Matthew Chapter 27:11-26

Here we begin the trial before Pilate. Having provided my thoughts on the book in a separate entry, I won’t go over it again. At this point, suffice it to say that it was not terribly useful, and will play a decidedly minor role in the commentary on this section. Alas, I’d hoped for more.

11 Ὁ δὲ Ἰησοῦς ἐστάθη ἔμπροσθεν τοῦ ἡγεμόνος: καὶ ἐπηρώτησεν αὐτὸν ὁ ἡγεμὼν λέγων, Σὺ εἶ ὁ βασιλεὺς τῶν Ἰουδαίων; ὁ δὲ Ἰησοῦς ἔφη, Σὺ λέγεις.

Jesus was stood before the leader. And the governor asked him, saying, “Are you the king of the Jews?” And Jesus replied, “You say (so)”.

Does the appearance of this question seem abrupt to anyone? I realize that the Messiah was associated in Jewish tradition with the kingship; but did Pilate realize this? A certain discontinuity does exist here, and this (like most things) has implications. When being tried before the chief priests, Jesus “confessed” that he was the Messiah. This word would have been meaningless to the Romans; or the implications of the word, at least, since being the ‘anointed’ is pretty vague. So, are we to assume that the chief priests told Pilate that Jesus claimed to be the king of the Jews? We kind of have to assume that; there really is no other way for Pilate to get that information.

I need to pause here to emphasize just how strongly a man like Pilate despised subject peoples. This was during the reign of Tiberius, who was next in succession after Augustus, who established the imperial form of government, At this point, government was still largely in the hands of the old families who could trace prominent ancestors back for centuries. Tiberius was of the gens Claudius, and had produced its first consul in 495 BCE, just over a dozen years after the republic was founded. The Romans had become masters of the world only relatively recently; to their minds, their traditions and their heritage and their virtues were unmatched in the world. The mos maiorum, the ways of the ancestors were superior to any and all. Pilate, although belonging to the Equites, the level below the consular and senatorial families, would have shared this cultural arrogance. To Pilate, a subject people like the Jews–or anyone else, Greeks excepted–were fully beneath notice. A provincial like Jesus would have been a figure of contempt; the idea that Pilate would have understood anything about Judaism is just not credible. We are talking about levels of cultural chauvinism that are difficult to imagine in today’s world, and the First Century would have been the height of Roman arrogance. The Empire was still relatively new, the absorption of different peoples still rudimentary. And the Romans came to their chauvinism as the victors of many people over many centuries It was truly bred in the bone.

So the point is, if anything like this had occurred, it would have been necessary for the chief priests to feed it to Pilate. And that makes sense, within the confines of the story. It is consistent with the idea that the chief priests were trying to sell Pilate on the idea that Jesus was a political danger. Did anything like this occur? Probably not. I really and truly doubt that Jesus was important enough to warrant a personal trial in front of Pilate. This is especially true given there is no support in any source to indicate that there were troubles surrounding Jesus. Josephus talks about John, and the headache he was for Herod Antipas, and Josephus talks about unrest in Galilee and Judea, and Josephus (supposedly) talks about Jesus. But he never mentions Jesus in connexion with either of the other two topics. Why not? The simplest answer, of course, is that Jesus was not particularly involved in any sort of general agitation, nor was his connexion to John all that strong.

Given this, can we finally put aside the idea that the early Christians were embarrassed by Jesus’ ties to John. They weren’t. They played up the connexion, John’s role expanding as time went on. Yes, the evangelist John eliminates the actual baptism, but he more than compensates by adding a second interaction between Jesus and John. True embarrassment would have resulted in the complete elimination of the Baptist by Matthew and/or Luke, and certainly by the time John wrote.

But the point connected to this verse is that it’s most likely unhistorical. Which means that pretty much everything that follows is unhistorical.

11 Iesus autem stetit ante praesidem; et interrogavit eum praeses dicens: “ Tu es Rex Iudaeorum? ”. Dixit autem Iesus: “Tu dicis”.

12 καὶ ἐν τῷ κατηγορεῖσθαι αὐτὸν ὑπὸ τῶν ἀρχιερέων καὶ πρεσβυτέρων οὐδὲν ἀπεκρίνατο.

And in the to accuse him by the high priests and elders he did not rebut anything.

Didn’t want to pause here, but a couple of notes on the grammar. “The to accuse” is a verb in Greek, an infinitive. This use of an infinitive in the place of what would be a gerund, or even a noun (the accusing; the accusation) in English is fairly common in Greek. It just handles the same situation differently. And the “he did not rebut anything”. The verb specifically means to “offer contrary evidence”, but that’s hard to work into a transitive form in English. Here, it’s literally “he did not counter-argue nothing”. That won’t do in English.

