Roman Authority Encounters with Jesus

 

Celebrity status of Jesus of Nazareth quickly spread. Inevitably the news of his famous miraculous healing abilities would extend outside of Judea.[1] Many people, including those who were not Jewish, trusted enough in what they had heard or witnessed that they too believed Jesus could help them — including some Romans.

Soon after delivering the celebrated sermon of the Beatitudes, Jesus was in Capernaum.[2] It was the town where Jesus made his new home after being run out of Nazareth when he proclaimed in a local synagogue that he was the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy foretelling of the arrival of the Messiah.[3]

A Roman military officer sent some Jewish elders to approach Jesus with his request to heal his beloved servant.[4] Still at the Roman’ officer’s home, his servant was paralyzed, in terrible pain and near death.

Original Greek text word hekatontarches used in both Matthew and Luke is most frequently translated as “centurion” although it is not the specific Greek word, kenturion, for “centurion.”[5] The actual meaning of hekatontarches is a generic reference to “an officer in the Roman army.”[6] Whether centurion rank or not, he was a high-ranking Gentile officer in the Roman military.

As Jesus neared his home, the Roman military officer sent friends to tell Jesus he was not worthy to allow him into his house, but he recognized a common trait shared with Jesus — each had “authority” to command. The Roman officer believed Jesus could heal his servant by merely commanding it.

MT 8:8-10: “Lord, I am not worthy for You to come under my roof, but just say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I also am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to this one, ‘Go!’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come!’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this!’ and he does it.

Marveling at the officer, Jesus told the crowd he had never seen such faith as this in Israel. Jesus told the friends of the Roman officer his servant would be healed just as he believed. It was confirmed the servant was healed at the time of the command of Jesus.[7]

MT 8:10, 13 “Now when Jesus heard this, He marveled and said to those who were following, ‘Truly I say to you, I have not found such great faith with anyone in Israel. Go; it shall be done for you as you have believed.’ And the servant was healed that very moment.” (NASB)

Next encounter with Roman authority was Procurator Pilate who served as the Roman government judge weighing the charges leveled against Jesus by the Jewish leadership. No friend of the Jews, Pilate had twice offended the nation; once by bringing Roman ensigns with effigies of Caesar into Jerusalem and the other by using the “sacred money” of the Jews to construct a Jerusalem aqueduct.

Pilate had to walk a fine line to avoid drawing the negative attention of Tiberius who had committed to honor the decrees of Augustus even though Tiberius himself detested the Jews.[8] Previously, Caesar Augustus had issued a standing decree chiseled into a pillar of the Temple of Caesar to treat the Jews with moderation where anyone who transgressed the decree would be severely punished.[9]

On the surface, it would seem that Pilate would relish being able to crucify a Jew, no less at the behest of the Jewish leaders themselves under the accusation of insurrection and tax evasion. Instead, Pilate repeatedly tried to free Jesus.[10] Crucifixion of Jews was commonplace by the Romans making Pilate’s treatment of the case of Jesus highly unusual.

Taking the accused aside, Pilate asked Jesus, “Are You the King of the Jews?”[11] Jesus confirmed he is a King, but not one of this world. Pilate went back to the Jewish leadership, “I find no basis for a charge against him.” The Jewish leaders, however, continued to press Pilate.

Hearing that Galilee Tetrarch Herod, a son of the late King Herod, happened to be visiting Jerusalem, Pilate sent Jesus to him to be judged under the Tetrach’s Galilean authority. Interrogating Jesus for a considerable length of time while the Jewish legal experts “vehemently” accused him, Herod determined that Jesus had committed no crime and sent him back to Pilate. Addressing the Jewish leadership again, Pilate said:

LK 23:15-16 “You brought this man to me as one who incites the people to rebellion, and behold, having examined Him before you, I have found no guilt in this man regarding the charges which you make against Him. No, nor has Herod, for he sent Him back to us; and behold, nothing deserving death has been done by Him.” (NASB)

Traditionally at the Passover, Rome would pardon a prisoner and as such Pilate represented a choice to the Jewish crowd – a robber, plunderer and murderer named Barabbas or Jesus called the Christ.[12] The crowd shouted back they wanted Barabbas released. Not having any crime to charge, Pilate asked what was to be done with Jesus?[13]

