Earlier in the Gospel, Jesus outlined that he would be “handed over” (“betrayed” in NIV) to the temple authorities but that they in turn would “hand him over” to the Romans (Mark 10:33). The Passion narrative has been a series of “hand overs” (paradidomi): Judas to the temple authorities (14:41), the authorities to Pilate (15:1) and, finally, Pilate to the soldiers for crucifixion (15:15). The drama is reaching its climax.
The Roman “trial” comes in three stages. First, Jesus appears before Pilate as the temple authorities accuse him (15:2-5). Second, Jesus appears before the crowds for a decision (15:6-15). Third, the soldiers prepare Jesus for crucifixion (15:16-20).
The temple authorities took Jesus to Pilate at the Praetorium (15:16) in Jerusalem. Pilate was the “prefect” of Palestine from 26-36 CE (an inscription at Caesarea verifies his presence in the region). His main residence was in Caesarea but he would come to Jerusalem during major festivals as those were times when tensions were high and the potential for insurrection was great (especially as Messianic expectations were heightened). When he came to town he could be found either at Herod’s Jerusalem palace or at the Antonia Fortress. Though uncertain, most tend to think that Pilate was at the palace rather than the fortress (the traditional beginning of the Via D0lorosa).
Pilate’s initial question is, “Are you the king of the Jews?” The question is significant for several reasons. It indicates that the charge the temple authorities stressed to Pilate was Jesus’ Messianic standing. This is a political claim since “Messiah,” in the first century, meant revolution and revolt. The Messiah, as king, would end Roman oppression. It was a title that meant violent overthrow of the Roman government, especially as it was heard by Roman ears—including Pilate. Roman authority had put down previous revolts by Messianic pretenders.
Pilate’s language, however, is pejorative and sarcastic. “King of the Jews” is not how rabbis would refer to the Messiah; this is the way Roman overloads refer to rulers within Palestine. They don’t rule an independent state but an ethnic group within the empire. Herod was “king of the Jews” (an ethnicity) but he was not Emperor, and his authority was subordinate to that of Rome. When the children of Abraham spoke of messianic rule, they used the phrase “King of Israel” (cf.15:32) where Israel refers to an independent nation rather than a Roman colony. “King of Jews,” used five times in Mark 15, always comes from the Romans and seems to appear as a sarcastic, demeaning characterization.
Jesus recognizes this sarcasm and returns in kind. “You say” (cf. NRSV) is a good literal translation. The response is terse, accommodative but non-committal. Jesus does not buy into Pilate’s understanding of kingship. And Jesus is silent from that point forward. He will not play the legal game. He makes no defense. This surprises Pilate and his amazement is not so much a determination to release him as it is his wonder about how indefatigable Jesus appears.
Mark does not portray Pilate as a Jewish patsy or an indecisive leader. Instead, Pilate is a shrewd politician who seeks to placate the people. Because he knows the envy of the temple authorities, he decides to leave the choice to the people. This is probably not something the authorities would have desired, but the “crowd” petitioned for it. The “crowd” might already have someone in mind, and it is not Jesus. The chief priests lobby the crowd even as Pilate taunts them—“are you sure you want me to crucify your king?”
Mark tells us that Pilate customarily released a prisoner at the Passover which probably mimics Israel’s release from Egyptian bondage. Pilate chose Barabbas whose name means “son of the father”–or perhaps the crowd was shouting for Barabbas. Mark’s description identifies him as more than a mere thief but as an insurrectionist. Barabbas is a violent revolutionary who probably participated in guerilla activities against the Romans. That Pilate would even consider the release of Barabbas indicates how seriously he took the title “King of the Jews” as a threat to Roman order.
Pilate’s offer becomes in Mark’s narrative a choice for the crowd. What kind of revolution do they support? What kind of kingdom do they value? Barabbas is a violent revolutionary but Jesus represents a nonviolent revolution. The crowd gathered is not the same crowd that welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem at his triumphal entry in Mark 11. Rather, this crowd is one that had gathered to seek the release of a prisoner when many would not even be aware that Jesus was one. This “crowd” wants Barabbas; they don’t care about Jesus. The temple authorities encourage their choice.
Why would the “crowd” want Barabbas rather than Jesus? More than likely, this crowd saw Barabbas as a revolutionary hero. He was part of a liberation movement which represented the deepest desires of many in Palestine. Jesus, to this crowd, was a messianic pretender, and if they knew anything about him, they knew he did not have the same goals as Barabbas. The want Barabbas released which meant that Jesus would suffer the crucifixion planned for Barabbas.
Pilate gives the crowd the choice. This is analogous to what happens in the gladiatorial games of the Colosseum (and elsewhere) where the crowd decides who lives and dies at the pleasure of the Emperor. Will the crowd give a “thumbs up” or “down” for Jesus? Pilate, it does not appear, was terribly interested in either result. His sarcastic “King of the Jews” increased their support for Barabbas and enraged them against Jesus (notice how he identifies Jesus with the crowd, that is, “whom you call the King of the Jews”). His question “what evil has he done?” is not so much an attempt to dissuade them as it is to confirm their decision. Just as Peter denied Jesus three times, so Pilate gives the crowd three opportunities to choose Jesus. They chose Barabbas….three times! Pilate played the crowd and ultimately “satisfied” them by giving them the power (an illusory power at that) to decide the fate of these two political prisoners.
The crowd chose violent revolution rather than the nonviolent revolution of Jesus.
Pilate then hands Jesus over to the soldiers who take him to the courtyard of the palace where the whole cohort gathered around him. Jesus becomes the object of their warrior derision. These soldiers, part of an occupying force, treat Jesus with a contempt that arises from their perception that he intended to lead (as a Messiah) a violent revolution. They treat him as defeated enemy.
Most significantly for Mark’s narrative, they mockingly treat Jesus as if he is the Emperor (Caesar). “Hail, Caesar” becomes “Hail, King of the Jews.” The imperial purple, Caesar’s wreath (a crown of thorns) and their mock prostration are used to enhance the parody. Mark deliberately draws a contrast between the imperial cult (where the Emperor is honored) and the mocking glory given to Jesus. The soldiers serve Caesar. Mark underscores the fundamental hostility between the Roman Emperor and the kingdom of God.
Jesus experiences violent degradation. He is stripped, flogged, mocked and ridiculed. The Messiah is humiliated. The one who will shortly rise with the clouds to sit at the right hand of the Father is, at this moment, a disgraced, bloodied, and dishonored “pretender.”
He is the acclaimed “King of the Jews” which means nothing to a Roman occupier. The Romans will execute Jesus for his pretensions.
What do we choose? We may choose Jesus but do we also choose to serve a kingdom of this world which employs violence to secure its way in the world? I wonder which revolution we would have preferred in 33 CE. Would we choose Jesus or Barabbas?