We are preparing to look at the relationship between Jesus and Pontius Pilate with a view to exploring the theme of power as it emerges in the relevant texts of the Gospel of John (18:1 – 19:22). I would like first to summarise the passage immediately preceding the dialogue between Pilate and Jesus. In John 18: 1-11we are told that Jesus had been arrested in the evening by a cohort from the Roman garrison, and a group of guards sent by the chief priests and Pharisees, all with weapons and torches – essentially, a lynch-mob. Jesus handles the mob with courtesy, cooperation and courage. Nonetheless, they bind him and, no doubt, shove and frog-march him to the palace of Annas, the high priest. Annas, probably realising after a short exchange with Jesus that he was out of his depth and could not possibly win in a dialogue with him, sends Jesus on to the next questioner. This will be Pontius Pilate and Jesus is sent to the Praetorium – his palace.
Pilate does not meet with Jesus until he meets Jesus’ captors – a rather unsatisfying encounter, I suspect, as far as Pilate is concerned. Jews were not allowed to go into the inner court of the Praetorium on pain of incurring ritual impurity, so Pilate must meet Jesus’ captors outside – a concession which must have rankled. But he complies, and questions them about the reasons for Jesus’ arrest. According to the text, they claim at this point simply that Jesus is a criminal and deserves death, and that they are not allowed by their religion to pass the death sentence. They do not specify what Jesus has done to deserve it (see Jn. 18:28-32). Pilate, none the wiser for this exchange, must now question Jesus about the reasons for his arrest.
Pilate leaves them, returns to the inner court of the Praetorium, summons Jesus and begins a highly revealing exchange with him. We see here two men who could not possibly have been more different. Pilate, with an abruptness suggesting that he is an important, busy man, asks Jesus the only question that could have any real interest to him, or any bearing on his judgement of Jesus: ‘Are you the king of the Jews?’
Immediately, we see that the issue for Pilate is power, but he must hope that Jesus’ power is a trumped up affair, threatening to no one. He had probably encountered mad prophets before – they were not unusual in the Judea of Pilate’s day. So, Pilate’s question would, Pilate hopes, set such a prophet up to expose himself as a rant-and-rave religious fanatic. A wild-eyed diatribe on Jesus’ part would be most useful to Pilate and enable him quickly to dismiss Jesus as long-winded but essentially harmless; then Pilate would be free to move on to the more important business of the day. It is easy to imagine the slightly mocking tone of voice in which Pilate asked his question, much as one might use to a rather ill-behaved child, perhaps, or to someone whom one has already mentally pigeon-holed as not worth taking seriously. Pilate feels secure, powerful at this stage. Accordingly, his treatment of Jesus belittles him. We will examine Jesus’ response to this tomorrow.