Saturday, December 6, 2008

Are You the King of the Jews? (John 18:33-35)

33 Then Pilate entered the Praetorium again, called Jesus, and said to Him, “Are You the King of the Jews?”

34 Jesus answered him, “Are you speaking for yourself about this, or did others tell you this concerning Me?”

35 Pilate answered, “Am I a Jew? Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered You to me. What have You done?”

Let’s review what has happened with Jesus up to this point. He had first been interrogated by Annas and then tried and convicted of blasphemy (at least in the Jewish authorities’ thinking) before the high priest Caiaphas and the entire Sanhedrin. The sentence handed down was death. However, under Roman law, the Jewish court had no legal authority to carry out the death penalty, so the Jewish authorities were required to hand Jesus over to be officially tried by the governor Pontius Pilate. This, at least legally speaking, was the real trial.

Pilate and the other Roman rulers could not care less whether or not Jesus or anyone else had committed blasphemy against the Jewish God. But one threat that they were very sensitive about was the threat of insurrection. And the majority of Pilate’s Jewish subjects were looking for a Messiah whom they believed would overthrow the Romans once for all and restore the Davidic Kingdom of Israel. Jesus had never given even a hint that he intended to overthrow Rome. But he did claim to be the Messiah. And, as Fr. Farley beautifully states:

“That was all they needed. The strategy of Jesus’ accusers was therefore to portray Him as having claimed to be such a violent and military Messiah and a threat to the Roman power. His accusers knew that He was nothing of the kind, of course, but that was not the point. The point was how to get Rome to execute Jesus. They therefore came with an accusation against Him which, if true, would result in the death penalty” (314).

Pilate doesn’t beat around the bush, but asks Jesus right away if he is guilty. Again, please indulge me as I quote at length from Fr. Farley, who sums up the situation more eloquently than I could. In his words, in Pilate’s first question,

“The You is emphatic, with the meaning, ‘You—bereft of power, weapons, armies and friends—You are this messianic firebrand?’ Jesus had been charged with being a dangerous insurrectionist, and this seemed manifestly absurd” (315).

Fr. Farley goes on to comment: “The answer to the question of whether or not He was the Messiah, of course, depended entirely on what one meant by the term ‘the King of the Jews.’ To the Romans, it could have only a military meaning, and the question would mean ‘Are you planning to defy and overthrow Roman power?’ To the Jews, the question could have a more spiritual meaning: ‘Are you a teacher of truth and a bringer of eternal life?” (315).

This is why Jesus asks Pilate where this idea of him being the King of the Jews came from. In essence, Jesus is asking, “Do you mean a Roman-style king--an earthly king, or a king in the spiritual sense?” He wants Pilate to tell him his frame of reference.

Pilate gives the answer when he derisively snorts, “am I a Jew?” In other words, he has no interest in the Jewish frame of reference. He doesn’t think like the Jews! He just wants to know if Jesus is planning to lead a rebellion and become the only kind of king that the Romans understand. And he is convinced that the Jews would not have delivered Jesus up if all they were concerned about was a theological dispute. “He must have done something criminal, something smacking of insurrection. Let Him come clean!” (Farley, 315).


Clint said...

I come to love and appreciate the Orthodox viewpoint(s) on various Biblical stories, such as this one. It has enriched my studies to no end - and I am just beginning.

Thanks for quoting from Fr. Farley's work, too.

Hans Lundahl said...

Which is the Greek text on "you say it"?

King means not only military commander but also judge and legislator.

Sermon of the Mount=legislation.
Not condemning adulteress=judging.

Saying truth was rather prerogative of either scribes and rabbis (since Ezra) or prophets (since Moses).

Fr. James Early said...


My pleasure. Fr. Farley is a very eloquent writer.


You raise some excellent points. The Greek text you are referring to, found in verse 37, is "συ απεκριθη ο ιησους συ λεγεις οτι βασιλευς ειμι εγω" (And Jesus answered and said, 'You say that I am a king.'). I'll comment on that in my next post, which I hope to finish by tonight.