The Fall (and Rise) of Pontius Pilate

Almost everyone, Christian and non-Christian, has heard of Pontius Pilate and is generally aware of his role in the death of Jesus. He was certainly an historical figure as archaeology, non-biblical historical sources, and the gospels can attest. Pilate was a prefectus, sometimes translated into English as governor, appointed by Rome to administer the relatively new imperial province of Judea and Samaria in 26 CE. Such men were chosen from the equestrian class, the Latin knights of Roman society. Thus Pilate was a military man with sufficient experience and accolades to suggest his appointment to the emperor. He, like the four prefecti before him, made his headquarters in the Mediterranean coastal city of Caesarea, only recently given an extensive Greco-Roman renovation by the late Herod the Great. Periodically, when the religious city of Jerusalem swelled with visiting pilgrims, Pilate would make his way with his cadre of non-Italian infantry and a few cavalry to take up residence not far from the Jewish Temple. There, he would reside in Herod’s Jerusalem palace. His accompanying troops augmented their stationary comrades located in the fortress named for Mark Antony astride the Temple itself. It was on just such an occasion, the Passover of 30 CE, that Pilate was presented by the Temple’s religious leadership with a Jewish offender who required Roman justice, one Jesus of Nazareth. It was he, the leading priests said, who had been making himself out to be a king. Pilate should therefore vanquish him forthwith.

Why the Jewish leadership thought Pilate might willingly acquiesce to such a request is not hard to fathom. The late first-century CE Jewish historian Josephus gives us a number of examples of Pilate’s brutality in reaction to real and imagined rebellion during his tenure. Pilate, hardly a friend of the Jews, arrived at his post in a contemptuous manner sending his troops into Jerusalem carrying the iconic image of the emperor attached to their military standards, an obvious violation of Jewish laws against graven images. Only after threats by the populace did he have them replaced. Later he made plans to modernize Jerusalem’s water delivery system by using, with the chief priests’ acquiescence or not, temple funds to do so. This, too, created an uprising which resulted in casualties. During an event that took place after Jesus’s execution, Pilate was quick to violently strike down a group of Samaritans who had assembled near the ruins of their own temple. There they had joyfully followed a self-appointed leader who promised to dig up the temple’s buried holy furnishings from the past. The subsequent over-reaction by Pilate resulted in his recall to Rome.

Although Josephus only gives us his side of the story of the altercations mentioned above, we may add the characterization of Pilate by the first-century Alexandrian Jewish theologian Philo (“inflexible,” “vindictive,” “furious temper”) and a New Testament reference to an incident involving “Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices” (Luke 13:1) to confirm that crucifying Jesus would not have unduly worried the Roman governor. Yet this is not quite the picture we get of Pilate by reading the accounts of the hearing that Pilate gave to Jesus. In fact, Pilate is made to seem quite reluctant to sentence Jesus to death.

Since in all four gospels Pilate asks Jesus if he is the king of the Jews it seems certain that the source of our passion story was confident that this was the charge ultimately levelled against Jesus by the Romans, i.e. messianism. That Jesus was not actually thought to be a leader of a band of rebels is confirmed by the fact that his disciples were not likewise arrested. Pilate must have been content that Jesus was nothing more than a noisy, rabble rousing, self-designated (if self-deluded) “king” but with the potential to unduly excite the massive Passover crowd to riot. This alone warranted getting Jesus off the street. Pilate’s own violent nature would take over from there. The fact is: Pilate executed Jesus. The gospels suggest he didn’t want to.

The Gospel of John initially describes Pilate sending Jesus back to the Jewish leadership with directions to “judge him by your own law” (18:31). In fact, John describes quite a significant conversation between Jesus and Pilate, never mind who was there to listen and record it. Pilate even asks philosophical questions of Jesus, for example, “What is truth?” (18:38).

