Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The Roman Government and the Trial of Jesus

For many, the trial of Jesus seems strange and confusing. Jesus is bounced from the Sanhedrin to Pilate to Herod like a ping-pong ball, and no one seems to want to make a decision. This leads many to tell a narrative something like this: the Sanhedrin wanted Jesus dead, Herod couldn't care less, and Pilate didn't want to kill Him but shrugged his shoulders and did so anyway. The result of such a narrative generally is the feeling that the Sanhedrin was running the show, and that Herod and Pilate just kind of went along for the ride, or had no strong feelings either way.

The problem with this narrative is that it is based upon an ignorance of the socio-political forces at play, and thus much of the Gospel accounts are misunderstood or lost in translation here.

So today, let us begin by trying to picture how the practical governmental politics at the time of Jesus worked, and then we can wrap it up by discussing what happened on the night when He was killed.

The Province of Iudaea and the Tetrarchy of Herod

Before the Roman Empire expanded into Palestine, the land of Israel and some surrounding lands were all ruled by Herod the Great, who died between 4-1 BC. Herod served the Roman Emperor as a vassal king: the Roman Emperor was a suzerain king, providing power and defense in return for the promised fealty of the region.

When Herod the Great died, his kingdom was divided into four sections, called a Tetrarchy, and divided among his heirs Herod Antipas, Herod Archelaus, Salome I, and Herod Phillip II. The suzerain arrangement with Rome continued, with the divided kingdom.

However, shortly before Jesus' ministry (29 AD), Rome began to take a more active role in the region--due largely to the incompetence of Herod Archelaus.

So the Roman Emperor declared the land of Archelaus--that is, Judah plus Samaria plus Edom--as an imperial province (Iudaea--note that it is not the historical lands of Judea, but rather Judah+Samaria+Edom). Unlike the senatorial provinces, Imperial provinces were seen as needing direct authority by the Emperor himself, due to the lack of stability in the region.

Meanwhile the rest of the Tetrarchy remained client-king states. Herod Antipas ran Galilee and Peraea. The Decapolis was a collection of ten independent cities and a constant source of unrest in the region.

Political Authorities

So there were, at the time of Jesus, two primary political authorities in His region:

  • Herod Antipas:  Herod Antipas was King of Galilee and Peraea, having been appointed by Augustus Caesar when his father, Herod the Great, died. His capital was the Galilean city of Tiberius, on the sea of Galilee. 
  • Pontius Pilate:  The ruler of the province of Iudaea was technically Caesar, but of course he could not manage the day-to-day operations from Rome. His prefect in Iudaea was a member of the Equestrian class named Pontius Pilate. Like other prefects, Pilate would have previously demonstrated success in business, politics, and military command.
There were no other political authorities at the time of Christ in Palestine. There were no separation of powers under Rome: the ruling authority had complete power (legislative, executive, and judicial). So in Iudaea, Pilate had massive authority and, in Galilee/Peraea King Herod had similar authority.

The Sanhedrin

The Sanhedrin is often thought by modern Christians to be a political power as well, but this is a mistake.

In ancient (pre-Rome) Israel, a Sanhedrin was any council of judges who served as the judiciary of a region of Israel. Each city could have a lesser Sanhedrin, and Jerusalem's greater Sanhedrin served as Israel's supreme court. 

However, by the time of Jesus, the Sanhedrin had been stripped of its political power by Rome. The Sanhedrin was allowed to continue to meet, but only as a religious body: they were more like the Vatican's College of Cardinals than a court system. The only laws they were allowed to pass were laws for the Jewish religion: if a person was willing to leave Judaism, then the Sanhedrin no longer held any authority whatsoever over them.

The Sanhedrin was allowed by the Roman rulers (Pilate and Antipas) to serve as judges of the Law of long as they did not break any Roman laws in the process. For example, the Mosaic Law sometimes calls for the death penalty, but Roman law forbade anyone but the Emperor's prefect from sentencing people to death. For the most part, the Sanhedrin was filled with Jewish aristocrats, mostly of the Sadduccee sect of Judaism. It was a position of spiritual authority but not one of political power.

The Trial of Jesus

Now that you understand the political situation a bit better, perhaps this can help clear up some of the confusion about the trial of Jesus. (Note: the below is a composite of all four Gospels, so I will not be citing each individual statement.)

Jesus had been growing in popularity in the region, reaching a new height of influence when He raised Lazarus from the dead just outside of Jerusalem. Seeing how popular this made him, the Jewish religious leaders decided to kill Jesus. Convincing His friend Judas to betray Him, they arrest Jesus and drag Him to the Sanhedrin council.

Now remember that the Sanhedrin has no political power. The only punishments they can legally dole out are for religious violations of the Law, and even then only lesser punishments which will stay out of the Roman spotlight. But they are incensed by Jesus' growing popularity and His claims to be the Son of God, which they consider blasphemy.

The priests mock and beat Jesus, and eventually He boldly admits that He is the Son of God before the high priest, Caiaphas. The Sanhedrin finds Him guilty of blasphemy, which carries a sentence of death.

Or it did...back when the Sanhedrin had political authority. They have no such power now, so to enact the death penalty they have to find a way to have the Roman rulers find Jesus guilty of a Roman capital crime.

