Jesus before Pilate: Not Guilty for the Record

Published August 01, 2023 by Augustino Nguyen

In the annual Easter observance, many Christians examine the scriptural passages found in Matthew 27: 11-26, Mark 15: 1-15, Luke 23: 1-25, and John 18: 28-38. Unfortunately, this practice often perpetuates the fallacious and damaging notion that the Jewish people were culpable for Jesus' crucifixion. This essay seeks to debunk this entrenched misapprehension and foster a more constructive Jewish-Christian dialogue by offering a fresh historical interpretation.

Upon closer examination, it becomes evident that each of the four canonical Gospels features Pilate’s proclamation of Jesus’ innocence (Matthew 27:23, Mark 15:14, Luke 23:13, John 18:38). The uniformity across the text implies that the depiction of Pilate’s absolution of Jesus held substantial relevance to both the authors and their respective communities. What are the implications of this pivotal narrative element?

The primary impetus behind the composition of the Gospels was arguably self-preservation. The Roman-occupied Jewish diaspora proved to be a tumultuous and perilous epoch for the Jewish populace, particularly those affiliated with the early Jewish Jesus communities. These Jesus communities were confronted with three principal threats: the autocratic local Roman authority, the antagonistic local chief priests and elders, and the Jewish factions that vehemently opposed Roman rule, even at the expense of their fellow Jews.

To safeguard themselves from these menaces, the Jewish Jesus communities endeavored to exonerate themselves and demonstrate their support for stable Roman governance. Hence, the Gospels were intended for the readership of the local Roman authorities and any individuals who might question the fidelity, doctrines, and practices of their communities. The Jesus before Pilate passages, for examples, were meticulously crafted to assert that Pilate did not find Jesus guilty of insurrection but that the allegations were contrived by the local chief priests and leaders due to divergent religious convictions.

These accusations can be traced back to disputes among opposing Jewish leaders and their Jewish communities. As evidenced throughout history, novels or dissimilar beliefs and practices are frequently met with skepticism and censure. The early Jewish Jesus communities were no exception, as they faced condemnation for challenging the authority of mainstream Judaism, ultimately resulting in their expulsion from the larger Jewish communities. During the Roman-occupied diaspora, convictions, practices, and allegiances were paramount to the Jewish communities' survival.

In composing the Gospels, the writers sought to vindicate Jesus, their leader, their communities, and their teachings and practices. As his followers, they recognized that failing to absolve the charges against him would perpetuate their vulnerability. By providing these public testimonies, they aimed to forestall any future indictments. In essence, the Gospels served as the communities’ acts of self-preservation.

It is crucial to note that the Jesus before Pilate passages should not be misconstrued as depicting the Jewish people condemning Jesus to death or persecuting Christians. This flawed interpretation has engendered Christian animosity toward Jews and strained Jewish-Christian relations for centuries. The contemporary discord between Jews and Christians can be traced back to historical disputes among opposing Jewish leaders and their respective Jewish communities. Acknowledging and comprehending this historical context could potentially engender a more harmonious Jewish-Christian relationship in the present day.

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