Pontius Pilate: Pawn Or Gutless Wonder
"Am I a Jew? It was your
people and your chief priests
who handed you over to me.
What is it you have done?"
Blank bumper stickers are for people who don’t want to get involved. It’s possible that Pontius Pilate would’ve had one of those on his chariot.
As governor of Judea for ten years, Pontius Pilate is something of an enigma. Though he was center-stage for the infamous and highly irregular judicial action against Jesus of Nazareth, there are shadows surrounding him.
Was he politically connected or was it his wife Procula the one wired into a power base at Rome? Did he have ambitions for the glory of higher office or was he merely a good soldier?
The cinematic portrayals of him are often one-dimensional. We see him as a spineless wimp, a troubled and vindictive man, or he is presented as a sympathetic figure caught in the squeeze of a no-win scenario.
Like every other human being he was a bit more complex than what can be captured on film. His motivations can be examined, but not fully known. His heart cannot be dissected to glean its intent.
Was he a victim of circumstance? Was he a capon of a man, emasculated by a domineering wife? Was he a hero? Was he merely a pawn in God’s grand game?
There are so many different versions of the man that as in the TV show To Tell The Truth, we ask, “Will the real Pontius Pilate please stand up?”
Saint Or Tortured Soul
The Ethiopian Coptic Church recognizes both Pontius Pilate and his wife, Procula as saints. June 25th is Saint Pilate and Procula Day.
The early church leader Tertullian believed that Pilate “was a Christian in his conscience”. The Greek Orthodox Church made his wife a saint.
Medieval legends have Pilate tortured, exiled, drowning, decapitated, or swallowed up by the earth. He is said to have compulsively washed his hands for his remaining days.
The idea that death gave him no peace took root in some quarters. Some believed the corpse of Pilate roams the earth wringing his hands in torment.
Even today that myth has its adherents. For them, Pilate is an eternal wanderer searching for cleansing waters. Haunted by the stain of blood, he is reminiscent of Lady Macbeth, who rubbed her hands together and paced castle halls at midnight saying, “Out damned spot! Out I say!”
Pontius Pilate is found in the writings of Josephus, Philo, and Cornelius Tactitus. All of these historians paint Pilate as a brutal despot who despised the Jewish people. He was determined to assert Roman supremacy.
Rome simply wanted no troubles from the frontier. Judea was a castaway section of its empire to be subdued and its resources exploited. To the disgruntlement of his superiors, Pilate often seemed to provoke his Jewish subjects to riots.
As the face of Rome in Judea, Pilate was in charge of administering all aspects of Roman law. He was head of its judicial system, collected taxes, allocated spending, and shipped the rest to Rome.
At least twice his Judean subjects pressured him by threatening to complain to Rome. According to Philo, it was one such complaint that brought the fury of Emperor Tiberius on Pilate.
In describing Pilate, Philo wrote of “his venality, his violence, his thefts, his assaults, his abusive behavior, his frequent executions of untried prisoners, and his endless savage ferocity.”
During his tenth year as governor, Pilate was confronted by a situation that required much tact and nuance. A group of Samaritans—some armed fanatics—gathered at Mt. Gerazim to recover holy artifacts from Moses supposedly buried there.
Pilate’s response was vicious. Lacking any understanding that the vast majority of the group was peaceful, he ordered a direct ambush which resulted in many deaths. He then executed a number of surviving leaders.
It was this tumultuous event that got Pilate sent back to Rome in March 37 AD. Some evidence says that he was then dispatched to Gaul, and that he committed suicide in 39 AD.
According to the historian Eusebius, Pilate remained unable to escape guilt for his role in the crucifixion of Christ. Eusebius asserts that Pilate even wrote a report about Christ and his resurrection to the Emperor Tiberius, which is astounding.
Eusebius wrote: “Tiberius referred the report to the Senate, which rejected it . . . for the old law still held good that no one could be regarded by the Romans as a god unless by vote and decree of the Senate.”
Then the Jews led Jesus from
Caiaphas to the palace of the
Roman governor. By now it was
early morning, and to avoid
ceremonial uncleanliness the
Jews did not enter the palace;
they wanted to be able to eat
the Passover. So Pilate came
out to them and asked, "What
charges are you bringing
against this man?"
"You are a king, then!" said
Pilate. Jesus answered, "You
are right in saying I am a
king. In fact, for this reason
I was born, and for this I
came into the world, to
testify to the truth. Everyone
on the side of truth listens
"What is truth?" Pilate asked.
With this he went out again to
the Jews and said, "I find no
basis for a charge against him."
What does God’s Word have to say about Pontius Pilate?
Pilate saw Jesus as innocent but he tried to pass the buck. He attempted to have the Jewish petitioners deal with Christ, but they were determined to garner a death sentence for Jesus.