Crying out, “crucify him,” Pilate pushed back on the crowd’s demands again asking, “Why, what evil has He done?”[14] Reaching the point he had no other choice to avoid a riot, Pilate made one more public statement to absolve himself of the mob-motivated killing of an innocent man:[15]

MT 27:24 “So when Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.’” (NRSV)

Jewish religious leaders succeeded in getting what they sought, the execution of Jesus. Seeing the sign on the cross announcing the charge for which Jesus was being crucified, the Jewish leadership disliked the sign’s verbiage. Written in the three prevalent languages of Judea – Latin, Arabic and Greek – it read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the king of the Jews.”[16] Complaining to Pilate, they wanted him to add “he said” to the sign, but Pilate refused.

Lastly was the Roman encounter at the crucifixion of Jesus. The Roman centurion, kenturion, in charge of the execution squad became a central figure.[17] The sun failed, the earth quaked and hearing the final words of Jesus, the hardcore Roman centurion made an excited utterance at the death of Jesus:[18]

“Truly this was the Son of God!”

Joseph of Arimathea approach Pilate to ask for the body of Jesus, but Pilate was surprised that Jesus was already dead and wanted wanted confirmation. It was the responsibility of the centurion in charge of an execution to officially reported to Pilate that, in fact, Jesus was dead. Once his early death was confirmed by the centurion, Pilate approved the centurion to the release of the body of Jesus to Joseph.[19]

Romans typically despised Jews, yet three witnessing Roman government authorities said otherwise. One military commander recognized the authority of Jesus to miraculously heal; another serving as a Roman judge found no guilt in Jesus; and the centurion in charge of his crucifixion exclaimed Jesus was truly the Son of God.

Are the statements of these Romans consistent with the Gospel’s teaching that Jesus is the Messiah?

 

Updated December 2, 2022.

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REFERENCES:

[1] Matthew 4:24-25.
[2] Matthew 5-7, 8:5; Luke 7:1.
[3] Isaiah 61:1-2; Matthew 4:13; Luke 4:16-30.
[4] Matthew 8:5-6; Luke 7:2-10.
[5] Mark 15:44. kenturion <2760> Net.Bible.org. n.d. <http://classic.net.bible.org/strong.php?id=2760>  “G2760.” Lexicon-Concordance Online Bible. n.d. <http://lexiconcordance.com/greek/2760.html> CR Luke 23.47.
[6] hekatontarches <1543> Net.Bible.org. <http://classic.net.bible.org/strong.php?id=1543>  “G1543.” Lexicon-Concordance Online Bible. n.d. <http://lexiconcordance.com/greek/1543.html>
[7] CR Luke 7:10.
[8] Josephus, Flavius. Antiquities of the Jews. Book XVIII, Chapter III.1-2. n.d. <https://books.google.com/books?id=e0dAAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q=Augustus&f=false>  Josephus, Flavius. Wars of the Jews. Book II, Chapter IX.3-4. n.d. <https://books.google.com/books?id=e0dAAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q=Augustus&f=false>  Calmet, Augustin. Calmet’s Great Dictionary of the Holy Bible. Pilate. 1813. <https://books.google.com/books?id=FgM2AQAAMAAJ&pg=PP305&lpg=PP305&dq=Pilate+banished,+Vienne&source=bl&ots=fIZ2ZHY3xl&sig=ACfU3U101WIrN_RVsnslwXcQIHIdEdILGw&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwiJxYrQpYbnAhUJOisKHZ5HB1gQ6AEwEHoECAoQAQ#v=onepage&q=Pilate%20banished%2C%20Vienne&f=false>
[i9] Josephus, Flavius. Antiquities. Book XVI, Chapter VI.2.
[10] Luke 23:2-5, 22; John 18:37; 19:12.
[11] Matthew 27:11; John 18:33.
[12] Matthew 27:15-21; Mark 15:6-11; John 18:39-40. CR Luke 23:18-19.
[13] John 18:38-40.
[14] Matthew 27:23.
[15] Matthew 27:24; Mark 15:15; Luke 23:22; John 19:1.
[16] John 19:19-22. CR Matthew 27:37; Mark 15:26; Luke 23:38.
[17] Mark 15:44. kenturion <2760> Net.Bible.org. n.d. <http://classic.net.bible.org/strong.php?id=2760>  “G2760.” Lexicon-Concordance Online Bible. n.d. <http://lexiconcordance.com/greek/2760.html>  CR Luke 23.47.
[18] Amos 8:9-10; Matthew 27:54; Mark 15:39.
[19] Mark 15:44-45. CR Matthew 27:58; Luke 23:52.

