrection and murder, for whom they asked, but he delivered Jesus over to their will. (verses 18–25)
I think the main thing I miss in reading passages like these is that I don’t know the Roman legal system, so I’m sure there are nuances I miss in these events.
The Jews’ accusation that Jesus is claiming to be “Christ, a king” (verse 2), is so twisted, giving what they do and don’t believe…
|Claim||True?||Religious Leaders Believe it?|
|Jesus is the Christ||True||No|
|The Christ is a king||Sort of||Yes|
|The Christ will overthrow the Romans||False||Yes|
In other words… if Jesus had actually been guilty of what the Jews are accusing him of—wanting to overthrow the Romans—they wouldn’t have brought him for trial in the first place, but because they think he’s innocent of that part, but guilty of other things, they bring him forward, and use him claiming to be a “king”—the type of king they’re expecting but not the type of king Jesus claims to be—to be the charge they make. It makes your head hurt to go through the logic of it!
Add in the fact that the people get Pilate to release Barabbas instead of Jesus—a man who’s actually guilty of the things that Jesus is fraudulently charged with!—and the entire event is simply abounding in irony.
I don’t actually have much to say about the trial before Herod, except to wonder if Herod and his men only started treating Jesus with contempt because Jesus hadn’t “performed” for them. Jesus doesn’t even answer Herod as much as he’d answered Pilate, which must have annoyed/angered Herod, who’d already been wanting Jesus to put on a show for him!
I don’t actually know on what basis he’s sending Jesus back to Pilate, though. The Jews sent Jesus to Pilate because they thought he was the right Governor, Pilate sent him to Herod because he was from Herod’s jurisdiction, but on what grounds is Herod sending him back to Pilate?
So then that brings me to the question of how guilty Pilate is in all of this. He makes it clear that he believes Jesus to be innocent of anything deserving the death penalty; in fact, he and Herod are in agreement on this, as he takes pains to announce to the crowd. According to Roman law, Jesus shouldn’t be getting crucified: he’s been tried and found innocent. Though I know nothing about Roman justice, or how their legal system worked, the decision seems to rest with Pilate—as opposed to a legal system we’re used to, involving lawyers and judges and juries—but given that that’s the case, Pilate has already issued his verdict: Jesus is innocent.
So should Pilate have released Jesus? Honestly, I think Pilate is making more of a political decision here than a legal one. He definitely believes Jesus to be innocent, and I’m guessing he believes Barabbas to be guilty, so this decision to release Barabbas and crucify Jesus is doubly “wrong,” but I think he’s doing it to prevent a riot.
In fact, my study Bible notes take pains to point out that neither Pilate nor Herod are normally based out of Jerusalem, but they both happen to be there because it’s the Passover, and they feel they need to be in the city where the Jews are gathering in large numbers. Although Jesus is innocent of fomenting rebellion against Rome, other Jews (including Barabbas!) have rebelled before, and the Jewish people have been known to riot. Passover, especially, would be a time for Rome to keep a careful eye on the Jews: It’s a time when they, as a nation, are celebrating their release from bondage from the Egyptians. I can easily see Passover being a time when the insurrectionists have a lot of luck getting some of the Jews to rise up in rebellion.
Given that PIlate and Herod are both in Jerusalem, specifically trying to prevent insurrection and riots, I’m not surprised that Pilate makes a political decision here, instead of the correct legal decision. (It’s just one man, right? As opposed to an entire people group rising up and rebelling against Rome?)
So yes, I think Pilate is culpable for having Jesus crucified and releasing Barabbas, but I understand why he did it: He was trying to prevent a riot, and he had a bloodthirsty crowd in front of him getting ready to do just that. I see no indication that there was any religious thinking going on; nobody had explained sin or the Christ or forgiveness to Pilate, so he wasn’t rejecting Jesus’ message. I don’t think he knew what Jesus’ message was.