After the three Jewish trials, Jesus experienced three Roman trials. These judicial, or quasi-judicial, proceedings occurred within a few short hours. The gross illegality of the Jewish trials stands in sharp contrast to the legal Roman trials, which repeatedly found Jesus innocent of all charges. So why did the Romans crucify Him? As will be explained, there was considerable turmoil and fighting within the Roman political system. The political dissension appears to have been the deciding factor as to why Pilate finally caved in to the desires of the Sadducees. Essentially, he feared for his own political future. However, to better understand the biblical narrative, it is important to quickly review who ruled which area.
- Herod Antipas, one of the heirs of Herod the Great, ruled the District of Galilee and Perea (a district east of the Jordan River.
- Caiaphas, the high priest ruled Jerusalem and to a lesser degree, the rest of Judea.
- Pontius Pilate, the Roman Prefect, had general oversight of these three areas which formed the Province or District of Judea (sometimes called Judaea):
Therefore, it is important to look briefly at the overall political situation of the Jewish enclave as it was related to the Roman Empire. The expanding Parthian Empire to the east was a constant threat to Roman stability. Even though Rome conquered Jerusalem in 63 B.C., by 40 B.C. the Parthians had taken temporary control of the Holy City. But Herod the Great defeated both the Parthians and the Jewish freedom fighters and re-established Roman control in 37 B.C. Add to this political quandary the long history of Jewish rebellions, and there was sufficient reason for the temple leaders, as well as the Romans, to be concerned. For this reason, the religious leaders and the Romans had established a delicately woven fabric of political collaboration to quickly resolve problems. The Jewish leaders convinced the Romans that the Miracle Worker from Nazareth needed to be executed.
Scholars debate upon are two possible locations concerning the location of the trials before Pilate.
- According to tradition, Pilate was stationed in the Antonio Fortress that was located on the northwest side of the temple (see 15.04.04.A). This is the majority view and held herein.
- However, recently a few scholars have argued that Pilate was in Herod’s palace which was located on the western side of the city near today’s Jaffa Gate. This is a minority view, but is where Herod Antipas was for the second Roman trial of Jesus.
Both the Antonia Fortress and Herod’s palace had a suite where Pilate could comfortably reside. However, if Pilate was staying in the palace of the former Herod the Great, then when he decided to send Jesus to Herod Antipas, the Jews would have stayed and Herod would have come forth to consider their argument.
While the Antonio Fortress is the traditional site for the first and third trials of Jesus, that tradition alone is not sufficient “evidence” to assume it is the actual site. Other traditional sites identified as the Mount of Transfiguration near Nazareth have long been discredited by scholars. Therefore, a closer examination is needed.
- Pilate generally lived in Judea’s capital city of Caesarea along the Mediterranean Sea, and came to Jerusalem only during festivals to insure peace. Therefore, he naturally would have stayed in the royal suite within the fortress where he had direct command of his troops.
- The Antonio Fortress was adjacent to the temple, and it was at the temple where tradition said anyone who wanted to be a messiah would announce his messiahship.
- When Jesus was before Pilate, He would have been before the “judgment seat.” That was almost always inside of a Praetorium. When the Apostle Paul appeared before Felix and Festus (Acts 23:31-25:12), it was before the “judgment seat.”
- Mathew said
Then the governor’s soldiers took Jesus into headquarters and gathered the whole company around Him.
Some translations use the word “barracks” or “garrison” for “headquarters.” All these terms apply to a fortress. By this time in Pilate’s career he had to maintain order or possibly lose his position. So it is highly doubtful that he would have sent a garrison of soldiers with Jesus to the western end of the city for a trial if all of the potential problems were expected to center around the temple area.
- When the Apostle Paul was speaking to the crowds near the temple, he was rescued from a Jewish mob by Roman soldiers and taken into the nearby “barracks,” (Acts 21:37). This would have been the same place where Jesus was tried by Pilate.
Therefore, it simply makes common sense that Pilate was in the Antonio Fortress, and it was there where Jesus stood before him. Therefore, in addition to the physical abuse Jesus endured during the Jewish and Roman trials, soldiers probably made him walk from the Antonio Fortress to Herod’s palace on the western side of the city by the Jaffa Gate, and back again.
As to Herod’s palace, it was constructed by his father Herod the Great and now most likely occupied occasionally by Herod Antipas when he was in the area. Generally, Herod Antipas was either in Tiberias or in the Machaerus Fortress, east of the Dead Sea. The only reason he would have been in Jerusalem at Passover was to help maintain peace, even though the city was not part of his domain.