Pilate – the Story Behind the Story

 

Pilate will be forever known as the Roman Procurator who condemned Jesus of Nazareth to be crucified.[1] Why he made this judgement defies sensible logic considering Pilate himself and Herod the Tetrarch, son of King Herod, both found Jesus guiltless of any crime.

In the case of Pilate and Jesus, the politics were much deeper than conveyed in the Gospel accounts which primarily focused on the political pressures from the Jewish leadership.[2] Roman influences were just as much, if not more, a significant factor.[3]

Roman politics were no different than they are today, except perhaps for the deadly endgame objective to totally eliminate the opponent, often by death – including Caesars.[4] Each government official had to try to avoid the pitfalls that come with authority, quite commonly from blood relatives and spouses.[5]

Only two Procurators were sent to Judea by Tiberius Caesar during his 22-year reign. Gratus was first to be sent to Jerusalem where he served as Procurator for 11 years. One of his last actions was to appoint Joseph Caiaphas as High Priest. Pontius Pilate followed as the second Procurator sent by Tiberius and served 10 years.[6]

Insights to the thinking and behaviors of Tiberius Caesar are key to understanding what drove the actions and behaviors of Pilate. What was or not important to Tiberius, how he viewed the Empire, his temperament, and how he reacted to various scenarios.

Tiberius highly regarded the policies and decrees of his predecessor, Caesar Augustus, saying, “I who respect as law all his actions and sayings.”[7] Highlighting this, Tiberius was once observed sacrificing to the Divine Augustus.[8]

Jews were to be treated with moderation.[9] A decree by Augustus was chiseled into a pillar in the Temple of Caesar in Rome granting the Jews certain liberties – anyone who transgressed the decree was to be severely punished:[10]

“Cesar Augustus, High Priest, and Tribune of the people ordains thus: …the Jews have liberty to make use of their own customs, according to the law of their fathers, as they made use of them under Hyrcanus the High Priest of Almighty God; and that their sacred money be not touched, but be sent to Jerusalem; and that it be committed to the care of the receivers at Jerusalem; and that they be not obliged to go before any judge on the Sabbath-day, nor on the day of the preparation to it, after the ninth hour… And if any one transgress any part of what is above decreed, he shall be severely punished.”

Augustus backed up his words after a complaint by the Jews against Ethnarch Archelaus, a ruling heir of King Herod. Augustus banished Archelaus to Vienna and took away his wealth for treating the Jews harshly against his command.[11] No doubt Pilate knew of the banishment and how Tiberius desired to follow the examples of Augustus.

As time went on, Tiberius became a ruthless ruler with the level of his depravity and cruelty on full display.[12] Tacitus called it a “cruel temper” surmising absolute power perverted the actions of Tiberius.[13] Josephus described Tiberius as having an “intractable” temper, a “tyrant.”[14]

Religious beliefs of the Jews were considered “superstitions” by Tiberius, banned from the city of Rome. Jews in military service were assigned “to provinces of a less healthy environment.”[15]

Walking a fine line, Pilate had to separate the superstition religion of Judaism from the treatment of the people of Judea. The risk – if a report got back to Caesar that Pilate had mistreated the people, bad things could happen to him. Thus was the authoritative profile of the ruler Pilate served.

Pilate first provoked the Jews by moving his Roman troops from Caesarea to Jerusalem “to abolish the Jewish laws.” During the night, Roman ensigns with effigies of Caesar were brought into the city violating Jewish law prohibiting the images.[16]

A rebellion ensued among thousands of Jews who petitioned Pilate to remove the images.  In front of Pilate, Jewish zealots prostrated themselves on the ground pulling back their hair to expose their necks for the sword. Taken aback, Pilate removed the ensigns.

