Trial. The trial that started a new millennium. The trial of Jesus. Was he condemned to death by the Jews, as tradition has held for so long, or was he really executed by the Romans as a political offender? ….
…Consequently, the action taken by the Jewish leaders was in accordance with their responsibilities, and it anticipated Roman action. Having arrested Jesus, they examined him concerning his aims and supporters, preparatory to handing him over to Pilate. The charge was essentially a political one, although it must be remembered that politics and religion were inextricably bound together in Judaea at this time. The Gospel of Luke gives the most explicit account of the charges preferred against Jesus by the Jewish leaders: “We found this man perverting our nation, and forbidding us to give tribute to Caesar, and saying that he himself is Christ a king.”
We must return to the Markan account, remembering that it is the earliest version. Mark represents Pilate as convinced of Jesus’ innocence, “for he perceived that it was out of envy that the chief priests had delivered him up.” Now if this was indeed the opinion of Pilate, the course open to him was obvious. He had the authority and power to dismiss the case. We know a great deal about the character of Pilate from Philo of Alexandria and from Josephus, and they both describe Pilate as a tough-minded man, ready to use force, and not one to be intimidated by the Jewish leaders and people. Consequently, if he had been convinced that Jesus was innocent, he was unlikely to have hesitated about thwarting the intentions of the Jewish leaders. What Mark tells of his subsequent conduct at the trial is therefore difficult to reconcile with his character,as well as with logic.
Instead of dismissing the case, Pilate is depicted as trying to save Jesus by availing himself of an otherwise unknown custom. According to Mark, it was traditional at the Passover for the Roman governor to release a prisoner chosen by the crowd. There is no other evidence for such a custom, even in Josephus, who was careful to record all the privileges granted to the Jews by the Romans. But that is not all. Such a custom is inherently impossible. Judaea was seething with revolt; its government would have been annually frustrated by having to release a notable prisoner. According to Mark, on this occasion a dangerous rebel, probably a Zealot, was released.
Even if we pass over the improbability of the existence of such a custom, what Mark tells of Pilate’s use of it goes beyond belief. He depicts the tough Roman procurator, who was backed by a strong military force, as resorting to this custom to save a man he adjudged innocent and inviting the Jerusalem mob to choose between Jesus and a rebel leader, Barabbas, who had killed Romans in a recent insurrection. To have given the crowd such a choice would have been the height of folly if Pilate had really sought to save Jesus. The mob’s decision was a foregone conclusion. Led by the chief priests, they naturally chose Barrabas, to them a patriotic hero. Frustrated, Pilate is represented as weakly asking the mob: “What shall I do with the man whom you call the king of the jews?”
The picture of a Roman governor consulting a Jewish mob about what he should do with an innocent man is ludicrous in the extreme. But to this extreme the author of the Markan Gospel was evidently prepared to go…