The other gospels make Jesus equivocate and then go silent when Pilate questions him. This causes Pilate to “wonder greatly” (Matthew 27:14; Mark 15:5). The Gospel of Luke shows Pilate at his most reluctant. Three times Pilate declares that he can find nothing in Jesus’s behavior to warrant death (Luke 23:4, 14, 22). He tries to release Jesus (Luke 23:20) going so far as to send him to the visiting Herod Antipas, in town from Galilee for the festival, to judge him. According to Luke, Herod found nothing about Jesus deserving of execution either (23:15). The other gospels likewise present Pilate as an unwilling participant in this affair (Matthew 27:23; Mark 15:14; John 18:38, 19:12). All four gospels describe Pilate desperately trying to release Jesus by summoning up a historically suspect Passover “custom” of releasing an insurrectionist prisoner chosen by the people. In all four versions of the story, the “crowd” foils Pilate’s plan by not choosing Jesus.

But was Pilate really so reluctant as the gospels seem to portray? One clue to this literary conceit is what happens once Pilate surrenders Jesus to his fate and condemns him to crucifixion. His guards are allowed to play a cruel game with Jesus dressing him up as a mock king with “royal” robe, crown (of thorns) and scepter (a reed). They hail him, kneel to him, strike him, and spit on him. At some point, the guards whip Jesus. None of this could have taken place against Pilate’s wishes. His soldiers were given free rein to treat the “false king” however cruelly they wished. While the notice, given only in Matthew, that Pilate’s wife warned her husband not to let harm come to Jesus is historically unverifiable, it demonstrates, at least, that Pilate paid no heed any effort to save Jesus, even those of his own wife. These are not the actions of a reluctant executioner.

The last piece of the story regarding Pilate’s actions with regard to Jesus is his authorization for Joseph of Arimathea, a ranking Jewish aristocrat, to take down the body of Jesus for burial. This provision is certainly not ahistorical even if it seems to demonstrate a shared interest in the Jewish desire not to leave dead bodies hanging on their crosses overnight. Provoking the assembled Jewish pilgrims by displaying rotting Jewish cadavers hanging on crosses outside the city gate during Passover and the Feast of Unleavened bread was unpolitic; removing them after making his point was a calculatedly shrewd move by Pilate.

Nevertheless, Christians of the second century and beyond were not satisfied that Pilate’s story had been completely told in the gospels. It turns out, according to these apocryphal sources, that Pilate was even less enthused about executing Jesus than we might have imagined.

Before turning to Pilate’s reclamation by later Christians, we should ask why the gospels, let alone any Christian text, would attempt to minimize Pilate’s willingness to execute Jesus. For the answer, we must understand the political and religious landscape of the Greco-Roman empire at the time the gospels were written (last third of the first-century). By that time, the good news of Jesus and his resurrection had been preached to most areas of the Greco-Roman world, that is, to polytheists. Word of a risen savior from the east who promised a paradisiacal afterlife in return for faith and love was attractive to many pagans. But the neighbors of these new Christian converts were suspicious. Why had they forsaken the cultic requirements to make sacrifice to the gods? Didn’t they realize that by doing so they risked bringing down the gods’ wrath upon their city, their community, even their own family? How could they give up appeasing their local and national deities in order to exclusively worship a strange god associated with the Jews? And what were these mysterious rites the Christians were said to have been practicing: drinking a dead man’s blood and eating his flesh? What is it they were doing during these so-called baptisms? These and other suspicions made nascent Christianity suspect in the eyes of many. Some of those in authority were beginning to receive complaints about Christians and their refusal to worship the gods or honor the emperor with sacrifices. It was, therefore, in the Christians’ best interests to demonstrate that their beliefs were no threat to the empire. But, their challengers would ask, wasn’t the Christian “god” Jesus executed by a Roman administrator in a coordinated effort with people of his own race? Yes, the Christians replied, but that administrator, Pilate, had not wanted to execute such a good and righteous man. He was simply cornered by a disbelieving, apostate religious aristocracy that, due to jealousy coupled with willful ignorance, insisted that Pilate carry out their misguided will.

At the same time, most of the Roman world had become aware of the massive rebellion of the Jews in Galilee and Judea against Roman occupation, a war that began in 66 CE but took eight years to fully put down. It took five legions of Roman troops for the effort at great cost in money and lives. The victorious general Titus had paraded captives from his conquest through the streets of Rome carrying their prized booty from the Jewish Temple. The Temple itself and the city of Jerusalem had been reduced to ruins. Christian efforts to increasingly exonerate Rome for Jesus’s death and put more blame on those rebellious “the Jews” seemed a politically wise response to these new political realities.

