The Clemency of Pilate

In all the gospel accounts Pilate’s first words to Jesus are Are you the King of the Jews?but only John relates in some detail the exchange that ensued. Accor­ding to Mark, Matthew and Luke, the exchange between Pilate and Jesus was limited to the question Are you the King of the Jews? and the answer, You say. From the synoptic gospels one could gather the impression that You say is all that Jesus ever said in the entire procedure before Pilate. John, whose account of this episode is more complete, agrees on this important point. To be abso­lute­ly exact, according to the three synoptic gospels Jesus would have answered, You say and according to the gospel of John, You say that I am king.

                 To Pilate’s question Are you the King of the Jews? Jesus answers with a question that aims at establishing what Pilate means by King of the Jews. There follows an exchange in which Jesus tries to explain that if he is a king he is not a king in the ordinary sense of the word:

style=' line-height: My kingdom does not belong to this world

style=' line-height: If my kingdom belonged to this world,

style=' line-height: My followers would fight [for me].

style=' line-height: No, my kingdom does not belong to this world.

                 The contradictions inherent in kingship was a favorite theme of Seneca; he returns to it again and again in his plays. In his Thyestes the chorus tries to define what constitutes a true king:

You do not realize, in your craving for palaces,

wherein kingship consists. It is not wealth

Nor the purple robe nor the royal tiara...


            It is the sound mind which possesses true kingship, and a king so defined has no need of horses nor of armor...

            That Pilate approached the problem of Jesus from a philosophical angle is evident from his response to Jesus’ declaration that his kingdom was not of this world:

style=' line-height:So then, you are a king?[1]

            Pilate, from his skeptical point of view, cut short Jesus’ metaphysical argument and, ignoring subtle dis­tinc­tions, asked him whether he granted to be a king. Pilate’s question was a rhetorical one and did not require an answer, since the answer was implied in what had been said before. Pilate was taking a typical Skeptic position. A major thrust of Skeptic philo­sophy was to oppose the search for essences or for the intrinsic qualities of things. There is no point in arguing about the true nature of objectsthey are what they appear to be.

            Jesus’ response is reported in John’s gospel as

style=' line-height:You say that I am a king.

            As in the case of the questioning before the Jewish religious authorities, Jesus’ answer should be referred to the original Latin, where it carries the meaning:

King is the title that you are bestowing upon me.

            A line of argument similar to that adopted by Jesus in answering Pilate was adopted by Caesar in the period that immediately preceded his assassination. Because Caesar had been granted extraordinary powers, because he had been made the object of religious honors, because he sat on a throne and wore a crown, there was in Rome an intense debate and a resulting explosive political tension on the question of whether Caesar claimed to be a king. Caesar skirted the issue by taking a leaf from Stoic philo­sophy and proclaiming: My name is Caesar, not king.[2]

            The Stoics, in contrast to the Skeptics, insisted that one should reject arbitrary designations and go directly to the truth. Accordingly Jesus parried Pilate’s attempt at categorizing him as a king and went directly to the truth, the truth which he had been born to proclaim:

style=' line-height:I was born and came into the world for this one purpose

style=' line-height:To be a witness to the truth

style=' line-height:Whoever belongs to the truth listens to my voice.

                 But Seneca, with his unique gift for encapsulating an entire complex of ideas in a single line of dialogue, gives the last word to Pilate:

style=' line-height:And what is truth?

            Pilate’s question was again a rhetorical one and had the finality of a categorical assertion. The conclusion of the questioning inside the praetorium was indicated by Pilate’s stepping outside to announce his findings to the waiting crowd (Jn. 18:38):

style=' line-height:Then Pilate went back outside to the Jews and said to them:

style=' line-height:I do not find any guilt in him.

            According to Luke, Pilate’s response to the crowd ended with the lines:

There is nothing this man has done to deserve death.

I will have him whipped, then, and let him go.

            Pilate is urging clemency, patiently explaining to the Jewish leaders why Jesus should be freed. At most he will agree to have him whipped. Many interpreters have remarked that the portrayal of Pilate in the gospels is in sharp contrast to his character as it can be gleaned from the writings of Philo and Josephus. Could the Pilate of the gospel tradition, who agonizes over the fate of his prisoner and repeatedly tries to have him released, be the same man described by Philo as naturally inflexible and stubbornly relentless, responsible for acts of corruption, insults, rapine, outrages on the people, arrogance, repeated murder of innocent victims and constant and most galling savagery?[3]

            Admittedly, the evangelists were interested in proving that Jesus, despite his death at the hands of a Roman governor, had not been a rebel against Rome and that his message was not directed against the interests of Roman power. There can be little doubt that this motivation underlies the portrayal of Pilate in the gospels, but by itself it does not explain Pilate’s strangely uncharacteristic behavior.