Next incitement, Pilate announced the construction of a Jerusalem aqueduct to be paid using the “sacred money” of the Jews. Triggering a protest by tens of thousands of Jews, they cast insults at the crier who made the announcement.

Addressing the crowd himself, more aspersions were now hurled at Pilate who took offense. Planning for this likelihood, he had Roman soldiers dress in disguise and mingle in the crowd.[17] Giving the signal, the soldiers pulled out daggers wounding and killing many of the unarmed protesters.

With Pilate in Judea during the famed ministry of Jesus of Nazareth, it set the two on an inevitable collision course. In the next sequence of incidents with the Jews, Josephus wrote, “Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man…” He goes on to write “…Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men among us, had condemned him to the cross…”[18]

According to Luke 3:1, Jesus began his ministry in the 15th year of Tiberius meaning that Pilate was entering his fifth year as Procurator when the ministry of Jesus began. After a 3-year ministry, it reckons that Pilate was about in his 8th year as Procurator when Jesus was delivered to him to be judged.

By now, Tiberius was a seasoned Caesar in his 18th year of rule with his cruelties being well-known. Pilate had a long track record of the Caesar to consider and ponder the risks that came with working for a ruler considered a tyrant who was feared by even the Roman citizens.

After holding their own trial for blasphemy and rendering a verdict of guilty, the Jewish leadership brought Jesus to Pilate for Roman judgement under the accusation of insurrection and tax evasion. As the Roman authority in Judea, the Procurator had little choice but to deal with the situation.[19]

Directly asking Jesus if he is a king, Jesus admitted to Pilate he is a King, but not of this world. Perplexed, Pilate sent Jesus to be judged by Galilee Tetrarch Herod Antipas who just happened to be in Jerusalem at that time. No fault was found by Herod Antipas who sent Jesus back to Pilate.[20]

Neither Tetrarch Herod nor Procurator Pilate found any guilt in Jesus for insurrection or incensus despite Jesus admitting to Pilate that he is a King. Pilate’s judgment in front of the Jewish crowd shouting for Jesus to be crucified compelled him to wash his hands of the contrivance saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood.”[21]

Was Pilate’s decision to crucify Jesus a result of political fears of the Jews and Tiberius Caesar as the Gospel of John alluded; or was it part of a divine Messiah plan where an innocent man was to be crucified – or both?[22]

Postscript: Pilate, too, was caught in the spiderweb of Jewish–Roman politics. About two years later, the Samarians lodged a complaint against Pilate for his abuses of them to Vitellius, Roman provincial governor of Syria. Vitellius removed both Pilate and Caiaphas from their positions sending Pilate to Rome to be judged by Tiberius, but the Caesar was murdered while he was enroute.[23] Tradition holds Pilate, like Archelaus, was banished to Vienna by Caius, better known as Caligula.[24]

 

Updated October 12, 2022.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

REFERENCES:

