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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87 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.

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    • Jesus was not a Roman citizen. Paul was. A Roman citizen had the right to appeal directly to the emperor. Paul took advantage of this right to get to Rome. Jesus did not have citizenship rights.

    • Christ was a descendant of King David & therefore had to be in King David,s city which is where Christ will return.The Lord knew it was all going to happen exactly how it was prophesied

    • There is a considerable opinion on the internet from sceptics that there was no practice of releasing a prisoner at Passover. Can you comment on this?

      • Shalom, Rob. I go with one of the earliest opinions about this recorded (the gospel’s eye-witness account). There were many thing around that skeptics said never happened, many of them are long ago disproven.

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        • There is a tradition story on the release of the prisoner in exchange for Jesus. The tradition says that the name of the man was Jesus Barabba it is a play on words. In anotherwords the Jews choice a false Jesus they choose a murderer…the name Barabba means son of the father indicating they chose the son of Satan a false Jesus rather then the Son of God Jesus.

          • That’s right, Barbara. Some Alexandrian manuscripts preserve (in Matt. 27:16-17) the name ιησουν (τον) βαραββαν, Jesus of Barabbas. Pilate was offering to give up Jesus Barabbas or Jesus the Messiah.

          • Well said Barbara, the 3 and 4 century Church fathers removed Jesus from Barabbas saying it was to holy for such an evil man. Look at this deeper: same city, same trial, same era of history, same name title Jesus, Bar means “son of” & Abbas means the Father. Amen

          • Remember, it was the Romans who said Yeshua Barabbas was a murderer. But there is a play here between him and Yeshua HaMoshiach; a parallel comparison. We have Yeshua the Messiah, and Yeshua Son of the Father (Bar-Abba). One came as the Suffering Servant, but will return as a warrior. The other was most likely himself a freedom fighter. So the crowd unwittingly chose correctly, as it was not yet time for the one who would fight for His own, rather the One who would die for all. I think Barabbas was a hero of the Jewish people, and a type of the Christ who will return in power and glory, the last freedom fighter!

  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.

    • it is very much warranted from the stand point of Hebrew grammar. It is unnecessary, but warranted (in the sense of being possible). Any governor who is real professional would want to learn on some level local custom and language.

      • John 19:20 specifies that the inscription was written in aramaic, latin & greek. Given the limited space of the notice, we can safely presume one line for each tongue which would account for the 3 different renderings of the inscription according to the various gospel witnesses. Each tongue would say the inscription slightly differently to fit in the allotted space.

        • That’s possible, but not necessarily so, Norman. I’d rather pity the translator that would knowingly change (into another language) what the governor requested to originally be written. It seems more likely that each gospel writer wrote what he remembered or thought important from the sign.

  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.

    • Do you mean in the book of revelation? If so, than for sure it was (Hebrew) in spoken version (in actual vision).

  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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      • I don’t believe quoting Scripture to rebut my point is an honest or sufficient response. Lobbing Scripture back and forth gets us nowhere….If an “uproar” was starting Pilate would have taken sterner measures. He did it before. He was not one to be cowed by a Jewish mob. Matthew is the only Gospel to record Pilate washing his hands…John, which I believe you highly esteem, does not mention it.

  6. What always puzzles me is why the Jewish authorities wanted Jesus crucified telling Pilate they were not able to have themselves execute the punishment, but at the same time the same group had no problem executing Stephen to death by stoning him in the Book of Acts. And why in fact Paul (Saul) was from Tarsus, being considered a Roman citizen, but the people living in Israel were never considered Roman citizens (or perhaps they were, but refused to be considered citizens because they placed their identity as Israelites only, hating the thought they even though they lived in Israel they were still citizens of a Roman settlement).

    • Deuteronomy 21:23 gives us the reason. “ anyone who is hanged on a tree is cursed of God”. The Jews could stone a criminal deserving of capital punishment, but they were not permitted to crucify anyone. If Jesus was crucified then he would be cursed of God in their minds.

      • This, then, would destroy Jesus’ claim to be the Messiah as far as they were concerned, because God would not curse His own messiah. A crucified Jesus equals cursed of God, therefore not the Messiah.

  7. Jesus was a professor of his time. The display and articulation of his knowledge, intelligence, and wisdom cannot match that of his contemporary and even of the present sages. Jesus was far more than an intellectual. He is the fountain of wisdom. In fact, Paul himself admits that he learned most of his theology from Jesus himself when he was somewhere in Arabia, not from the Apostles. This clearly tells us that even the knowledge Paul received from Gamaliel was so insignificant compared to that of Jesus. Have you forgotten that it was Jesus who taught one of the intelligentsia of his time, one night, in the name of Nicodemus. I believe Nicodemus and Gamaliel were both teachers and perhaps are the ones who trained Paul in Judaism.

    • You make some good points! Rav Shaul (Paul) needed that time with Yeshua partly to be taught, but also to be counseled. Remember, he’d just learned he had been killing the wrong people. I can imagine he was well on his way to a severe case of PTSD! Only the counsel of the Master could stave that off and prepare him to minister to friends and relatives of those he’d just recently killed!

  8. I am so enlightened by these articles and the discussions. .thanks for these tidbits of information….one day will get to take classes.

    • These are just the highlights, Bonnie. Thank you for joining the discussion, but you’re really missing out as long as you don’t join the courses.

    • We are very happy that you’ve joined our discussion forum. Would you believe that these articles are only a taste of what Israel Bible Center has to offer? We also provide comprehensive teaching on a variety of biblical, historical, and cultural topics. You might begin with The Story of Our Hebrew Fathers: Abraham and Isaac or Jewish Insights Into Scriptures I. You’ll be amazed at the Jewish world that awaits you. Don’t delay another minute: enroll now!

