Luke 23:1-25


The Son of Man Handed Over to the Gentiles

 Luke 23:1-5  -  Jesus before Pilate

1 The whole crowd of them rose up and led him to Pilate.

Apparently the Sanhedrin did not have authorisation to carry out the death penalty at the time. To bring Jesus to execution, they needed the assent of the Roman governor who, fortunately for them, was currently in Jerusalem.

2 They began accusing him, saying,
“We have found this man corrupting our people,
forbidding them to pay taxes to Caesar,
and saying he is the Christ, a King.” 

They brought two charges against Jesus:

  • forbidding the payment of taxes levied on their nation by the Empire
  • and the claim to be a king.

In fact, Jesus had not forbidden people to pay the Roman taxes. He had been deliberately ambiguous, even cryptic.

When asked explicitly by the Sanhedrin about any claim to be king, a Jewish Christ/Messiah, he had refused even to answer their question. In Luke’s mind they simply wanted a conviction; and would lie to get one. Yet, in another sense they were right. Jesus’ message would corrupt our people. When radically believed and accepted, God’s love sets people thoroughly free. Institutions are not organised to cope with radically free people who choose to relate practically and solely on the basis of love and justice.

3 Pilate then asked him, “Are you the King of the Jewish people?”
He said, “You are the one saying it.”

Jesus’ answer was again indefinite, and Luke probably wanted it to be heard that way by his readers. For Luke, Jesus was indeed a Messiah-king, but not as commonly understood. For the sake of his readers, he did not want Jesus to make a direct denial. Yet, Jesus’ answer was also not a clear affirmative either. He effectively said simply that the words were Pilate’s, not his own. He did not answer the question as such, because there was no point in entering into debate. Like the members of the Sanhedrin, Pilate was not interested in the truth that Jesus preached.

4 So Pilate said to the chief priests and to the crowds,
“I find no cause for condemnation in this man.”

Luke’s concern, writing for a Christian community living under pressure in a hostile Roman world, was to insist that, in the eyes of the Roman authority, Jesus had no real charge to answer. Pilate effectively declared him innocent. Jesus was not officially found to be an enemy of the Empire.

5 But they insisted more fiercely,
“He is stirring up the people,
teaching everywhere in Judea,
starting up in Galilee down to here.”

His accusers did not give up the fight so easily. They insisted that he had been a political agitator for a long time, not just in the governor’s jurisdiction of Judea, but before that in Galilee. They accused him in fact of being sedition, without giving any detail.


The Son of Man Mocked (2) - Herod 

Luke 23:6-12  -  Jesus before Herod

6 When he heard this,
Pilate asked if the man was a Galilean. 
7 Realising that he was under Herod’s jurisdiction,
he sent him on to Herod
who was in Jerusalem during these days.

Herod had no power in Jerusalem, even though his father and his brother Archelaus had once ruled there. He would probably have owned property in Jerusalem. It was hardly likely that he was in Jerusalem for religious purposes – he was not renowned for his piety. However, his presence may have been helpful to his reputation. Many Galileans would have known of it, and possibly approved.

Luke gave no indication why he chose to include a “hearing” before Herod. No other Gospel makes mention of one. Though Galilee was certainly Herod’s jurisdiction, Jesus was arrested by the Jewish administration in Jerusalem and accused of subversive activity in Judea and the capital. He certainly came within the ambit of Pilate’s authority.

8  When he saw Jesus, Herod was really pleased.
He had been wanting to see him for a long time.
He had heard about him
and was hoping to see him work some sign.  
9 So he spoke to him in this vein.
But he did not answer him at all.
10 The high priests and scribes persisted in vehemently accusing him.

The whole interlude was strange. Herod certainly knew about Jesus, and his activity in Galilee. Since he was highly sensitive about his own security, he had a very efficient intelligence staff at work in his kingdom. Herod had seen John the Baptist as a threat when John had explicitly accused him of wrongfully marrying Herodias. Though Herod was not morally sensitive, he certainly recognised that many Galileans opposed his marriage, not just for moral but also for political reasons. Yet he had never moved to arrest Jesus (even though Pharisees told Jesus that he wished to kill him [13.31]), and he certainly had no religious interest in Jesus; he was simply curious. His own secret service would have kept him sufficiently abreast of facts for him to know that the accusations of the chief priests and scribes had no factual basis.

