The trial of Christ in the Gospel of John is a good text to assign students thinking about the nature and limits of political authority. Certain resonances exist between the trial of Christ and the famous speech “Against Verres,” which Cicero directed against a Roman governor in Sicily. Cicero used this trial to reform the Senate, itself accused of being corrupt and open to bribery. Cicero had himself been a governor of Sicily. He and Verres occupied a position equivalent to that of Pontius Pilate in Roman Palestine. Cicero, like Christ, assumed that it was both right and possible for a Roman governor to govern justly.
There are parallels with another important trial as well — Pope John Paul II in several places has mentioned the similarities and dissimilarities in the trials of Christ and Socrates.
The trial of Christ, like Socrates’ trial, was formally legal. The states conducting the trials were, by comparison, rather good states, by no means the worst states of their time. However, we can have a trial that is formally “legal” but still somehow unjust. Students often think that, because a political action is “democratic,” that fact alone is sufficient to decide whether the action under the democracy's jurisdiction is just.
A student, commenting on the trial of Christ, argued that Pilate, in giving the people a democratic choice between Barabbas and Christ, did what he had to do in executing Christ. That is what the people “wanted.” Alas. Most people, in reading of Pilate's famous alternative, realize that Pilate himself was weak. A Roman governor had the power of clemency to pardon the guilty. Custom allowed, on certain occasions, that the people could choose who was to be pardoned. In principle, of course, no choice exists between someone guilty of crime and someone who is not. Pilate's very presentation of this choice was itself a violation of his duty, even in Roman law.
Who Is Subject to Whom?
Pilate and Christ have a famous discussion about the nature and origin of authority. Christ does not deny that Pilate, a Roman governor, has authority over him. Civil authority is itself legitimate. Pilate and Christ do not discuss the morality of capital punishment. Christ does not say, “Look here, Pilate, don't you know that capital punishment is wrong?” Rather, Christ indicates that all authority, including that of a Roman governor, is ultimately from God. At a minimum, this source means that Roman political authority, all political authority, is limited to its immediate purpose. Pilate is not rebuked for being a governor or for exercising the authority of a governor.
St. Paul, moreover, teaches that we are to “be subject to the governing authorities” (Romans 13:1-7). Some readers think that, in accepting Pilate's permission of the crucifixion, Christ is simply being obedient to civil authority. But this approach avoids the sticky question of obedience to unjust laws. Christ, if we forget for a moment the band of angels he could send, had little choice but to follow the physical coercion of Pilate's troops in charge of his execution.
Pilate himself initially worried that Jesus of Nazareth might in fact be a petty revolutionary. On examination, he found that the accused did not aspire to any political office. His Kingdom was “not of this world.” While grasping this distinction, however little he may have pictured the whole of Christ's teachings, Pilate understood that this man was not guilty of the crime for which he was being charged; in no way was he making himself a political “King of the Jews.” John records Pilate telling the crowds: “I find no case against him.”
No Way Out
Under the surface, of course, Pilate knows that Christ is brought before him because of problems having to do with Jewish, not Roman, politics. Pilate tried every way he could think of to extricate himself from this mess. His very awareness — his washing of his hands, his wife's warnings — indicated that he knew Christ was not guilty. At this point, the distinction between authority and its exercise comes in. In acknowledging that Pilate had “authority,” even from God, Christ is not approving the manner in which Pilate proceeded. Quite clearly, Pilate should have cleared him, not washed his hands or delivered him over to Roman, not Jewish, punishment — that is, to crucifixion, not stoning.
Pilate is not the most guilty party in the whole sordid procedure. He just happened to be the man in charge. He could not disentangle himself from it. Still he bore considerable guilt. The several Jewish officials (not the whole people, then or now) that managed the whole affair thought Christ was a threat. The crowds are even reported as saying, “We have no king but Caesar,” which, in other circumstances, few Jews seriously would have shouted.
When we step back a bit from the immediate, graphic circumstances of the trial of Christ, we see it as part of the drama of sin and of our redemption. Christ was the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. He was true God and true man. Those few individual Jewish officials of the time who pressed Pilate were the ones who bore guilt. The principle that “it is better that one die than that the people perish” has become infamous as a cover for political leaders sacrificing the innocent. Surely, neither Pilate nor the Jewish officials involved recognized Christ for what he was, the “Son of God,” as the Roman centurion put it after he was dead. All involved are guilty of sacrificing a good man, no matter who he was, for political purposes. And our sins make all of us present.
But the true identity of the person sacrificed remains. Christ was “obedient,” obedient to death, even to the death of the cross. The emperor, the governor, Barabbas, the local officials, the crowd — all played their part in a drama of whose depths they had no real idea.
“So in the end Pilate handed him over to them to be crucified. They then took charge of Jesus and, carrying his own cross, he went out of the city.” It was the great Russian novelist Feodor Dostoyevsky who suggested that, had Christ appeared in any other polity, in any other time, the same thing would have happened to him. We don't like to believe it. In any case, we know what did happen to Christ. More important still, we know now who he is.
Father James Schall is a professor of government at Georgetown University.