12 Et cum accusaretur a principibus sacerdotum et senioribus, nihil respondit.

13 τότε λέγει αὐτῷ ὁ Πιλᾶτος, Οὐκ ἀκούεις πόσα σου καταμαρτυροῦσιν;

14 καὶ οὐκ ἀπεκρίθη αὐτῷ πρὸς οὐδὲ ἓν ῥῆμα, ὥστε θαυμάζειν τὸν ἡγεμόνα λίαν.

Then Pilate said to him, “Did you not hear how much they have provided witness against you?” (14) And he (Jesus) did not respond to him (Pilate), not one thing spoken. In this way the Leader marveled very much. 

I’m reading another book called The Backgrounds of Early Christianity (note the plural). In it, the author says that “hegemon”, here translated as “leader” was the proper Greek translation of the Latin equivalent. That makes sense, but the author’s background is in Biblical Studies, so I’m not entirely convinced. If I had come across it in Josephus, let’s say, I’d give it more credibility. “NT Greek” is such a closed and self-inferential subset of Greek studies that I don’t find them to have a lot of credibility. It’s too much like a club where the members all agree to do certain things that people outside the club would find bizarre. Sort of like wearing funny hats to go to a lodge meeting.

Probably more important is that Jesus was silent. Why did Jesus not respond? Well, even if he did, we couldn’t depend on its accuracy. Who was there to tell the later followers of Jesus what transpired? Or, more likely, Jesus said nothing to Pilate because he never appeared before Pilate.

13 Tunc dicit illi Pilatus: “ Non audis quanta adversum te dicant testimonia?”.

14 Et non respondit ei ad ullum verbum, ita ut miraretur praeses vehementer.

15 Κατὰ δὲ ἑορτὴν εἰώθει ὁ ἡγεμὼν ἀπολύειν ἕνα τῷ ὄχλῳ δέσμιον ὃν ἤθελον.

(15) And upon the feast the governor used to release one of the prisoners to the crowd, which they wanted.

Let’s stop right here. Absolutely the only place this custom is attested is right here in the gospels. There is absolutely no evidence for it anywhere else, in any source, whether Latin, Greek, or Aramaic. Nowhere. Nothing. Never. Given this absolute lack of corroborating evidence, it’s safe to say we should be highly skeptical about its authenticity. Make that extremely skeptical. And notice that the Greek says the governor was accustomed, was wont to do this. This means it happened more than once; it was not a one-off sort of thing. This means that there is more likelihood that it would have been mentioned by someone, somewhere, at some time. Since, despite the fact that there were multiple iterations of this practice, we still don’t have any evidence for it, we can, I believe, safely assume that this whole episode is made up from whole cloth.

And that, in turn, has additional ramifications. We have a fictitious custom tacked on to what is probably a fictitious trial. That so much of this is made up should make one consider that the cause of the trial, the reason for Jesus’ execution may not withstand historical scrutiny. I’ve now read at least two books by Crossan in which he avers that the cleansing of the Temple was the reason behind Jesus’ arrest based on charges trumped-up by the Jewish authorities because they feared that Jesus was offering an alternative to Temple ritual. Perhaps he was. But so were the Essenes. And we honestly don’t know exactly what Jesus’ teachings really were. I believe that the Sermon on the Mount was not among them. The point is that the fictions pile upon fictions, creating quite the house of cards that topples with even the slightest historical scrutiny.

15 Per diem autem sollemnem consueverat praeses dimittere turbae unum vinctum, quem voluissent.

16 εἶχον δὲ τότε δέσμιον ἐπίσημον λεγόμενον [Ἰησοῦν] Βαραββᾶν.

17 συνηγμένων οὖν αὐτῶν εἶπεν αὐτοῖς ὁ Πιλᾶτος, Τίνα θέλετε ἀπολύσω ὑμῖν, [Ἰησοῦν τὸν] Βαραββᾶν ἢ Ἰησοῦν τὸν λεγόμενον Χριστόν;

18 ᾔδει γὰρ ὅτι διὰ φθόνον παρέδωκαν αὐτόν.

They had imprisoned then someone notable called [Jesus] Barabbas. (17)  Thus those of his having gathered, Pilate asked to them, “Whom do you wish I release to you, [Jesus the ] Barabbas, or Jesus called the Christ?” (18) For he knew that through jealousy they had handed him over. 

