Pontius Pilate, Caiaphas, and the Backroom Deal That Fell Through

Frank Morison didn’t believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. He thought it was a myth. He studied the Gospels because he wanted to write a skeptic’s account of the passion narrative.

As he studied, he became convinced that he was dealing with eyewitness accounts of a true event.

The book he ended up writing was called Who Moved the Stone? It lays out the case for the resurrection objectively, showing why the other explanations for the empty tomb fail.

Who Moved the Stone? was first published in 1930. The language and style are dated, but the logic is refreshingly clear. (The book can be read online here). Since then, other similar books have been written. And similar books will continue to be written. The case has to be made in every generation.

Morison not only found that he was studying true events, but also real people. He had a good eye for human nature, and the way real people act in real life situations. He saw a lot of that in the Gospel accounts.

In the third and fourth chapters of the book, he sheds some light on the character of Pontius Pilate, and on a verse from the Gospel of John that had always puzzled me before.

Here is the passage from John. See how the chief priests give an odd answer to a simple question:

Then they led Jesus from the house of Caiaphas to the governor’s headquarters. It was early morning. They themselves did not enter the governor’s headquarters, so that they would not be defiled, but could eat the Passover. So Pilate went outside to them and said, “What accusation do you bring against this man?” They answered him, “If this man were not doing evil, we would not have delivered him over to you.”

John 18:28-30 (ESV)

They brought him to Pilate for judgment, yet they were not prepared to make their accusation against him. It looks as if they were expecting to simply skip the formalities of a trial.

This is probably because they were. And if we understand why they were, we also understand why it took so long, the night before, for them to arrest Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.

As Morison studied the events on the night of the Last Supper, he figured that about three hours passed from the time Judas left Jesus and the disciples to the time he reappeared at the Garden of Gethsemane. Why would it have taken so long?

According to Morison, one reason is that someone needed to talk to Pontius Pilate first.:

Whatever interpretation we put on the circumstances leading up to the arrest of Christ, it seems to me certain that, before the fateful word was given to the arrest party to proceed to Gethsemane, some communication must have taken place between the Jewish leaders and Pontius Pilate.

It is against everything we know about the character of Pilate and the nature of the Roman occupation to assume that a serious case like this could have been thrust upon Pilate early on Friday morning without his knowledge and without first ascertaining his readiness to take it.

As Frank Morison explained, special circumstances required a special cooperation from Pilate:

But even when the bare minimum of their essentials had been settled—the arrest, the midnight hearing to formulate the charge and secure conviction, the early meeting of the Sanhedrin to ratify the finding—there still remained one supreme question to which a definite answer must be forthcoming. Could they secure the Roman conviction in time to guarantee crucifixion before the Feast? Would Pilate be willing to hear the case under the peculiar conditions they were bound to impose? Would he insist on a full trial or could they count on a formal endorsement of a finding previously arrived at by their own courts?

Early in the morning on the day of Passover was an unusual time to bring a case before Pilate. It makes sense that Caiaphas, the High Priest, would have gone to Pilate the night before and made arrangements. His hope was to have Jesus quickly condemned and put to death before a crowd could gather.

Only after reaching this agreement with Pilate, did Caiaphas send the arrest party with Judas.

And yet, the next morning, when Pilate came out to meet them, he acted as if that private meeting had never taken place. He went on to say to them, “Take him yourselves and judge him by your own law” (John 18:31 ESV)

We know why he changed his mind. Matthew 27:18-19 tells us:

For he knew that it was out of envy that they had delivered him up. Besides, while he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent word to him, “Have nothing to do with that righteous man, for I have suffered much because of him today in a dream.”

Morison imaged a realistic-sounding scene: The night before the crucifixion, Caiaphas comes to Pilate’s home with an urgent request. Pilate agrees to cooperate. After the meeting with Caiphas, Pilate’s wife asks him, “What was that all about?” He tells her. She falls asleep and has a dream.

In the morning, Pilate gets to work. The prisoner, Jesus, is sent to him while the chief priests wait outside, not wanting to defile themselves. Pilate’s his wife sends the warning.

Now, this is what strikes me as both humorous and revealing of Pilate’s character. He goes out to meet the chief priests and acts like that secret meeting the night before never happened. He plays dumb. He looks them straight in the eyes and says, “Now, what’s this all about?”

Morison pointed out how this background story makes sense of the unusual reply of the chief priests:

The priests resented Pilate’s sudden determination to rehear the case. They were clearly under the impression that he would not insist on a formal restatement of the case against Jesus, and they appear to have come without any prepared or public accusation at all.

So the trial dragged on. A crowd gathered, which was the very thing the chief priest were hoping to avoid. Yet it was the thing that they used to get the verdict they wanted from Pontius Pilate.

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