Delivered to Prefects and Kings

Alan Culpepper commented that reading the arrest and trials of Jesus is, for him, like watching film footage of John Kennedy’s motorcade winding through Dallas in 1963 or the 1986 launch of the Challenger space shuttle.  We know what is coming, we know we have no power to undo them, but are compelled to watch because we honor the loss of great people doing what was theirs to do. At a more intimate level we know that the encounter of Jesus and Pilate is a scene wherein both face the test of their convictions. Pilate knows and announces the verdict – innocence, but in the face of an unruly crowd does not have the conviction to persevere.  Neither Herod nor Barabbas provide an avenue to resolve the crisis when the leaders of Jewish Jerusalem are ever at work to animate the crowd to bend Pilate’s to their will.

Luke 23:1 Then the whole assembly of them arose and brought him before Pilate. 2 They brought charges against him, saying, “We found this man misleading our people; he opposes the payment of taxes to Caesar and maintains that he is the Messiah, a king.” 3 Pilate asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?” He said to him in reply, “You say so.” 4 Pilate then addressed the chief priests and the crowds, “I find this man not guilty.” 5 But they were adamant and said, “He is inciting the people with his teaching throughout all Judea, from Galilee where he began even to here.” 

6 On hearing this Pilate asked if the man was a Galilean; 7 and upon learning that he was under Herod’s jurisdiction, he sent him to Herod who was in Jerusalem at that time. 8 Herod was very glad to see Jesus; he had been wanting to see him for a long time, for he had heard about him and had been hoping to see him perform some sign. 9 He questioned him at length, but he gave him no answer. 10 The chief priests and scribes, meanwhile, stood by accusing him harshly. 11 (Even) Herod and his soldiers treated him contemptuously and mocked him, and after clothing him in resplendent garb, he sent him back to Pilate. 12 Herod and Pilate became friends that very day, even though they had been enemies formerly. 

The leaders bring Jesus to Pilate and begin to charge him with serious crimes. Luke alone emphasizes the political nature of the charges against Jesus: “We found this man misleading our people; he opposes the payment of taxes to Caesar and maintains that he is the Messiah a king” (23:2). Later they repeat the charges: “He is inciting the people with his teaching throughout all Judea, from Galilee where he began even to here” (23:5).

Pontius Pilate had been procurator, or Roman governor, of Judea for about five years. His seat of government was at the seacoast town of Caesarea, but he was in Jerusalem because of the large gathering of Jews for the feast of Passover. Luke follows Mark’s outline but makes several additions to throw into high relief Jesus’ innocence.

One of the charges is clearly false — the opposition to Roman taxes (see 20:20–25). Jesus has not spoken clearly to the Sanhedrin about being the Messiah (22:66), but he has not denied it; his entry into Jerusalem implied it (19:28–40). Luke has added the explanatory “a king” for the sake of his Greek readers. After Jesus’ noncommittal reply, Pilate pronounces him innocent. No reason is given, because in abbreviating the account Luke has taken the arguments for granted. The charges are repeated, this time in terms that encompass Jesus’ whole ministry as traditionally described, beginning in Galilee and eventually affecting the whole land (Acts 10:37) – forcing Pilate’s hand as the Roman keeper of imperial order.

The mention of Galilee gives Pilate the opportunity to divert the case to the tetrarch of Galilee, Herod Antipas, who was also in Jerusalem for the feast. Herod’s curiosity about Jesus was mentioned earlier (9:9). Jesus does not respond to the request for a sign nor to the ill-motivated questions, as he never does in the Gospels. Herod’s mocking treatment of Jesus ironically heals an enmity with Pilate (whose conduct cited in 13:1 may have been one of the causes). The cooperation of the two is later seen as the fulfillment of prophecy (Ps 2:1–2; Acts 4:25–28).

As for the Jewish religious leaders, their initial and subsequent attempts to shape the civil authorities to take deadly action against Jesus have come to naught, despite their continuing harsh accusations (v.10). There is only one course of action left them.  For them to create the civil disturbance that Pilate will want to stop.

