John 18: 28 – 32
Then they took Jesus from Caiaphas to Pilate’s headquarters. It was early in the morning. They themselves did not enter the headquarters, so as to avoid ritual defilement and to be able to eat the Passover. So Pilate went out to them and said, ‘What accusation do you bring against this man?’ They answered, ‘If this man were not a criminal, we would not have handed him over to you.’ Pilate said to them, ‘Take him yourselves and judge him according to your law.’ The Jews replied, ‘We are not permitted to put anyone to death.’ (This was to fulfil what Jesus had said when he indicated the kind of death he was to die.)
In the previous passage, the high priests, the leaders of the Judeans were unable to come to a solution to the Jesus problem within their own laws and customs. They decide, then, to bring him to Pilate, the representative of the Roman occupiers of the area.
The scene is almost comic: the high priests know that their actions would be completely unacceptable under their law, so they firstly outsource putting Jesus to death to their Roman occupiers, and secondly refuse to actually enter where the Roman official is, in order that they may participate in their sacred ritual later. The more serious aspect of this is John reminding us again of the time of the year; in the Temple the lambs are being prepared for sacrifice, as Jesus is brought before the judge who will decide whether he lives or dies.
Pontius Pilate is a bone fide historical figure that served as the Roman prefect of the province of Judea under the Emperor Tiberius, from AD 26 – 36. He vanishes from history by AD 37 after losing office, after the Judeans accused him of arrogant, bullying and unpleasant behaviour. His main two policies as prefect appear to have been to firstly keep things as quiet as possible in the tempestuous Middle East (unfortunately things have not changed in this regard much) and secondly to make sure that his subjects, the Judeans, knew who was in charge at all points. Through these two lenses we can understand his actions.
While Pilate was the Roman official responsible for justice in his region, this ‘justice’ seems more pragmatic than anything else. His first thought on the situation is that this is a religious matter, and that he should have nothing to do with it. Pilate may well have known about Jesus already, and been comfortable with the fact that he was not stirring up a military revolution against the Romans. That Jesus was causing issues for the Jewish leaders was not strictly his problem. But the high priests are persistent enough that Pilate reluctantly agrees to interrogate Jesus.
John’s final bracketed line of this passage is highlights two previous verses: 3:14 and 12:32. Jesus said that he would be ‘lifted up’ like the snake in the wilderness (John 3:14), and that when he was lifted up he would bring all people to him (12:32). John is thus able to still include an element of control for Jesus over the whole situation.