Only One King Can Judge: Jesus “Trial” As the Suspension of Sovereign Judgment

In the trial of Jesus in the Gospel of John no judgment is ever formally declared. Beyond this, there is an ambiguity as to who is acting as judge. Jesus is not being judged by Pilate, at least in any formal sense, as Pilate is going to refuse to pronounce judgment.  Pilate attempts to follow his wife’s advice, to “have nothing to do with this man,” and so he “washes his hands” of the affair by simply turning the matter over to the Jews. He suggests to the Jews, “Take Him yourselves and crucify Him, for I find no guilt in Him” (19:6, NASB). This is more of a taunt on the part of Pilate, for he knows they have no power to crucify and are precisely forbidden by Roman law to try capital cases and their own law forbids crucifixion.  Pilate claims there is “no case” against the man and so he cannot pass judgment and there is to be no trial. When the Jews begin to yell, “Crucify him,” Pilate reiterates that there is “no case” against the man.  The Jewish leaders then suggest that, though he may not have broken Roman law, Jesus has broken Jewish law by claiming to be the Son of God.  For Pilate, this is one more turn of the screw, he becomes “even more afraid.”  Pilate, as I build the case below, seems to suspect he is the one undergoing trial and judgment.  

Pilate is not a completely unsympathetic character – we can identify with his struggle and as we enter into the psychology of the man we can understand not only the chronological era marked by his name (“crucified under Pontius Pilate” as the Council of Constantinople will append the Nicene Creed), but the judgment that falls upon his presumption of sovereignty (and all presumptions of private or political sovereignty). The law and notions of sovereignty will be forever thrown into question as they are disconnected from their presumed eternal divine authority by the proceedings of the “trial” of Jesus.

After Pilate declares there is no case and he cannot judge, he has Jesus paraded out in his royal purple robes and his mock crown and declares, “Behold the Man.” Jesus has been beaten and is bleeding, and  Pilate seems to be attempting to reduce Jesus’ importance in the estimate of the crowd, perhaps to save his life through his humiliation. But, of course it is Pilate’s own life that has now slid onto the scale of judgment. The Jews explanation that he claimed to be the “Son of God,” Caesar’s own claim as to source of his authority, directly pits the claims of Jesus against those of Caesar and Pilate.  Pilate’s attempt to reduce Jesus to bare human life, devoid of the dignity accorded the “real” sovereign, and his use of the royal robes and mock crown works against his purpose.  The “mock king” raises questions as to the power and claims of the “real thing.”  “Look at the Man,” there is nothing there – right? The trick not only does not work but seems to backfire.

As Pilate asks, when he returns to the Praetorium to question Jesus further, “Don’t you understand I am the one with the power in this situation,” and the question behind the question is who is calling the shots? Jesus clarifies (in my loose translation), “You have no power over me whatsoever that is not given to you from the very source from whence my kingdom comes. Your powerlessness is evident, so the ones who delivered me to you bear the greater guilt.” Pilate’s concerted effort not to pass judgment stands in contrast to Jesus’ ready willingness to pronounce judgement. His judgment concerns not just human law, he presumes to announce eternal decrees as to who is more guilty of sin. Jesus thrusts the viewpoint of the divine into this human proceeding and presumes – as he has claimed throughout his ministry – that judgment is determined by what you do with him.  “Certainly, those who have delivered me to you are worse off according to eternal judgments, but Pilate, your claims to power are clearly illegitimate. Beyond that, all claims that follow in your stead are now thrown into question.” At least, this might be implied from the conversation.

When Pilate asks if Jesus is King, Jesus replies, “well you’re the one who has said I am a king,” and Pilates’ every move says as much.  Jesus acknowledges that his kingdom is “not from this world.” The tradition surrounding this statement, from Augustine to Aquinas, is not that Jesus is establishing his kingdom elsewhere; rather, it is not established in the mode of this world’s kingdoms.  This kingdom has its origins from elsewhere (it is a legitimate – heavenly kingdom), but the incarnation and this very moment in the trial are witness to the earthly nature of the kingdom. Their brief exchange leaves Pilate in a panic and he attempts to have Jesus released. The Jews then pull their trump card: “If you release this man you are not a friend of Caesar.” Here is the rub, will Pilate choose Caesar or Christ?

What happens next heightens the ambiguity as to Pilate’s response.  Jesus stands robed in royal purple and a crown of thorns as this prolonged debate about sovereignty unfolds.  The one who is supposed to represent Caesar is now threatened with the power of Caesar.  Subsequent to John 19:13 (the verse in question), Pilate will change his, “Look at the Man” to “Look at your King.” Pilate, Caesar’s representative, provides the strongest testimony as to Jesus sovereign identity.  At this point, the Jews seem to grow frantic and drop all pretense of a Jewish legal proceeding: “We have no King other than Caesar.” The words on the lips of the chief priests, the representatives of the theocratic government of Israel, is nothing less than blasphemy – the charge they are bringing against Jesus.  Here is the final denouement of their turn from God to kings, now God does not figure at all into sovereignty. They are abdicating their Messianic hope so as to excel even Pilate in their singular loyalty to the god-king Caesar.  “Jewish tradition and law be damned” – is the implication of this blasphemous absolutizing of Caesar.  Pilate is not dissuaded as to Jesus identity, “Shall I crucify your King?” he asks.  Ultimately, at the crucifixion, in three different languages, Pilate pronounces Jesus is “King of the Jews.” When told that the sign should read, “he claimed to be King of the Jews,” Pilate refuses to change it.