Assuming, with justice, that the story and character of Barabbas is fictional, we must then ask why it was created? It would seem to be obvious that the point is to compare and contrast the two men, which comparison is even more pointed since the other’s name was also Jesus–although that is more likely a later insertion, based on the textual evidence. A later copyist sought to heighten the drama and the distinction between the two by giving them the same name. We’ll get to the contrast a bit more in the next few verses.

Rather, let’s deal with the last sentence: the high priests handed Jesus over from jealousy. Or was it malice? Either way, this is an echo from Mark, so it goes to the foundation of the story. So let’s think about this. The word, << phthonos >>, is used by both Mark and Matthew. While at root the word means “malice”, in Greek tragedy, it is the << φθόνος >> of the gods, the jealousy of preserving their prerogatives,  that causes them to send retribution upon a mortal for overstepping his place; however, the word is mostly used for “normal” jealousy or envy as well. It is what we feel for another’s riches, or another’s success when we’re not exactly happy for them. I think a legitimate question to ask is whether Mark understood the literary implications of the word. How widely were the concepts of Greek tragedy disseminated throughout the culture? By using the word, did the evangelist–or the creator of the Passion Narrative, or the scribe who translated Mark into Greek–wish, consciously or not, to evoke the idea of tragedy? It needs to be said that Jesus does not fit the mold of the tragic hero: he is not blind to his tragic flaw, he does not overstep his human role and attempt to usurp the role of the gods.

Or does he? Boy howdy, here’s a thesis for some enterprising and aspiring Ph.D. scholar: The Passion Story as Greek tragedy. 

OK, coming back to earth, let’s be a bit more circumspect about this. Otherwise, it’s another of those moments when I take a flight of fancy based pretty much on nothing. Here, it’s a single word. That would be a very, very subtle evocation on the part of the author.

So let’s reel this in a bit and ask what the author meant by the word. It seems pretty obvious that, on a very human level, this cuts to the root of the high priests’ attitude towards Jesus: they felt he was horning in on their territory, and they didn’t like it. That’s pretty much the textbook definition of jealousy: losing what you have to someone else. As such, it goes along with the theme of the story. But there are two things to consider. First, how in the world would Pilate know this? Did his sources on the street keep him informed? Did Pilate even know who Jesus was? The short answer to that is, it’s doubtful. According to the narrative, Jesus has been in the city since Sunday; it’s now Friday. Has Jesus raised that much of a ruckus that he’s come to Pilate’s attention? Well, there was the procession into Jerusalem, but a close reading of Mark’s version of that event reveals Jesus coming into town surrounded by a group of followers that seemed to draw scant attention from anyone else. Aware of this low-key description, Matthew expands upon it, having children chanting “Hosanna” in the Temple precinct. But even there, it almost seems like the high priests are taking notice of Jesus for the first time. Then there is the “cleansing” of the Temple. At the very most, it would have been a minor occurrence, perhaps involving a single table, a nuisance rather than a threat. Anything larger would have likely resulted in Jesus’ immediate arrest. And the story, told in both Mark and Matthew, that he returned to the Temple the next day and conversed with Temple priests really undercuts any suggestion that he caused a significant disturbance the day before.

In other words, there’s very little for the high priests to be jealous about. Then, of course, there’s the second problem with the suggestion that Pilate understood the high priests’ motives: this trial probably did not happen. Pilate did not personally try every two-bit criminal who got himself arrested and crucified. Jesus very obviously committed no major crime; even knocking over a money-changer’s table would not cross that bar. Given that, why is Jesus being tried by Pilate? Answer, he’s not. This event did not happen.

16 Habebant autem tunc vinctum insignem, qui dicebatur Barabbas.

17 Congregatis ergo illis dixit Pilatus: “ Quem vultis dimittam vobis: Barabbam an Iesum, qui dicitur Christus? ”.

18 Sciebat enim quod per invidiam tradidissent eum.

19 Καθημένου δὲ αὐτοῦ ἐπὶ τοῦ βήματος ἀπέστειλεν πρὸς αὐτὸν ἡ γυνὴ αὐτοῦ λέγουσα, Μηδὲν σοὶ καὶ τῷ δικαίῳ ἐκείνῳ, πολλὰ γὰρ ἔπαθον σήμερον κατ’ ὄναρ δι’ αὐτόν.

20 Οἱ δὲ ἀρχιερεῖς καὶ οἱ πρεσβύτεροι ἔπεισαν τοὺς ὄχλους ἵνα αἰτήσωνται τὸν Βαραββᾶν τὸνδὲ Ἰησοῦν ἀπολέσωσιν.

While seated on the judgement seat, his wife sent to him, saying, “Do not have anything (to do) with this just man, for many signs I have felt during a dream on his account”. (20) The high priests and the scribes persuaded the crown in order to cause this Jesus Barabbas to be released.

