What Pilate Knew: Lessons from one of the Gospel’s most misunderstood figures
A central figure of the Passion narratives and one of the best historically established figures of the Christian Testament, Pontius Pilate rarely escapes caricature in portrayals of him. In the Passion narratives themselves, Pilate veers between being amazed by Jesus and being fearful of him. In film and literature, we have seen Pilate as a legalistic bureaucrat (“King of Kings”; 1961), as a haughty nihilist (The Last Temptation of Christ; novel, 1955) and as wearily exasperated to the point of boredom (“The Last Temptation of Christ”; film, 1988). Year after year throughout countless Holy Week observances, those portrayals have conspired to make Pilate himself, and what his presence in the Gospels can teach us, remain opaque. Yet this underappreciated character has something to tell us, and a careful reflection on his place in the Gospels sheds some light on the confrontation between church and state brought to life in his encounter with Jesus.
Pilate in History
Pilate’s historicity cuts both ways as we consider his role in the earliest moments of Christian history. We are very sure of some things about him, yet we do not even know his praenomen, the name he was called by his family and most intimate friends. Important details were confirmed by the excavation of a stone fragment in Caesarea in 1961 inscribed with his name and identifying him as the prefect of Judea. This finding confirmed the accounts of contemporary Roman historians Tacitus and Josephus that Pilate governed Judea from 26 to 37.
Jewish and Christian historians offer a more complete picture, though it is worth considering their probable biases against a Roman governor. Philo of Alexandria describes a Pilate who flamboyantly provoked Jewish uprisings by mounting emblems in honor of Emperor Tiberius on his palace. Tertullian imagined Pilate later so overcome by guilt that he was “himself in his secret heart already a Christian.”
In the sixth century, the Coptic Church proclaimed Pilate a saint and a martyr, perhaps persuaded by an apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus and its “Acts of Pilate” dated to the mid-fourth century. There we find Pontius Pilate bullied by the crowd, the priests and the Levites into executing Jesus—even assenting to their desire that Jesus should be crucified though Jewish law demanded stoning. Though it is more richly and colorfully detailed than the accounts of the canonical Gospels (and even more adamant in its assignment of blame to the Jewish people), the Acts of Pilate tracks with the familiar accounts in the most vitally important detail:
Thy nation has charged thee with being a king. On this account I sentence thee: first to be scourged, according to the enactment of venerable kings, and then to be fastened on the cross in the garden whence thou wast seized (Acta Pil. 10).
This fantastic account’s ending finds a peevishly regretful Pilate and his wife distracted for the rest of the day, awed by a miraculous eclipse. It also depicts an earlier, Palm Sunday encounter between Jesus and a Pilate incredulous that the high priests would have him condemned for healing the sick.
The temptations throughout Christian history to canonize Pilate or to depict him as a hostage to Jewish villainy have the same unsavory history. The Gospel of Nicodemus underscores the most difficult portion of the canonical Passion narrative from a perspective of Jewish-Christian dialogue, one so historically prolific that the Catholic Church spent most of the 20th century disclaiming it—“His blood be upon us, and upon our children.”
This is yet another way that history imposes itself on how we see Pilate—as a Gentile among the Jewish priesthood and before a Jewish mob both bent on bloodletting. The effect is to produce both Pilates with whom we are familiar—the imperious Roman governor coaxed toward the sought-after crucifixion and the weak Pilate frightened by the crowd and cornered into doing something he later would regret.
Once we cast Pilate in either of those roles, we indulge that unsavory history. For all we do know about him, the Pilate of history becomes as lost to us as the real faces in that crowd. In both cases, our limited knowledge yields to narratives driven by political or theological agendas. The historical persons—Pilate and those in the crowd—quickly become lost. We have a duty to try to recover them, and the church has done much already in the name of Jewish-Catholic dialogue to rectify how we see that crowd. Pilate still awaits recovery.
The Pilate who can be real to us today is one documented in the historical record and who speaks to us in the way the Christian tradition has presented him canonically through the Gospels for centuries. Rather happily, that Pilate can tell us something.
Pilate, Church and State
The Passion narratives invite a reflection on the nature of the relationship between the Roman prefect and a religious community in Judea. Roman conquerors were known for a relative magnanimity, frequently treating conquered peoples more like allies and inviting them to be contributors to the empire. In most cases, all that Rome demanded from a conquered people was the payment of taxes and at least some deference to the Roman gods. It was that last condition that created an unusual situation in Judea.
Zealously devoted to the God of Abraham, the Jewish people of course refused homage to the Roman gods and, indeed, won an accommodation from Caesar Augustus. But the relationship of Rome to the conquered people of Judea would remain testy, prone to outbreaks of sporadic violence and outright revolt even as they were permitted to worship YHWH in a temple unadorned by Roman idols.
In these circumstances we meet Pontius Pilate in his Passion narrative interview with Jesus. The narrative details of the proceeding are important: Jesus has been arrested by the Jewish authorities. John is somewhat vague about Jesus’ questioning before Caiaphas and the high priests. The synoptic accounts are more specific to find the chief priests, elders and scribes accusing Jesus of having threatened to destroy the temple (Mk 14:58; Mt 26:61) and of having announced himself to be the Christ (Lk 22:67). All four canonical accounts make it clear that Jesus’ crime is a religious crime, a Jewish crime and not a matter of Roman law. He is brought before Pilate as a criminal by the priests (Jn 18:30), and Pilate’s bewildered reply sets the tone for the episode: “Take him yourselves, and try him by your own Law.”
