The Complexities of Pilate

When the Jewish leaders brought Jesus before Pilate early on the morning after his arrest, they may have been surprised to find the Roman ruler already awake The Garden Tomb, Jerusalemand ready to sit in judgment.  Pilate was on thin ice with Rome.  He had too many uprisings on his record as procurator of Judea, and could not afford another one.  When bound and already beaten Jesus stood before him for the first time, Pilate was both cautious and ready for action.

As I grew up in the church, I formed a rather simplistic image of the Roman ruler who sent Christ to his death.  My image of Pilate was one of a reluctant judge who was forced into an evil deed by an angry crowd of Jews who were demanding Christ’s death.  My view of both the man and the situation was one-dimensional at best, deeply flawed at worst.

One point that must be made at the onset of the argument is that Jesus was wildly popular among the common people of Jerusalem.  It was the Jewish leaders who had a problem with him and who were scheming against him. (See John 11:47-53)  Many of these men bought their positions of power in the temple and were growing extremely wealthy at the expense of the common man.

Alfred Edersheim has this to say of Caiaphas, the high priest responsible for leading the plot to kill Jesus-  “The first Procurator whom Tiberius appointed over Judaea, changed the occupancy of the High-Priesthood four times, till he found in Caiaphas a sufficiently submissive instrument of Roman tyranny.”  The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah

But what of Pilate?  Was he really as helpless and innocent, almost noble as I grew to believe him to be?  History would argue the contrary.

Pilate had a long history of atrocities with the Jews.  According to Josephus, he brought idolatrous golden shields into Jerusalem and attempted to force the Jews to bow down to them. (Jewish Wars, Josephus).  Pilate despised the Jews and conducted his rule with brutality, corruption, injustice and murder.  Pilate’s greatest fear was that a group of Jews would make their way to Rome to report of his actions to the Emperor.  This, in fact, happened after the death of Christ with a delegation from Samaria which ultimately led to Pilate’s removal from office.  (Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah)

All of this is important background for his interactions with the Jewish leaders and Christ.  Pilate’s main concern was not a noble administration of justice but self-preservation.  Every step he made, whether it was cautious hesitancy or action was calculated to that end.  Pilate knew of Jesus’ popularity and that he could not flippantly order his execution in a city crowded with pilgrims, but he also recognized that in Christ’s fate he held a valuable bargaining chip with the Jewish leaders.  He wasn’t ready to risk a riot to give them what they wanted without gaining a valuable political prize for himself.

Scourging was typically the precursor to crucifixion, but in Christ’s case we see a break from this.  Pilate thought perhaps scourging Jesus would appease the Jewish leaders and ordered the punishment separately.  Brooke Foss Westcott makes the point that Pilate had no qualms whatsoever about sending a man he knew to be innocent to such horrific torture, but his plan didn’t work, the Jewish leaders continued to demand Christ’s death (The Gospel According to St. John).

The political wrangling and manipulation continued as both sides attempted to gain the upper hand.  At one point, Pilate famously washed his hands to proclaim his innocence.  Until recently, I had no idea that this act was not simply a cowardly abandonment of justice but something far more sinister.

This act of washing hands to proclaim innocence was a Jewish rite taken from Deuteronomy 21:6-9, even the very words Pilate uses are Jewish.  Pilate, was not simply proclaiming his innocence.  He was mocking the Jews.

Pilate held out until he gained his prize, his ultimate goal.  He wanted to be assured the riots were over.  He needee the Jewish leaders to trade away their most valuable bargaining chip- their allegiance.

“Shall I crucify your king?” Pilate asked.

“We have no king but Caesar,” the chief priests answered.” (John 19:15)

And at last, Pilate had what he wanted, and he sent an innocent man to be crucified.  It was no big deal to him, he had done it many, many times before.  This particular man was simply a choice bargaining chip for him.

The Garden Tomb, Jerusalem

It is a note of terrible sadness that those who were entrusted with Israel’s hope committed the very crime of which Jesus was accused- blasphemy.  Israel was to have only one King and serve Him alone.  Caiaphas, so honored to be High Priest when Messiah came at last and entrusted to recognize and proclaim his arrival, led the charge for his murder.

What comfort we find in the Messiah’s words to Pilate “My kingdom is not of this world…” (John 18:36). No, this Messiah’s kingdom was not so easily thwarted, and within its boundless realm lies infinite forgiveness and redemption for us all.


What about you?  Did you know Pilate was mocking the Jews when he famously washed his hands before them?  Did you realize he was using Jesus to gain a political prize?  Please leave your comments…

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