Death sentence for Jesus
Questions for Bible study groups
- Why did Pilate offer to release Jesus?
- Why did the crowd choose Barabbas?
- Why did Pontius Pilate sentence Jesus to death?
- Who was ‘Procla’? See her story at ‘She warned him’
Why did the crowd in Jerusalem choose Barabbas, not Jesus? Because Barabbas, a political terrorist and criminal, was the Sanhedrin’s preferred candidate.
Pontius Pilate did not realise that the people of Jerusalem, who hated the Roman presence in Jerusalem and were fiercely loyal to their leaders, would never accept Pilate’s choice.
The Passover amnesty
Apparently it was the custom to release a prisoner at Passover. Josephus, the Jewish historian, says that the Romans sometimes gave an amnesty to prisoners in Judaea for political reasons.
This practice is not mentioned outside the gospels, but that is no reason to doubt it. It may have been Pilate’s invention, occurring only while he was governor. He was always looking for ways to mollify the people and gain popularity for himself. Jerusalem was a notoriously difficult posting for any governor.
Who was there?
On this particular morning a crowd had gathered outside Pilate’s Jerusalem headquarters. It was early, but the city was swollen with Passover pilgrims from all over Israel.
Barabbas, film stillA substantial crowd came from the lower city, the less affluent part, to the praetorium. They were there to support their preferred candidate for amnesty. Some may have been Galileans, but not many. The arrest and trial of Jesus had taken most of his supporters by surprise, and they probably did not know his whereabouts, let alone the danger he was in.
Most of the people there would have been supporters of
- the Sanhedrin, the Temple authority that hoped Pilate would sentence Jesus to death, or
- Barabbas, a man who led an uprising and committed murder, who many ordinary citizens of Jerusalem saw as a patriotic freedom fighter.
Because he had opposed the Romans, Barabbas would be a hero to many of the Jews; they would prefer him to Jesus, a religious reformer from remote Galilee.
Read the blue Gospel text at bottom of page
Pilate gives the crowd a choice
Pilate saw this as an opportune moment. He was convinced Jesus was innocent, and he clearly did not want to release Barabbas, who was more of a political threat to the Romans than Jesus was.
He wanted to play the crowd against their leaders, the Sanhedrin, and deflect its members from a choice he deemed madness – the murderer Barabbas. He believed the people would fall in line with his proposal, and free the comparatively harmless Jesus.
By doing so he showed himself to be out of touch with local sentiment.
Read the greenGospel text at bottom of page
The crowd chooses Barabbas – why?
Why was the Jewish Sanhedrin determined to get rid of Jesus?
- Some of them were genuinely nervous of the crowds Jesus attracted. Jerusalem was always combustible, particularly at festival time, and as far as they were concerned, Jesus was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
- Some may have been jealous of his popularity and influence.
- Most if not all of them resented Jesus’ blistering attacks on the Temple priesthood, from which the Sanhedrin came
- They, highly educated men, may have felt humiliated that a peasant from nowhere had made such an impression on the people, and was influencing them to ask questions about the established hierarchy; was this the Establishment versus a grassroots reform movement?
What was Pilate’s position?
Both Philo (a philosopher) and Josephus (a Jewish historian) make it clear that Pilate detested the Jews. Whenever he had to deal with them he inevitably took the opposite position to what they wanted. He did this when the Sanhedrin brought Jesus to him.
But he was no fool. He saw that the Sanhedrin were using legal processes to get rid of someone who was causing them trouble.
The crowd had to choose between two candidates, one proposed by Pilate, representative of Rome, and the other by the Sanhedrin, their leaders. It was no contest. Choosing Jesus would have been disloyal to their Jewish leaders. So Jesus became a victim of the political forces that swirled around Israel/Judah.
Pilate may have seen Barabbas as a terrorist but elements of the crowd, on that particular morning, in that particular place, saw him as a freedom-fighter. They clamoured for Jesus’ execution – virtually a lynch mob. There was the unspoken assumption that if Pilate was a good governor, he would bow to their wishes, rather than provoke a revolt.
Pilate was clearly amazed by the people’s choice of Barabbas. Although he was unhappy, he nevertheless went along with it. He knew Jesus had not violated any Roman law. Thus even though he might symbolically wash his hands and declare his own innocence, he was as guilty as anyone else, perhaps more so, because he had the responsibility of a leader. He sent an innocent man to a hideous death.
Read the red Gospel text at bottom of page
The death sentence
Given the choice between Jesus, a social/religious reformer, and a festival riot in Jerusalem, Pilate decided that one death was better than a possible revolt – and all the deaths that would cause. He succumbed to Jewish pressure.
He made his proclamation from the judgement seat of the praetorium. He did it reluctantly.
