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How shall we talk about Pontius Pilate?
The first time Pontius Pilate really came to life for me was in the 1973 film adaptation of “Jesus Christ Superstar.” Actor Barry Dennen originated the role on the recording, and on stage, and in the film. I’ll never forget his entrance: the hot, dusty desert locations, scored with the screaming electric guitar riffs and full-throated choruses suddenly give way to a cool, breezy palace scene, a quiet acoustic guitar, and a soothing British accent. Pilate is clearly one of the elites. His first song—“Pilate’s Dream”—is a confession, a portent of the trouble Jesus is about cause him. He is melancholy. He is sympathetic, and my sympathy only grew for him as I saw Jesus’ unwillingness to defend himself. Pilate’s hands were tied.
How shall we talk about Pontius Pilate?
Let’s begin with information drawn from historical sources, including inferences based on what we know about the Roman nobility of his era.
Pilate was born into a wealthy family, right around the same time Jesus was born into relative poverty. Pilate, most likely, was born in Rome. There are not many historical clues about his early life, but we know one thing: as a teenager, Pilate did what most Roman boys did when they were teenagers: he joined the army. The armies of Rome were—and remain—legendary for their flawless and harsh discipline. If a legion lost a battle in a way that brought dishonor, the troops were punished, sometimes through a practice called “decimation”—they would kill every tenth soldier. This is the schooling Pilate had for leadership.
Pilate showed himself early on to be harsh, ruthless, and unafraid of spilling blood, which is probably how he rose to the rank of commanding officer. Pilate—Pilatus in Latin—is not a family name, but a nickname. It means, “skilled with a javelin.” Pilate was one of the elite “equestrians,” soldiers who rode on horseback in battle.
His success in command caught the attention of the Emperor Tiberius, who, in the year 26 CE (AD), appointed Pilate to be governor (or ‘prefect’) of Judea. Scholars have referred to the position as “both an honor and a curse.” Rome was a hated occupying ruling power, and the Judeans had never accepted Roman rule. They maintained their own power structures, both royal (the King of the Jews, a puppet-ruled who stayed in power at Rome’s pleasure), and religious (the power structures of the Temple priesthood and of the Pharisees). Governing the province was considered the most challenging post in all of Rome’s vast conquered territories.
Still, the prefect was Rome’s ultimate authority in Judea. The role was primarily a military one. The armies stationed in Judea acted as peacekeepers and police force, and the prefect oversaw the structures that collected taxes and executed justice. Pontius Pilate was the Emperor’s legal representative in Judea, judge and jury. It is that role that brought Jesus and Pilate together, in the scenes we have read in our scripture passages today. This part of Pilate’s biography is only attested to in the gospels and other early Christian writings. We will return to this in a few minutes.
Historical records show that, shortly after the crucifixion of Jesus, Pilate enraged the Judean people by taking money from the Temple to support a misbegotten building project. Pilate built an aqueduct over a cemetery; to Jews, any water that flowed through the aqueduct was considered impure because it flowed over graves. The aqueduct was useless because most of the population refused to drink its water. When the populace protested openly, he had them beaten and killed. The aqueduct fiasco was only the latest of a series of actions in which Pilate—either deliberately or ignorantly—flouted Jewish customs and disrupted their exercise of their religion.
The savage brutality with which Pilate continued to rule Judea brought an ever-increasing number of complaints to Rome. Known for his “vindictiveness and furious tempter” [Philo], Pilate was accused of abusing both his power and his people. The new Emperor, Caligula, removed him from his post in the year 37 CE.
This was not like the President of the United States asking for the resignation of a member of the cabinet. To be removed from a post by the Emperor was not only humiliating; it was a sign that your life was in danger. While there is no direct evidence, there is a strong tradition that Pilate did what most disgraced Roman officials did: he killed himself. For a Roman citizen of the noble classes, this was considered the honorable way out of a life that had come to dishonor and shame.[i]
How shall we talk about Pontius Pilate?
Pilate is a prominent figure in the crucifixion story in all four gospels—so prominent he has earned himself a place in the creeds proclaimed around the world every Sunday. Jesus “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried.” But the portrait of Pontius Pilate that emerges in the gospels, and particularly in the gospel of John, deviates considerably from what the historical record shows.
As our passage begins, the religious authorities take Jesus to Pilate’s headquarters. Pilate goes outside to speak with them. In their first exchange, Pilate learns nothing except that they believe Jesus to be a criminal, and wish to see him executed. It is only in Pilate’s conversation with Jesus that he asks the loaded, and all-revealing question: “Are you the King of the Jews?”