            In order to understand Seneca’s portrayal of Pilate, we should consider what was the main purpose of tragedy, as explained by Aristotle:

style=' line-height:It is not the poet’s business to relate actual events... that is why poetry is more akin to philosophy and is a better thing than history.[4]

            Seneca considered poetry and drama as the most effective vehicle for communicating philosophical ideas.[5] A philosopher can best accomplish his aims "when he introduces verses

among his wholesome precepts, that he may thus make these verses sink more effectively into the mind of the novice." Since in his tragedy of Jesus Seneca was dealing with a theme based on recent history and one at the forefront of public attention in view of the contemporaneous trial of Paul, he sought to be more direct than in his other plays in driving home the lessons of Stoicism. Seneca's tragedies explore the dire consequences to which unbridled passion inevitably leads, such as jealousy in the case of Medea, or erotic infatuation in the case of Hippolytus. In the case of the tragedy of Jesus, Seneca was evidently targetting religious fanaticism. At the time that Paul was on trial for his life, Seneca was in effect posing the question of how a rational ruler ought to behave in the midst of a public fury stirred by religious passions. Pilate, called upon to make a decision in the case of Jesus, acted against his conscience and issued an unjust sentence, not due to weakness, but for reasons of state, which are of a higher order. In the case of Paul the final decision was up to Nero.

            In the aftermath of Paul’s trial Seneca addressed to Nero a memorandum On Clemency, where he tried to justify the painful decisions a ruler must at times make for the sake of preserving the existing social order, decisions that may involve the execution of innocent individuals. In this work Seneca rejects compassion and mercy as being mere irrational emotional responses; the just ruler will behave with clemency, which is based on reason.

            Seneca’s On Clemency begins with a story about Nero, who for a long time could not bring himself to sign a particular death sentence; when his advisors insisted that he must do so in the interest of the state, he cried:

style=' line-height:I wish I had never learned how to write!

            The executions may have been required in order to calm the public hysteria generated by Paul's trial. In his memorandum Seneca reassures Nero that such unpleasant duties will be thrust upon him only very seldom; nevertheless,

style=' line-height:It will from time to time be necessary for you to write what once made you loathe the art of writing; at least let it be according to your custom, after much procrastination and numerous postponements.

            The clement ruler must be firm and exercise his duties without emotion. He should attempt to mitigate punishment, wherever possible, not out of any sentimental regard for the condemned, but in order to avoid cruelty, which is as much a weakness as mercy.

            The Pilate that emerges from the gospel accounts bears little resemblance to the Pilate of history; it is, rather, Seneca’s image of a prudent but practical politician, a Skeptic by inclination, who strives for clemency on the basis of reason, who delays punishment and attempts to mitigate it, but will agree to a death sentence when the safety of the state and his own position are at stake.

            Since the Pilate of the gospels was a creation of Seneca, we need not wonder at his proposal that Jesus, instead of being crucified, be merely whipped and then released. The chorus, standing outside, reacts to this suggestion by shouting back:

style=' line-height:Kill him. Set Barabbas free for us.

            Luke explains:

style=' line-height:At each Passover feast Pilate had to set one prisoner free for them.

            According to John, it was Pilate himself who brought up the so-called Passover privilege, but both evangelists agree that it was the Jews who first mentioned the name Barabbas:

But according to the custom that you have

I always set free a prisoner for you during the Passover.

Do you want me to set the king of the Jews free for you?

They answered him with a shout,

Not him, but Barabbas.

            The line Do you want me to set the king of the Jews free for you? must come from the play, since Mark, who wrote independently of John, repeats it almost verbatim. It has the form of a question, but it is in fact an offer of clemency. Pilate makes no mention of Barabbas.

            The Passover privilege, and the Barabbas incident so closely linked with it, have created endless difficulties for interpreters, for despite the most assiduous efforts, no trace of any Roman custom for releasing prisoners in honor of Passover has been found. It was introduced by Seneca in his play to give Pilate a chance to exercise his clemency. As is made clear in John’s gospel, the audience learned of the existence of this privilege from words spoken by Pilate.

            The problem of the Passover privilege is compounded by the sudden introduction of the name Barabbas, which is shouted by the crowd. The Christian audience, who had never heard of anyone named Barabbas, must have been puzzled and tried to endow this name with some biographical details. That is why John explains: This Barabbas was a bandit.