Fr. Donald Senior’s comments on this section are noteworthy:

Luke’s account is filled with irony. It is ironic that the leaders whose responsibility was to defend the freedom and faith of Israel would become concerned with the rights of Caesar. But the reader of the gospel is aware of another level of irony: in fact, Jesus’ powerful ministry of justice was a profound threat to the oppressive might of Caesar. And indeed his mission had intended to “stir up the people” as the Lucan Jesus has journeyed majestically from Galilee to Jerusalem. But the revolution Jesus incited was not the predictable clash of alternate political systems, but a call for fundamental conversion and a vision of a renewed human family built on justice and compassion–a vision capable of shaking the foundation of every oppressive political system.

Further irony is found in the fact that the secular authorities, Pilate and then Herod, find Jesus innocent while the religious leaders tenaciously seek to destroy him. Luke has the Roman Governor and the vassal king of Galilee repeatedly affirm this. “I find this man not guilty”, Pilate declares (23:4). And in a curious scene unique to Luke (23:6-16), even when Jesus is mocked as a bogus prophet by Herod Antipas, the corrupt king and murderer of prophets (9:7-9; 13:31-33) could find no guilt in Jesus.


23:1-5,13-25  Twice Jesus is brought before Pilate in Luke’s account, and each time Pilate explicitly declares Jesus innocent of any wrongdoing (Luke 23:4, 14, 22). This stress on the innocence of Jesus before the Roman authorities is also characteristic of John’s gospel (John 18:38; 19:4, 6). Luke presents the Jerusalem Jewish religious leaders as the ones who force the hand of the Roman authorities (Luke 23:1-2, 5, 10, 13, 18, 21, 23-25).

brought him before Pilate: The prophecy that the Son of Man would be handed over to the Gentiles is fulfilled.

23:2 brought charges against him: Luke uses the technical term to accuse someone in a legal setting.

Messiah, a king: or “anointed king.” While Jesus never affirmed such a statement, the charge does reflect a reality: the people proclaim Jesus as king (19:38) as he had spoken of himself in terms of kingship (19:11-27).  However, the Jewish religious leaders have morphed this into the political realm in an unambiguous reduction: king – a charge that the Roman authorities can not ignore.

23:3 “Are you the king of the Jews?” : Pilate is interested in one charge only. The Sanhedrin has successfully got the attention of the Roman Perfect.

23:4 “I find this man not guilty”: literally, “I have found no cause” – meaning there is no evidence. And thus the Jewish religious leaders present continue to press their case (v.5) 

23:5 inciting…with his teaching: The basis of the charges now shift from Jesus’ self proclamation as “Messiah, king” to his teachings inciting civil unrest – again they have Pilate’s attention. History seems to indicate that Pilate only came to Jerusalem during festivals when the likelihood of civil unrest was the greatest.

throughout all Judea, from Galilee where he began even to here: indicating that this is a program of deliberate propaganda.  Yet the mention of Galilee allows Pilate to shuffle the problem off to Herod, the tetrarch of Galilee (3:3) as Luke tells us in 23:6-7.

23:9 but he gave him no answer: Within the early Christian community, Jesus’ continued silence was understood in the light of the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53:7 – “Though he was harshly treated, he submitted and opened not his mouth; Like a lamb led to the slaughter or a sheep before the shearers, he was silent and opened not his mouth.

23:6-12 The appearance of Jesus before Herod is found only in this gospel. Herod has been an important figure in Luke (Luke 9:7-9; 13:31-33).

23:8  Herod was very glad to see Jesus… wanting to see him … he had heard about him … hoping to see ..sign: Herod is someone who has been curious about Jesus for a long time (9:7-9). His curiosity goes unrewarded. It is faith in Jesus, not curiosity, that is rewarded (Luke 7:50; 8:48, 50; 17:19).

23:12 became friends: Pilate’s recognition of Herod’s authority signified a recognition of him, clearly something Herod desired.


  • Raymond E. Brown, The Death of the Messiah (New Haven, CN: Yale University Press, 1994) 2 Volumes
  • Alan Culpepper, Luke in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IX (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995)
  • Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1997)
  • Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, vol. 3 of Sacra Pagina, ed. Daniel J. Harrington (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1991)
  • Jerome Kodell, “Luke” in The Collegeville Bible Commentary, eds. Dianne Bergant and Robert J. Karris, (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1989)
  • Leon Morris,. Luke: An introduction and commentary. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries Vol. 3: (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988)
  • Donald Senior, The Passion of Jesus Christ, an unpublished booklet
  • Gerhard Kittel, Gerhard Friedrich and Geoffrey William Bromiley, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans, 1995)
  • Scripture quotes from New American Bible

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