Ecce Homo

Ecce Homo: Behold the Man (John 19:5) | An Exegesis

Introduction 

Ecce Homo (VUL)
Ἰδοὺ ὁ ἄνθρωπος (SBLGNT) 
Behold the Man (RSV)

These were the words of Pontius Pilate to the Jews during the trial when he showed Jesus “wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe.” Fredrikson (1985) describes the scenario as “the most intense and provocative encounters in all Scripture” leading to Jesus’ death.  We could imagine how appalling the situation was to Jesus’ disciples who witnessed this tragic and shameful occasion. They were about to lose their “Teacher” (John 1:38), and their “Lord” (John 1:23). Perhaps they might be asking: How could our “Rabbi” be treated as a criminal? Or, did our long-awaited “Messiah” (John 1: 41) deserve to die?  To an even greater degree, the shameful episode would have a tremendous effect on Jesus himself who “must have presented a sorry sight with his beaten face and the blood oozing from the thorns” (Osborne, 2007).  Surely, the torment and the humiliation imposed on him had caused him physical, psychological, emotional, and spiritual distress. 

Pilate’s proclamation, “Ecce Homo” (Behold the Man), according to Binz (1955) “is rich with multi-layered meaning.”  He is “displaying Jesus as an unfortunate and broken man who should not be taken seriously.” But the basic question is: What did Pilate mean by “Ecce Homo” when he presented Jesus to the Jews? We begin this short investigation by looking into the details of the text under study.

Delimitation of the Text

Literally, the text in John 19:5 belongs to the passion narrative in Chapters 18-19.  Various scholars such as Brown, Dodd, Moloney, and Malina and Rohrbaugh divide this section into three main parts (Vargas, 2013). The first part, John 18:1-27, narrates the arrest of and the interrogation of Jesus. The second part, John 18:28-19:16a, is the central scene which  reports the accusation of Jesus before Pilate. The last part, John19:16b-42, tells the execution of Jesus on the cross and his burial. 

In the tripartite division, Pilate’s exclamation “Ecce Homo” in John 19:5 belongs to the second part of the passion narrative. Scholars such as Brown, Whitacre, Burge, Blomberg, Keener, and Osborne observe a chiastic pattern in John 18:28-19:6a with emphasis on two stages, inside stage and outside stage, where the trial was being held (Vargas, 2013).

A. Outside: The Jews demand Jesus’ death (18:28-32) margin-left: 10px
—-B. Inside: Pilate questions Jesus about his kingship (18:33-38a)
——–C. Outside: Pilate finds Jesus not guilty (18: 38b-40)
———– D. Inside: The soldiers scourge Jesus (19:1-3)
——–C’. Outside: Pilate finds Jesus not guilty (19:4-8)
—-B’. Inside: Pilate talks with Jesus about Power (19:9-11)
A’.  Outside: The Jews obtain Jesus’ death (19:12-16a). 

The text narrates how the Jewish leaders took Jesus from Caiaphas to the praetorium of the Roman governor (John 18:28a). They did this outside praetorium to avoid ritual defilement (v.28b). Pilate came out to them and asked about the charges they brought against the man Jesus (v.29). They did not reply to the question of Pilate outrightly but instead responded to him in a hypothetical statement: “If this man were not an evildoer, we would not have handed him over” (v. 30). Pilate told them to take Jesus to themselves so that they may judge him by their own law (v. 31) to which they objected because they have no right to execute (v.32). 

Now inside the praetorium, Pilate came face to face with Jesus for the first time and asked him if he were the king of the Jews (v. 33). Jesus responded by questioning Pilate as to where he got the idea about him as king (v.34). Pilate responded to Jesus again with a question, this time regarding his citizenship. Pilate insisted that it was the Jewish people and the chief priests who handed him over to him (v.35). Jesus had now the confidence to tell Pilate that he was a king (v. 37) but his kingdom is not of this world (v.36). Jesus further elaborated that the reason he was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth and those who side on the truth listen to him (v. 37). 

Pilate went outside and declared to the Jews gathered there that he had no basis for a charge against Jesus (v. 38b). In short, to Pilate, Jesus was not guilty. But since it was the custom to release one prisoner at the time of the Passover, he offered them to release Jesus ‘the king of the Jews’ (v. 39). But they responded vehemently to release Barabbas instead (v. 40). 