His wife – tradition calls her Procla – sent her husband an urgent message that she had had a dream, more like a nightmare, that he was not to condemn this innocent man. This might seem a trivial reason to a modern person, but Romans and Jews saw dreams as divine revelations, sent to guide humans, and Pilate would have ignored his wife’s dream with great reluctance.
The sentence proclaimed was crucifixion, a death that was meant to terrify the general populace and deter them from committing a similar crime. Rebels against Rome were usually executed in this manner.
Read the black Gospel text at bottom of page
What happened next? See Way of the Cross
What the Gospels say
1 The Passover amnesty: Read the blue text
2 Pilate presents Jesus and Barabbas to the crowd: Read the green text
3 The crowd chooses: Barabbas Read the red text
4 The death sentence: Read the black text
6 Now at the feast he used to release for them one prisoner for whom they asked.
7 And among the rebels in prison, who had committed murder in the insurrection, there was a man called Barabbas.
8 And the crowd came up and began to ask Pilate to do as he was wont to do for them. 9 And he answered them, “Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?” 10 For he perceived that it was out of envy that the chief priests had delivered him up. 11 But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release for them Barabbas instead. 12 And Pilate again said to them, “Then what shall I do with the man whom you call the King of the Jews?” 13 And they cried out again, “Crucify him.”
14 And Pilate said to them, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Crucify him.” 15 So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released for them Barabbas.
15 Now at the feast the governor was accustomed to release for the crowd any one prisoner whom they wanted.
16 And they had then a notorious prisoner, called Barabbas.
17 So when they had gathered, Pilate said to them, “Whom do you want me to release for you, Barabbas or Jesus who is called Christ?” 18 For he knew that it was out of envy that they had delivered him up. 19 Besides, while he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent word to him, “Have nothing to do with that righteous man, for I have suffered much over him today in a dream.” 20 Now the chief priests and the elders persuaded the people to ask for Barabbas and destroy Jesus. 21 The governor again said to them, “Which of the two do you want me to release for you?” And they said, “Barabbas.” 22 Pilate said to them, “Then what shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?” They all said, “Let him be crucified.” 23 And he said, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Let him be crucified.” 24 So when Pilate saw that he was gaining nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.” 25 And all the people answered, “His blood be on us and on our children!”
26 Then he released for them Barabbas, and delivered him to be crucified.
13 Pilate then called together the chief priests and the rulers and the people, 14 and said to them, “You brought me this man as one who was perverting the people; and after examining him before you, behold, I did not find this man guilty of any of your charges against him; 15 neither did Herod, for he sent him back to us. Behold, nothing deserving death has been done by him; 16 I will therefore chastise him and release him.” 17 [No text] 18 But they all cried out together, “Away with this man, and release to us Barabbas”–
19 a man who had been thrown into prison for an insurrection started in the city, and for murder.
20 Pilate addressed them once more, desiring to release Jesus; 21 but they shouted out, “Crucify, crucify him!” 22 A third time he said to them, “Why, what evil has he done? I have found in him no crime deserving death; I will therefore chastise him and release him.” 23 But they were urgent, demanding with loud cries that he should be crucified. And their voices prevailed.
24 So Pilate gave sentence that their demand should be granted. 25 He released the man who had been thrown into prison for insurrection and murder, whom they asked for; but Jesus he delivered up to their will.
John 18:38-41, 19:1, 6-16
38 … Pilate went out to the Jews again, and told them, “I find no crime in him. 39 But you have a custom that I should release one man for you at the Passover; will you have me release for you the King of the Jews?”
40 They cried out again, “Not this man, but Barabbas!”
Now Barabbas was a robber.
5 Pilate said to them, “Behold the man!” (Jesus) 6 When the chief priests and the officers saw him, they cried out, “Crucify him, crucify him!” Pilate said to them, “Take him yourselves and crucify him, for I find no crime in him.” 7 The Jews answered him, “We have a law, and by that law he ought to die, because he has made himself the Son of God.” 8 When Pilate heard these words, he was the more afraid; 9 he entered the praetorium again and said to Jesus, “Where are you from?” But Jesus gave no answer. 10 Pilate therefore said to him, “You will not speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?” 11 Jesus answered him, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above; therefore he who delivered me to you has the greater sin.” 12 Upon this Pilate sought to release him, but the Jews cried out, “If you release this man, you are not Caesar’s friend; every one who makes himself a king sets himself against Caesar.” 13 When Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus out and sat down on the judgment seat at a place called The Pavement, and in Hebrew, Gab’batha. 14 Now it was the day of Preparation of the Passover; it was about the sixth hour. He said to the Jews, “Behold your King!” 15 They cried out, “Away with him, away with him, crucify him!”
Pilate said to them, “Shall I crucify your King?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but Caesar.” Pilate said to them, “Shall I crucify your King?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but Caesar.” 16 Then he handed him over to them to be crucified.