The Judges of Jesus

Luke brilliantly plots the intersection of the eternal with the temporal (Luke 3:1–2). It was in Tiberius Caesar’s fifteenth year, AD 28, that John the Baptist began proclaiming the word of God.

He also remarkably captures the political complexity of Palestine. Pontius Pilate was military governor of Judea, Herod’s son Herod Antipas was tetrarch of Galilee, and Caiaphas was high priest of the temple city, Jerusalem.

In the narrative that follows Luke traces the movements of Jesus within the jurisdictions of those three men.

On the fateful Thursday evening in Jerusalem in the year AD 33 Jesus stood in turn before these men as judges. The first was Herod the tetrarch; the second was Caiaphas; and the third was Pontius Pilate the governor.

Each had a reason to condemn Jesus. Across the lake from Tiberias, Herod’s capital, a great crowd attempted to make Jesus king, thereby ousting the incumbent tetrarch. Antipas had already removed the popular prophet John the Baptist, and now he was facing an even more formidable local hero.

Then, a year later this Jesus had ridden into the holy city seated on a donkey, deliberately fulfilling prophecy about the arrival of the Messiah. A few days later this same pretender had provocatively taught in the temple precincts, violently ejected the traders and moneychangers from the Sacred Place, and said that his Father’s house had become a den of thieves.

Pilate the governor commanded formidable military forces. Yet he was fearful of this trouble-maker from the north. Since the death two years earlier of Sejanus, the Praetorian Prefect, his patron and protector, Pilate was exposed to Jewish criticism making its way to the provinces Tiberius Caesar, who was a friend of the Jews.

No love was lost between these three judges but each had a strong motivation to kill Jesus. This they did the following day, by the hands of the Roman crucifying squad.

That was how Jesus became history’s most poignant righteous martyr. In the course of history there have been millions of blameless victims of cruel injustice, but none so prominent as the crucified Jesus. Catholic churches everywhere have effigies of the crucified Jesus with the ironic inscription INRI, Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum, ‘Jesus of Nazareth, king of the Jews’.

His apostles, following the Baptist’s words, interpreted that terrible event as an act of cosmic atonement: ‘the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’.

Justice soon overtook injustice. Three years later (AD 37) Caiaphas the High Priest was dead; the emperor Tiberius was dead; and his governor, Pontius Pilate, was recalled in disgrace. After another two years Herod Antipas was stripped of his tetrarchy, and with Herodias his consort, exiled in Gaul. These men—now minor footnotes in history—passed into their oblivion whereas the man they killed has 3 billion people who claim to be his followers, a third of humanity.

Paul Barnett