Capital punishment required the authority of Rome, so the chief priests and teachers of the law persisted. After a cursory inquiry, Pilate declared he found no fault in Jesus, hoping that would be the end of the matter.
Passions intensified as misguided and dubious religious leaders stirred the pot. Pilate discovered that Jesus was a Galilean, which was King Herod’s territory. Seeing a jurisdictional loophole Pilate sent him off to be judged by Herod, who was in Jerusalem at the time.
Herod, being a shady and manipulative operator, engaged in a bout of mockery at Christ’s expense, then returned the prisoner to Pilate.
The Roman examined the Nazarene in more depth. At one point of the questioning, Pilate seemed entirely perplexed by Jesus, especially when the answers spoke of kings, kingdoms, and truth.
“What is truth?” Pilate asked. We can’t hear the inflection in his voice, but my view is that he was mystified and nearly exasperated.
Unbeknownst to the governor, just the night before, Jesus had revealed a timeless response to that query. It was in an Upper Room while he was celebrating a Passover meal with his friends.
Jesus told them, “I am the way and the truth and the life.”
The statement remains profoundly real and loaded with mystery. It can generate levels of animosity that is a mirror reflection of the hatred the man of Galilee experienced in the final days of his earthly life.
However, comprehension—either by individuals or universally—is not a requirement for truth to be truth. The humble carpenter turned rabbi on trial in front of Pilate—wearing a royal purple robe placed on his shoulders by Herod—was and is truth.
After that exchange, Pilate had found no reason or precedent to execute Jesus. In an attempt to pacify the unruly crowd, he had him flogged.
The religious leaders remained intransigent. Pilate took a stroll down denial lane. A bloodlust was rising in the mob, yet he appealed to it for sympathy.
Remembering the custom of releasing a prisoner at Passover, Pilate wanted to set Jesus free and made that offer repeatedly. At the behest of the chief priests, those gathered as spectators, screamed in favor of a murderer and insurrectionist named Barabbas.
Mobocracy ruled. To satisfy the crowd, in an act of pure expediency, Pilate set Barabbas free and turned Jesus over to soldiers to be crucified.
C.S. Lewis Quote
A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things that Jesus said wouldn’t be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic on the level with the man who says he’s a poached egg—or else he would be the devil of hell; you must make your choice.
Either this was, and is the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a demon; or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God. But don’t come up with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great moral teacher. He hasn’t left that alternative to us.
Will God's grace always fill in the gaps of our failings & mistakes?
Pontius Pilate had to make a decision about Jesus. Every human being who hears the gospel story has the same requirement.
What is our verdict? What is our judgment of Jesus? What do we do with Jesus? Do we treat him as a lunatic on the level of a man who says he’s a pouched egg, or do we treat him as the son of God, our Lord and Savior?
Like Pilate, many people today don’t possess the moral courage to stand for Jesus. For some it’s too easy to go along with the crowd, or to use the multitude wrongs of the church as an excuse not to follow Christ.
Others are steeped in pluralism and new age spirituality, so accept Jesus on the buffet plan, picking and choosing what they believe about him. Some reject the gospel for academic reasons couched in human-centric enlightenment.
Pilate saw Jesus as innocent. Reading the Biblical accounts we get a glimpse of his angst as he struggled to deliver a ruling that’d result in Christ’s release. Squeezed by the pliers of political and religious forces, he acquiesced. His notoriety is that he had all the intestinal fortitude of a jellyfish.
What do we say? Was Pontius Pilate simply a pawn or more darkly, was he a gutless wonder?
Here’s my best conclusion: The tumult and unrest of his times surely influenced him. When put to the test, when push came to shove, he capitulated to take the course of least resistance.
Therein lies a lesson for us: The intrigues and pressures of our days have some sway on us, but in my understanding of Scripture, there can be no middle of the road, wishy-washy, blank bumper sticker faith.
If Jesus is Lord and Savior then we must stand strong, confident that grace will always fill in the gaps of our failings and mistakes.
- Wanted Man
Wanted Man a.k.a. Ken R. Abell, seeks to be a blessing to others. He's a rake, a rambler, and a teller of tales who understands that there is strength in a story well told and well lived. To learn more, inquire or schedule him, visit this web site.
- A Singularly Significant Story
Once upon a time, driving home from church, a little boy remarked, "The preacher said that God is so big he could hold the whole world in his hand. Is that true?" The mother answered, "Yes, that's true, honey."
- Before You Accuse Me
Before You Accuse Me was written by Ellas McDaniel a.k.a Bo Diddley. It first appeared on the rock and roll icon's self-titled debut album in 1958. Creedence Clearwater Revival popularized it by including it on their 1970 Cosmo's Factory . . .
- To Quit Or Not To Quit
Failure only becomes defeat when we surrender to it, wallowing in its muck of self-pity. Our natural inclination is to give up instead of getting up, dusting off, and pressing on. Quit is a voice that speaks loud and clear. . .