The Roman Trials


When the morning came, it was necessary to take Jesus over to Pilate so the stamp of Rome’s approval could seal their illegal verdict against Jesus. Pontius Pilate was the Roman governor of Judea, under Emperor Tiberius from AD 26 to 36. He was not a favorite with the Jews, ruling in a reckless and arbitrary fashion, but it was his job to make sure the people in the province of Judea remained at peace. That was how his report card was marked with Rome. If he kept things calm in Judea, he did well. If there was an uproar or rebellion, he was in danger of Rome’s disciplinary action. According to one tradition, he was brought to Rome for trial under Emperor Caligula, and in AD 39 was ordered to commit suicide. However, an Ethiopian tradition claims Pilate and his wife became Christians, and he has been canonized as a saint in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. I really wouldn’t be surprised to see Pilate in Heaven.

Historian Flavius Josephus describes Pilate in his Antiquities of the Jews, offering additional information from outside the Bible on the procurator. An inscription with Pontius Pilate’s name in Latin was uncovered in Caesarea Maritima in 1961. The writing inscribed into a block of limestone was part of a dedication to Caesar Tiberius from “Pontius Pilate, Prefect of Judea.” That block is now housed in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

Under King Herod the Great, the Jews still had the right to judge themselves and carry out capital punishments according to the Torah. When Herod died, Caesar Augustus appointed Herod’s son Archelaus as “ethnarch” rather than king, and Archelaus ruled until AD 6. Herod and Archelaus were Idumeans, and the Romans didn’t understand that the Jews and the Idumeans (the Edomites, the children of Esau) were not the same thing and, in fact, had centuries of enmity behind them. The Jews repeatedly complained about Archelaus, but this didn’t end up helping their cause. In AD 6, Archelaus was dethroned and banished, and a Roman governor, Coponius, was assigned to the province of Judea. He was given the “power of life and death,”1 which horrified the Jews because they no longer had the authority to execute criminals. They believed the scepter had departed from Judah, and the Word of God in Genesis 49:10 had been broken. They didn’t understand that Shiloh had indeed come in fulfillment of this verse, and the Messiah was a little boy growing up in Nazareth.

Of course, the Jews generally ignored Rome and stoned people when they wanted — like Stephen in Acts 7. However, Jesus had become a popular public figure, and Rome’s blessing was deemed necessary in this case. Therefore, as morning dawned, the Jewish leadership led Jesus down to Pontius Pilate to get his official stamp of approval on their decision to execute the carpenter from Nazareth.

Then led they Jesus from Caiaphas unto the hall of judgment: and it was early; and they themselves went not into the judgment hall, lest they should be defiled; but that they might eat the passover.

John 18:28

Notice how messed up the Jewish leaders’ priorities are. The Jews won’t enter the Gentile building for ceremonial reasons, but they will engage in all manner of illegal judicial practices in order to murder an innocent man. This is exactly what Jesus had said about them, that they had completely twisted priorities. They consistently performed acts of cruelty while making a show of holiness:

Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye devour widows’ houses, and for a pretence make long prayer: therefore ye shall receive the greater damnation.

Matthew 23:14 

They cared about superficial, surface holiness, while neglecting the most important things.

Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.

Matthew 23:23 

This was a serious problem in their hearts, and they obviously hated Jesus. They won’t go into Pilate’s hall of judgment for ceremonial reasons, but they’ll put to death the very Son of God on trumped up charges.

Pilate is shrewd. He recognizes that the Jewish leadership is seeking to put Jesus to death out of envy and ego, and he repeatedly declares Jesus innocent. Seven times during this day, Jesus is judged innocent by everybody from Pilate to the centurion at the cross.2 It’s obvious that Jesus is not the malefactor the chief priests claim Him to be, but Pilate’s primary concern is keeping law and order in Judea. The Jewish leadership has placed him in a very bad position because they stir up a crowd of Jesus’ detractors and threaten to create an uprising — which would bring Rome down on them all. He honestly and even adamantly wants to let Jesus go, and he uses every artifact known to bureaucracy to have Jesus released. We know the chief priests don’t care about justice, though. They simply want Jesus dead.