Given Herod’s lack of genuine interest, Jesus did not bother to answer his questions.  

11 Herod with his officers humiliated and mocked him,
and putting a grand robe around him,
sent him back to Pilate.

Jesus had treated Herod with disdain. Herod treated Jesus with contempt. In his concern not to lose face before a criminal who ignored him, he set about dishonouring Jesus, having his soldiers mock his supposed regal claims by clothing him in one of his own grand robes, and sending him back publicly to Pilate.

12 The two of them, Herod and Pilate,
became friends with each other that day.
Up until then they had been enemies.

Luke’s final seemingly irrelevant comment may have provided some possible reason why he included the Herod-Pilate interlude. Psalm 2 had spoken of princes colluding in their condemnation of the Lord’s anointed:

The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers take counsel together,
against the LORD and his anointed... 
He who sits in the heavens laughs;
the LORD has them in derision....
“I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill.” ...
I will tell of the decree of the LORD:
He said to me, “You are my son;
today I have begotten you.
Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage,
and the ends of the earth your possession....

Though Luke did not presume any thorough scriptural literacy in his readers, he was interested in showing that Jesus’ activity happened within the shadow of the earlier history of the Jewish people.


The Son of Man Condemned to Death

Luke 23:13-25  -  Pilate Sentences Jesus to Death

13 Pilate summoned the high priests and the rulers and the people
14 and said to them, “You brought this man to me
as someone who has been perverting the people.
You have seen how I have examined him in your presence
and found in him no proof of the things you have been accusing him of.
15 Nor has Herod, who sent him back to us.
Nothing worthy of death has been committed by him.
16 I shall accordingly punish him and set him free.”

Without any explanation Luke suddenly introduced the people onto the scene. Who were they? Where did they come from? (The developing scenario seemed to require some new element to carry forward the momentum.) Their role would soon be obvious. They may have been quickly assembled and organised by the chief priests. They would hardly have been numerous: there was not all that much free space in the courtyard of the governor’s residence. They may have been local inhabitants with little else to do

Luke was clearly concerned to underline unequivocally the fact that the Empire did not find Jesus guilty of any crime. The innocence of Jesus was important to Luke’s community living under the sensitive jurisdiction of Rome.

Having declared Jesus innocent, why did Pilate then proceed to have Jesus punished? Readers at the time would have realised that Rome's punishment before the death sentence was a brutal flogging. Given his reputation for brutality, he would obviously have had few qualms in doing so. Perhaps he thought that it might have brought a quick conclusion to the proceedings. Jesus had clearly threatened the honour of the chief priests and elders. In the honour-based world of the times, flogging Jesus would have effectively served to destroy any honour previously attributed to him. The priests might be content.

18 They screamed out with one voice, and said,
“Take him and release Barabbas for us!”
19 This man had been thrown into prison
for causing an uprising in the city and for murder.

Pilate’s ploy did not in fact satisfy the chief priests or elders. They wanted more than simply to regain their honour; they wanted Jesus dead. Their desire for the blood of Jesus would have explained why they had gathered a smallish crowd of other people.

Luke then introduced a distracting element into the trial – the plea of the leaders and the additional crowd for the release of Barabbas. Ironically he was under sentence for the same alleged crime of Jesus: insurrection (as well as for the crime of murder) – though in his case the crimes were real.

Why, however, would Pilate be likely to release a man whom he had previously found guilty? And why did the chief priests and elders cry out for his release?

Probably Luke was simply echoing an incident recorded in Mark’s story of the trials. Mark had mentioned that Pilate had had the custom of granting amnesty to some criminal to honour the Jewish festival. Scholars very much doubt the authenticity of Mark’s claim. Perhaps Luke did, too. He certainly made no reference to the custom. Yet, without some similar reference, its inclusion seems quite surprising.