The Sanhedrin take Jesus to the Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate. They know that Pilate, being a Roman, will care little about a claim of blasphemy. Therefore, they accuse Him of the one thing Pilate fears most: being a seditionist. They focus on Jesus' claim to be Messiah, knowing that Pilate will assume Jesus is yet another would-be-Messiah of the Zealot sects of Judaism. These groups were famous for trying to overthrow Roman power in the region, so announcing Jesus as "King of the Jews" would be seen as an attempted uprising against the Roman Empire, which was a serious crime in Rome.

Essentially, the Sanhedrin--knowing they had no power to actually do anything about Jesus--plays suck-up here. They take Jesus to Pilate and are essentially saying, "Look what good friends of Rome we are! We found one of our guys claiming to be Messiah, and you know how much trouble that has caused in the past. So straightaway we brought Him to you to try and kill!"

Pilate begins to question Jesus, in the process discovering that Jesus is a Galilean. Recall that Israel was split at this time: Galilee is part of the kingdom of Herod Antipas, not Iudaea (where Pilate reigned). Because of the coming Passover feast, Herod happened to be in Jerusalem at the time. Not wishing to overstep the jurisdiction of Herod, Pilate sends Jesus over to his palace.

This was more, though, than just a question of jurisdiction: had Pilate wanted, it was within his legal right to condemn Jesus since the crime was committed in his region. However, Pilate and Herod had long been on shaky political ground: Iudaea had previously been part of Herod's father's kingdom, and the balance of power was constantly unstable. Luke tells us that Pilate's deference to Herod in the case of Jesus--the sign of respect of refusing to sentence a Galilean without Herod's input--was the first step to the two becoming allies.

So Pilate sends Jesus over in an attempt to show Herod the respect of his position: it is not unlike a modern extradition, where one country refuses to sentence the citizen of another country. Since Jesus was a Galilean, Pilate decides to "extradite" Him to Galilee's king, just so happens that due to the feast, Herod was staying down the road instead of 100 miles to the north.

Herod had been looking forward to seeing Jesus perform miracles, but Jesus refused to do so. Herod mocks Jesus, he does not find him guilty and worthy of death under any Roman law which he is allowed to enact. He returns the favor of showing Pilate honor by sending Jesus back to Pilate: essentially, it is Herod's way of saying, "I find this Galilean subject of mine innocent, but if He offended you in your region, His life is yours."

This is often misread by people as Herod trying to pass the buck...far from it. Neither Pilate nor Herod showed very much hesitation about executions--even prophets. (Recall how quickly Herod agreed to behead John the Baptist!) Rather, the passing back and forth of Jesus between them was the beginning of them showing political respect and cooperation to each other.

When Jesus returns to Pilate, then, He has been found innocent by the Galilean king, but the people of Pilate's province (Iudaea) are still incensed about the prophet. The Sanhedrin this time lays three charges against Jesus: (1) corrupting the nation, (2) forbidding payment of taxes; and (3) rebellion against the Roman Empire. The only one of concern to Pilate was the latter charge. He asks Jesus if He is king of the Jews, and Jesus does not deny it. Still, Pilate sees through the thin charges and declares the man innocent. He was clever enough to know that if Antipas had no issue with it, and Jesus is so blase about the whole thing, then this is not a legitimate set of charges.

But this puts Pilate in a rough situation. The worst thing which can happen--both for his safety and his career--is for yet another rebellion to break out in this region. Iudaea was famous for uprisings and Pilate appears to make the political calculation that agreeing to the Sanhedrin's desires is better than dealing with the consequences. Pilate had to feel that he was in a rough spot:  if Jesus was an anti-Rome rebel and is released then Pilate's entire career could fold; yet if he finds Jesus innocent, it is possible that the Sanhedrin will rebel or--worse--the next would-be-Messiah from the Zealot sect will feel it is okay to rebel against Rome and see Pilate as weak.

Thus, Pilate allows Jesus to be crucified, though he washes his hands publicly of the action he could have stopped. Like any good politician, he gets the dirty work done to keep the peace, while publicly denying any involvement.


As you can see, the political situation at the time of Jesus was far more complex than you might originally think.

In summary:

  • The Roman Empire is the only political power--the executive, legislative, and judicial branches all rolled into one.
  • Rome has two main rulers in the area:  the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate rules in Iudaea (Judah, Samaria, and Edom); King Herod Antipas rules in Galilee and Peraea.
  • The Sanhedrin, a former political power, is now only a religious institution--but by raising the right trumped-up charges, they are able to get Jesus put on trial before the Romans.
  • Antipas and Pilate, during the trial of Jesus, each had a claim to serve as Jesus' judge: Antipas because Jesus was Galilean by birth, and Pilate because the alleged crimes happened in Iudaea. 
  • Antipas and Pilate show each other great respect during the trial of Jesus, going out of their way to ensure that the proper jurisdictions are maintained. Their sending Jesus back and forth is not an act of cowardice, but of political savvy as they attempt to build an alliance.
  • Ultimately, Herod ruled that Jesus was innocent and was willing to deny the Sanhedrin (as he had done many times before, including building cities on mass graveyards that the Jews found unclean). Pilate also found Jesus innocent, and had no desire to execute Him. The frequent Messianic uprisings do worry Pilate, though, and when Jesus refuses to deny that He is the Messiah (King of Jews), Pilate agrees to the demands of the Sanhedrin and executes Jesus.