NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
Chrysostom believes that Pilate’s question to the crowd on what should he do with Jesus was intentional in order to embarrass them into reconsidering their request. He wanted them to think about what they were asking and what it would lead to. Didn’t they know that they were asking for a man, who had an impeccable reputation for doing good, to be crucified, and a criminal whose life was spent in robbing and causing trouble to be released back into society? But they didn’t seem to care. So this prompted Pilate to ask again.
Verse 23: Pilate asked, “Why do you want me to crucify Him? What wrong has He done?” But they shouted even louder, “Crucify Him on a cross!”
Much to his surprise, Pilate’s appeal fell on deaf ears. The crowd had made up their minds to be obedient to the Jewish priests and leaders rather that seek justice and find out who this Jesus of Nazareth really was. Never did they question their religious leader’s accusations. Not once did they ask for evidence in order to prove their case. Even Pilate saw more clearly than they did that Jesus was innocent of all the charges brought against Him.
But Pilate was caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place. Something that his predecessors had developed to please the Jews, he was now having to use to appease them. So he had a difficult choice to make. Either stand up for justice or stand up for tradition. After all, what would it gained him if he took the anger they were directing at this Jesus of Galilee and turned it against himself. So he took the only way out that he could see. He sided with the crowd.
Verses 24-25: Pilate saw that he wasn’t getting anywhere and that a riot was developing. So he sent for a pitcher of water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood. The responsibility is yours!” And all the people yelled back, “We will take responsibility for His death—let His blood be on our hands and that of our children!”
In an attempt to rinse himself of any mea culpa in the execution of Jesus, Pilate openly washed his hands in front of the people. But Jewish patriarch Job was quick to warn: “If I wash myself with snow, and make my hands clean with lye, Yet You will plunge me in the slime pit, and my own clothes will hate me.”1 We know that washing one’s hands was to show innocence, that was a Jewish custom even in king David’s day, “I will wash my hands in innocence and walk around your altar, ADONAI.”2
One Jewish commentator says, that another reason for washing one’s hands was to prove that whatever had been achieved was done so through honesty, not deception.3 But after reading through Roman customs and manners, I’m persuaded that it may have had a different meaning. For instance, one Roman historian wrote these words for a character in his story named Faunus: “When he regained his senses, he said: ‘King and father to the high gods, if I have touched your offerings with pure hands, and if a pious tongue, too, asks for what I seek, grant atonement from your lightning.”4 Pilate was a follower of these gods, and so he may have been asking for mercy should he unknowingly do harm to one of their own by having this Jesus hung on a cross.
And, in one Greek play, we find Odysseus at dawn in front of Ajax’s tent in the Greek camp in the city of Troy. Odysseus is seen examining the ground before the tent. Athena appears from above and says, “You resemble a keen-nosed Spartan hound, looking for the man that just went inside with his face and slaughterous hands streaming with sweat and blood.”5 Athena goes on to explain, that Ajax would have already washed his hands since it was their custom to always wash their hands after coming into contact with blood. So this may have been Pilate’s way of saying, “I don’t want any innocent blood on my hands when this is over.”
The Jews had their own way of assigning responsibility for people being killed without cause. Back when Israel sent spies into Jericho, they came into contact with the prostitute Rahab. And because of her helping them escape, they gave her a sign to put on her house so that when the Jews came in, none in her household would be harmed. Here were the instructions they gave her, “When we enter the land, you tie this piece of scarlet cord in the window you let us down from; and you gather together in your house your father, mother, brothers, and your father’s entire household. If anyone goes out the doors of your house into the street, he will be responsible for his own blood, and we will be guiltless. But everyone who stays with you in the house — we will be responsible for his blood if anyone lays a hand on him.”6 In other words, the scarlet cord, like the blood of the Passover lamb, would keep any of them from being slaughtered as long as they stayed under its protection.
Even today, if someone is guilty of committing a crime that deserves the death penalty, we say: “Their blood is on their own hands.” This was also a common concept in Jewish thinking, as we can see in the Talmud.7 But it was also accepted, that this act of shedding innocent blood would follow the guilty person to their grave and beyond. As one highly regarded Rabbi states: “With regard to capital punishment, the victim’s blood and the blood of his unborn descendants are dependent on the murderer until eternity. As it is said with regard to Cain, ‘The voice of the blood of your brother is crying out.’ The Torah uses the plural form of the word blood, implying his blood and the blood of his descendants.”8 So the Jews here were so confident that they were asking for the crucifixion of a guilty man, that they were willing to risk the damaging consequences of having His blood hound them and their children for generation after generation.
While some scholars believe that when the Roman general Titus came and destroyed Jerusalem in 70 AD, this curse was fulfilled. Jewish historian Josephus records this incident: “The main reason why he [Titus] did not forbid that cruelty was this, that he hoped the Jews might perhaps yield at that sight, out of fear lest they might themselves afterward be liable to the same cruel treatment. So the soldiers, out of the wrath and hatred they bore the Jews, nailed those they caught, one after one way, and another after another, to the crosses, by way of jest, when their total number was so great, that room was wanting for the crosses, and crosses wanting for the bodies.”9
Pilate’s decision to give in might seem like an easy way out, but those who knew Pilate saw this more as a cover-up for his embarrassment of being bullied by the Jewish leaders. For as Pilate was described: “He was a man of a very inflexible disposition, and very merciless as well as very obstinate.”10 And just for the record, Pilate had Jesus scourged to show that he acted with some authority. Some believe that he did so with the hope the Jews would be satisfied with such a beating and give up the idea of having Him crucified. But that was not their plan, nor was it God’s plan.
One Jewish commentator points to what happened between God and Isaiah: “The Holy One warned him: ‘Isaiah, My children are obstinate, troublesome. Art thou willing to be smitten and put to shame by them?” Then Isaiah replied: “I will let those people beat me and pull the hair from my beard. I will not hide my face when they say bad things to me and spit at me. The Lord God will help me so the bad things they say will not hurt me11.”12 By saying: Father forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing, Jesus was saying the same thing. And of course, Jesus knew the reason for all this: “He was being punished for what we did. He was crushed because of our guilt. He took the punishment we deserved, to bring us peace. We were healed because of His pain. We had all wandered away like sheep. We had gone our own way. And yet the LORD put all our guilt on Him.”13
1 Job 9:30-31: Orthodox Jewish Bible
2 Psalm 26:6
3 Pesikta De-Rab Kahana, Piska 27:5, p. 559
4 Fasti by Publius Ovidius Naso, (also known as Ovid), Bk. III: March 1: Kalends
5 Ajax by Sophocles, Trans. R. C. Trevelyan, Scene One: Athena
6 Joshua 2:18-19
7 Babylonian Talmud, Seder Mo’ed, Masekhet Pesachim, folio 110b; cf. Tractate Yoma, folio 21a; Tractate Avodah Zarah, folio 12b
8 Moses Maimonides, Mishnah Torah, Sefer Shoftim, Sanhedrin veha’Onashin haMesurin lahem, Ch. 12, Halacha 3
9 Flavius Josephus, Wars of the Jews, Bk 5, Chap 11:1
10 Philo of Alexandria, op. cit., De Legatio ad Gaium (“On the Embassy to Gaius”), Ch. 38:304
11 Isaiah 50:6-7
12 Pesikta De-Rab Kahana, Piska 16:4, loc. cit., p.391
13 Ibid. 53:5-6