Inside, Jesus had experienced physical abuse by the soldiers. After Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged by the soldiers (19:1),  they put a crown of thorns on his head (v. 2) and clothed him in purple robe (v. 2). They slapped his face and in a resounding chorus, the people shouted “Hail, king of the Jews!” (v.3). 

Pilate again went outside telling the people that he found no basis to charge Jesus (v. 4). With his bruised body caused by the soldiers’ abuses upon him inside, Jesus came out wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. Pilate introduced him to the people: “Behold the man!” (v. 5). The chief priests and their officials were shouting, convincing Pilate to crucify Jesus. But, Pilate expressed once again his previous decision that he had found no basis for a charge against Jesus (v. 6). With the insistence of the Jewish leaders, Pilate became more afraid (v. 8). 

Thus, he came inside the praetorium, and interrogated Jesus once again (v. 9) of his origin. Jesus did not respond but when he told him that he has power to free or crucify him (v. 10), he told him that Pilate’s power was given to him from above and his accusers were actually the ones guilty of a greater sin (v. 11).  

With Jesus’ answer, Pilate, for another time found no reason to charge the accused. The Jewish leaders kept on insisting to crucify Jesus. They even threatened Pilate that if he would free Jesus, he must be an opponent of Caesar (v. 12). Again, he brought Jesus outside and had Jesus sit on the judge’s seat (v. 13), as if their king (v. 14). The people however could not accept such a gesture imposed on Jesus and insisted forcefully to remove him from the judgment seat. They believed that only Caesar was their king (v. 15). To avoid further commotion, Pilate finally gave in to their request.  He handed Jesus over to be crucified (v. 16a).

Clearly, the text in John 19:5 happened outside the praetorium when Pilate confronted the Jews after Jesus was physically abused by the soldiers inside the palace. He presented Jesus to them as guilty of no charge. Jesus claimed that he was a king but his kingship was not of this world.  Pilate knew that Jesus’ claim would not threaten the empire. Pilate was sure that Jesus was innocent. But, as the certainty of Jesus’ innocence becomes increasingly clear to him, there was obviously an inner struggle in Pilate. As Fredrickson (1985) notes, “One can feel the vacillation and uncertainty in Pilate as he moves back and forth, in and out, from the quiet, probing conversation with Jesus in the Praetorium to angry political pressure of the Jews outside who are demanding the death of the Man he faces.” Morgan (1951) commented on Pilate’s action on this scene in this way: “What was Pilate doing? He had violated all justice in having Him scourged, and yet down in the heart and mind of him was the hope that the scourged and lacerated and thorn crowned and bruised, and bleeding Man would appeal to their pity.” Apparently, “Pilate’s appeal to the Jews’ finer feelings goes unheeded” (Ellis, 1965).  Why is this so? A glimpse on how Jesus was introduced in the Gospel of John can clarify this matter. 

Jesus in the Gospel of John 

Pilate’s presentation of Jesus as the king of the Jews came after Jesus’ confession of his kingship. With his crown of thorn and purple robe donned to him by the soldiers, Pilate told the Jews, “Behold the Man” (Ecce Home). Such a statement has a rich theological underpinning in the gospel of John. Smith (1999) pointed out that “in typical Johannine fashion, and with a touch of irony, Pilate is saying more than he could possibly know theologically.”

Pilate referred to Jesus as the Man (Homo). The interjection “Behold!” (Ecce) gives a “peculiar vivacity by bidding the reader or hearer to attend to what is said” (Labuschagne, 1973). Both in the Hebrew Bible and NT Greek, the interjection “Behold!” (Ἰδοὺ in Greek, הנה in Hebrew) can be used to point out to people (Cf. Gen 30:3, Matt 12:2, 47; 13:3; 24:26; Mark 3:32; Luke 2:34), or to call attention (Cf. Mark 15:35 Luke 22:10; John 4:35; 1 Cor 15:51; 2 Cor 5:17; James 5:9; Jude 1:14; Rev 1:7; 9:12; 11:14; 16:15; 22:7). In the case of John 19:5, Pilate was perhaps telling the Jews to gaze at the “Man” Jesus, to focus their attention on him, and to have a sight on the one who claimed to be their King whose kingdom is not of this earth. We may ask however, who is this “Man,” whom Pilate wanted the Jews to gaze at? 

