Translation and commentary on John’s Gospel
Then they took Jesus from Caiaphas’s house to the Roman governor’s headquarters. It was early morning. They did not enter it, in case they were made ritually unclean, so that they could eat the Passover. So Pilate went out to them and said, “What accusation have you brought against this man?”
They answered him, “If this man were not a criminal, we would not have handed him over to you.”
So Pilate said, “Then take him yourselves and judge him by your own laws!”
The Judaeans said to him, “We have no authority to kill anyone.” – that the word spoken by Jesus might come true, pointing to the kind of death he would die.
So Pilate went back inti his headquarters, and summoned Jesus and said to him, “So you’re the king of the Jews.”
Jesus answered, “Is this your own word, or did others say it to you about me?”
Pilate answered, “Am I a Judaean? Your own nation and its chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you been doing?”
Jesus answered, “My royal authority is not from this world; if it were from this world, my police would fight so that I would not be handed over to the Judaeans. But as it is, my royal authority is not from here.”
Then Pilate said to him, “So you are a king!”
Jesus answered, “You say I’m a king. For one purpose I was born and have come into the world, to bear witness to reality. Everyone who dwells in reality hears my voice.”
Pilate said to him, “What is reality?”
After he said this, he went back out to the Judaeans and told them, “I find no fault in him. But you have a custom that I should release one man to you at Passover. So do you want me to release to you the ‘king of the Judaeans?'”
They shouted back, “No this one, but Barabbas!”
Now Barabbas was an outlaw.
Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged.
And the soldiers plaited a crown of briers and put it on his head and dressed him in a purple robe. They approached him saying, “Hail, King of the Judaeans,” and gave him smacks in the face.
Pilate went out again and said to them, “Look, I ‘m bringing him out to you so that you can take note that I find no fault in him.” So Jesus came out wearing the crown of briers and the purple robe. Pilate said to them, ‘Look at the man!'”
So when the chief priests and their police saw him they shouted, “Crucify, crucify!”
Pilate said to them, “Take him yourselves and crucify him, for I find no fault in him.”
The Judaeans answered him, “We have a Law and by that Law he should die because he has made himself out to be the son of God.”
Now when Pilate heard this phrase he was the more afraid. He went in again to his headquarters, and said to Jesus, ” Where are you from?” But Jesus did not answer him.
So Pilate said to him, “You’re not speaking to me? Don’t you know that I have the power to release you and the power to crucify you?”
Jesus answered him, “You would have no power over me at all, if it had not been given you from above, so the one who handed me over to you has the greater sin.”
As a result Pilate made efforts to release him, but the Judaeans shouted, “If you release this man you are no friend of Caesar. Everyone who makes himself into a king, is in opposition to Caesar.”
So when Pilate heard this reply, he brought Jesus out, and sat down on the dais at a place called “The Stone Pavement” (Gabbatha in Aramaic). It was the day of Preparation of the Passover, and it was about the sixth hour. He said to the Judaeans, “Look, here is your king!”
They howled, “Out! Out! Crucify him!”
Pilate said to them, “I should crucify your king?”
The chief priests answered, “We have no king but Caesar!”
So he handed him over to them to be crucified.
This sequence is one of the author’s masterpieces. All the Gospel writers had he task of representing the unfamiliar milieu and processes of the Roman governor’s headquarters. In this Gospel it, rather than the trial before the high priests, becomes the event which determines Jesus’ fate.
The portrait of Pilate is respectful, subtle and damning. At first he is humanised by his barely concealed scorn for the Judaean high priests, and theirs for him. When they state baldly that they want to kill Jesus, Pilate realises that this is serious business and questions Jesus in private. He throws at him the accusation that he has claimed messianic authority, which Jesus lobs gently back, which prompts more scorn from the Roman, “Am I a Judaean?”
Jesus then points t a dimension of reality which is unknown to Pilate and indeed to his Judaean opponents. In place of the usual “kingdom” I have translated “royal authority” as it seems to that here the Greek “Basileia” means king-ship rather than king-dom, a status rather than a realm. Jesus says that his authority is not derived from this world. But what other world is there? The reader of this gospel knows about this other world where Jesus dwells and invited his followers to dwell: it is the father’s house or dynasty where there are many dwelling places. But Pilate knows nothing of this. As a sensible politician he knows one realm and one power.
He therefore makes a joke of Jesus’ words, “So you are king!” Jesus shrugs off the designation in favour of declaring himself as a witness to “reality”, that is as one who points to the dimension of which Pilate is ignorant. As the reader knows reality, (Greek aletheia) is the un-veiled-ness of God, made available to humanity in Jesus. Pilate can only mutter ruefully, “What is reality?” knowing that if governors started to pay attention to such issues, they would be swiftly replaced. As a result however of this brief encounter, Pilate decides that Jesus is innocent and offers to release him as part of the Passover celebrations. He must have suspected that this strategy would be unacceptable. The shouts of the Judaeans reveal another irony visible only to those who know popular Hebrew. Bar-abbas means “son of the father.”
The author then gives a marvellous image of Roman mercy- Pilate has Jesus flogged in the hope of appeasing the Judaeans. Many people died from flogging, and the idea of it as a routine warning to innocent people is horrifying. The mockery from soldiers is routine but also horrifying. Continuous overuse of the image of a “crown of thorns” in Christian worship has robbed the article of any pain. When the Scottish comedian Billy Connolly rechristened it “jaggy bonnet” he shocked people by restoring the pain. I’ve chosen to translate “crown of briers” in order to help readers visualise the event.
The spectacle of a broken man afflicted by mockery arouses fury rather than pity in the crowd. This is psychologically acute. The chief priests refer to the Torah, the fundamental revelation by which they claim to have judged Jesus. It seems to me doubtful whether Jesus ever claimed to be the son of God in the Christian sense, but all the Gospels show Jesus as treading perilously close to claiming authority over the Torah. It’s interesting that what is described in the bible as the Judaean judgement on Jesus becomes in time the judgement of the noble Qur’an. This gospel is clear that Jesus’ capital offence is the blasphemy of claiming equality with God.
When Pilate upbraids Jesus’ silence with his claim to power, he gains another pointer to the dimension beyond or above this world: his “power” has been given him from above. The writer shows Pilate as disturbed by the demeanour of his prisoner and the possibility of his divine origen, but try as he may he cannot persuade the Judaean authorities to let him live. The story moves towards a climax in which those whose tradition tells them that God is their king, announce to a Roman governor that their only king is Caesar. This clarifies the one dimension of life which Pilate and the chief priests recognise, the worldly power of Caesar, the enclosing reality of the empire.
This is the always present single dimension of power, whether it is manifested as the sphere of USA influence, Chinese control, or the nightmare oppression of North Korea, or the global reach of capitalism, or all the smaller powers that oppress men and women, its message is the same: “This is the only reality. Better get used to it, if you want to live.”
The Jesus of this gospel tells us how to resist by trusting in a greater reality.