Here, I think, is where we come to the crux (no pun intended) of the matter. First, we have Pilate’s wife dreaming about Jesus, telling Pilate to have nothing to do with this just man. This is an addition to Mark’s story. And it’s addition is, I think, very telling. The Greeks and Romans took dreams very seriously. The Iliad says: << kai gar t’oner ek dios estin >> “For a dream, too, is from Zeus”. There are stories in the HS about dreams: the dream of pharaoh interpreted by Joseph, the dream of Nebuchadnezzar interpreted by Daniel, and I think Saul had a dream, too? But regardless, they dream was much more of a Graeco-Roman thing, much more tightly intertwined with the pagan culture than it was in Jewish culture. The gods visited ordinary people in a way that God did not. For example, medical shrines, like that of Asclepius, sort of the ancient version of Lourdes, drew pilgrims from far away. The healing process was to sleep in the temple compound until the god sent a dream to tell the supplicant of the necessary ritual needed to effect a cure.

The point is, Matthew’s insertion of this story was intended, I believe, to convince a pagan audience. It would have carried more weight with pagans than it would have with Jews. In effect, Matthew is telling his audience that some god was sending verification that Jesus was innocent. Jews could have understood this as well; there’s nothing exclusive about the idea, but it would have had more resonance, IMO, among pagans who were used to this sort of thing.

Then there’s the next verse, in which the crowd is incited to ask for Barabbas. First, why is there a crowd at all? It’s early morning on the first day of Passover. Why are Jews assembled in front of Pilate’s residence? This may be legitimate, but I’ve never heard an explanation for this. It’s especially odd considering that it’s early in the morning. Were they seeking to petition Pilate? To demonstrate to persuade Pilate to take some action or other? This seems like another of those many instances where some detail, or set of circumstances that furthers the action/plot is just asserted and never explained. And these sorts of details are rarely (if ever) questioned by any of the scholars who are supposedly considering the historicity of Jesus and/or the gospels. To his credit, Crossan does address this, at least indirectly. He dismisses the entire episode of Barabbas, which thereby eliminates the crowd shouting “Crucify him!”. The point of this couplet is very simple and very straightforward: the idea is to remove the guilt from Pilate and place it squarely on the Jewish authorities, if not exactly the Jews themselves. That will come shortly.

19 Sedente autem illo pro tribunali, misit ad illum uxor eius dicens: “Nihil tibi et iusto illi. Multa enim passa sum hodie per visum propter eum”.

20 Principes autem sacerdotum et seniores persuaserunt turbis, ut peterent Barabbam, Iesum vero perderent.

21 ἀποκριθεὶς δὲ ὁ ἡγεμὼν εἶπεν αὐτοῖς, Τίνα θέλετε ἀπὸ τῶν δύο ἀπολύσω ὑμῖν; οἱ δὲ εἶπαν, Τὸν Βαραββᾶν.

22 λέγει αὐτοῖς ὁ Πιλᾶτος, Τί οὖν ποιήσω Ἰησοῦν τὸν λεγόμενον Χριστόν; λέγουσιν πάντες, Σταυρωθήτω.

23 ὁ δὲ ἔφη, Τί γὰρ κακὸν ἐποίησεν; οἱ δὲ περισσῶς ἔκραζον λέγοντες, Σταυρωθήτω.

24 ἰδὼν δὲ ὁ Πιλᾶτος ὅτι οὐδὲν ὠφελεῖ ἀλλὰ μᾶλλον θόρυβος γίνεται, λαβὼν ὕδωρ ἀπενίψατο τὰς χεῖρας ἀπέναντι τοῦ ὄχλου, λέγων, Ἀθῷός εἰμι ἀπὸ τοῦ αἵματος τούτου: ὑμεῖς ὄψεσθε.

25 καὶ ἀποκριθεὶς πᾶς ὁ λαὸς εἶπεν, Τὸ αἷμα αὐτοῦ ἐφ’ ἡμᾶς καὶ ἐπὶ τὰ τέκνα ἡμῶν.

26 τότε ἀπέλυσεν αὐτοῖς τὸν Βαραββᾶν, τὸν δὲ Ἰησοῦν φραγελλώσας παρέδωκεν ἵνα σταυρωθῇ.

Answering, the governor said to them, “Whom from the two do you wish I release to you?” They said, “Barabbas!” (22) Pilate said to them, “What therefore shall I do to Jesus called the Christ?” They all said, “Let him be crucified!”  (23) And he said, “For what has he done (that is) bad?” They shouted more, saying “Let him be crucified!” (24) Pilate, seeing that he profited nothing, but more tumult became, taking water he washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am guiltless from the blood of him; you observe this for yourselves”. (25) And responded the entire people, “The blood of him upon us and upon the children of us!” (26) Then he released to them Barabbas, in contrast Jesus having been scourged he handed him over that he might be crucified.