Let it be known that the author of the gospel of John starts by calling Jesus as the “Word who became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14), and this “Word was with God” and in fact, God Himself. Hence, Jesus as the “Word is God” (John 1:1). Jesus is also the “Lamb of God” (John 1:29) whom John the Baptist acclaims as one “who takes away the sin of the world!” When Andrew came to Simon after his encounter with Jesus, he said of him as “the Messiah (John 1:41). In John 3:29, Jesus is the “Bridegroom,” and in John 4:10, he is theLiving Water.” The woman in John 4:42 believed that Jesus is “the Savior of the world,” and when the people saw the sign that he had done, they called him the “Prophet” (John 6:14).

Furthermore, in the gospel of John, Jesus reveals himself as “I AM” (Ἐγώ εἰμι).  He says: “I am the Bread of Life” in John 6:35 sent from heaven to give life; “I am the Light of the World” in John 8:12 who guides people towards “the light of life;” “I am the door” in John 10:9 through which the sheep enter; “I am the Good Shepherd” in John 10:11 who knows the sheep and lays down his life for them; “I am the resurrection, and the life” in John 11:25; “I am the way, the truth, and the life in John 14:6; “I am the true vine” in John 15:1. These claims of Jesus only reveal that He is the great “I am” (Ἐγώ εἰμι).

In the OT, “I am” (Ἐγώ εἰμι) is often used for the divine name of God who reveals himself to Moses in Exod 3:13-15: 

Then Moses said to God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I am has sent me to you.’” God also said to Moses, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’: this is my name for ever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations (RSV). 

Interestingly, “I am” (אהיה = ’Ehyeh in Hebrew and Ἐγώ εἰμι in Greek) is the name for the “LORD” ( יהוה‎ = YHWH), the God of the universe. He reveals himself to Moses as eternal – meaning, no beginning and no end. He simply “is.” With Jesus’ claim as “I AM” the Bread of Life,” “the Light of the World,” “the Door,” “the Good Shepherd,” “the Resurrection, and the Life,” “the Way, the Truth, and the Life,” and “the True Vine,” he considers himself in equal footing with the God of Moses. Hence, he should be claiming that he is the God who reveals himself to Moses in the burning bush (Meier, 1991). It is nothing less than a theophany – an appearance of God – the same God who appeared to Moses on Sinai. By referring himself as “I am,” he is revealing his divine identity as the LORD coming in person (Pitre, 2016). 

Jesus as a Man had simply been “a great moral teacher, a gentle rabbi who did nothing more than urge his devoted followers to love God and one another, or an itinerant philosopher” (Ehrman, 2014). This would scarcely have been seen as a threat to the Romans to the point of nailing him on the cross since great moral teachers were not crucified – unless their teachings were considered subversive (Ibid.). But as we have seen, with his acclamation as “I AM,” Jesus considered himself God, as the Jews succinctly told Pilate: “he has made himself the Son of God” (v. 7). Such title of Jesus in the Gospel of John means that Jesus’ life and personhood is the manifestation of God in flesh (John 1:14).  Henceforth,  Jesus as the “Son of God” literally means that He is God. This is the obvious reason why the Jews, despite Pilate’s insistence that he saw no charge against him, wanted him crucified. In the passion narrative of John, Pilate’s not guilty verdict on Jesus was based on his political discernment. Unfortunately, the Jews’ double cry for crucifixion was motivated not by political issue, but an issue on religion (Brown, 1994). 

An Appeal to Religion

The Jews insisted on the law which served as the basis for their call to crucify Jesus. In John 19:7, they told Pilate: “We have a law, and by that law he ought to die, because he has made himself the Son of God.” What is this law to which the Jews are referring? 

The book of Leviticus points out that a person “who blasphemes the name of the Lord shall be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him; the sojourner as well as the native, when he blasphemes the Name, shall be put to death” (24:16). The very purpose of such law is for the Israelites to live a holy lifestyle in conformity with the holy nature of God (Knohl, 2007).  Jesus should have been stoned to death but the Jews insisted that he should be crucified.

Deuteronomy 21:22-23 provides a law applied to a hanged man. It says: 

“And if a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree,his body shall not remain all night upon the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is accursed by God; you shall not defile your land which the Lord your God gives you for an inheritance.

In the text presented above, hanging apparently was not a method of execution but was done only after the death of a criminal. Maxwell (1987) explains that “the lifeless body would be hung publicly to call attention to the gravity of breaking God’s law. As soon as the public had seen the effect of sin upon his life, the corpse was buried, always before sunset on the day of the hanging.” 