[1] Josephus, Flavius.  Antiquities of the Jews.  Trans. and commentary, William Whitson.  The Complete Works of Josephus. 1850. Book XVIII, Chapter III.3. <http://books.google.com/books?id=e0dAAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false>  Tacitus, Gaius Cornelius. The Annals. 109 AD. Books XV.44. <http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Tacitus/Annals/15B*.html> Lucian of Samosata.  “The Death of Peregrine.” The Works of Lucian of Samosata. Volume IV. 1905. p 82. <http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/luc/wl4/wl420.htm>  “Pontius Pilate Biography.” TheFamousPeople. photo. n.d. <https://images.search.yahoo.com/yhs/search;_ylt=AwrEfjiRA0djwjcA1lUPxQt.;_ylu=Y29sbwNiZjEEcG9zAzEEdnRpZAMEc2VjA3BpdnM-?p=pontius+pilate+images&type=sdff_9527_FFW_ZZ&hsimp=yhs-3&hspart=iba&grd=1&ei=UTF-8&fr=yhs-iba-3#id=0&iurl=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.thefamouspeople.com%2Fprofiles%2Fimages%2Fpontius-pilate-1.jpg&action=click
[2] Matthew 27; Mark 15; Luke 23; John 18.
[3] John 19:12. CR Luke 23:24. Smith, Murray J. “The Political Context of the Gospels.” Academia. 2010.  pp 98-100. <file:///C:/Users/KIM_VO~1/AppData/Local/Temp/The_Political_Context_of_the_Gospels.pdf
[4] Tacitus, Gaius Cornelius. The Annals. Books I, VI.  “Julius Caesar.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2020.
<https://www.britannica.com/biography/Julius-Caesar-Roman-ruler> “Tiberius.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2020. <https://www.britannica.com/biography/Tiberius/Reign-as-emperor>
[5] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVII, Chapter XIII. 2, 5; Book XVIII, Chapter VI.6-7, 10. Josephus. Wars. Book II, Chapter 9.5  Tacitus. Annals. Books II, XV. Suetonius (C. Suetonius Tranquillus or C. Tranquillus Suetonius).  Suetonius (C. Suetonius Tranquillus or C. Tranquillus Suetonius). The Lives of the Twelve Caesars. Tiberius, #50, 51, 52.< http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Suetonius/12Caesars/home.html>
[6] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVIII, Chapter II.2; VI.5 “Valerius Gratus.” Encyclopedia.com. 2019. <https://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/valerius-gratusdeg>
[7] Tacitus. Annals. Book IV.  Strabo. Geography. 6.4. <http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.01.0198:book=6:chapter=4&highlight=tiberius>
[8] Tacitus. Annals. Book IV.
[9] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVII, Chapter XIII. 2.
[10] Josephus, Flavius. Antiquities of the Jews. Book XVI, Chapter VI.2. n.d <https://books.google.com/books?id=e0dAAAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q=Augustus&f=false>
[11] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVII, Chapter XIII. 2, 5.  Bunson, Matthew.  Encyclopedia of the Roman Empire. “Herod Antipas.” 2002. <https://archive.org/details/isbn_9780816045624>  Bunson, Matthew.  Encyclopedia of the Roman Empire. “Jerusalem.” 2002. <https://archive.org/details/isbn_9780816045624>
[12] Suetonius. The Lives of the Twelve Caesars. Tiberius, #49, 50, 55, 59, 61, 62, 66, 67.
[13] Tacitus. Annals. Book VI.
[14] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVIII, Chapters II.4, VI.5.
[15]  Suetonius. “Tiberius.” #36.
[16] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVIII, Chapter III.1.  Josephus. Wars. Book II, Chapter IX.3.  Calmet, Augustin. Calmet’s Great Dictionary of the Holy Bible. Pilate. 1813. <https://books.google.com/books?id=FgM2AQAAMAAJ&pg=PP305&lpg=PP305&dq=Pilate+banished,+Vienne&source=bl&ots=fIZ2ZHY3xl&sig=ACfU3U101WIrN_RVsnslwXcQIHIdEdILGw&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwiJxYrQpYbnAhUJOisKHZ5HB1gQ6AEwEHoECAoQAQ#v=onepage&q=Pilate%20banished%2C%20Vienne&f=false>
[17] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVIII, Chapters III.2.  Josephus. Wars. Book II, Chapter IX.4.  Calmet, Augustin. Calmet’s Great Dictionary of the Holy Bible. Pilate.
[18] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVIII, Chapters III.3.
[19] Matthew 27; Mark 15; Luke 23; John 18.
[20] Luke 26:6-12.  Bunson, Matthew. Encyclopedia of the Roman Empire. “Herod Antipas.” 2002. <https://archive.org/details/isbn_9780816045624>
[21] Matthew 27:24-26; Mark 15:11-15; Luke 23:20-25; John 19:4-15.
[22] John 19:12. Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVIII, Chapters III.1.
[23] Josephus. Antiquities. Book XVIII, Chapters III.3, IV.2.
[24] “Caius Caesar Augustus Caligula.” Jewish Virtual Library. 2008. <https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/caius-caesar-agustus-caligula>  Cohen, Jennie. “7 Things You May Not Know About Caligula.” History.com. 2012. <https://www.history.com/news/7-things-you-may-not-know-about-caligula>  Smith, William, ed. Dictionary of Greek and Roman. “Vienna.” n.d. <http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.04.0064:entry=vienna-geo&highlight=pilate