            The name Barabbas means father’s son, which is a meaningless expression; it is not a personal name in Hebrew. Matthew was aware of the difficulty and tried to solve it by reporting the name as Jesus Barabbas. To explain the sudden affection of the crowd for a person previously unknown, Matthew adds that he was a well-known prisoner. If he had been such, the evangelists would not have been at pains to identify him. Matthew makes the Barabbas incident the centerpiece of Jesus’ trialthe crowd would have been asked to decide between Jesus the Christ and Jesus Barabbas. In Matthew’s gospel, Pilate asks the crowd which of the two Jesuses they want released, and they make their choice by shouting: Barabbas.[6]

            Mark, in his effort to reconcile the differences between Luke and Matthew, adopts Luke’s explanation that Barabbas was in prison with the rebels who had committed murder in the riot. But because the accounts of Matthew and Luke are so different, Mark shies away from reporting the direct words of the Jews, and resorts to a paraphrase of Matthew:

style=' line-height:The chief priests stirred up the crowd to ask, instead, for Pilate to set Barabbas free for them.

            The Barabbas incident must be seen in light of a report by the Jewish historian Philo of a riot that took place in Alexandria when Agrippa I stopped there briefly in 38 A.D. on his way back from Rome, where he had been crowned King of the Jews.[7] In his pamphlet Against Flaccus, Philo reports that the riot began when some residents of Alexandria put together a pantomime in which a fool, whom the crowd called Karabas, played the role of the Jewish king. He was given a crown made of papyrus, dressed with a royal robe, and a reed was put in his hand to serve as a scepter. A group of young men surrounded him, forming a bodyguard, and some others approached him to hail him as the king of the Jews.

            Philo’s report indicates that karabas was the popular expression used to describe someone impersonating a king. It seems to be derived from the Greek word meaning scarab, or royal seal.[8] It was a harsh word that designated not only a pretender to kingship, but also a ridiculous figure, one that could be mocked. We might compare it to our word impostor. Now let us re-read the exchange between Pilate and the crowd as it is presented in John’s gospel, keeping in mind this meaning of the word karabas. Pilate asked the Jews:

style=' line-height:Do you want me to set the king of the Jews free for you?

            The Jews reject Pilate’s offer of clemency because they object to its premise. If they accepted it, they would by the same token be accepting Jesus as their king. Their response could be rendered as:

style=' line-height:He’s no king of ours, he’s an impostor!

            John misunderstood the expression and assumed that the Jews were demanding the release of some other prisoner named Barabbas. Hence he reported these words as:

style=' line-height:Not him, but Barabbas!

            Interpreters who go along with the evangelists’ understanding that the Jews were demanding the release of some other prisoner named Barabbas need to explain why John does not mention the release of any Barabbas. What he does mention is the release of Jesus as a karabasa mock-king, which is exactly what the crowd was demanding.

            In order to understand why Seneca would have chosen to use the word karabas to designate a mock-king or an impostor, we need to recall that he had spent a good part of his youth in Alexandria in the retinue of his uncle, the Viceroy of Egypt. Alexandria was also the home of Philo. It may be a matter of con­jecture whether Seneca read the writings of Philo and whether he met with him in Egypt, but it is a fact that in the year 39-40 A.D. Philo was in Rome in order to petition the Emperor Gaius Caligula for an exemption of the Jewish community of Alexandria from the obligation of wor­ship­ping the Emperor.[9] Just prior to this voyage he had written a pamphlet on the issue, Against Flaccus, where the Karabas incident is reported. It is most un­likely that Seneca as a member of the Senate would not have been up to date with the mission of Philo. A major thrust of Philo’s pamphlet is that God shows his feelings for violators of his Law by causing the death of Viceroys of Egypt and of Roman Emperors. Let us ask whether Seneca, who not only was the nephew of a Viceroy of Egypt, but also at the time was looked upon unkindly by the blood­thirsty Caligula, would have ignored a document such as Against Flaccus if he had any reason to become acquainted with its existence.

            The correctness of our interpretation of the Barabbas incident is demonstrated by what happens next. Following the crowd’s shouts of Barabbas! (in our view to be understood as Impostor!), Pilate goes back inside the praetorium; when he comes out again, he announces that he is bringing Jesus outside for them to see. But the audience is in for a surprise. When Jesus emerges onto the balcony at the upper level, he is no longer the helpless prisoner that the audience had seen being led inside the praetorium at the beginning of Act Twohe has been endowed by Pilate with the attributes of a king, including a royal robe and a pointed crown. Pilate’ purpose is to prove to the Jews that Jesus is no impostor, but a true king. In order to prepare the surprise, Seneca had not mentioned the putting on of the royal robe. But John, with his concern for detail, culled material from a later episode, the mockery of the soldiers that followed Jesus’ sentencing:

style=' line-height:The soldiers made a pointed crown  and put it on his head; they put a purple robe on him, and came to him and said, Long live the King of the Jews! and they went up and slapped him.

            As we shall see, Mark and Matthew place the mockery by the soldiers where it belongsat the very end of the trial, following the sentencing.