Two things, one major, one fairly minor. The fairly minor one first. The last sentence is interesting. “Handed him over that he might be crucified”. First, the idea of “handing him over” is completely disingenuous. Pilate handed Jesus to no one. The Romans performed the crucifixion; it was Pilate’s soldiers who carried out the sentence. Jesus was not ‘handed over’. The word is the same that is used of Judas when Judas “handed Jesus over”. Except there, it is very often translated as “betrayed”. So this is a neat rhetorical trick whereby the author can put Pilate at a remove from responsibility. Of course, Pilate is the one who is responsible. It was his order, carried out by his soldiers.

But that is pretty much inconsequential compared to the line before: his blood on us and our children”. This is possibly the ugliest line in the entire NT. This is the Jews as Christ-killers, his blood on their hands and those of their children. Blood guilt, in perpetuity. To make things more emphatic, to make them worse, he changes what he calls those doing the shouting. Before, the were “the crowd”. Now, suddenly, they are “laos”, which I’ve translated as “people”. In The Persians, Aeschylus uses the word to mean, “all who are called by one name”; as examples, he cites the Lydians and the Phrygians. The term is a bit looser than “ethnos”, which has more of a unitary sense to it, and is probably closer to our sense of “a people” than “laos” is. However, given the use of Aeschylus, this is more than “a bunch of people”, which in English would be more or less synonymous with “crowd”.

The point here is that Matthew has placed collective guilt on Jews and their children. While this formulation is not as explicit as it will be in John, who speaks of “the Jews”, it’s the rhetorical and functional equivalent of that expression. “Laos” doesn’t do it, but adding “our children” certainly does. That converts it at least to the guilt of a religion, but given the interconnexion of religion and nationality with the Jews, this is, in essense, an ethnic guilt, and one that has had a long and ugly history in the Christian community.

There is a wrinkle to this that receives no attention. Since it is simply accepted that Matthew was a Jew, no one discusses this in terms of Matthew’s attitude towards Jews. Simply put, there is no discussion about why Matthew, a Jew, would put such blood-guilt on his own people. For me, there is no conflict in this because I believe Matthew was a pagan rather than a Jew. Do I believe this proves my point? No, it doesn’t prove the point; what it does do, I believe, is show that my point is at least worth serious consideration. This amounts to a very harsh condemnation of Jews everywhere and always. As a Jew, Matthew would most likely have been condemning members of his own family. Could he have turned so thoroughly against his relatives, his friends, his entire upbringing and heritage? Sure. He wouldn’t have been the first to do this, and he certainly hasn’t been the last. Rather, it’s the probability game: wouldn’t it be more likely for such a harsh condemnation to come from an outsider, rather than from a co-religionist? I find this pretty convincing, but only when added to the many other times we’ve had this discussion, such as the idea of the dream of Pilate’s wife. That is two clues within a very short space of text. So I do believe the idea cannot be dismissed out of hand, and that it deserves serious consideration. 

21 Respondens autem praeses ait illis: “Quem vultis vobis de duobus dimittam?”. At illi dixerunt: “ Barabbam!”.

22 Dicit illis Pilatus: “Quid igitur faciam de Iesu, qui dicitur Christus? ”. Dicunt omnes: “ Crucifigatur!”.

23 Ait autem: “Quid enim mali fecit? ”. At illi magis clamabant dicentes: “ Crucifigatur!”.

24 Videns autem Pilatus quia nihil proficeret, sed magis tumultus fieret, accepta aqua, lavit manus coram turba dicens: “Innocens ego sum a sanguine hoc; vos videritis!”.

25 Et respondens universus populus dixit: “Sanguis eius super nos et super filios nostros”.

26 Tunc dimisit illis Barabbam; Iesum autem flagellatum tradidit, ut crucifigeretur.

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About James, brother of Jesus

I have a BA from the University of Toronto in Greek and Roman History. For this, I had to learn classical Greek and Latin. In seminar-style classes, we discussed both the meaning of the text and the language. U of T has a great Classics Dept. One of the professors I took a Senior Seminar with is now at Harvard. I started reading the New Testament as a way to brush up on my Greek, and the process grew into this. I plan to comment on as much of the NT as possible, starting with some of Paul's letters. After that, I'll start in on the Gospels, starting with Mark.

Posted on November 25, 2016, in Chapter 27, gospels, Historical Jesus, Matthew's Gospel, passion story and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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