In one of my previous articles, I discussed the possibility that Pontius Pilate exacted a very subtle revenge on the Judean religious authorities. Those same authorities manipulated the Passover crowds to “force” Pilate to crucify Jesus in order to prevent a riot. Instead of writing the customary accusation of the crime committed (i.e., this criminal did such and such), Pilate instructed his legionnaires to write something very different.
Our modern Bibles provide us with an English translation of the Greek version of an inscription originally written in Hebrew! (To compound the translational issue, Pilate probably issued his command to those soldiers in Latin!). Our English Bibles read, “Jesus of Nazareth; King of the Jews.” This sentence may have been written two different ways in Hebrew. One of them would have used the first letter of each word in this sentence as an acrostic, thereby forming the Tetragrammaton (YHVH) acrostic.
Here is the sentence “Jesus of Nazareth and the King of the Jews” in Hebrew:
(ישוע הנצרי ומלך היהודים)
If this reconstruction is correct, then Pilate was “sticking it” to Jerusalem’s politico-religious swamp by proclaiming that Jesus was Israel’s God in the flesh crucified (a fact Pilate clearly did not affirm himself).
There is another detail in the Gospel accounts that may support, though not decidedly prove, this assertion. This detail is commonly overlooked because in today’s Western culture, the phrase “washing my hands of something” has become widely known with a specific meaning. We make a mistake when we assume that Pilate used it in the same way. We forget that the very reason that this phrase has become widely known in the West was because it made it into this passion narrative, not the other way around!
By the time of Jesus’ crucifixion, this extra-biblical innovation of the Pharisees (ritual hand-washing) had been elevated to the status of a “tradition of the elders.” (cf. Matt 15:2: “Why do Your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread.”) Now consider another possible explanation for Pilate’s words and actions: What if Pilate, being familiar with Jewish culture, used a phrase and performed the already well-developed Judean/Jewish custom of hand-washing (נתילת ידים) – a tradition that continues today and is widely practiced by observant Jews everywhere – to accuse the Judean authorities?
In an act of defiance against the political blackmail of the Judean authorities, Pilate ritually washed off the uncleanness associated with the murder that was about to take place. This was his way of exacting revenge for their political checkmate when they said, “If you release this man, you are not Caesar’s friend” (John 19:12). In the end, Pilate’s hands were not cleansed. He was still guilty (Acts 4:27-28), yet his act sheds further light on the both tragic and salvific day when the Jewish Christ was put to death.