The Gospel of Mark begins with these words: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the son of God.” The terms “gospel” and “son of God” were by no means unique to first-century Christians. Indeed, Isaiah 52:7 envisioned the “good news” of the restoration of God’s rule and reign over all the earth. However, there was another gospel, one that celebrated the rule and reign of Caesar as the true source of order and prosperity in the world. And while passages such as Psalm 2:7 and 2 Samuel 7:14 crowned the David King as forever God’s own son, so too Caesar was heralded as the son of Zeus, sitting on an eternal throne. And so, when we come to the Roman civil trial of Jesus in Mark 15, we encounter explicitly the very clash of opposing gospels between Christ and Caesar implicated in the Gospel’s opening verse.

The civil trial of Jesus (Mark 15:1-15) occurred before Pontius Pilate, the Roman prefect or governor of Judea (A.D. 26-36) under the Emperor Tiberius. Our historical sources are rather limited on Pilate, but we can see that by the time of the trial, Pilate had already infuriated the Jews a number of times. He brutally suppressed uprisings, often instigated by his own actions. He raided the Temple treasury in order to pay for a new aqueduct system, and insulted Jews by stamping Roman insignia throughout Jerusalem.

Judas as Foreshadow

In the other Gospels, Christ’s trial before Pilate is backgrounded with the anguish of Judas which serves to foreshadow the events about to take place. In Matthew 27:3-10, Judas is depicted as having “remorse” over what he had done to Jesus. The Greek term used here is metamelomai, which means more “to feel regret,” rather than metaneo, the usual Greek term for “repentance.” Thus, Judas fails to see Jesus as the Messiah; he simply says that he’s innocent, which anticipates Pilate’s own verdict (cf. Luke 23:4).

The 30 pieces of silver could refer to the price of a slave (Exodus 21:32) and/or to the incident recorded in Zechariah 11:4-17, where God instructs the prophet to shepherd his rebellious flock Israel. When Zechariah breaks the two staffs that represent God’s covenant with Israel and Judah because of their insolence, they in effect try to buy him back with 30 pieces of silver, which he throws back to the potter (perhaps a kind of accountant) of the Temple. And Judas’ hanging himself echoes the fate of Ahithophel who, upon realizing his betrayal of King David in Absalom’s revolt was doomed to failure, hung himself (2 Samuel 17:1-23). Thus, we have a foreshadowing of what is about to take place: the proclamation of innocence, a cursed death involving hanging on a tree (cf. 21:23), and then a burial which, in the case of Judas’ silver, involves purchasing a burial plot that draws members from the nations of the earth.

Jesus and Pilate: Christ and Caesar

So now, as Jesus is in front of Pilate, we have the judge of the entire cosmos humbling himself before this Roman prefect. The God who created Adam on a Friday and promised him dominion over the earth, now stands on a Friday before a representative of Rome, which has become a parody of that Adam promised-dominion.

According to Luke 23:2, the Jewish leaders changed the charges against Jesus. Rather than blasphemy, towards which Rome’s polytheistic stance would be ambivalent, they focused on treasonous charges, such as “misleading the nation, forbidding the payment of taxes to Caesar, and claiming to be a king.” We see this implied in Pilate’s first question to Jesus in Mark 15:2: “Are you the King of the Jews?” Ironically, unlike the accusation of blasphemy, this charge is actually true; hence Jesus responds: “You have said so.” By turning Pilate’s question into a statement, Jesus prefigures what Pilate will have written on the plaque above Jesus’ head: “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.”  

The silence of Jesus is important here, because it alludes to the Suffering Servant of Isa 53:7, who “did not open his mouth” but kept “silent” when oppressed, afflicted, and led to slaughter.

And Luke tells us, in 23:9-11, that after Pilate found nothing wrong with Jesus, he decided to send the Galilean to Herod Antipas, who had jurisdiction over Galilee, perhaps to get a second opinion. Regardless of motive, Herod’s corroborated verdict of innocence fulfills the biblical injunction of Deuteronomy 19:15 to establish a conviction on the testimony of two or more witnesses.

Barabbas: The Alternative Son

Pilate nevertheless has gotten nowhere with the Sanhedrin. Politically, he would not want to appear weak, as if he were at the disposal of the Jewish leaders. And so he tries to turn this into a popularity contest by bringing Barabbas into it. In Mark 15:10, we see that Pilate knew that the Sanhedrin had delivered Jesus over to him out of envy.  If Jesus were the more popular choice among the people, then giving them that opportunity would shift leverage towards Pilate as people’s true champion.