Pilate then went out unto them, and said, What accusation bring ye against this man? They answered and said unto him, If he were not a malefactor, we would not have delivered him up unto thee. Then said Pilate unto them, Take ye him, and judge him according to your law. The Jews therefore said unto him, It is not lawful for us to put any man to death:

John 18:29-31 

How impudent of them! Pilate asks them to present their accusation, and they say, “Just take our word for it.” That’s not how the legal process works. It sounds like they were expecting Pilate to push through their claim without even examining it.

Luke gives us the first accusation made about Jesus that early morning. This leads to the first of several different meetings Pilate had with Jesus, both within and without the hall of judgment.

And they began to accuse him, saying, We found this fellow perverting the nation, and forbidding to give tribute to Caesar, saying that he himself is Christ a King.

Luke 23:2 

Of course, these are false accusations. Jesus has perverted nothing. He never forbade giving tribute to Caesar. And while He is indeed the Messiah, the Christ, Jesus didn’t go around promoting Himself as such. In fact, in Matthew 16:20 Jesus told the disciples to keep quiet about the fact that He was the Messiah, and He began to warn them that He was going to suffer and be put to death. These charges by the Jews are out of line, and Pilate sees through them.

Pilate decides to do his job and examine the man brought before him. He’s intrigued by the accusations that Jesus claims to be the Messiah. He pulls Jesus aside into the hall of judgment to talk to him, and it’s clear that Jesus is not planning an insurrection.

Then Pilate entered into the judgment hall again, and called Jesus, and said unto him, Art thou the King of the Jews? 
Jesus answered him, Sayest thou this thing of thyself, or did others tell it thee of me? Pilate answered, Am I a Jew? Thine own nation and the chief priests have delivered thee unto me: what hast thou done?

John 18:33-35 

This is obviously the core question, whether Jesus is seeking to be the King. It’s interesting that Pilate repeatedly refers to Jesus as the King of the Jews after this point, even writing it on the title above His cross later that day. Jesus clarifies to Pilate that there is no issue here. He is not planning to lead a rebellion against Rome. Pilate is the one calling him a king, but Jesus says His purpose for coming into the world was to bear witness to the truth.

Jesus answered, My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence. Pilate therefore said unto him, Art thou a king then? Jesus answered, Thou sayest that I am a king. To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth. Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice. Pilate saith unto him, What is truth? And when he had said this, he went out again unto the Jews, and saith unto them, I find in him no fault at all.

John 18:35-38 

Here we have one of the most famous rhetorical questions of all time. “What is truth?”

Something about Jesus must have impressed Pilate, because he goes out to the crowd and tells them he finds no fault in Him. At this point, Pilate should have simply cut Jesus loose and let him go.

Luke 23:6-11 tells us that Herod is in town at this time. Instead of releasing Jesus himself, Pilate thinks he’ll get out of this mess by pawning it off on Herod, because Jesus is a Galilean and Herod is the tetrarch of Galilee. This doesn’t work, though, because Herod just makes fun of Jesus and sends Him back.

Herod Antipater, or Antipas, was the son of Herod the Great and a Samaritan woman, so he was never really accepted by the Jews. Galilee of the Gentiles seems a fit dominion for that kind of a prince. Depending on whose dating method we check, Herod ruled in Galilee from either 4 BC or AD 1 to AD 39. It was this Herod who had John the Baptist beheaded, as described in Mark 6:17-29. It was a different Herod, the nephew of Antipas, King Herod Agrippa, who had James killed with a sword and Peter locked in prison in Acts 12:1-5.

Herod Antipas had heard about Jesus for a long time. He originally thought that Jesus was John the Baptist returned from the dead.3 Now, Pilate has sent him Jesus, and he’s excited because he’s heard about the wonderful things Jesus can do. He wants to see Jesus perform some wonder.

And when Herod saw Jesus, he was exceeding glad: for he was desirous to see him of a long season, because he had heard many things of him; and he hoped to have seen some miracle done by him. Then he questioned with him in many words; but he answered him nothing.

