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PONTIUS PILATE AND HIS DILEMMA
Lessons for the World
PONTIUS PILATE - A HISTORICAL FIGURE
In this paper we will be looking at the historical figure of Pontius Pilate, his role as procurator of Judea under the Roman Empire, his reluctance to condemn Jesus to death, possible reasons why he finally did condemn Jesus to death, and some theories concerning what may have happened to him after he was procurator.
Most likely, Pontius Pilate is a man who, if he had not been procurator in Jerusalem at the time when Christ was put to death, probably would not be known to most people today. But, as thousands of people have "confessed" when they have recited "The Nicene Creed," Jesus was "crucified ... under Pontius Pilate."1
Matthew 27:2 simply tells us that Pilate was "governor," although some versions use the word "ruler." Pilate's actual title was "procurator." "The procurator had to maintain law and order in his jurisdiction, putting down any threat to social order, and, if necessary, calling in the Roman army."2
He held this position in Judea for about nine years. "Pontius Pilate-procurator or governor of Judaea AD 27 - 36. Pilate was the fifth governor of the province which had been carved out of the kingdom of Herod the Great by the emperor Augustus in AD 6."3
Not much is known of Pilate's family background. James Hastings observes -
His family name Pontius leaves open the possibility that he was descended from the brave Samnite general Gaius Pontius, the hero of the Caudine Forks.4
According to another account, however, Pilate was -
probably connected with the roman family of the Pontii, and called 'Pilate' possibly from the Latin pileatus-i.e., 'wearing the pileus'-which was the 'cap or badge of a manumitted slave,' as indicating that he was a 'freedman,' or the descendant of one.5
Alexander Whyte comments that Judea was considered by the Romans to be a "very difficult province to govern."6
A PUZZLING PORTRAIT OF PONTIUS PILATE
The portrait we have of him in the Scriptures is somewhat puzzling. The earliest instance in which his name appears is in Luke 13 -
There were some present at that very time who told him of the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. 2 And he answered them, "Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered thus? 3 I tell you, No; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish. (Luke 13:1-3 RSV)
That Pilate had a violent reputation among the Jews can be seen from the above verses. We don't know if this accusation is true, but Jesus does not deny it. He instead uses it as an opportunity to show that when bad things happen to people, it is not an indication of their exceeding sinfulness.
E.M. Blaiklock, who was Professor of Classics at the University of Auckland, tells us this about Pontius Pilate -
He appears twice in the pages of Josephus, the Jewish priest who became the Emperor Vespasian's secretary and used his leisure time to write a detailed history of his people. He appears briefly in the writings of Philo, the Jewish scholar of Alexandria. And in all these non-biblical contexts he shows the same hard face, cruel, foolishly contemptuous of the difficult people he was called to rule.7
A CRUEL AND MERCILESS MAN?
Pilate did, indeed, have a reputation for being a cruel and merciless man.
Jewish sources speak of Pilate exasperated by threats of impeachment for cruelty, murders without trial, corruption, insolence, rapine, and grievous inhumanity.8
It is well known that the Jews did not like Pilate and that the feeling was mutual. Whyte comments -
It would be hard to tell which of the two was by this time more exasperated at the other: Pontius Pilate at the rulers of Jerusalem, or the rulers of Jerusalem at Pontius Pilate.9
PICTURE OF PONTIUS IN JESUS' TRIAL
Yet, in the account of Jesus' trial, we see a somewhat different picture of Pilate. In Pilate's dealings with Jesus, it really appears that he wants to be fair and even to show mercy to this Jewish man with whom the chief priests are so angry. In John's Gospel alone, Pilate states three times that he "finds no fault" in Jesus.
And when he said this, he went out again unto the Jews, and said unto them, "I find in him no fault at all. 19:4 Pilate therefore went forth again and said unto them, "Behold, I bring him forth to you, that ye may know that I find no fault in him." 6 When therefore the chief priests and the officers saw Him, they cried out, saying, "Crucify him! Crucify him!" Pilate said unto them, "Ye take him and crucify him, for I find no fault in him" (John 18:38; 19:4, 6 KJ21-emphasis mine).
