Easter. The Passion of Jesus XVII. Pilate and the date of Jesus’ death. The Roman Trial.

Part 18, here.
Part 16, here.

You can read the whole series here.

Pilate and the date of Jesus’ death.

When did Jesus die? The problem here is the differences in the Gospels over the relation of his death to the feast, Passover. They all agree that it happens on a Friday, but for Mark, Matthew, and Luke, that coincides with Passover.

The Jewish day starts in the evening and runs until the following evening. This means that the Last Supper, the Trials of the Sanhedrin and Pilate, crucifixion, and death, all take place on the Passover holiday. Thus, for Mark, Matthew, and Luke, the dinner on Thursday night is a Passover meal. For John, it’s different. When the chief priests come to Pilate, they don’t want to go in, because they want to celebrate the feast that begins on Friday (evening). So for John, Passover runs from Friday evening until Saturday evening. In that case, all the actions take place the day before Passover. And the issue is one of timing Jesus ministry. It’s possible to compute which years Passover occurred on Thursday and which on Friday.

Most scholars now accept John’s chronology. The reasoning for why the other Gospels are different suggests that the development of the idea early on that the sacrament was the Christian equivalent of the Passover meal helped to change the dating. The connection between Passover and sacrament happened because Jesus introduced the remembrance of his flesh and blood during that last meal. The two likely dates that fit with either situation are 30 and 33. The reason this might be important is that in 30, Sejanus is still in power in Rome. If he appointed Pilate, his patron is still in place. But in 33, Sejanus is dead, and Tiberius is nervous about any appointees of Sejanus as they might be disloyal. Pilate would have to be more careful to avoid complaints to Rome. This makes him an easy target for the chief priests and more likely to acquiesce to their demands. John in fact reports the chief priests saying if you don’t kill Jesus, you’re no friend of Rome. They would have had Pilate over a barrel.

Pilate. Mark and The Roman Trial. Barabbas.

Mark: the chief priests, the elders, and the council hand Jesus over to Pilate and Pilate asks him “are you the king of the Jews?” This is just out of the blue, and it shows how Mark tells stories. Not much background detail is developed. In the Sanhedrin, the issue doesn’t even come up. So we are to infer that the Sanhedrin has used this as an introduction to Pilate, or perhaps Pilate has heard rumors. Mark doesn’t say, what he has in his received tradition was that the Roman issue with Jesus is a claim to be king of the Jews. And of course its a point that the claim appeared on the cross and that was handed down as significant. It’s not just Mark. The question comes up in all the Gospels. It’s evidently an old tradition and all the Gospel writers have it.

Jesus answers in a way that appears in the Jewish trial, “that is what you say.” It’s vague and perhaps it’s meant to point out the complicated nature of the answer. And Jesus doesn’t give a straight answer to the question in any of the Gospels. “King of the Jews” is a political title, and it’s a title that first appears about seventy years before the birth of Jesus with the arguing priest-kings when Pompeii invades to settle things down. Slapping Jesus with the title probably had overtones of rebellion with historical roots.

The chief priests are present because they keep offering other things against Jesus, and Pilate asks him again, don’t you have an answer to these charges (Mark doesn’t say what these charges are). “But Jesus made no further answer.”

There has been discussion as to whether Roman law would allow Pilate to convict Jesus with such evidence. There is a lot of codified Roman law (called “ordinary law”), at this point, but it’s law for Roman citizens. Moreover, in an Imperial Province, things are always run by decree of the Prefect or governor, at least for non-citizens (extraordinary law–it’s not codified). The basic rule for any Roman Prefect was this: don’t create unrest in the province by being stupid (and that meant respecting local tradition if possible). And if there is unrest, settle it without sword-play if possible—Josephus tells of Pilate trying to settle a riot instructing soldiers to use clubs, not swords for example. So Pilate has the power to convict (issue a death penalty in this case), but he has to be careful not create a mess as well as do justice if he’s on the up and up, and Pilate doesn’t seem to be a bad character, just insensitive at times.

Now Mark gives us the scene of Barabbas, and it has a lot of problems in it. “At the feast, he used to release for them, any one prisoner whom they asked.” What feast–only Passover? Every feast? Mark doesn’t say. Among the insurrectionaries in prison there was a prisoner who had committed murder. Barabbas. Then the crowd comes up (it feels like the whole thing is on a public square. Anybody can come up and jump in to the proceedings–John complicates this was a neat chiasmus–I’ll come back to that). Pilate says, “do you want me to release for you the king of Jews, for he perceived that it was out of envy that the chief priests had delivered him up.” Mark says that Pilate knows this isn’t a serious matter with Jesus.[22] But the chief priests stir up the crowd (how? Mark doesn’t say) to have Pilate release Barabbas instead of Jesus.

Pilate: “then what am I to do with the man whom you call the King of the Jews?”
And they cry out, crucify him. Pilate asks, what evil has he done? But in the end he releases Barabbas and has Jesus flogged and sentenced to crucifixion. That’s Mark’s version.

So is there some information about who Barabbas was? And was there really this custom to free some prisoner at a feast, or once a year? It turns out to be complex. Matthew has pretty much the same: at the feast the governor had the custom to release anyone they wanted, and they had a notorious prisoner called Barabbas (he leaves out the part about insurrectionist murderer). “Whom do you want me to release for you, Barabbas or this Jesus who is called the Christ.” So Matthew has “Christ” [Messiah] here.[23] Luke says nothing about a custom of Pilate. John’s account assigns the custom to the Jews. “Remember, *you* have a custom that I release someone for you at Passover.”

Finally, there doesn’t seem to be any extra-biblical record of such customs, either Pilate’s or the Jew’s. No regular pattern of such things. There are examples of rulers, say on a birthday or inauguration/coronation event, releasing prisoners but these are not insurrectionists and murderers, especially not recently imprisoned.

Maybe there was such a prisoner who was released, and the tradition of Jesus being condemned was combined in Christian memory to supply missing logic of how things worked out. That may be strengthened by noting that disciples are not part of the scene on Pilate’s doorstep so to speak. It’s a puzzle that is unresolved.

Mark ends out with a very short segment with the crowd crying out for Jesus’ death, Pilate concedes the point and delivers him up to be crucified.


[22] Brown, 1:387.

[23] The interesting part is an alternate reading that shows up in a few lesser manuscripts. “Whom do you want me to release for you, Jesus Barabbas or Jesus called the Christ?” There is recognition that Barabbas is not a personal name. Some fair number of people in Judea were probably named Jesus, so how do you distinguish them? You could add the birthplace: Jesus of Nazareth. But say in Nazareth there a couple of people named Jesus. You add the father’s name: Simon Bar Jona. Is Barabbas in fact, Bar Abba? Jesus son of father (God!?), Jesus the Messiah king of the Jews. It’s kind of fun, but Abba was a fairly well attested name at the time, and in fact early church father Origen mentions that he knew of this reading, and that he thought it was insulting. Some people speculate that this may have influenced the deletion of the name from manuscripts. W. H. Davies, “Origen’s Comment on Matthew 27:17,” Review and Expositor 39, no. 1 (1942): 65-7.