  9. It is obvious none of the rulers in Jerusalem wanted anything to do with Jesus, whether for political reasons or fear of His popularity. They passed Him Jesus around and he finally ended back in the hands of Pilate who was left holding the bag, so to speak. Obviousl, by them sending him back to Pilate would not make Him happy, He obviously sent Jesus to Herod because He did not want to deal with the situation. So what Dr. Eli says, makes sense. He would take his anger for having to deal with this out on the religious authorities.

  10. As far as releasing a prisoner at Passover. Would Barabbas be considered the scapegoat version of the Old Testament practice of doing that? And Jesus the chosen sacrificial lamb?I’ve always wondered about that. Course they wouldn’t have realized that then.

  11. Luke 23:12 That very day Pilate and Herod became friends with each other, for previously they had been at enmity with each other.. We must never forget That God’s plan was for Jesus to die. Had He not then we are still in our sins and have no hope. HOPE

  12. Dr. Eli, I had read this same finding some years ago in a book written by a Greek Scholar that the inscription placed over Jesus was indeed the sacred name of God which is why the Jews wanted it changed to something else but Pilate refused. Interesting that you said.

  13. Pilot may have tried to ‘stick it to them” by having YHVH placed above the head of Jesus on the cross. But little did he know that Jesus was in fact YHVH.
    Washing his hands of guilt for authorizing the crucifixion of The Bread of Life was so prophetic!!!

  14. I’m afraid that several of the posts that argue with Dr. Eli are seriously lacking in knowledge of Scripture. For ONLY 1 example->Paul was a tent maker-highly valued for Rom’s army. Thus he was given the “honor” of Roman citizenship.
    Hal M. Pastor, Ph.D. – luv the classes.

  15. in the case of why JESUS was not taken to Rome, maybe we should look at my small contribution: 1. Jesus did not try to defend himself, which Paul did 2. after the verdict, Jesus did not appeal, which Paul did, hence, he was sent under guard to Rome.

    • Hosea, Act 22:25 -28, Paul told the tribune that he, Paul, was a citizen by birth. The soldiers would not have been allowed to flog anyone, if all people subject to Rome were citizens. Paul had to tell them, so he wouldn’t be whipped.

  16. The phrase “washing my hands of it” was not popularized by the movie the Passion of Christ. It has been around since I can remember meaning I have nothing to do with it. The phrase was used among my people when I was very young and still is used.

  17. Interesting study and comments but “Jesus”?? Really? Doctor for someone that is so spiritually mature why not use the more correct form of our Redeemers name? It must be your conscious choice as I cannot believe that you are unaware of this.

    • The even more correct form would be in Hebrew script, wouldn’t it? But If I write in Hebrew very few readers would understand. In like wise, I aim to reach more readers who might still be unfamiliar with the name Yeshua by still frequently using Jesus. It takes spiritual maturity to sacrifice correctness in order to connect with people.

  18. Jesus knew that he was born to die for ALL mankind – He was obedient to ONLY His Father! Let us rejoice in this,for were given hope to ETERNAL LIFE through His Great Sacrifice! Stay Blessed!

  19. Well they would’nt be unfamiliar if you used it more right?
    In my opinion reaching people with the truth is more important than trying to “connect” with them at their lesser maturity level in their spiritual walk.And using hebrew on an english website,c’mon,is that really a proper comparison?

  20. Stephen. First we cannot reach people until they have been called By Our Father, given to Christ. As to connection God uses our Christian light to draw them to Him They come with all kinds of levels Only those who connect with God are capable to understand the truth.

  21. Dear Professor Eli:
    Thank you for addressing the issue of Pilate and Yeshua.
    In one her recent books “Jesus of Nazareth: King of the Jews”, Paula Fredriksen, who you have interviewed in the Israel Bible Center Site, concluded that it was Jesus’ so called “triumphal entry”, an illegal act, that put Jesus to death under Roman law. By this act Jesus of Nazareth was directly defying Caesar. Now in a rare book, “On the Trial of Jesus” by Paul Winter, published 1974, Winter concludes it was not the Jewish community that sought the death penalty, but rather the Roman dominant system. My view is that Jesus before the Sanhedrin or partial Sanhedrin was more of a “hearing” than a trial; to make sure they had the right guy. The Gospels, in my view, focus on teachings that have religious truth in them. But they are not necessarily historical accounts, as they were written a couple generations after Jesus. That the “Triumphal Entry” is reported in all four Gospel gives credence to the probably the Jesus actually made a “Triumph” into Jerusalem. Its possible that Pilate would have interpreted this Triumph as like the Triumphs of great generals and emperors in Rome. Triumphs that Pilate would have witnessed personally. That Jesus did this was not only illegal, but appalling in the extreme and a brazen affront to Caesar and Rome. Pilate would have had to take direct action and demand his arrest. It would only be practical for Pilate to demand the Jewish authorities take Jesus; rather than risk the lives of his troops. Or the risk of starting a war. Pilate was known to send his troops out incognito, as Josephus reports and have some troops serve as reconnaissance in the background. Jesus was tried and convicted as a political insurrectionist. It was Pilate and Rome that were responsible for Jesus’ death.
    Thank you,
    Richard K Oas

    • That’s an interesting theory, Richard. Are there any historical sources that support it? And if it is accurate, then how would you account for the Gospels inventing such an elaborate progression of a trial for Jesus based on accusations of breaking Jewish religious law? Why wouldn’t the religious authorities that wanted Jesus dead immediately accuse Him of this treasonous act according to Roman law?

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