Luke 23:8-9

He’s looking for entertainment here, and Jesus does not humor him. Jesus won’t even give Herod the time of day. Isn’t that remarkable? Here we have a prisoner, ready to be condemned, with a crowd of enemies outside calling for His crucifixion, and He doesn’t bother to say a thing to Herod. Jesus has not been whipped at this point, but He has clearly retreated deep inside Himself, focusing on His own thoughts and not on His external circumstances. Herod gives up on Jesus and sends Him back to the unfortunate Pilate.

And Pilate, when he had called together the chief priests and the rulers and the people, Said unto them, Ye have brought this man unto me, as one that perverteth the people: and, behold, I, having examined him before you, have found no fault in this man touching those things whereof ye accuse him: No, nor yet Herod: for I sent you to him; and, lo, nothing worthy of death is done unto him. I will therefore chastise him, and release him.

Luke 23:13-16

Pilate spends the rest of the morning trying different maneuvers to set Jesus free without causing a riot. First, he picks out a violent robber Barabbas, thinking the Jews would much rather have Jesus walking around free than Barabbas. That doesn’t work.


The person of Barabbas is more significant than many people realize. His first name was also Jesus, according to a few manuscripts. It was a common name in those days, being the equivalent of the Hebrew name Joshua. Third century theologian Origen expressed puzzlement in his commentary of Matthew 27:16-17, bothered by the fact that Barabbas had the same name as the Lord, commenting that “Jesus” Barabbas was not found in all Matthew manuscripts. He clearly didn’t like it that a criminal had the same name as the Son of God.

However, we can see even in this little detail that Jesus Christ was a true replacement for Jesus Barabbas. The two men traded places. Jesus was the sinless Lamb of God, Barabbas was a murderer and thief.4 Barabbas means “son of the father,” while Jesus is the Son of God. Jesus was accused of insurrection, but He was innocent. Barabbas was guilty of insurrection, and he walked out uncondemned. We find Barabbas, the sinner, went free, and Jesus, the sinless one, was crucified in his place.

Boy, aren’t we in the same shoes as Barabbas? We would be condemned to die if Jesus hadn’t agreed to take our place. We are doomed criminals and sinners, and Jesus has borne our sins on Himself so that we can live and go free.

Behold the Man

Pilate’s effort to release Jesus backfired, so Pilate tries to abuse Jesus enough to satisfy His enemies and stir up the sympathy of the crowd. He has Jesus brutally scourged, and the Roman guards mock Jesus and beat on Him. Pilate is trying to encourage the priests to have pity on Jesus, so he can release Him, and that doesn’t work.

Then came Jesus forth, wearing the crown of thorns, and the purple robe. And Pilate saith unto them, Behold the man!

John 19:5 

The Swiss-Italian painter Antonio Ciseri captured the moment that Pilate displayed Jesus to the angry mob, declaring, “Behold the Man!”

Figure 1 - Ecce Homo (Behold the Man!) by Antonio Ciseri, 1871, Galleria dell'Arte Moderna, Palazzo Pitti, Florence.
Figure 1 - Ecce Homo (Behold the Man!) by Antonio Ciseri, 1871, Galleria dell'Arte Moderna, Palazzo Pitti, Florence.

Of course, as Pilate declares, “Behold!” Jesus appears before the crowd in much worse condition than portrayed in this pleasant painting. Jesus has been publicly degraded — lashed and torn, bruised and bloodied. The soldiers have pummeled Him and jammed thorns into His head. John 19:3 says the soldiers smote Jesus with their hands. These were hardened Roman soldiers, known for hating the Jews. Isaiah 50:6 prophesies, “I gave my back to the smiters, and my cheeks to them that plucked off the hair: I hid not my face from shame and spitting.” They beat Him up really quite badly, and they even tore out His beard! As Jesus stands there with His eyes swollen, blood running down His face, there is nothing imposing or majestic about Him. Surely, Pilate is thinking, this will take care of the issue. Nobody is going to rally around Jesus after such a public disfigurement and humiliation. The chief priests should be satisfied.