ATTEMPT TO AVOID RESPONSIBILITY
In examining a harmony of the Gospels, it appears that there may have been two or even three more times in which Pilate said something similar about Jesus in an attempt avoid bearing the responsibility for passing the death sentence against someone he believed to be innocent.
13 And Pilate, when he had called together the chief priests and the rulers and the people, 14 said unto them, "Ye have brought this man unto me as one who perverteth the people. And behold, I, having examined him before you, have found no fault in this man concerning those things whereof ye accuse him. (Luke 23:13-14 KJ21-emphasis mine)
20 Pilate therefore, desiring to release Jesus, spoke again to them. 21 But they cried, saying, "Crucify him, crucify him!" 22 And he said unto them the third time, "Why? What evil hath he done? I have found no cause for death in him. I will therefore chastise him and let him go." (Luke 23:20-22 KJ21-emphasis mine)
When Pilate saw that he could not prevail, but rather that a tumult was beginning, he took water and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, "I am innocent of the blood of this just person. See ye to it." (Matthew 27:24 KJ21-emphasis mine)
THE HARMONY OF THE GOSPELS AND PONTIUS PILATE
Arthur Markve, in his book, The Witnesses: A New Harmony of the Gospels, cites each of these statements from Pilate as a separate instance.10
Alexander Whyte has some interesting insights into Pilate's reluctance to condemn Jesus to death. He says -
Absolute wolf for Jewish blood as Pilate always was, he was not wicked enough nor wolf enough to murder an innocent man.11
Whyte also quotes from a "procuratorial report" from Pilate to Tiberius, in which Pilate refers to Jesus. It was supposedly written shortly before Jesus' trial. Pilate wrote that he had found "Jesus the Christ, as he is called… the most peaceable and inoffensive of men".12
It appears that Pilate makes at least three efforts to keep from condemning Jesus. The first was his offer to release him, "according to their custom at Passover" (Matthew 27:15; John 18:39).
6 Now at that feast he released unto them one prisoner, whomsoever they desired. 7 And there was one named Barabbas, who lay bound with those who had made insurrection with him, and who had committed murder in the insurrection. 8 And the multitude, crying aloud, began to desire Pilate to do as he had ever done unto them. 9 But Pilate answered them, saying, "Will ye that I release unto you the King of the Jews?" 10 For he knew that the chief priests had delivered Him out of envy. 11 But the chief priests moved the people, that he should rather release Barabbas unto them. (Mark 15:6-11 KJ21)
There is not much known outside of the Scriptures concerning either this custom or Barabbas, but the scene above helps us to understand the tremendous pressure being placed upon Pilate to condemn Jesus. The crowd preferred that Pilate release "a notorious prisoner" rather than to release Jesus (Matthew 27:16).
His second attempt to avoid condemning Jesus was to have Him beaten and then released -
"I will therefore chastise him and release him." (Luke 23:16 RSV)
PORTRAIT OF PILATE IN THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST
Yet, even then the crowd was not satisfied and demanded that Jesus be crucified. In the recent Mel Gibson movie, "The Passion of the Christ," Jesus is scourged and His flesh so badly torn that His entire body looks like an open wound. At that point, Pilate says to the crowd, "Hasn't He suffered enough?"13 Although that is not a quote from Scripture, it appears to have been Pilate's intent.
Dr. Loyd Melton, professor of New Testament at Trinity College of the Bible and Theological Seminary, in his course "The Gospel of John," points this out -
"Pilate attempts once again to do something that he thinks will satisfy the crowd. He scourges Jesus-'Then Pilate took Jesus and scourged Him' (John 19:1 WEY).