Remember, only a few days earlier Jesus had entered into Jerusalem, riding on a donkey, to the shouts of the crowd: “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord— the King of Israel!” [12:12-19]. And for Jesus to either claim that title for himself, or to refuse to deny it when others applied that title to him—that was an act of treason under Roman law.
In every other gospel, when asked the question, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answers, “You say so.” In John’s gospel, a kind of dance ensues.
Jesus: Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?
Pilate: I have no dog in this game. Come clean. What have you done?
Jesus: I have a kingdom, all right. But it’s so far removed from anything in this world you can’t even imagine it.
Pilate: So, you are a king?
Jesus: That’s you talking. Here’s why I’m here: to tell the truth.
Pilate: What is truth?
At this point Pilate throws up his hands and goes out to the assembled crowds, including the religious leaders, and, for the first time but not the last, says, “I find no case against him.” He offers to release an insurrectionist named Barabbas. The crowd refuses.
What is truth?
The dance continues.
In the one moment in our reading that may come the closest to showing the Pilate reflected in the historical record, Pilate has Jesus flogged. This was done with a whip with metal bearings in the ends. It was against the law to whip anyone more than 40 times, because 40 lashes was considered a death sentence. The common practice with dangerous criminals, (such as traitors and insurrectionists) was to whip them 39 times, just one lash short of the death penalty.
How shall we talk about Pontius Pilate? What is truth?
After further humiliations—the robe, the crown of thorns, the blows across the face—Pilate tells the crowd again, “I find no case against him; crucify him yourself.” Pilate is portrayed from this point on as struggling, striving, doing everything in his power to release Jesus. He is “afraid.” He appeals to Jesus to offer some exculpatory evidence; he appeals to the crowd to agree to his release. He goes back and forth, out of the palace and in again, no fewer than seven times. He is boxed in on every side.
In short, he is very much like the Pilate of “Jesus Christ Superstar.” And except for that flogging, he is almost nothing like the Pilate shown in the historical record, the killer who was removed from his post for excessive cruelty against the people in his charge.
What shall we say about Pilate? What is truth?
Here’s one truth: the depiction of Pilate in the gospels has been disastrous for Jews for the last two thousand years. Author and Rabbi Brad Hirschfield states it this way:
There is no question that the story of the trial of Jesus by Pontius Pilate, conducted before the Jews at Jerusalem, has been used time and time again to legitimize, not only bad feeling towards Jews, but the murder of Jews. Because the claim is that, at the time, the Jews asked for Jesus, and Pilate [acquiesced]… And that becomes one of the cornerstones of a theology that says, “You contributed to the killing of God, and now we have the right to kill you.”[ii]
Here’s another truth: The Pilate of history was very, very unlikely to have gone to any lengths to please the Jewish leaders or people. The idea of him being afraid of them is almost laughable. Pilate was not a benevolent and compassionate leader who could be frightened by an unruly crowd. He was a Viktor Yanukovych, firing on the people when they got too unruly.
And another truth: the early church was still stinging from the family fight between Jews who proclaimed Jesus Lord and Jews who saw that as an affront to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And that same church had much to fear in the Roman empire—which was, by all accounts, responsible for the death of Jesus by the Roman practice of crucifixion. The gospels seem crafted to show Rome in the best possible light, at the same time they reveal a deep sense of ongoing bitterness on the breakdown in relationships among faithful Jews who did or did not follow Jesus.[iii]
What is truth? How shall we talk about Pontius Pilate?
In the end, it’s impossible to talk about Pilate without talking about Jesus. Pilate asks Jesus, “What is truth?” without ever understanding that he is looking at the truth, the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Dressed in purple robes and a crown of thorns, beaten almost to death, Jesus is a more powerful image of truth than any answer he could give. In his body, broken by beating and ready for the cross, Jesus reveals the truth of the empire’s love of power and need to dominate. And in that same body, given over freely, Jesus shows the truth of our God of love.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] Pontius Pilate. The Biography Channel website. 2014. Available at: . Accessed Apr 04, 2014.
[ii] Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, Pontius Pilate: Biography Channel website. 2014. Available at: http://www.biography.com/people/pontius-pilate-9440686. Accessed Apr 04, 2014.
[iii] Anchor Bible Dictionary vol. 5. (1992) pg. 399–400. Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc.