Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’34Jesus answered, ‘Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?’ 35Pilate replied, ‘I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?’ 36Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.’ 37Pilate asked him, ‘So you are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.
Then Pilate entered into the Praetorium again and called Jesus and said to him, "Are you the king of the Judeans?" Jesus answered, "From yourself do you say this, or did others speak about me to you?" Pilate answered, "I am not a Judean, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests delivered you over to me. What have you done?" Jesus answered, "My kingdom is not out of this world. If my kingdom were out of this world, my subordinates would be fighting so that I might not be delivered over to the Judeans. But now is my kingdom not from hence." Then Pilate said to him, "Then you are a king?" Jesus answered, "You say that I am a king. Into this I have been born, and into this I came into the world, so that I might witness to the truth."
Background and situation: Unlike the synoptics, the fourth gospel features longer stories with expanded dialog. We have seen that with Nicodemus, the woman at the well, the man born blind, the man by the pool of Bethsaida, and others. In chapter 18, it is Pilate's turn.
Pilate is not identified by any particular title or rank. Most likely, Pilate's name was already well known among Christians and the author of the fourth gospel felt no particular need to go into specific identification. (Pilate's name appears in the Old Roman Creed, c. AD 200.)
Pilate was lower nobility, of the equestrian rank. Not long after Pilate, the title for someone of Pilate's authority was procuratores Caesaris pro legato--a procurator of Caesar who operates pro legato, meaning that he has the power to command legionaires. During the time of Pilate, however, his title appears to have been Prefect--praefectus Iudaeae.
In verse 28, "they"--presumably representatives of the high priest--take Jesus to Pilate's headquarters, the praetorion. The word originally referred to the tent of the Roman praetor in a military camp. Later, it was used to speak of the headquarters of Roman authority in subjugated territories.
Pilate kept his permanent residence at Caeserea, not Jerusalem. When he was present in Jerusalem, however, he most likely took over a former Herodian palace. The exact location is not known.
Jesus' kingdom compared with Rome's: Those who bring Jesus to Pilate can't enter Pilate's headquarters because of ritual defilement so Pilate goes outside to meet with them. Pilate wants to know the accusation.
"They" respond that they wouldn't have bothered to bring Jesus to Pilate "if this man were not a criminal." Pilate suggests they go ahead and judge Jesus by Jewish law, but they reject this option because they are not allowed to impose the death penalty.
The Judean authorities want Jesus gone, and not without reason. Jesus' attacks on the Temple elite had been scathing. One notes, however, that in all four gospels, Jesus was careful not to criticize the Romans directly. His rare jibes at the Romans were oblique and indirect.
This was politically deft. Social reformers don't get very far when they take on the most powerful aspect of the power structure, which, in this case, would be the Roman Army. Astute reformers instead focus on the power structure's weakest component, which, in this case, was the Temple elite, an elite already under suspicion and broadly held in low regard.
Ray Brown notes, incidentally, that it is not true that any contact at all between gentiles and Jews was forbidden. Therefore, it is unclear as to precisely why the Judean representatives are worried about ritual defilement.
All his suggested interpretations sound possible, but unconvincing. Perhaps "ritual definement" had to do with burial customs--perhaps someone was buried in the headquarters. Or perhaps Pilate's wife was not in a state of ritual purity. (There is no evidence she was present.) Or, perhaps the Judeans were worried because of the possible presence of leaven in Pilate's headquarters.
One thing the mention of ritual defilement before passover does do, however, is to underline the fourth gospel's position that Jesus was crucified on the day before passover. That would mean Thursday (during the day), and not Friday.
Pilate entered back into his headquarters and "called" Jesus inside. For his part, Jesus expresses no worries about being ritually defiled by being in the praetorion.
Pilate asks, "Are you the King of the Judeans?" (This question is the same in all four gospels--Mark 15:2, Matthew 27:11, and Luke 23:3--which would indicate a common tradition on at least this much of the passion account.)
"King" is a political title, and Pilate focuses on the political question. Pilate had no interest in religion or theology. He is a practical and matter-of-fact kind of person. His objective is the maintenace of Roman law and Roman control. It is clear from the entire conversation--18:33-19:16--that Pilate wants to free Jesus, or, at least, he would rather free Jesus than free the anti-Roman terrorist, Barabbas.
To Pilate's question, Jesus responds with an impertinent retort that unmasks Pilate's collusion with others: "From yourself do you say this, or did others speak about me to you?" Both of them well know that "others" have spoken to Pilate about him.
Pilate, thrown on the defensive, responds, ""I am not a Judean, am I?" This, frankly, is not a particularly good riposte. Just because he is not, on one level, a Judean does not mean that he didn't collude with Judeans.
Yet, on another level, Pilate is a Judean. In the fourth gospel, anyone aligned with the Temple establishment and its worldview is a Judean. In doing the bidding of the Judean authorities, Pilate has become a Judean.
Pilate continues: "Your own nation and the chief priests delivered you over to me. What have you done?" Note that Pilate does not say Jesus' own religion has delivered him over, but that his own nation has. Again, Pilate uses political words. Also, he specifically identifies those who have "delivered over" Jesus. They are the "chief priests," the highest level of Temple, and Judean, authority.
Pilate asks what Jesus has done, but Jesus ignores this question and returns to idea of kingship. "My kingdom is not of this world." Indeed, it is not. Jesus' kingdom is not "of this world" of political calculation, accusation, and contending interests.
This does not mean, however, that Jesus' kingdom is only in heaven and has nothing to do with life on earth. The two kingdoms--"this world" and Jesus'--occupy the same temporal space. One is not here while the other is off in the wild blue yonder. They are both here. The difference is one of attitude and worldview.
Jesus makes this clear when he says, "If my kingdom were out of this world, my subordinates would be fighting so that I might not be delivered over to the Judeans. But now is my kingdom not from hence."
"This world" kingdoms are about fighting and struggle (agonizomai). Jesus' kingdom is about the dignity and equality of all.
Jesus nuanced response is seemingly lost on Pilate. Pilate retreats to what is, for him, the central question. He asks, "Then you are a king?" He reasons: You speak of your kingdom, therefore you must be a king. Jesus' answer is the same as in all four gospels--su legeis, "you say." The fourth gospel adds: "...that I am a king."
Jesus continues: "Into this I have been born, and into this I came into the world, so that I might witness to the truth." Note the distinction between being "born" and "coming into the world." The Greek gegennemai accents creation--to be brought into being. In the theology of the fourth gospel, the Word became flesh, eternity entered time, the essential entered existence. All that is subsumed in the meaning of "born."
Being born is one thing, but for what purpose? Jesus "came into the world" so that he "might witness to the truth." That is his purpose and mission, a theme stated in John 1. He will present light to darkness, identifying what really is, and comparing that truth with the way things appear to be in "this world."
Image: ceiling, Assumption Greek Orthodox Cathedral, Denver, CO.