Scourging was a very painful and bloody beating that was done by Roman soldiers. A whip, such as one we would be familiar with, was used, but at the end of that whip was a ball of lead and oftentimes in that lead ball were embedded jagged pieces of metal or of bone. The Roman soldier would beat the person on the back and, of course, the pieces of jagged metal or bone would dig into the flesh and pull huge amounts of it out. A scourging, if done correctly by a Roman soldier, and apparently they did this often, could very easily kill the average person. Oftentimes that is what happened. It's clear that Pilate's motivation for scourging was a recognition that this was a bloodthirsty crowd, so he gave them some blood. He seems to be hoping that maybe that will be enough for them. Maybe if Jesus is scourged and beaten within an inch of His life, then maybe they will back off from their demands to have Him crucified. He hopes that the physical cruelty and the mockery will suffice them.14
PILATE'S THIRD ATTEMPT
Pilate's third attempt to avoid passing the death sentence on Jesus occurs in a scene that appears only in John. Pilate takes Jesus aside to talk to Jesus privately -
9 He entered the praetorium again and said to Jesus, "Where are you from?" But Jesus gave no answer. 10 Pilate therefore said to him, "You will not speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?" 11 Jesus answered him, "You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above; therefore he who delivered me to you has the greater sin." (John 19:9-11 RSV)
WHAT WAS HIS REAL INTENT?
The apparent intent of Pilate's question to Jesus in John 19:11-" Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?"-seems to be to get Jesus to say something in His own defense. Pilate really appears to be looking for Jesus to give him a reason to release Him.
Even Pilate's wife advised him against crucifying Jesus because of a dream she had that certainly appears to have been prophetic, which we read about in Matthew -
Besides, while he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent word to him, "Have nothing to do with that righteous man, for I have suffered much over him today in a dream." (Matthew 27:19 RSV)
Since Pilate was so convinced of Jesus' innocence and since he obviously wanted to release Him, the question naturally arises, why did Pilate finally "deliver Him to be crucified" (Matt. 27:26)?
Something that is especially clear in the Gospel of John is that when the Jews question Pilate's loyalty to Caesar, that seems to "cast the deciding vote" in Pilate's mind -
12 Upon this Pilate sought to release him, but the Jews cried out, "If you release this man, you are not Caesar's friend; every one who makes himself a king sets himself against Caesar." 13 When Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus out and sat down on the judgment seat at a place called The Pavement, and in Hebrew, Gabbatha. 14 Now it was the day of Preparation of the Passover; it was about the sixth hour. He said to the Jews, "Behold your King!" 15 They cried out, "Away with him, away with him, crucify him!" Pilate said to them, "Shall I crucify your King?" The chief priests answered, "We have no king but Caesar." 16 Then he handed him over to them to be crucified. (John 19:12-16 RSV)
Dr. Loyd Melton notes -
His [Jesus'] kingship becomes the real issue. This is finally how the Jewish leadership convinces Pontius Pilate to pass the sentence. The must convince Pontius Pilate that Jesus presents Himself as a king, and that His kingship is a threat to Roman sovereignty. Pilate finally accepts that argument and condemns Jesus to death on account of that… It's only when they question Pilate's patriotism that Pilate yields to this mob.15
WHY PILATE CONDEMNED JESUS
James Hastings' comments on why Pilate condemned Jesus to death are also very insightful. According to Hastings, Pilate's character had three fatal flaws -
His failure was due to unbelief, worldliness, and weakness…Compelled to take the leading part in a transaction where high moral qualities were supremely demanded, Pilate proved himself to be without them, and made a great crime possible by his feebleness of character… His conscience makes him uneasy; he is aware that he is thrusting away from him some truly spiritual and real aid. But the weakness and ambition of his nature are too much. He struggles, but he struggles in vain, and he is swept away, a worthless and unresisting piece of wreckage, on the wave of popular tumult.16
I believe that Pilate in this very encounter with Jesus shows himself to be a cynical man, a man without absolutes. This is seen in his question to Jesus - "What is truth?"
