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.

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88 COMMENTS

  1. It would have been against Roman law, indeed seditious as well as treasonous to be a King. To claim or to allow a claim of being “King of the Jews” would have been a capital offense. Jesus was executed for sedition. I have read somewhere, I believe, that a Roman custom would have for the one passing sentence to wash his hands, while saying that it was not he who condemned and sentenced the prisoner, but the prisoner himself, by what he, the prisoner had done to bring the sentence on himself. As far as “sticking it to the Jewish authorities” that is worthy of consideration. A little off the point, but still in the ballpark, the Gospel accounts of the trial drip with irony and sarcasm, especially in view of Pilates’ reputation for extreme cruelty and nastiness, so violent and repulsive that the Roman authorities removed him from his post and returned him to Rome where he escaped execution by the death of the Emporer. Jesus was not the only Jew crucified by Pilate, with whom the High Priest, at least arguably was in cahoots, but who also had to request Pilate to allow the holy vestments to be taken out of Roman storage so the High Priest could perform his religious duties. Revolt and rumors of revolt were rampant. Any sign of disobedience was quickly dealt with. It is interesting, however, to consider that Jesus’ disciples were not hunted down and crucified, and indeed, worshiped openly in the Temple, as Jews, of course. Is it possible that Pilate may have thought there was no need to crucify those of Jesus group. Could that have driven a wedge between him and the High Priest, who many Jews believed was either illegitimate or a quisling?
    • There was not need to do it. We should not confuse later persecutions against Christ-followers and this one, when 1) Pilate did not want to even do it and 2) if you kill the shepherd the sheep were believed to be gone quite quickly or at least eventually.
    • When asked point blank if He was a King, Jesus replied: “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36), which is why in v. 38 Pilate said that he could find no fault in Him. So under Roman law, Jesus would not have been guilty of sedition.
  2. My ? Is. A friend of mine who studied Judaism tells me. That there is no translation the name Yeshuwa from Hebrew to English. Is this true? My friend says the name Jesus is Zeus name from Greek to English.
  3. The insertion of the VAV before melekh is unwarranted. So is teh possibility that Pilate knew enough Hebrew to pull this off.
  4. I agree with Timothy. Additionally one small correction: the Roman soldiers would have been ordered in Greek (Koine'), as was customary in the Eastern Empire, and not in Latin.
  5. I think your analysis is a bit tortured, and not in the mainstream of scholarly works on this subject.
    I very much doubt Pilate washed his hands. I believe he did order the crucifixion of Jesus. A Roman Prefect's major responsibility was to maintain law and order. That is probably why Pilate was in Jerusalem at the time of Passover. Jesus had been making trouble in the Temple and stirring up the crowds. He had also been accused of protesting imperial taxes, which was an offense punishable by death.
    • Matt. 27:24: When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. "I am innocent of this man's blood," he said. "It is your responsibility!"

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