Pilate lost on this gamble, though. Christ’s enemies are bloodthirsty, and they call for Jesus’ death.

When the chief priests therefore and officers saw him, they cried out, saying, Crucify him, crucify him. Pilate saith unto them, Take ye him, and crucify him: for I find no fault in him.

John 19:6

Remember, the crowd that the chief priests had assembled early that morning were not Jesus’ followers. Jesus had thousands of followers. These are the chief priests, the Pharisees that Jesus had insulted. These are the members of the Sanhedrin. These are those temple guards Judas had assembled, and any other detractors the chief priests could bring against Jesus. This crowd is filled with the very people who want Jesus dead, so there’s no winning their pity.

Pilate wants to diffuse a potentially explosive situation. He doesn’t know he’s caught in the middle of a cosmic event that will impact all of eternity. Jesus behaves strangely in Pilate’s eyes, because He doesn’t try to stop His own death. He gives no argument, makes no plea on His own behalf, and down below the angry crowd is demanding His death.

The Jews answered him, We have a law, and by our law he ought to die, because he made himself the Son of God. When Pilate therefore heard that saying, he was the more afraid; And went again into the judgment hall, and saith unto Jesus, Whence art thou? But Jesus gave him no answer. Then saith Pilate unto him, Speakest thou not unto me? knowest thou not that I have power to crucify thee, 
and have power to release thee?

John 19:7-10

Matthew 27:19 tells us Pilate’s wife warned him that Jesus was a righteous man, and she’d suffered in dreams over Him, and now Pilate hears that Jesus claims to be the Son of God. Pilate is shaken, because he’s a Roman, and the Romans believed the gods could produce children. 
Pilate did not want to incur divine wrath. He demands that Jesus tell him where He is from. Jesus still declines to talk or make any defense, and Pilate is amazed. He challenges Jesus to say something — to recognize his authority to release Him. The answer Jesus gives is even more terrifying, because He basically says, “Don’t be fooled. You’re not really the one in charge.”

Jesus answered, Thou couldest have no power at all against me, except it were given thee from above: therefore he that delivered me unto thee hath the greater sin.

John 19:11  

Pilate is in a spot. He’s got a jurisdictional problem, but he also has possible divine warnings this man is righteous. He’s talked to Jesus several times at this point, and he wants nothing to do with executing this just person. His effort to release Jesus as a Passover gift to the Jews did not work. They chose Barabbas instead. He declares his intention to release Jesus, but the crowd is getting loud. He is in danger of a mob gone mad. He decides to symbolically release himself of responsibility over the whole thing. Pilate has water brought to him in a bowl, and he makes a point of ceremonially washing his hands.

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.

Matthew 27:24

The people in that crowd accept full responsibility at this point, shouting in the next verse, “His blood be on us, and on our children.” Pilate has spent hours trying to find a way out, a way to safely release Jesus without causing a violent uprising. At this point he gives up and allows them to take Jesus off to be crucified. He knowingly allowed a righteous man to be lynched in order keep peace in his jurisdiction.

It’s a tragic reality of history that the medieval church pinned the blame of Christ’s death on the Jews. John in his Gospel, speaks negatively of the “Jews” but he is clearly alluding to the Jewish leadership. John himself and his family and friends were all Jewish. Yet, anti-Semitism grew and spread until it infected medieval Christianity. Jesus was murdered by Gentiles, under Gentile authorities. More to the point, Jesus died to pay for the sins of each one of us. If you want to blame somebody for the death of Christ, blame me. It was my fault. My sins put Him on that cross.

This was an excerpt from Chuck Missler’s book The Easter Story: What Really Happened Also available in a two hour video presentation.


1 Josephus, War of the Jews, ii.8.1; Antiquities xviii.1.1.

2 Matthew 27:4, 19, 24; Luke 23:14-15, 47; John 18:38, 19:4-6

3 Mark 6:14-16

4 Mark 15:7; John 18:40