15.04.02 Mt. 27:2; Jn. 18:28-30; Lk. 23:1-2; Jn. 18:28-32; Fourth Ministry Passover, April 30, in the Praetorium.
FIRST ROMAN TRIAL: JESUS TAKEN BEFORE PILATE
Mt. 2 After tying Him up, they led Him away and handed Him over to Pilate, the governor.
Jn. 28 Then they took Jesus from Caiaphas to the governor’s headquarters. It was early morning. They did not enter the headquarters themselves; otherwise they would be defiled and unable to eat the Passover.
29 Then Pilate came out to them and said, “What charge do you bring against this man?”
30 They answered him, “If this man weren’t a criminal, we wouldn’t have handed Him over to you.”
Lk. 1 Then their whole assembly rose up and brought Him before Pilate. 2 They began to accuse Him, saying, “We found this man subverting our nation, opposing payment of taxes to Caesar, and saying that He Himself is the Messiah, a King.”
Jn. 31 So Pilate told them, “Take Him yourselves and judge Him according to your law.”
“It’s not legal for us to put anyone to death,” the Jews declared. 32 They said this so that Jesus’ words might be fulfilled signifying what kind of death He was going to die.
Throughout these two trials before Pilate, there were four identifiable procedural steps.
- Pilate had to know the accusation. The Jews said that if Jesus were not guilty, they would not have brought him. Caiaphas and his co-conspirators had assembled an angry mob that was so emotionally charged that they did not even realize their own sarcasm towards Pilate who could have had all of them crucified.
- Interrogation. Pilate asked the question, “Are you king of the Jews?” This was an interesting question, because the Jews had many self-proclaimed messiahs who desired to overthrow Roman tyranny.
- Defense. Since Jesus did not have an attorney to defend Him, Pilate spoke on His behalf to His accusers.
- The verdict. Pilate was one of the cruelest dictators of this era, yet he could find no fault in Jesus.
“Pilate, the governor.” The name “Pilate” or Pilatus was most fitting for the governor. It comes from a Latin word that means armed with a javelin, a six-foot long throwing spear that had an iron point, a decisive weapon in combat. He was the sixth ruler of Judea, an appointment he received through the influence of his good friend Lucius Aelius Sejanus, who, like Pilate, was a friend of Caesar. However, while Sejanus claimed to be a friend of Caesar, he was, in fact, an arch rival; a stealthy Judas.
Traditional scholarship has said that Pilate, who was born in Spain, was authorized by Rome to be the official procurator cum potestate, meaning he had full rights in civil, criminal, and military jurisdictions. Some ancient writers, such as Josephus, referred to him as the procurator. However, in 1961 scholars discovered that this was an error, and that his proper title was “prefect.” Therefore, it must be concluded that while titles were important, writers were somewhat loose with the proper use of them. Also, while Judea was in effect a part of a province of Syria, Pilate was personally responsible to the Emperor Tiberius, rather than to the Governor of Syria or the Roman Senate. He was not only an extension of Rome, but also had ultimate Roman judicial authority, which included capital punishment (Latin: ius gladii) for non-Roman citizens.
15.04.02.A. THE PRAETORIAN GUARD. Two reliefs of the Praetorian Guard shown in Rome on whom the emperor relied for personal power and protection. Jerusalem had a similar Praetorian Guard to protect Pilate and to crush any Jewish uprising.
Some scholars have concluded that Pilate was in Herod’s palace near the Jaffa Gate. However, if these two men were at odds with each other, there is a slim possibility that they were under the same roof, especially when Pilate was needed by the temple. Therefore, it can be concluded that Pilate was in the Fortress and Herod in his palace, thereby requiring the Jews to march Jesus back and forth across the city in the early morning of Passover.
The Romans were primarily concerned about treason, potential riots, and rebellions which would obviously lead to the loss of tax revenue. Therefore, when the Jews came before Pilate accusing Jesus of treason, he listened. The situation had now changed dramatically, primarily due to actions of Sejanus in Rome. Furthermore, no longer was Jesus under Jewish law; He was now under Roman law (see 03.06.25 and 16.01.05).
The first Roman trial is believed to have taken place in the Praetorium Guard, located in the Fortress. It has been argued that the Guard was stationed only in Rome, and Paul was therefore, incorrect in his comments about them in Philippians 1:13 and 4:22. However, recently scholars have discovered that the term “Caesar’s house,” as used by Paul had a much broader definition and included all those in government service. Hence, the word “Praetorium” can be applied to many locations outside of Rome, including Jerusalem. 