And so he brings forth Barabbas, whose name means “son of the Father.” The Jews face a choice between two very different sons of two very different fathers. One is a criminal, the other righteous; one is a rebel against Rome, the other a rebel against Satan.

At this point, in Matthew 27:19, you have Pilate’s wife enter into all of this, and she says something very similar to Judas: “Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him.” This is a very interesting development, and the Scriptures provide no explanation. Some early Christian commentators speculated that Satan was behind the dream in order to hinder Jesus’ redemption of the world. Just as Satan beguiled the first woman to thwart the first Adam, now he goes to this woman to thwart the Second Adam. She does refer to Jesus’ innocence as Judas did, in whom the devil entered (Luke 22:3). Interestingly, church tradition gives her a name, Claudia Procula, who was later to become a Christian.

Recognizing that his efforts to free Jesus were futile, Pilate “washed his hands” and instructed Jesus to be crucified. The washing of hands alludes here to a priestly washing, the kind of cleansing one goes through before entering the holy place. Certainly Pilate is not going there, but the washing does precede Jesus’ sacrifice as the Great High Priest, who will present his sacrifice to the Father in the heavenly Holy of Holies (Hebrews 9:12). Thus we have a Christological fulfillment of Psalm 26:6-7:

I wash my hands in innocence,
    and go about your altar, Lord,
proclaiming aloud your praise
    and telling of all your wonderful deeds.

Along with his previously mentioned silence, the reference to Jesus’ flogging is an allusion to the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 50:6, which speaks of the servant’s back being beaten.

Pontius Pilate the Convert?

One mystery among scholars is this: Given Pilate’s cruel reputation among Jewish historians, why he is portrayed so sympathetically in the Gospels? The oft-cited antisemitism among Jewish Gospel authors seems rather implausible. One reason may be that at the time of the writing of the Gospels, the apostles were aware of something that happened to Pilate. Some of the earliest Christian writers actually claimed that Pilate converted to Christianity. Tertullian wrote that Pilate became “a Christian in his own convictions,” and Augustine went so far as to compare Pilate to the Magi, the latter recognizing Christ’s divinity at his birth while the former recognized his divinity at his death. The washing of his hands would thus prefigure Pilate’s own baptism into the Christian church!

Christ vs. Caesar

As we draw this to a close, I think John’s Gospel gives the most amazing commentary to all that’s going on here. In John 18, Pilate questions Jesus as to whether he is a king. Jesus responds: “Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?” Notice that Pilate begins by interrogating Jesus, and Jesus responds by interrogating him. Pilate is indignant: “Am I a Jew?” In other words, “What on earth do I have to do with you? I could care less whether a Jew was a King; it matters not one wit to a Roman. It was your people, your chief priests who handed you over to me.”

Jesus responds: “My kingdom is not of this world else my servants would fight.” Christ’s kingship and his rule and reign are not of this world; they do not in any way conform to the logic of this world. If they did, we would be having a war, and he would conquer territory like any other militant ruler. But this is a kingdom that comes wholly from outside this world. The kingships of this world, we are told right after Jesus’ baptism, belong to Satan; they preserve themselves by force, as Pilate is a living embodiment.

Pilate responds: “So you are a king!” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” And Pilate answers with what appears to be a rather dismissive inquiry, “What is truth?”

Of course, this question is ironic. In light of what Jesus said just hours earlier in John 14:6, “I am … the Truth,” the question is not what is truth? It’s who is truth?

When the crowd is not satisfied with the flogging Jesus received as punishment (most likely a milder form of flogging, called the fustigatio, not the horrendous flogging which would later precede his crucifixion, called the verberatio; cf. Mark 15:15), Pilate takes Jesus aside again in John 19 and demands of him: “Where are you from?” I think Pilate is trying to figure out what on earth to do here. Jesus doesn’t answer him. So Pilate says: “You will not speak to me? Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?” Jesus answered him, “You have no authority over me at all.”

From a purely objective standpoint, this scene is almost comical; here you have Rome in all of its power, authority, and splendor represented in Pilate, and then you have this pathetic figure wearing a mock rob and a crown of thorns, beaten and bloodied, looking at Pilate and in effect saying, “I’m in charge, not you,” or better, “My Father’s in charge, not yours.”

The only way this scene makes any sense is in light of the empty tomb, for that is the demonstration par excellence that neither Pilate, nor Caesar, nor Rome, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all of creation can extinguish the love of God in the face of Christ Jesus our Lord.

And that is Christ vs. Caesar.

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