37 Pilate said to him, "So you are a king?" Jesus answered, "You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Every one who is of the truth hears my voice." 38 Pilate said to him, "What is truth?" After he had said this, he went out to the Jews again, and told them, "I find no crime in him. (John 18:37-38 RSV)
The question contains irony of which Pilate is totally unaware. Jesus Himself was the very embodiment of truth (John 14:6). Yet Pilate stands before Him and asks, with what I believe must have been sarcasm, what is truth? Yet he did not even wait for Jesus to answer, but immediately went out. Weymouth's Version of the New Testament reads -
"What is truth?" said Pilate. But no sooner had he spoken the words than he went out again to the Jews…" (John 18:38 WEY)
The comments in The Wesleyan Bible Commentary are excellent -
He [Pilate] did not wait for answers because he was not seeking answers.17
COULD HE EVER BE CLOSER TO TRUTH?
Pilate would never in his life be closer to the truth, and yet he did not recognize it before him. We don't know what Pilate's tone of voice was like, but it seems to me that it must have been cynical and sarcastic.
It was not a question put for the sake of information. It was not put for the sake of ridicule, for he went out to say, 'I find no fault in him.' Sarcasm there was perhaps, but it was that mournful bitter sarcasm which hides inward unrest in sneering words, that sad irony whose very laugh rings of inward wretchedness.18
THE ATMOSPHERE IN JERUSALEM DURING PASSOVER
Something else that needs to be taken into account in answering this question--Why did Pilate condemn Jesus to death if he believed that Jesus was innocent?--is the atmosphere in Jerusalem during Passover. Pilate was responsible for making sure that there were no uprisings against Rome on the part of the Jews, and this threat was very real during Passover. Passover was the celebration of the liberation of the Jews from Egyptian bondage. Yet during this period in their history, the Jews were under the domination of Rome. They were not sovereign. They were not politically free. The atmosphere was ripe for messianic revolt. Loyd Melton comments on this -
The reason he [Pilate] had quarters in Jerusalem was because it was Passover time. The governor, or procurator, as Pilate was called, was responsible for making sure that there was a Roman presence in Jerusalem during the feast days, particularly at Passover, because of the volatile nature of the environment and because of the danger of messianic uprising. That's why Pilate is there. That's why the Romans soldiers were there. They didn't want to start any trouble, but the Romans believed that if there was a visible and significant Roman presence in Jerusalem during Passover, that it would be much less likely that the Jews would engage in any form of disturbance or messianic revolt. Pilate is there for that reason.19
A messianic uprising would have meant a skirmish, at least, and probably bloodshed. So Pilate had to keep in mind the fact that he was responsible for "keeping the peace."
As Professor Blaiklock observes -
"Above all, his task was to keep peace in an area of turbulence behind a difficult and sensitive frontier."20
There has been much speculation on why Pilate wrote "Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews" and put that on Jesus' cross. The Gospel of John alone has the conversation between the chief priests and Pilate regarding this -
19 Pilate also wrote a title and put it on the cross; it read, "Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews." 20 Many of the Jews read this title, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, in Latin, and in Greek. 21 The chief priests of the Jews then said to Pilate, "Do not write, 'The King of the Jews,' but, 'This man said, I am King of the Jews.'" 22 Pilate answered, "What I have written I have written." (John 19:19-22 RSV)
Leon Morris' comments on this section are particularly good -
"The 'title' was a placard listing the crimes of the condemned, and attached to the cross. Over Jesus he wrote, 'Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews', thus maintaining the position he took up in vv. 14f. and securing a certain grim revenge against those who hounded him into consenting to Jesus' execution. It is worth noting that John stresses the kingship motif right to the end… Not unnaturally the chief priests (here called 'the chief priests of the Jews') did not like this. They had refused to have Jesus as their King, though they had made His claim to being a King a chief point in their accusation before the governor. They lodged an objection, though with the title already written and affixed it was a little late in the day. They wanted to have substituted for 'The King of the Jews' something which said that He claimed that He was King. Instead of the fact, they wanted the claim. But Pilate would not hear of it. With an air of finality he refused to alter what he had written. John will want us to see that there is a kingship that Jesus exercises, and that nothing can change this."21
PILATE AFTER JESUS' CRUCIFIXION
The last time Pontius Pilate appears in the Scriptures is after Jesus has died. The scene appears only in Matthew. The chief priests and Pharisees, thinking that Jesus' disciples might come and steal His body in order to say that Jesus had risen from the dead, ask Pilate to post a guard at Jesus' tomb.