In Jesus’ case, he was not stoned to death as prescribed in Lev 24:16, and then hanged on a tree as stipulated in Deut 21:22-23. Jesus was put to death by the terrible method of crucifixion – a shameful punishment in the Graeco-Roman world (Vargas, 2013). Neyrey (1999) says that crucifixion was a punishment appropriate for slaves, bandits, prisoners of war, and revolutionaries. It was a form of a degradation ritual labeling an accused a shameful person.  The Religious leaders considered Jesus shameful because of his blasphemous claims. He who was considered by his followers as their “Teacher,” “Lord,” and “Messiah,” and who claimed to be the revelation of the Father, was crucified because he was a threat to the religious leaders of that time who were scandalized by his claims. “He seemed to be putting himself on an equal footing with the living God himself” (Ratzinger, 2012). 

Conclusion 

We began this brief investigation by locating the text in John 19:5 from its immediate literary context. As scholars suggested, Pilate’s exclamation “Ecce Homo” in John 19:5 belongs to the second part of the tripartite division of the passion narrative in John 18-19. As narrated, it was exclaimed by Pilate outside the praetorium after telling the people that he found no basis to charge Jesus (v. 4). But before it happened, Jesus was physically abused by the soldiers inside the palace. He then came out wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe.  Surely, he was laughed at and mocked by the witnesses. The chief priests and their officials were convincing Pilate to crucify Jesus. Although he found no reason to indict him, Pilate gave in to their request. 

Jesus was convicted to death not so much for political reasons but of an issue on religion. As the Jews succinctly told Pilate: “he has made himself the Son of God” (v. 7). As such, Jesus literally meant that He is God. Thus, the Jews accused him of blasphemy. The Gospel of John testifies to previous incidents when Jesus is accused of blasphemy during his public ministry (John 10:30-33). The one who blasphemes God deserves death as the Law commands. In the first century Judea, the appropriate punishment deserved by Jesus was crucifixion. Against this background, the expression “Ecce Homo” means a lot to us believers of Jesus. 

First,  Pilate presents Jesus as the Man of Sorrows (Brown, 1994). Pilate was aware that Jesus did not commit any mistakes. Jesus simply shows the love of the Father concretely in his life, words, and signs. Even up to his passion, Jesus shows that the one who truly loves is always ready to experience sorrows and pains. 

Second, the expression “Ecce Homo” in John 19:5 serves as part of the Christian message: “Jesus is the perfection of humanity tragically portrayed at the point of his self-sacrifice” (Ellis, 1965). Despite the humiliation and pain he experienced, Jesus remained calm and disposed for he knew that all these things would happen to fulfill the Father’s will. 

Third, Jesus is in reality ‘the Man,’ the manifestation of God, and the Word became flesh (Osborne, 2007). The Gospel of John had been very consistent with its portrayal of Jesus. His words, signs, life, and ministry manifest the Father. Hence, “He is the Christ, the Son of God” (John 20:31). The author of the Gospel of John says that those who believe that Jesus is the Christ may have life in Jesus.

Fourth, “Jesus is the suffering Son of Man on his way to glory” (Binz, 1955). The story of Jesus did not end on his death on the cross. The climax of Jesus’ life is his Resurrection from the dead. It is the resurrection that gives meaning to his suffering and death. It is the resurrection that gives meaning to the cross. Paul succinctly upholds that “. . . we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men (1 Cor 1:23-24). This became possible because of the Resurrection, otherwise Jesus’ death on the cross would have been the same as that of others who were also crucified during his time. 

Finally, when Pilate exclaims “Ecce Homo,” Jesus was wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe which signifies his character as Messiah-king “whose power comes from God and not from human being” (Vargas, 2013). According to Vargas (2013), Jesus as a king, “is a shepherd of his people who laid down his life for his sheep. His power is exhibited in nonviolent action.” Vargas (2013) further elaborates that Jesus’ kingship, “which is not of this world, is motivated by his love for his friends.” 

In conclusion, our devotion to the “Ecce Homo” should stir us to gaze at Jesus, the incarnate Son of God who embraced human sufferings, pains, and humiliation, to let humanity feel that God loves and cares for His people. Thus, Jesus’ suffering which led to his death was not the end of his mission on earth – it was just a beginning of a new life of his followers with Him – a life enthralled by self-sacrifice and selfless love. 

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This article was written by Rev. Fr. Rodel Magin, OSA, SThD. He belongs to the Augustinian Province of Santo Niño de Cebu – Philippines and is currently assigned at the University of San Agustin – Iloilo.

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