15.04.02.Q1. If capital punishment was illegal, how could the Jews have killed Stephen and James?
It has been argued that the Jews did, in fact, have the right to execute (Latin: ius gladii), since they killed both Stephen and James. First was the stoning of Stephen (Acts 7:54-60) and later, the stoning of James, the half-brother of Jesus in A.D. 62. That account was recorded by Josephus. However, these two deaths were caused by Sanhedrin-inspired riotous mobs and not by proper judicial procedure. The priest who initiated the death of James was removed from office because he violated the law prohibiting capital punishment (Latin: ius gladii). Amazingly, in later years, the documents of the Jerusalem Talmud recorded the following:
Forty years before the destruction of the temple they took from Israel the right to inflict capital punishment.
Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 1 18a
This Talmudic report is amazingly incorrect because Israel’s right to inflict capital punishment was removed decades earlier by Herod the Great, who also restricted the Sanhedrin to the area of Judah. Furthermore, there is no evidence that the restriction against capital punishment by the Sanhedrin was revoked by the Romans. These riots also underscore the tensions that existed and gave cause for the Romans to be ready at a moment’s notice to subdue an uprising.
It is unfortunate that historians are rather harsh on the Romans. In spite of all their faults, the Romans did attempt to accommodate their Jewish subjects. For example, while the authority to execute criminals was removed from the Sanhedrin, Rome did permit Jewish guards to execute any Gentile who entered the most holy sanctuary of the temple, even if he was a Roman soldier. This was confirmed by Josephus when he recorded a statement made by General Titus to the Jews during the siege of Jerusalem. Titus said:
Did we not permit you to put to death any who passed it, even if he be a Roman?
Josephus, Wars 6.2.4 (126a)
Two other examples of Roman accommodation are:
- When Soldiers marched across Israel, the icon of the Tenth Roman Legion was either not visible or the soldiers bypassed Israel.
- Roman symbols were not placed in the temple as not to offend the Jews.
“Governor’s headquarters.” Some translators have used the phrase, “hall of judgment,” which is translated from the Latin word Praetorium, which originally meant the general’s tent. However, the word praetorium can also be translated as villa or palace, the latter literally translated from praetoria. Luke used it as follows:
He said, “I will give you a hearing whenever your accusers get here too.” And he ordered that he be kept under guard in Herod’s palace.
The Roman writer Juvenal used the phrase in this manner:
To their crimes they are indebted for their gardens, palaces (praetoria), etc.
Juvenal, Satire 1:75
By the first century, in Roman provinces the Praetorium was the official residence of the Roman governor while the term praetorian guard was the imperial bodyguard as in Philippians 1:13.
“They did not enter the headquarters themselves.” When the Sadducees and their henchmen were before Pilate, they were in his open-air courtyard and not in the palace headquarter. Such places often had numerous statues of Roman heroes and gods, or “graven images,” which violated Jewish sensitivities. But since these Jews were not in the building, they did not consider themselves to be ceremonially defiled.
“Otherwise they would be defiled and unable to eat the Passover.” The Priests observed their Passover at 9:00 o’clock in the morning. The Feast of Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread were weeklong celebrations, for which the participants had to keep themselves ritually pure. Therefore, they could not enter the home or facility of a Gentile.
“What charge do you bring against this man?” Pilate was known for being cruel, but also followed Roman law in every detail. He presented this question to the Jews, but they had a problem. Their so-called witness who should have brought the charge was Judas, but he was now dead. Since the Sadducees had no “witness,” they were forced to make up their own charges.
“Criminal.” The Greek term kakopoios or kakon poion, would be better translated as evildoer, or malefactor (Gk. kakourgos 2557). Yet these do not fully convey the meaning because the Latin maleficus (malefactor) point toward making evil with the use of magic. Several church fathers, including Tertullian, also interpreted the biblical passage to read magic. In essence, the exorcisms and healings Jesus performed became the accusations used by the scribes, elders, and Sadducees. At no point were any of the people present to whom Jesus ministered. The irony is that while pagan religious practices used numerous forms of magic as part of their healing rituals, some forms of magic were illegal. And it may be for that reason, that the Sadducees then claimed that Jesus was subverting “our” nation.
Previously, Pilate asked, “What kakon has he committed?” To this the chief priests responded by saying, “He was doing kakon.” Words of common conversation tend to take on a significant importance in a court setting. Some scholars believe that this phrase carried more legal weight than what modern readers realize.
