Easter. The Passion of Jesus XIX. Pilate and John’s Gospel. Some Genuine Chiasmus.

Part 20, here.
Part 18, here.

You can read the whole series here.

Pilate. John’s Gospel.

John’s Gospel gives more detail about Pilate and the trial and it is almost 3 times longer than Mark’s. Pilate is in the praetorium (probably the Herodian Palace), Jesus is inside, the chief priests etc. are outside. John is the Gospel of Eternal Life, and John’s Jesus is Divine before his life (John 1) and his actions throughout consist of encounters with people who are tested as to whether they choose light or darkness. For John, the Jews have chosen darkness. John has a rule regarding those who dither, who can’t decide when presented with the choice between light and dark. They have already chosen darkness, and this is where he places Pilate. In John’s version of the trial, Pilate is constantly moving in and out of the praetorium, he can’t make up his mind.

It’s in John that we finally learn why the Jews take Jesus to Pilate. They can’t execute him (Jn 18:31). The other Gospels never explain this. It’s a curious question, because there are instances where the Jewish authorities were going to, or actually did execute someone, apparently without Roman permission. Philo says that there were stones with writing on them in the temple warning foreigners against crossing from the outer Court of the Gentiles to the inner sections under penalty of death. Josephus says these signs were put up with Roman permission.

But there are examples where Jews executed people seemingly without permission. James the brother of Jesus, head of the church in Jerusalem was executed by the Sanhedrin in between the time when Prefect Festus left and the new Prefect Albinus arrived. James and others were stoned. The Romans removed the High Priest for this. The woman taken in adultery (Jn 7:53ff). The story is probably not original to John’s Gospel, but could be early. Stephen was stoned to death. But this may have dated from 36AD when Pilate had been recalled and there was no new governor yet.[24] So John is probably historical with his explanation that the Jews could not execute the death penalty for Jesus’ crimes even if they had some special dispensations from Rome.

Something of interest to Latter-day Saints is John’s use of chiastic artistry in expanding and rearranging traditional material.[25]

Jn 18:28-32 Jews demand death (outside praetorium)
Jn 18:33-38a Pilate and Jesus on Kingship (inside)
Jn 18:38b-40 Pilate finds no guilt; choice of Barabbas (outside)
Jn 19:1-3 Soldiers scourge Jesus (inside and center of the chiasm)
Jn 19:4-8 Pilate finds no guilt; “Behold the man.” Crucify him! (outside)
Jn 19:9-11 Pilate and Jesus on power (inside)
Jn 19:12-16a Jews obtain death sentence (outside)

The interaction between Pilate and the chief priests is remarkable for sarcasm and a verbal lack of respect and terrible irony. Look for this when you read. It’s a part of John’s view of Jewish and Roman ethics.

When Pilate dialogues with Jesus, he brings up the same question, “are you the king of the Jews?” This is in the root of the traditions. But John will have Jesus insist that this is utter nonsense! Instead, the Jesus of John will give the worked out Christian explanation: “my kingdom is not of this world.” The whole thing had nothing to do with politics at that point. After this, Jesus is wholly the Jesus of John, he is Sovereign. And he puts Pilate on the spot with the famous conversation about Truth. He’s the Spirit of Truth, and when the Jews admit their main objection (he claims to be God’s son — none of the false prophet stuff — John makes them admit this in public). And Pilate is afraid! He wants to let Jesus go. Now the Jews threaten Pilate (if you let him go, you are no friend of Caesar).

Another thing John does is tell us that it’s about noon when Jesus is sentenced to death. There is the impulse to believe this means something for John rather than being just some random detail. And it may mean something in Johannine theology. Passover was not originally a national feast, it was a familial celebration, and the head of the family killed the lamb and the family ate it. Gradually it became associated with the feast of unleavened bread and that was a temple-centered feast, so people had to journey to Jerusalem to celebrate it. The priests took it over and as a result they had to do the sacrifice. By the time of Jesus, more than 100,000 people might converge on the city for Passover and the lamb was supposed to be killed the day before Passover. There was no way to do this all in the same hour at sunset, so they interpreted the time commandment in Leviticus to mean between noon and evening. That meant they started killing the lambs at noon on the day before Passover, and John makes sure to tell us the trial is on the day before Passover in contrast to the other Gospels. In the beginning of John, at the baptism, there is “Behold the lamb of God” and at the crucifixion in John the wine is put on hyssop (in the other Gospels, it’s a sponge) the same thing that appears to sprinkle the blood on the door posts when the destroying angel comes in Exodus. So this noon note in John may be a reference to Jesus as the sacrificial lamb, and John may see it as important that Jesus is dying when the Passover lambs are being killed.

John is teaching two things, theological things, in his story of Pilate. First Pilate is a kind of model for the person who is indecisive in confronting Jesus: You’re going to consent to Jesus’ death eventually. Second, for the High Priest and Sanhedrin court, Jesus as false prophet or even King of the Jews is not the real problem. That’s not their issue. When Pilate asks, “shall I crucify your king?” They give a dreadfully ironic response: “We have no king but Caesar.” Their issue is with Jesus as Son of God. Thus, they give up their traditional long hope (in John’s eyes).


[24] Brown, 1:368, 370.

[25] Brown, 2:758.

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