15.04.01.Q1 What were the Roman charges against Jesus?
In violation of Jewish law, the Sanhedrin conjured up sufficient false charges in an attempt to have Jesus convicted and executed. In their haste, however, they realized that the charge of blasphemy was not sufficient grounds to execute anyone under Roman law. So they restructured their charges to charge Him with treason – that is, tax evasion. Furthermore, to be called “king of the Jews,” was a direct challenge to Roman authority. Pilate could not avoid these charges. So Jesus was then taken from the religious court to the civil court.
When they arrived, Pilate was sitting in the judge’s seat; for Rome had given him supreme authority in the judicial system and enforcement of Roman law. Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin came before him and charged Jesus with four counts of treason:
- They charged Him with sedition
- They said Jesus forbade the payment of taxes to Rome
- They said Jesus claimed to be king.
- Finally, there was an overarching rule known as lex de maiestate, meaning law of majesty, which forbade offending the emperor or empire. Because it was interpreted in a broad manner, emperors such as Tiberius used it to remove or execute suspected enemies.
While the charge of treason could not be ignored, Pilate correctly realized that Jesus was the victim of a religious charade. Pilate questioned Him carefully and realized that while claiming to be a king, He certainly was not a threat to Rome. He could have released Jesus because not a single statute of Roman law was violated; however, eventually he yielded to the pressures of the Sanhedrin. The essential Roman laws that governed the trial were as follows:
- All proceedings had to be public and held during daylight hours.
- The trial started with the prosecuting witness presenting the charge that Jesus was guilty of treason. However, the problem the Sanhedrin had was that Judas was dead.
Shortly after sunrise on the morning of Passover, Jesus was taken before Pilate, possibly between 6:00 and 6:30 a.m. Trials at this time did not have the formalities of modern Western judicial systems and, hence, decisions were rendered quickly. Pilate was irritated that these pesty Jews were bothering him so early in the morning. Furthermore, he had to come out to meet them, because they refused to enter his royal court lest they would become defiled. Therefore, the Jews had the following two strikes against them.
- Pilate was unhappy because they demanded his attention before the normal business day began and…
- The Jews asked him to step outside of his palace to address them.
Pilate and the Herodians knew all too well that Jesus did not have any political motivations. Both had a vast network of spies who scouted for any possible messianic revolutionaries. Military commanders also made reports to their superiors which would have reached Pilate. All knew Jesus was innocent of the charges brought forth by the Sadducees.
15.04.01.Q2 Why might Pilate have been remotely concerned about the possibilities of Jesus being a revolutionary?
It is noteworthy to consider that the gospels provide only a small window of the events of the life of Jesus. For example, notice how often Jesus went to pray, and did so for lengthy periods of time, yet all the prayers recorded in Scripture are relatively short. Likewise in this matter. This question is hardly ever considered because Jesus had a well established reputation by this time. When the Sadducees drummed up all the charges they could, they probably included the following reasons as secondary evidence:
- One of His disciples was Simon, a former member of the Zealots.
- Jesus and all but one of His disciples were from the district of Galilee, an established center of Zealot activity.
- While Jesus taught peace, He also said there would be wars and rumors of wars. But He did not say when these would occur or His involvement in them.
However, Jesus had been an incredibly popular figure for the previous three and a half years. The actions of a would-be revolutionary certainly did not fit His teaching or miracles. So while there were some concerns, they were muted by the well-established teachings and actions of Jesus and His disciples. Furthermore, the fact that at least one of the disciples (Peter) carried a small weapon may not have been a concern for Pilate. Most men carried a small weapon for the same reasons men and boys carried pocket knives years ago in America.
. For further study, see James C. McRuer, The Trial of Jesus. Toronto: Clarke Irwin Ltd. 1964.
. See Appendix 21 for the seven proclamations of the innocence of Jesus.
. Sanders. “Jesus in Historical Context.” 432.
. Luke said in Acts 21:37 that the Apostle Paul was taken into the “barracks,” which was the Antonio Fortress. It was where Paul addressed the people in Acts 22:1-21.
. Webb, “The Roman Examination and Crucifixion of Jesus.” 754.
. Lang, Know the Words of Jesus. 390.
. Pentecost, The Words and Works of Jesus Christ. 473.
. See Appendix 25 for a listing of rebels and false prophets who had messianic expectations and for a partial listing of revolts and social disturbances from 63 B.C. to A.D. 70.