Pilate knew something about kingdoms and fighting. He also knew it was in his best interests to keep the peace in this unsettled and awkward backwater imperial province of Judea.
At one of the far flung corners of the Roman Empire, it wasn’t that Jesus posed a threat to Emperor Tiberius, Consul Sejanus, and the Senate, he didn’t. It was the unpredictable response of the religious fanatics Pilate was wary of. Not that long ago he had deeply offended local Jewish sensitivities; as Josephus records (c. 75AD):
“Now Pilate, who was sent as procurator into Judea by Tiberius, sent by night those images of Caesar that are called ensigns into Jerusalem. This excited a very among great tumult among the Jews when it was day; for those that were near them were astonished at the sight of them, as indications that their laws were trodden under foot; for those laws do not permit any sort of image to be brought into the city…
The Jews were under the utmost consternation at that unexpected sight. Pilate also said to them that they should be cut in pieces, unless they would admit of Caesar’s images, and gave intimation to the soldiers to draw their naked swords. Hereupon the Jews, as it were at one signal, fell down in vast numbers together, and exposed their necks bare, and cried out that they were sooner ready to be slain, than that their law should be transgressed. Hereupon Pilate was greatly surprised at their prodigious superstition, and gave order that the ensigns should be presently carried out of Jerusalem.”
So we know from this account, entirely unconnected with the Jesus of Nazareth story, how febrile the political situation was in Jerusalem under Pilate’s governance. Sure, Rome could counter with crushing force if needed, but was it worth it?
Pilate responds, “So you are a king?” He required an answer. Jesus claimed to have a kingdom, albeit not of this world. That must make him a king.
There was only room for one king in the Roman Empire. It wasn’t like the Judean Procurator hadn’t made known the ultimate authority of the Emperor throughout the region: in addition to the visible presence of the armed Roman guards and enforced taxation and collection of the Roman tribute penny bearing Caesar’s effigy, Pilate also distributed coins throughout Judea embossed with the name of the Emperor, Caesar Tiberius.
Jesus really could be under no illusion as to who was in charge. He only needed to reach into his knapsack and pull out a handful of coins to see who was in power, like the ones shown in this chapter. The provincial governor had gone to extra lengths to reinforce the economic and political dominion.
Minted in the 16th and 17th years of Tiberius, between 29-31AD, the earlier one also bears the name of Caesar’s mother, Empress Julia. As well as the familiar images of the barley heads (bottom left) and laurel wreath (bottom right), Pilate also chose to include
Roman symbols associated with pagan rites and divination:
- the Simpulum – a ladle used in religious ceremonies to anoint animal sacrifices with wine before reading their entrails to divine the future (top left);
- the Lituus – a curved staff associated with astrologers who would raise them towards the heavens and invoke the gods to make predictions (top right);
Scholars are divided as to whether the decision to promote pagan imagery within Judea was a deliberate provocation of the Jewish authorities, or simply a portrayal of Pilate’s deeply held superstitious beliefs. Whatever the motivation, it no doubt again caused the utmost consternation amongst the Hebrews who outlawed the practice of astrology — just as it had done when Pilate marched the ensigns into capital.
Maybe, however, Pilate asking Jesus “So you are a king?” was more than a straightforward question about treason?
There was something about the man Jesus that was intriguing perhaps — was it his countenance or appearance, or possibly the rumours of his miraculous powers?
We know from Matthew’s account — as one of the factual details not recorded by Mark — that Pilate’s wife sent word to him whilst he was sitting on the judgment seat “Have nothing to do with that righteous man, for I have suffered much because of him today in a dream.”
Perhaps Jesus’ claim that his kingdom was not of this world caused Pilate to scratch beyond the surface and dig deeper into the identity of the man called Christ?
We should be mindful that this conversation took place behind closed doors in the privacy of the governor’s headquarters, rather than in the public square where Pilate had to show a very different political face. Whatever his private musings about Jesus, ultimately the will of the people would prevail.
So what to do with this man who claimed to be king? Where were his sages and soothsayers to guide him in the truth when he needed them? And why was he being asked to condemn a man at this early hour in the morning anyway?