62 Next day, that is, after the day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate 63 and said, "Sir, we remember how that impostor said, while he was still alive, 'After three days I will rise again.' 64 Therefore order the sepulchre to be made secure until the third day, lest his disciples go and steal him away, and tell the people, 'He has risen from the dead,' and the last fraud will be worse than the first." 65 Pilate said to them, "You have a guard of soldiers; go, make it as secure as you can." 66 So they went and made the sepulchre secure by sealing the stone and setting a guard. (Matthew 27:62-66 RSV)
My opinion of this scene is that, by this time, Pilate was fed up with the whole affair. I believe he consented because he wanted to have the whole ordeal over with. It must have seemed absurd to him to have a Roman soldier guard the tomb of a dead man.
There is irony in the fact that the enemies of Jesus did this, as J. Vernon McGee notes -
"The zeal of the enemy actually gives a confirmation of Jesus' resurrection… The enemies of Jesus went to a lot of trouble to make the sepulcher sure, and that fact furnishes a marvelous confirmation of His resurrection."22
WHAT HAPPENED TO PILTE AFTER HE WAS PROCURATOR OF JUDEA?
The last thing I would like to look at in this paper is the question of what happened to Pilate after he was Procurator of Judea. There are several ideas, but I don't believe anyone really knows with any certainly. We will look at five conjectures.
The first theory, and one that is not very credible, is the "legend" that Pilate went insane due to the fact that he always saw blood on his hands. This belief seems more mythical than factual. I only know of it because my religion teacher, a Catholic nun, told it to me when I was a child in a Roman Catholic elementary school. I doubt that many people believe this, but people sometimes believe some very unbelievable things.
A second theory, much more plausible, is that Pilate committed suicide -
"In A.D. 36 the governor of Syria brought serious accusations against Pilate, and he was banished to Vienne in Gaul, where, according to tradition, he committed suicide."23
A third theory is that Pilate became a follower of Jesus.
"A ... tradition, endorsed by Origen, says that Pilate became a Christian and he is commemorated in the liturgies of the Greek Orthodox and Ethiopian Coptic churches, which regard him as a martyr."24
Alexander Whyte believes that Pilate became a follower of Jesus, although he admits there are other opinions.
"I think Pilate's remorse must have chased him. And as he washed his hands in water that Passover morning, so I shall hope he washed his hands and his heart ten thousand times in after days in that Fountain for sin which he had such an awful hand in opening."25
Fourthly, there is the idea that Pilate retired and simply forgot the entire episode involving Jesus. James Hastings believes a story told by Anatole France to this regard.
"Pontius Pilate is represented in retirement near the end of his life talking over old times with a… friend who had known him in Judaea… [His friend asks Pilate about] a young miracle-worker from Galilee. 'His name was Jesus; He came from Nazareth, and was crucified at last for some crime or other. Pontius, do you remember the man?' The old procurator frowned and raised a hand to the forehead as one who searches through his memory. Then after some moments of silence, 'Jesus,' he muttered, 'Jesus of Nazareth? No, I don't remember Him.'"26
Finally, there is the idea that Mount Pilatus in Switzerland received its name from him -
"A later tradition recounted how his body was thrown into the Tiber, regurgitated into the sea, carried to the Rhone and washed up at Vienne. The Mons Pilatus, between Vienne and Lucerne, has been supposed to get its name from him but this is probably no more than folk etymology and a mistake for mons pileatus, cloud-capped."27
Which of these ideas is closest to the truth is probably anyone's guess. In any case, Pilate will never be forgotten due to the role he played in the death of Christ. He will always be remembered as the man who sentenced Jesus, the One in whom he could find no fault, to a cruel death on an instrument of torture.
Blaiklock, E.M. Today's Handbook of Bible Characters. Minneapolis: Bethany, 1979.
