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John 18:31

Context

18:31 Pilate told them, 1  “Take him yourselves and pass judgment on him 2  according to your own law!” 3  The Jewish leaders 4  replied, 5  “We cannot legally put anyone to death.” 6 

1 tn Grk “Then Pilate said to them.”

2 tn Or “judge him.” For the translation “pass judgment on him” see R. E. Brown (John [AB], 2:848).

3 sn Pilate, as the sole representative of Rome in a troubled area, was probably in Jerusalem for the Passover because of the danger of an uprising (the normal residence for the Roman governor was in Caesarea as mentioned in Acts 23:35). At this time on the eve of the feast he would have been a busy and perhaps even a worried man. It is not surprising that he offered to hand Jesus back over to the Jewish authorities to pass judgment on him. It may well be that Pilate realized when no specific charge was mentioned that he was dealing with an internal dispute over some religious matter. Pilate wanted nothing to do with such matters, as the statement “Pass judgment on him according to your own law!” indicates. As far as the author is concerned, this points out who was really responsible for Jesus’ death: The Roman governor Pilate would have had nothing to do with it if he had not been pressured by the Jewish religious authorities, upon whom the real responsibility rested.

4 tn Or “the Jewish authorities”; Grk “the Jews.” Here the phrase refers to the Jewish leaders, especially members of the Sanhedrin. See the note on the phrase “Jewish leaders” in v. 12.

5 tn Grk “said to him.”

6 tn Grk “It is not permitted to us to kill anyone.”

sn The historical background behind the statement We cannot legally put anyone to death is difficult to reconstruct. Scholars are divided over whether this statement in the Fourth Gospel accurately reflects the judicial situation between the Jewish authorities and the Romans in 1st century Palestine. It appears that the Roman governor may have given the Jews the power of capital punishment for specific offenses, some of them religious (the death penalty for Gentiles caught trespassing in the inner courts of the temple, for example). It is also pointed out that the Jewish authorities did carry out a number of executions, some of them specifically pertaining to Christians (Stephen, according to Acts 7:58-60; and James the Just, who was stoned in the 60s according to Josephus, Ant. 20.9.1 [20.200]). But Stephen’s death may be explained as a result of “mob violence” rather than a formal execution, and as Josephus in the above account goes on to point out, James was executed in the period between two Roman governors, and the high priest at the time was subsequently punished for the action. Two studies by A. N. Sherwin-White (Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament, 1-47; and “The Trial of Christ,” Historicity and Chronology in the New Testament [SPCKTC], 97-116) have tended to support the accuracy of John’s account. He concluded that the Romans kept very close control of the death penalty for fear that in the hands of rebellious locals such power could be used to eliminate factions favorable or useful to Rome. A province as troublesome as Judea would not have been likely to be made an exception to this.



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