In the Gospel of John, we await the crowd at 19:8 to offer the clearest legal justification for Jesus’ execution (“We have a Law, and according to that Law he ought to be put to death because he has claimed to be Son of God”). The synoptic accounts give that credit to the priests: “We found this man misleading our people; he opposes the payment of taxes to Caesar and maintains that he is the Messiah, a king” (Lk 23:2). In either event, this is a thin pretext to engage the personal attention of the Roman prefect. In every account, Pilate’s reluctance is palpable.
Pilate may come across as opportunistic, fearful, vacillating or reluctant, depending on which account we read or what the reader hopes to find. But it is worth considering that we should find Pilate to be a good Roman in all of these accounts, a model governor whose treatment of the questions raised by Jesus’ arrest even to the point of washing his hands can teach us about the limits of politics. Pilate was a Roman, unmolded by Jewish cultural or religious experiences, roused on a Friday to meet with Jewish leaders and a criminal whose crimes against Judaism held no interest for him. Pontius Pilate never, so far as we know, heard Jesus teach or experienced a miracle. Arguably, Pilate is the most neutral, disinterested person we meet in the Gospel. He has little interest, no stake in this Jewish matter. He enters a cultural or religious dispute as a secular official with a sort of neutrality it would take a Christian world nearly two millennia to achieve. Pilate seems to hold an almost Jeffersonian position that Jesus “neither picks Rome’s pocket nor break’s Rome’s leg.” To gain Pilate’s assent to crucifixion, the high priests must find a different argument.
Jesus “opposes the payment of taxes to Caesar,” as Luke tells it. That is a good start. But John’s account engages more prickly issues. Pilate asks Jesus almost casually, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Even this prospect of kingship little engages Pilate, and his response to Jesus confirms it: “Am I a Jew? Your nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me; what have you done?” Pilate still sees no role here for a Roman official, and once Jesus tells him that “my kingship is not from this world,” Pilate reaches a conclusion: “I find no crime in him.”
Indeed, the Johannine account offers us no one moment when it becomes clear that Pilate sees Jesus as a threat to Rome. None of the accounts does. In every account, it is the crowd whose denial of the spiritual substance of what is happening transforms the event, determines its outcome. The crowd’s cry, “We have no king but Caesar!” flattens, collapses Jesus’ trial within the secular horizon of Pilate’s authority. Pilate’s path now is clear, perhaps because he remembered Cicero’s advice for Roman governors: a governor’s “highest object” is “the greatest happiness of the governed.” Hardly a modern idea, this was a thoroughly Roman principle.
Had Pilate found in Jesus a threat to Rome, Jesus surely would have been crucified. Had the crowd pleaded for Jesus’ release, the accounts make it plain that Pilate would have been happy to release him. Even after he has condemned Jesus, Pilate seems perturbed enough by the crowd to provoke and enflame them with his inscription, “the King of the Jews,” refusing to change it (“What I have written I have written”) probably because he knew it would upset them. This is the Pilate we recognize from Philo.
For whatever else Christians may have wanted or may want to say about the man who condemned Jesus to the cross, Pilate offers an exemplary model of a Roman governor.
A Liturgical Pilate
Ann Wroe’s Pontius Pilate (2001) described him as, “in a way, the first priest of the Eucharist.” For Wroe, Pilate took [Christ], showed him to the people, proclaimed him and broke him.” Pilate enacts the action of the Eucharist before the crowd. Wroe’s account is as poetic as it is provocative, but she offers an even more intriguing thought about how we may learn something about politics from this brief episode in Pilate’s life: “This is how ordinary men must deal with a God who is close enough to touch.” Pilate reminds us of our insufficiency, our powerlessness next to God.
There is another sense in which Pilate’s actions were “liturgical,” a word in fact derived from ancient an Greek word that may be translated as “public work.” Pilate conducted himself in public business aloof from the religious dispute before him. He sought neither to stoke nor to placate the crowd for his own benefit. He pursued “the greatest happiness of the governed.”
The episode reminds us how the Catholic political tradition regards politics as a realm of prudence, not perfection. Jesus reminded Pilate that he shares insignificantly in the power of divine government (Jn 19:11). The ruler’s function is to govern imperfectly the imperfect people who are governed. Pilate’s authority is contingent. Even his power to do something so mundane as to condemn a criminal depends on a source of law and authority that lies beyond the reach of the mere brute force that could scourge and crucify a man. So also his authority to free an innocent man is contingent on the possibilities of a sinful world.
Perhaps not a saint, still Pontius Pilate is an icon of the Christian political tradition. He offers a caution against our most dangerous hopes for what we might achieve through politics. The best political leader hardly could have done better than Pilate managed to do with the angry crowd, and a worse political leader would have tried to force his point of view on them.
Pontius Pilate almost certainly died without knowing that his judgment of Jesus was the most important thing he ever did or that he would become a historic figure. Whether he would have or could have wanted it, his role in this most important event in Christian history offers a surprising but durable reminder that his earthly position was not so powerful as the truths about political life that he can represent for us.