One of the earliest of the post-biblical, apocryphal texts that exhibits this emphasis of responsibility for Jesus’s death is the 2nd-century Gospel of Peter. Only one copy has ever been found and, unfortunately for us, it is incomplete. Its narrative of Jesus’s life picks up at the end of his hearing before Pilate. In a startling shift of storytelling, it is Herod Antipas who orders Jesus’s execution! Joseph of Arimathea is here made a friend of Pilate (in later Christian literature, Joseph would be turned into a Christian believer). Although Joseph requests Jesus’s body from Pilate, as he does in the gospels, in the Gospel of Peter Pilate must first ask permission from Herod!

In the later apocryphal Acts of Pilate (a 3rd-4th century text likely based on 2nd c. traditions), Pilate is said to witness a miracle during his interrogation of Jesus: the Roman standards bow down in reverence as Jesus enters the hall for questioning. Pilate’s wife, here a Jewish convert, warns her husband as she does in the Gospel of Matthew. Jesus assuages Pilate’s anxieties by explaining that the crucifixion must take place as prophesied in Hebrew scripture. Nevertheless, Pilate goes to great lengths to challenge the chief priests’ charges against Jesus. He even interviews witnesses who testify on behalf of Jesus. Pilate tries multiple times to release Jesus and chastises the chief priests for the rebellious nature of the Jewish people that he dates back to the time of Moses. Unable to modify the plans of the Jewish leadership, Pilate tells Jesus, “Your nation has convicted you.”

Christians of the second and third centuries felt certain that Pilate would have consulted Rome or reported his actions concerning Jesus to the emperor. Apocryphal literature was created to demonstrate that this had in fact taken place. In the “Report of Pontius Pilate” (Anaphora Pilati) the Judean prefect apprises the emperor Tiberius of “the endless charges” against Jesus brought by “the entire multitude of the Jews”. Pilate lauds Jesus’s good works, his healings, exorcisms, and raisings from the dead. Clearly echoing the actual Jewish-Roman War of the late first century, the author of this text makes Pilate lament that “many [Jews] stirred up a rebellion against me and I ordered him to be crucified.” Pilate testifies that the Jews did not get away with their perfidy however. On the day of Jesus’s resurrection, after earthquakes, angels, and resurrected prophets appeared, “many of the Jews died, being engulfed and swallowed up in the chasms in that night so that their bodies could no longer be found.”

Perhaps in response to this account, an apocryphal text known as Paradosis Pilati, the “Handing Over of Pilate,” was written. It describes the recall of Pilate to Rome to account for his condemnation of Jesus. In this text, Pilate asserts his innocence and blames “the multitude of Jews who are reckless and guilty.” The emperor Tiberius, too, is made to regret Jesus’s demise. In retaliation, he orders the destruction of the Jews: “Banish them from all of Judea and make their nation of no account” (again, an echo of the actual war). Pilate is beheaded. But this is no ignominious end for Pilate. Having become a Christian believer, Pilate prays to the Lord before his execution to save him and his wife Procla. In his prayer, he admits he “acted out of ignorance.” Heaven responds and assures Pilate that “all the races and families of the gentiles will bless you” because he helped fulfill the scriptures regarding Jesus’s death. An angel then comes to take away Pilate’s severed head up to heaven. Pilate and his wife are buried together.

Thus does Pontius Pilate, second-rate governor of a third-rate Roman province, become redeemed for some ancient Christians. From the indifferent, if not outright hostile, Roman administrator to a virtual saint, the resurrection of Pilate’s character is almost as remarkable as that of the man he crucified. Whether villain or saved sinner, willing executioner or unwitting player in Jewish prophecy, Pilate remains the only individual, other than Mary and Jesus, to be named in the Apostles’ Creed. His memory, at least, has survived as long as the faith he unknowingly helped to inaugurate.

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