Bryant, T.A. ed., Today's Dictionary of the Bible. Minneapolis: Bethany, 1982.
Calvocoressi, Peter. Who's Who in the Bible. London: Viking Penguin, 1987.
Earle, Ralph, Harvey J.S. Blaney, and Charles W. Carter. The Wesleyan Bible Commentary. 6 vols. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964.
Hastings, James. The Greater Men and Women of the Bible, 6 vols. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1915.
Kuske, David P Luther's Catechism: The Small Catechism of Dr. Martin Luther and an Exposition for Children and Adults Written in Contemporary English. Milwaukee: Northwestern, 1989.
Markve, Arthur. The Witnesses: A New Harmony of the Gospels. Minneapolis: Bethany, 1973.
McGee, J. Vernon Thru the Bible with J. Vernon McGee. 5 vols. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1983.
Melton, Loyd. The Gospel of John. Cassette Recording. Newburgh: Trinity College of the Bible and Theological Seminary, 2003.
Morris, Leon. The Gospel According to John: The English Text with Introduction, Exposition, and Notes. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971.
The Passion of the Christ. Dir. Mel Gibson. Newmarket Films, 2004.
The Word in Life Study Bible: The New King James Version. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1996.
White, R.E.O. 52 Personality Profiles from the Bible: Brief Biographical Studies of the Leading Figures of Scripture. Basingstoke: Pickering, 1983.
Whyte, Alexander. Bible Characters, 6 vols. New York: Revell, no date.
RSV-Revised Standard Version. Nashville: Holman, 1982.
WEY-Weymouth New Testament. 1912.
KJ21-21st Century King James Version. Gary: Deuel, 1994.
1. David P. Kuske, Luther's Catechism: The Small Catechism of Dr. Martin Luther and an Exposition for Children and Adults Written in Contemporary English (Milwaukee: Northwestern, 1989) 15.
2. The Word in Life Study Bible: The New King James Version (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1996) 1839.
3. Peter Calvocoressi, Who's Who in the Bible (London: Viking Penguin, 1987) 196.
4. James Hastings. The Greater Men and Women of the Bible, vol. 5 (Edinburgh: T.& T. Clark, 1915) 404-405.
5. T.A. Bryant, ed., Today's Dictionary of the Bible (Minneapolis: Bethany, 1982) 498.
6. Alexander Whyte, Bible Characters, vol. 4 (New York: Revell, no date) 122.
7. E.M. Blaiklock, Today's Handbook of Bible Characters (Minneapolis: Bethany, 1979) 440.
8. R.E.O. White, 52 Personality Profiles from the Bible: Brief Biographical Studies of the Leading Figures of Scripture (Basingstoke: Pickering, 1983) 124.
9. Whyte, 122.
10. Arthur Markve, The Witnesses: A New Harmony of the Gospels (Minneapolis: Bethany, 1973) 343-351.
11. Whyte, 123.
12. Whyte, 123-124.
13. Mel Gibson (Director) and Icon (Producer). (2004). The Passion of the Christ. [Film]. Hollywood: Newmarket Films.
14. Loyd Melton. (Professor). (2003). The Gospel of John (Cassette Recording No. 14). Newburgh: Trinity College of the Bible and Theological Seminary.
15. Loyd Melton, Cassette Recording No. 14.
16. Hastings, 407, 411-412, 416.
17. Ralph Earle, Harvey J.S. Blaney, and Charles W. Carter, The Wesleyan Bible Commentary, vol. 4 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964) 460.
18. Hastings, 408.
19. Melton, Cassette Recording No. 14.
20. Blaiklock, 440.
21. Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John: The English Text with Introduction, Exposition, and Notes (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971) 806-807, 807-808.
22. J. Vernon McGee, Thru the Bible with J. Vernon McGee, vol. 4 (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1983) 150.
23. Bryant, 499.
24. Calvocoressi, 197.
25. Whyte, 132.
26. Hastings, 417.
27. Calvocoressi, 197.
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