(There may also be an irony in the name given to the criminal: Bar-abbas means “son of the father”. Luke had called Jesus the Son of God on a couple of occasions. Whether his non-Jewish readers would have seen the allusion, however, is doubtful.)

Insurgents and Rebels

The Roman occupation was deeply resented. Apart from the fact that any occupied nation would have taken exception to having to pay the heavy taxes imposed on them by their conquerors, Jews particularly resented the occupation of their land of Israel. Their land belonged to God. No one, other than Jews, had the right to live there or to grow rich from its produce. Their objections were not simply economic or political, but especially religious.

After the deposition of Herod Archelaus by the Romans and the advent of a Roman governor some years before, a number of Jews, particularly Galileans, had revolted. They were cruelly suppressed by the Roman armies, and many of them were crucified along the roadways of Galilee. As a boy, Jesus would probably have witnessed the horrendous punishment meted out to them.

Since then, as the number of peasants forced off their land by debt increased, some of them took to occasional rebel activity, usually directed at Jewish collaborators. Barabbas, if such a person existed, was probably one such rebel. At the time of Jesus, they were unorganised and were regarded by the authorities more as terrorists or guerillas.

Jesus complained to those who had arrested him that they had come armed as though he were such a terrorist. The two criminals later to be crucified with Jesus were probably terrorists. Crucifixion was generally reserved for political criminals, either terrorists or escaped slaves (whose escape, if it were to become general, would have utterly undermined the social and economic fabric of the Empire). Given the nature of the charge to be laid against him, Jesus himself was officially crucified as a terrorist bandit.

After the time of Jesus, as oppression and poverty increased, the number of rebels increased and became organised. They were known as Zealots. One of the twelve apostles chosen by Jesus was called Simon the Zealot. There was probably no large-scale organised Zealot activity at the time of Pilate, however.

20 Wanting to release Jesus, Pilate addressed them again;
21 but they shouted out, “Crucify, crucify him!’"

This was the first time in any of the trials that crucifixion had been explicitly mentioned.

22 For the third time he said to them,
“Why? What has he done wrong?
I found nothing in him deserving of death.
So I shall punish him and set him free.”

This was Luke’s third reference to the proclaimed innocence of Jesus. It was an important element of his message.

23 But they insisted more loudly,
demanding that he be crucified,
and their shouts prevailed.
24 Pilate decreed that their demand be granted.
25 He released the man imprisoned for rioting and murder,
as they requested,
and handed Jesus over to their pleasure.

There is something unsatisfactory in Luke’s account – though really it can be traced back to the original narrative prepared by Mark. Pilate would hardly have given in to the demands of any Jewish crowd, or their leaders. He had little reason to be fearful of any general insurrection. For a start, this crowd was small. They were also quite unorganised. Pilate’s legionaries were well able to handle any insurrection. And there was little danger of their numbers building up suddenly. As well they completely lacked any effective military leadership.

On the other hand, he would have had few qualms in crucifying Jesus. His clear readiness to have him flogged without reason indicated that. Possibly, he thought that the sight of a crucified insurgent hanging publicly outside the gates of the city might well contribute to sheet home the message, always important, that no one tangled with Rome with impunity.

Luke gave no detail of Jesus’ flogging. Indeed, his text could be read as to throw doubt on whether it actually happened. Though he handed Jesus over to their plea sure, the “they” in question had not demanded his flogging but simply his crucifixion.

However the text be read, Luke certainly avoided giving details of the humiliation and degradation meted out to Jesus. Jesus’ physical suffering was not his interest, however much it has been emphasised by later preachers.

Luke also wished to underline the irony of the proceedings. The violent guilty one was released. The non-violent innocent one was condemned.

In repeatedly underlining the fact that the Roman administration had found Jesus innocent, Luke still chose to show clearly its unwarranted oppression and injustice. A clear recognition of both factors was important for his Christian community, who saw themselves as innocent but subjected to prejudice and repression.

Next >> Luke 23:26-49