Commentary on John 19:1-16a
Our text today begins with Pilate taking Jesus to be flogged, but this scene is part of a sequence that began in 18:28, when the chief priests had taken Jesus from Caiaphas and delivered him to Pilate. What our NRSV translates as “headquarters” is the praetorium, Pilate’s fortress at the northwest corner of the temple. If we imagine John 18:28-19:16 as a stage drama (as Jo-Ann Brant helps us to do), Pilate’s praetorium fortress would be the set for the seven scenes in this section. Imagine a stage structure divided into two parts.1
One side is set for outside the praetorium—from the left a pathway from where Jesus had just been questioned by the high priest (and in view, the fireside where Peter had denied Jesus). The pathway leads to a simple but open outdoor space for groups to stand under the night sky, corners for conversation by torchlight, and a single seat toward the front of the stage (we will return to the significance of this seat later). A great door divides this side of the set from the next. The other side is set for inside the praetorium—a walled but still open-air space with one side set for conversation with a pallet for Pilate to recline, and the other busy, with military equipment hanging on the walls, crates stacked for storage, a flogging post standing at the ready.
Many scholars divide this larger section of Jesus before Pilate (John 18:28-19:16a) into seven scenes that alternate settings, one scene takes place outside the praetorium, then a scene takes place inside the praetorium, and the pattern repeats. Pilate and Jesus are always at the center, Pilate moving Jesus back and forth between these spaces, and the Jewish religious leaders staying outside (so as not to defile themselves on the day of Preparation for the Passover).
[A] OUTSIDE (18:28-32) | Jewish leaders ask Pilate to sentence Jesus, claiming they have no power
[B] INSIDE (18:33-38a) | Pilate and Jesus discuss true kingship
[C] OUTSIDE (18:38b-40) | Pilate tries to release Jesus; they demand release of Barabbas instead
[D] INSIDE (19:1-3) | Pilate has Jesus flogged; soldiers beat Jesus and mock him with royal imagery
[C1] OUTSIDE (19:4-8) | Pilate maintains innocence but fears accusation: “he claimed to be the Son of God”
[B1] INSIDE (19:9-11) | Pilate and Jesus discuss true power
[A1] OUTSIDE (19:12-16a) Against his desire, Pilate proves loyalty to Caesar and hands Jesus over to death
In addition to being a set of seven scenes, the structure takes the form of a chiasm.
- chiasm: a rhetorical structure used in ancient Greek writing where lines or scenes unfold and then are repeated in reverse order, creating a parallel format. It gets its name because the structural outline takes the shape of the Greek letter chi (X).
This rhetorical structure leads to some very helpful insights for the reader. First, and perhaps most importantly—if there is a stand-alone center to the chiasm, meaning a portion in the middle that has no parallel; that portion of the story has special thematic significance. In our story, then, we know to pay special attention to section [D] 19:1-3 (more on that below). Second, the other sections of the chiasm parallel one another in ways that can add insight into special themes or points of emphasis. We can see, for example, that in [B] 18:33-38a and [B1]19:9-11 Pilate and Jesus have extended discussions (one about kingship, one explicitly about power).
We can also compare [C1] 19:4-8 to its parallel section in the chiasm, [C] 18:38:b-40. In both scenes, Pilate asserts that he finds no case against Jesus. In both scenes, Pilate tries to assert his power or use the system to escape the situation. And in both scenes, the Jewish religious leaders (who claim to be the powerless ones) win out. In chapter 18 they call for the release of the bandit Barabbas instead of Jesus, and in our text, they bring a charge that sends Pilate into a great state of fear and causes him to reconsider.
“He has claimed to be the Son of God” (19:7). So, what’s so scary about their charge? Pilate realizes that this situation might put his position of power in peril. Perhaps the claim to be the “Son of God” (a title used for Caesar) sounded closer to sedition against the Roman Empire than a claim to be the “King of the Jews” (a claim, by the way, that Jesus didn’t affirm—but which Pilate will affirm later in this chapter).
In the dialogue that ensues, Pilate certainly sounds like a man trying a bit too hard to show he has nothing to prove. Yet, Pilate still wants to release Jesus. When the Jewish religious authorities explicitly question his loyalty to the Empire—“If you release this man, you are no friend of the emperor” (19:12)—Pilate releases Jesus to be killed.
- “Friend of Caesar” was an official honorific title in ancient Rome. Pilate did not have this official title, but someone close to Pilate did—a wealthy and influential high-level political official named Lucius Aelius Sejanus, who happened to be Pilate’s patron. A patron was a person of high status in Roman society from whom another person would gain favor (public, official, professional, social, etc.) by doing favors and remaining loyal. The Roman Historian Tacitus tells us that Pilate’s patron, Sejanus, was executed on the charge of sedition against the emperor in AD 31 (so, yes, very close to the time of Jesus’ trial).
Power emerges as a central theme, and the narrative subverts this theme in significant ways. The Jewish religious leaders claim to have no power, yet they are the ones who ultimately control the situation (at least on the story-level). Pilate tries to wield his political power and ultimately fails. While our attention has been on Pilate, we do well to remember that throughout John, Jesus has been in control of his own fate and has headed toward this moment as an act of his own will. We are now on the cusp of the climax that the narrative has been building toward—the moment when Jesus will be lifted up. Jesus’s willful and noble death is not a weak moment in John, but a powerful and victorious one. Although the intent of the soldiers in verses 1-3 is to mock Jesus as a defeated king and a failed Messianic-claimant, Jesus sits almost Stoic throughout this episode, knowing that the systems of power at work in the Temple and the Empire are too small for his plans.
- Jo-Ann Brant, John (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing, 2011), 242. Much of my work here is a synthesis of Brant’s longer treatment. I highly suggest referencing the full commentary.
PRAYER OF THE DAY
In this season of contemplation, help us to recognize that you revealed yourself in Jesus, who walked among us and was handed over to be crucified. May we be strengthened by his presence among us today. Amen.
My song in the night, Paul Christiansen