All of these events surround John 19:13 which is obscured further by two alternative readings, one of which has Pilate acknowledging that Jesus is the true judge. In place of the terms for judgment (κρίσις and κρίνω), the word which appears is βῆμα, which refers to the seat or throne from which one makes legal judgments.  This seat of judgment is located on the Gabbatha, John informs his readers. This word echoes in their ears as the Hebrew or Aramaic designation for the stone pavement making up the floor of the Temple.  Then, in the midst of this scene, John tells us it is the day of preparation for Passover.  Death, the judgment passed on sin, is going to be borne by the Passover lamb who will cleanse the cosmic temple of death.  But the key question remains, who is judge and what judgment is passed and upon whom?

Following the Textus Receptus, John 19:13 is usually translated as, “He [Pilate] brought Jesus out, and sat down on the judgment seat” (NASB). However, there is, an alternative reading which says, “He led Jesus outside and sat him [Jesus] on the judge’s bench.” In this reading Jesus, and not Pilate, is seated so as to exercise judgment.  Pilate is not simply refusing to judge but is declaring Jesus is the rightful judge.  Pilate has not himself sat in the seat of judgment and no judgment has been made (whatever the reading) – simply a “handing over” to death.  The one who has been seated in the place of judgment, the one declared “King of the Jews” by the representative of the earthly sovereign, the one pronouncing judgment on both the Jews and Pilate, is the one “handed over” in lieu of judgment.  No judgment is passed by the earthly judges but the succession of people to whom Jesus is handed over are judged by what they do with him.

Pilate’s state of mind, even apart from this reading, is fraught with doubt and fear surrounding the person of Jesus and he concludes the man is the rightful king over the Judeans.  This fits with the accounts of Matthew and Luke in which Jesus is also dressed in a purple robe, given a scepter, and hailed as the “King of the Jews,” and it fits the sign Pilate has affixed to the Cross. It explicitly fits with the apocryphal Gospel of Peter (c. 190 CE), in which the people “put on him a purple robe, and made him sit upon the seat of judgment, saying: Give righteous judgment, thou King of Israel” (3:7). Harnack and Dibelius follow Justin, who argues that Pilate sets Jesus on the judgement seat.[1] This would explain why in both Mark and Mathew, along with John, Pilate does not declare a judgment. Jesus is crucified outside of the City of Jerusalem and outside Roman and Jewish legal codes and no judgment is ever passed.

Sovereignty (whether of the king or the state), as noted as early as Aristotle, is defined as power over “life.” The sovereign disposes of life, not on the basis of a judgment which functions according to law, but on the basis of sheer power.  The law protects citizens (from the sovereign as much as anything), as Paul continually reminds his captors, which explains why Paul is held over for a series of trials. Judgment is unnecessary where a victim falls outside of the law, not in the sense of having broken the law, but in the sense that he falls beneath or beyond the law. The Jews in the holocaust, native Americans in their genocidal removal from lands desired by whites, African American victims of lynching between the Civil War and up to around 1940, refugees of the world, all fall outside of the law and so can be “handed over” to death, by sovereign authorities, without benefit or notice of the law.

One difference that the trial of Jesus will make and that the life and death of Jesus make is that this notion of sovereignty is rendered illegitimate. The easy presumption that lives can be disposed of without protest is contradicted by the historical moment. Caesar could once claim to be the Prince of Peace and Sovereign God – as he in fact did – without contradiction. After Christ, history is an open-ended trial in which judgment (κρίσις) is unfolding and is presumed to fall upon those who would presume to judge.  The principalities and powers, which once subsumed eternal judgments into their purview, are now stopped short. We are all witnesses to the Krisis of history in which the oppressed now serve as markers of judgment. Those who pass sovereign judgments of holocausts, genocides, lynching, and mass slaughter of the stateless, or simply capital punishment, are exposed as evil usurpers.  It would not have occurred to anyone, prior to Christ, to question the power or the moral right (theologically grounded as these were in the heavens) of the sovereign.  Now judgment is continually rendered according to “what you do to the least of these.” The imprisoned, impoverished, hungry, and thirsty – the oppressed victims – are Jesus. Judgment is rendered on the basis of how you treat the least of these.

The scene of final judgment in Mathew pictures the Son of Man in the place of sovereignty (“sitting on the throne of his glory”). The judgment held in abeyance at the trial of Jesus has separated out, through the course of history, the true sovereign from the impostors. He who would presume to sit in the place of judgment, where life is at the disposal of the sovereign, commits the final blasphemy of usurping the King of glory.

[1] I am following Giorgio Agamben, Pilate and Jesus.

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Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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