Among the Romans, Jesus had the reputation of performing magic. So when Suetonius, the Roman historian, wrote of Nero, he said that “Christians” were involved with superstitionis novae ac maleficae. That is, a superstitious people involved in magic. This may be why the first century church fathers specifically said in the Didache that magic was prohibited. The church father Origen said that Celsus said that Jesus went to Egypt for training in the magical arts. The conclusion is that Jesus performed many miracles and exorcisms that the Jewish leadership and pagans referred to as “magic.” For that reason, the early church was adamant on,
- Declaring that the miracles Jesus performed were of God and a fulfillment of prophecies.
- Prohibiting the practice of magic.
No one denied that Jesus did wonderful works, but the primary argument was the source of His power. Where one believes that source came from clearly reflects what one thinks of Jesus.
“We found this man subverting our nation.” Since the Jews knew they could not convince Pilate to execute Jesus on charges of magic or blasphemy, they formulated political charges equal to treason against Him. In the process, they claimed the Roman Empire as “our nation,” and thereby, they rejected the Promised Land God had given them. This was the same tactic used by them against Paul where religious charges in Acts 21:27-23:10 were changed to political ones in 24:5-6, and he was then accused before the Roman governor.
“Opposing payment of taxes.” Could Jesus have been accused of encouraging the Jews not to pay taxes? Pilate knew that the Jews hated taxes and, in fact, this was the primary cause for many revolts. The very last thing any Jew would do was to accuse another of failing to pay Roman taxes. Pilate was also aware that the tax collectors were the most hated Jews. Rabbis even permitted people to lie to tax collectors. Amazingly, now the Sadducees were standing before Pilate, supposedly fearful that Rome might not obtain “its fair share” of tax revenue. Pilate most certainly must have been amused at their concern. In essence, Jesus was accused of a crime against the sovereignty of the Empire: treason – which was punishable by crucifixion – but Pilate could easily see through the ridiculous accusation. Other reasons would soon emerge (next section below).
“Take Him yourselves and judge Him according to your law.” Pilate did not want to become involved with Jesus. He saw Him as a harmless figure in a religious group that he did not understand. While Pilate knew that the Jews had no authority to crucify, he most certainly did not think they would go so far as to kill one of their own, especially if he was innocent.
“It’s not legal for us to put anyone to death.” For once the Sadducees told the truth. Their right to inflict capital punishment was removed from their authority by Herod the Great, with the exception of a Gentile who entered the sacred temple area.
. Macartney, Great Interviews of Jesus. 103; Dixon and Southern, The Roman Calvary. 51, 128; Maier, The First Easter. 56-58; Nelesen, Yeshua; the Promise, the Land, the Messiah. (Video Tape 2); Vincent, Word Studies in the New Testament. 2:277.
. Farrar, Life of Christ. 418; Bruce, New Testament History. 32-33; See also John 19:12; 03.06.25; 15.04.02; 16.01.05.
. See 03.06.25, 16.01.05; Maier, “Judas, Pilate.” 10-13.
. Maier, In the Fullness of Time. 346. A prefect was one who governed and, therefore, is sometimes referred to as a “governor.”
. Barclay, “John.” 2:233.
. Wilson, The False Trials. 84.
. Webb, “The Roman Examination and Crucifixion of Jesus.” 721-24.
. Tenney, ed., “Praetorium.” 13:1654.
. Barclay, “John.” 2:233.
. Josephus, Antiquities 20.9.1.
. Barclay, “John.” 2:233.
. Vincent, Word Studies in the New Testament. 2:272-73.
. Vincent, Word Studies in the New Testament. 2:273.
. Nelesen, Yeshua; the Promise, the Land, the Messiah. (Video Tape 2).
. See Appendix 5.
. Green, Interlinear Greek-English New Testament; Vine, “Malefactor.” Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary. 2:388.
. Welch, “Miracles, Maleficium, and Maiestas in the Trial of Jesus.” 375.
. Tertullian, Scorpiace 12; Welch, “Miracles, Maleficium, and Maiestas in the Trial of Jesus.” 378.
. Mt. 27:23; Mk. 15:14; Lk. 23:22.
. Malina, “Jesus as Astral Prophet.” 93-98.
. Suetonius, De Vita Caesarum 6.16.
. Didache 2.2; 3.4 and 5.1.
. Celsus was a second century Greek philosopher and fierce opponent of Christianity.
. Welch, “Miracles, Maleficium, and Maiestas in the Trial of Jesus.” 375-79.