Every year, as the Passion narrative of Jesus’ agony, betrayal, trial,
crucifixion and death unfolds, my focus almost inevitably strays for a few
fleeting seconds toward Pontius Pilate. If only he had not given in to the
blackmailing throng! If only he had not released Barrabas!
Pilate was a truly interesting character! Just imagine the miasma of
contradictions that roiled in this man during Jesus’ trial! Pilate knew
what was right, but could not bring himself to do it. He felt moved by
Christ, but dared not follow up on his feeling. He was intelligent, but was
unable to grasp a transcendent argument. He ought to have been strong, but
allowed fear and pragmatism to pull him around like a puppet. In short, he
was then what many Christians are today! We too strive to be like Christ,
but we almost invariably fail and end up like Pilate.
However, the truth still remains that we know little about the character
the real Pilate. We do not even know the name his mother, wife or friends
called him by! We do not know any part of his career before his time in
Judaea, nor do we have any notion of what happened to him after Tiberius
recalled him. Yet, plenty of people have tried to fill in the gaps! Early
Christian apocryphal writers scrambled to embroider Pilate’s conduct -
especially when they imagined that he began to feel not-so-secret Christian
sympathies. Medieval Christians invented Pilate’s origins, which they took
to be German, and built up his disreputable childhood and youth. Tremendous
myths were created to account for the lost years of Pilate’s life. As a
result, the mythological Pilate emerges ten feet tall!
In fact, he is a myth and a symbol as much as he is a historical character.
He embodies the State facing the Church; the pagan world facing the
Christian one; the sceptical and rational man confronting the spiritual; and
not least ourselves encountering Christ. Everyone who wrote about Pilate
drew him as they wanted him, and people ceaselessly projected their own
ideas on him. However, three basic sources shed light on this man: Philo,
Josephus and the gospels. And the character that emerges is that Pilate was
arrogant, stubborn to a degree, deeply disliked Jews, believed in the
superiority of Rome and employed brutish means to attain his objectives.
However, Pilate was also capable of being moved and feeling sorry too.
the gospels say that Pilate ‘marvelled greatly’ at Christ’s demeanour,
Josephus reminds us that he had also marvelled when the Jews lay down before
him at Caesarea and said they were prepared to die rather than admit the
images of Tiberius into Jerusalem. In that case, Pilate was sufficiently
moved to rescind his order. Such a man might well have thought for a moment
before condemning Christ. But even if he did not, it can still give us a
strange sort of comfort - ‘the thrill of the unconscious’, as the
philosopher Johannes Koening puts it - to think that he might have done so.
After all, might we not have done the same in his place too?
I wish you all a glorious, hopeful and reconciling Easter! As
tomb proclaims out loud to all those who have eyes to see and ears to hear,
He is Risen! He is Risen Indeed! Hallelujah!