The Sentencing of Jesus Viewed in a Wider Context

This passage has often been used to justify the persecution, oppression and murder of the Jewish people. It was quoted to justify acts that no-one who truly belives in Christian love could support (for more see here). It is important therefore that we consider this work in detail. The actions described in this chapter pose clear questions as to the motives of those involved and as to the significance of these actions to those in a modern context. We do not possess within the text of the Gospels sufficient background information as to the motives of Pilate or of the crowd. While we are presented with information suggesting that the 'chief priests and the elders'1 saw Jesus as a threat to their authority, this does not fully explain the context in which they operated or their relationship to the various parties involved in this scene. To answer these questions I will attempt to look at this passage in a wider context.

Matthew 2 is widely regarded as being composed in the second half of the first century CE. It has been argued that the reference to the destruction of a city in the parable of the banquet 3 is an allegorical reference to the destruction of Jerusalem 4 an argument that, if accepted would clearly place the construction of the work in it's present state at a date after the destruction in 70CE.

The writer(s) of Matthew clearly see themselves as a continuation of the line of the prophets. The phrase '"the same way they persecuted the prophets before you"' 5 has as a presupposition that the followers of Jesus are the continuation of the line of Jewish prophets dating back to Moses, Abraham, Noah and Adam. In this way would have seen themselves as the nucleus of the Jewish tradition, not as a breakaway group. It is clear from the preceding verse '"Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me."' 6 that many outside the group did not hold that point of view.

With these points in mind it can be seen that the writers considered themselves to be pious Jews, yet they were meeting some level of resistance or hostility from other Jews. We can therefore see that there would have been little motive for presenting Jews that were not followers of Jesus in a favourable light. The passage Matthew 27.20-26 should be considered while maintaining an awareness that it is written by individuals that may have some level of hostility to some or all of the protagonists excepting only Jesus.

One protagonist who presents an enigmatic figure is Pilate. Pilate, the only non-Jew involved in the scene; seems at once sympathetic to Jesus and yet unwilling to resist the demands of the 'chief priests and the elders' 7 to execute a man that he regards as having committed no crime 8 . A wider consideration of Pilate's situation reveals complex situation in which Pilate has less room for exercising power than may at first seem apparent.

Pilate had been appointed as Procurator of Judea by Tiberius. The period in which Matthew is viewed as being written and in which Pilate operated is called by modern historians 'The Principate' or 'Rule of the First Citizen'. This represents the complex balancing act that was the prevailing political system of the time. What was, in effect an autocracy; maintained it's support through a fa├žade of popular rule and through a respect for tradition. A clear illustration of this is that the head of state, referred to in modern times as the Emperor, used as his foremost title that of 'Tribune' meaning 'speaker for the people'. This post had traditionally been freely elected and had a strong tradition of resistance to oligarchic rule 9. The Emperor therefore could only maintain his position peacefully by maintaining the illusion of being favourable to the traditional elite while appearing to be the defender of the wider population. The Governors and Proconsuls of the provinces operated as mini-emperors, in theory representing the emperor's benevolent concern for those under the protection of Rome but also charged with the safe delivery of taxes and the ensuring of stability within their province. Rome's primary tactic for maintaining stability was through leaving all traditional structures in place and respecting local custom where such custom did not threaten Rome's interests.

The custom of not allowing images into the Temple in Jerusalem may well have seemed to Pilate to be a threat to Rome's interests. A refusal to revere the Emperor would indicate possible disloyalty. While Emperor worship was not mandatory at this time (though some worship of Caesar did exist) a refusal to allow the access of his images into the heart of the province must have seemed subversive. Pilate acted on this by moving the effigies of Caesar into Jerusalem 'by night and under cover' 10 . Pilate clearly underestimated the degree of religious zeal and resultant anger among the Jewish people, both in the city and 'the countryfolk, who flocked there in crowds' 11. Pilate was faced with a peaceful mass demonstration, a display that was clearly a challenge to his, and by inference; the Imperial rule. Pilate's handling of the affair , by a clear display of military force 12 only served to increase the severity of the problem by prompting the crowd to offer themselves up as martyrs 13.

The incident of the effigies serves to demonstrate two key issues. Firstly is Pilate's difficulty in grasping the complexities and extent of Jewish religious feeling. His resultant mishandling of the affair resulted in a humiliating capitulation which may well have lessened his authority within the province. In addition this event illustrates the loyalty of both urban and rural Jews through religious ties to the city of Jerusalem. Thjis is further demonstrated by the later incident in which Pilate appropriated money intended to purchase sacrificial animals in order to facilitate the building of an aqueduct 14 . The ensuing riot was put down by the military using clubs.

With the historical context in mind it is clear that there are various factors at work within this text. Firstly there is the nature of Pilate's position. Pilate is in the position of an autocrat, yet he is under immense pressure to minimise the exercising of overt power as it is imperial policy to appear to respect both local leaders and their customs. Pilate also faces the gravest of punishments if he fails to govern well. Secondly this scene take place against the backdrop of an ongoing struggle between the Temple, which demonstrates popular urban and rural support 15 ; and the Roman authorities in the person of Pilate. This struggle has in the past led to damaging scenes that Pilate will be keen to avoid. Matthew 27.15 states that 'Now it was the governor's custom at the Feast to release a prisoner chosen by the crowd'. This would seen to be a pacifying gesture, showing respect for a local celebration while giving to the people an illusion of participation in government. Pilate, seemingly reluctant to avoid executing Jesus puts him forward in this selection process. It can be inferred that Pilate hoped that Jesus would be saved by popular support . 'But the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas' 16 Jesus is at several points in Matthew presented as having wide public support, yet the crowd demand that he is executed. This could be an example of a rewriting of history by later anti-Jewish writers, yet there is an alternative explanation. Seen in the light of the wider struggle between the Temple and Rome it is clear that the people are on the side of the Temple, ready to lay down their lives when needed 17 . In this passage we can see the people presented with another chance to voice their opposition to Pilate and Roman rule. With Pilate siding with Jesus it would have been possible for the 'chief priests and the elders' 18 to have presented it as the crowd's duty to oppose Pilate's will. That an innocent man dies is hardly relevant when in the issue of the effigies all were willing to accept martyrdom.

Pilate's actions as depicted within Matthew (notably absent from the other Gospels) are clearly aimed at preventing any further unrest. Seeing that 'an uproar was starting' 19 Pilate removed any responsibility for the decision by the clearly visible action of hand-washing. By this tactic he avoided any hostility that may have been directed at him both by the followers of Jesus, for he was seen not to support the sentencing; and by those supporting his execution; for he allowed the execution to take place. In this manner the situation was defused. It is however notable that Pilate could not have handed Jesus to the Jewish authorities for crucifixion since such methods of execution were illegal for the Jewish population. An execution carried out under the auspices of the Jewish authorities would almost certainly have led to death by stoning 20. Pilate therefore, while removing himself from the responsibility of condemnation; personally ordered the crucifixion of Jesus.

We should keep in mind the above facts when considering this passage. The conflict was not seen by the crowd as one bettween Jew and Christian, but bettween piety and oppression. Jesus knew his fate when he handed himself over to the guards in the ultimate example of piety. When someone tried to use violence in the name of religion he gave a simple response "No more of this!" 21

Sources Used:

1 Matthew 27.20 (NIV)
2 I shall use the word 'Matthew' as a shorthand for 'The Gospel of Matthew'.
3 Matthew 22.7
4 Bernard Brandon Scott 'Gospel of Matthew' in Robert J. Miller (ed.), The Complete Gospels (Sonoma California, Harpercollins, 1992),p.56.
5 Matthew 5.12
6 Matthew 5.11
7 Matthew 27.20
8 Matthew 27.23
9 Plutarch 'Tiberius Gracchus' in Ian Scott-Kilvert (ed.) Makers of Rome (London; Penguin, 1965),pp.153-174.
10 Josephus, Jewish War 2.169
11 Ibid 2.170
12 Ibid 2.172
13 Ibid 2.174
14 Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, 18.60
15 Josephus, Jewish War 2.170
16 Matthew 27.20
17 Josephus, Jewish War 2.174
18 Matthew 27.20
19 Matthew 27.24
20 Margaret Davies, Matthew (Sheffield: Sheffield Press, 1993),p.196.
21 Luke 22.51