            Pilate’s purpose in dressing Jesus with the symbols of royalty follows logically from Skeptic tenets. The Jews had asked that Pilate sentence Jesus for pretending to be a king. What the Jews meant was that Jesus was an impostor, a karabas; they meant that he was one of those people whom Josephus repeatedly describes as impostors, that is, people who by performing miracles convinced the masses that they were the Messiah or King of the Jews and as such stirred up armed revolt.

            In order to understand Pilate’s reaction one must keep in mind the Graeco-Roman style of conducting and winning an argument. The exchange before Pilate has the character of a three-cornered debate between the Skeptic Pilate, the Stoic Jesus and the Jewish religious dogmatists. It is modeled on Cicero’s On the Nature of the Gods, a dialogue that presents a debate at the home of the Pontifex Maximus, the highest religious official of Rome, between a Skeptic, an Epicurean and a Stoic. This dialogue makes clear that Skepticism was the favorite philosophy, or perhaps more exactly, the anti-philosophy, of Roman practical politicians. Pilate argued as a Skeptic, but at the same time he was trying to arrive at results that would best serve the interests of Roman power.

            The Jews argued that Jesus was an impostor who pretended to be the King of the Jews and that the Romans should execute him because impostors who pretended to be the King of the Jews had repeatedly stirred up revolutions against Rome. But Pilate realized the logical fallacy in this professed political loyalism of the Jewish authorities. According to Jewish conceptions the only way to distinguish between a true and a false Messiah was success: He who does not succeed in overthrowing the Roman yoke cannot be the Messiah, and vice-versa. Hence, the Jews claimed that Jesus was an impostor because he could not lead them to a successful revolt against Rome. The danger for Rome was not represented by someone claiming to be King of the Jews, but by the fact that the Jews expected a king who would overthrow Roman power. Jesus in some way or another claimed to be the Messiah, but at the same time he did not advocate in-surrection. Therefore it was in the interest of the Roman government to have the Jews recognize Jesus as their king: This would dispose forever of the Jewish messianic threat to Rome.

            The Skeptics opposed the criticism of traditional religion carried on by several of the philosophical schools. On the basis of the argument that in matters of religion nothing can be proved to be true or false, they contended that one might as well follow the religion of the fathers, since this could be used in the interest of the state. In the same spirit Pilate decided not to question Jewish beliefs but to manipulate them in the interest of the Roman state.

            Pilate was confronted with the fact that the Jews refused to recognize Jesus as their king. How could he prove that Jesus was the King of the Jews? According to Skeptic principles the matter could not be settled on any ground beyond immediate sense experience: Religious, philosophical, or metaphysical concepts were irrelevant; what was decisive was the appearance of things. Hence, Pilate decided to dress Jesus with the robe and the crown of a king.

[1]           In the Greek text what I have translated by so then is oukoun. Commentators have noticed that the word oukoun does not occur anywhere else in the gospels. J. H. Moulton in A Grammar of New Testament Greek tries to explain the occurrence of this word by suggesting that here the gospel of John was quoting the exact words of Pilate. In Greek oukoun is employed in debate, particularly philosophical debate, when one of the parties wants to indicate that from what the other party has said, one can draw a certain conclusion. The Greek-English Lexicon of Liddell and Scott explains it as inviting assent to an inference, or to an addition to what has already received assent. The Latin rendering of oukoun is igitur. Harper’s Latin Dictionary, in order to explain this use of igitur, provides long quotations from arguments, particularly philosophical arguments, since the word may not be understood except in terms of what precedes it.

[2]           Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars: Julius Caesar, 79.

[3]           Legatio ad Gaium, 301. Philo is here quoting from a letter from Agrippa I to Caligula.

[4]           Poetics, IX.

[5]           Letter to Lucilius, No. 108.

[6]           Some interpreters have suggested, on the basis of Matthew’s statement, that Barabbas and Jesus were originally one and the same person. Riggs, JBL 64 (1945), 417-456. Others (e.g., Hyam Maccoby, Revolution in Judea) go so far as to claim that the evangelists split Jesus Barabbas into two separate personalities in order to exonerate the Roman authorities from blame in Jesus’ death, and put the entire onus on the Jews. Such an interpretation however, can only be sustained by radically rewriting the text of the gospels; it is tantamount to claiming that the gospel accounts are completely unreliable. If this is so, there would seem to be little sense in trying to interpret them..

[7]           Against Flaccus, 5, 6.

[8]           The Greek word karabos refers to a scarab; in Egypt scarabs were used as royal seals. Hence the slang espression karabas may have originated as a designation of someone impersonating a king by usurping the royal seal.

[9]           Philo wrote an account of this official visit to Rome in his Embassy to Gaius.