Pontius Pilate (NVAL – AD 37) was the Judean governor or prefect (a military commander who usually governed part of a province) in the first century, serving under Emperor Tiberius, from 26 AD to 36 AD. As governor, Pilate was responsible for tax collection, managing major land projects such as the construction of new buildings, and he was the highest judge in the province. He also commanded an army of auxiliary troops. However, if serious threats were imminent, Roman governors would seek support from the higher-ranking governor of Syria.
Pilate’s rule was unique however, because Judea was considered an unimportant province, and thus, the Roman’s second-class elite ruled over it. In fact, during six years of Pilate’s tenure, the Syrian governor was in Rome. As such, if serious threats were imminent, Pilate was without military assistance.
While little can be confirmed of the entire biography of Pilate, from his name, historians determine that his family was of noble blood before the Samnites were ruled by Rome. After Rome absorbed Samnium, the Pontius family were relegated to the equestrian or middle class order. Thanks to the discovery of the Pilate Stone in 1961, outside of historical accounts, we do have archeological evidence to support Pilate’s role as prefect.
According to scholarship in ancient history, obtaining an accurate historical read on Pontius Pilate is difficult for two reasons. The first, the Gospels give us limited information, and from a historical perspective, the stories of Pilate’s frustrations may have been embellished to portray a weak governor, worthy of sympathy. The second, early Jewish sources that cite Pilate were likely biased because of the strained relationship between the Romans and the Jews during the era. (The Jews and Romans fought a war from 66 AD to 70 AD.)
Ancient history and theology have different objectives, but it is theology that is of greater cultural significance on Christian holidays, such as Good Friday. On Good Friday, Christendom commemorates the Passion and crucifixion of Jesus Christ. The Passion story which includes Judas’ betrayal of Jesus, Peter’s thrice denial of him, Jesus’ scourging, carrying of the cross, and his eventual crucifixion at Calvary, is remembered in detail and mourned.
The characters in the Passion play a different role, and in each role, the faithful are to learn a lesson. In Judas, who betrayed Jesus for 30 pieces of silver according to the Gospel of Matthew, the lesson might be of the potential destruction the love of money may bring upon a person. (Judas would later commit suicide.) In Peter’s denial, we learn of the potential weakness of a person in the face of a loved one’s dishonor. Perhaps the lesson is the courage to be with a shamed friend, even till death. There is also the lesson of Simon of Cyrene, who, compelled by the Romans, helps Jesus carry the cross. His example is a reminder that kind strangers exist, and faithful Christians ought to be one of them. Of course Jesus’ mother, Mary, and Mary Magdalene, depict the great love of a mother and friend, and their presence offer strength to Jesus – he does not suffer alone.
The most widely known role of Pontius Pilate is the one he plays in Jesus’ crucifixion, which has long been the subject of discussion and dispute among theologians, theological historians, the religious, and lay people alike. As the highest judge in Judea, he must decide on Jesus’ innocence or guilt. In all the Gospels, Jesus is brought before Pilate; he is accused of claiming that he is king of the Jews. Pilate asks him plainly, “Are you the king of the Jews?” Jesus, accepting the suffering that lay ahead, eventually answers, “You say so.” Pilate is astonished.
Pilate then tries to make Jesus aware of his power – power to have him killed or power to release him. Jesus says to Pilate those famous New Testament lines, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my men would have fought to keep me from being handed over to Jewish leaders. But as it is, my kingdom is not of this world.” (John 18:36) Pilate found no case against Jesus and wanted to release him. But to appease the crowds that had gathered to watch the scandal that was a man who claimed to be king of the Jews, he had Jesus scourged. Pilate thought that might be enough but the people wanted more – they wanted him crucified.
In accordance with the Passover custom of the time, Pilate asks the people whether to release Barabbas – a rebel and murderer – or to release Jesus. The people demand the release of Barabbas. Pilate is caught between condemning to death a man he believes is innocent, and a potential uprising. This was an uprising that Pilate could not afford. As the sources point out, there was no Syrian governor to rely on for additional troops. If an uprising were to break out, Pilate would have to defend the province with only his auxiliary troops.
Pilate eventually concedes to the people and Jesus is condemned to death. But not before Pilate asks for water to wash his hands – an act to absolve himself from the death of Jesus, whom he believes is innocent. In this act, we see the paradox of Pilate: the belief in Jesus’ innocence, and yet still the lack of courage to act upon this belief (despite previously asserting his power to do so) when faced with the choice, and the immediate refusal to accept his role in Jesus’ death.
Notwithstanding the Christian theological argument of the necessity of Jesus’ suffering and death in order to save mankind, Pilate’s complicity in Jesus’ death is often situated in history between cowardice and dilemma. But in Pilate, even more than Judas who betrays Jesus, and Peter who denies him, one can find the personification of the contemporary predicament faced by Christians – as community and as individuals – in what is an increasingly secular world, and especially in the West.
Pilate, who asserts his power in Jesus’ Passion, ultimately relinquished it to the people, arguably to prevent an uprising. While practicing Christians in the West generally do not face such high stakes, they do face a potential paradox currently, that is separate from the general contradictions of worshipping a being who is both Man and God; who said both “Love thy enemy,” and “I came not to bring peace but to bring a sword.” Navigating Christianity inherently means navigating some seemingly opposing values. But perhaps all people, believers or not, religious or not, navigate contradictory values throughout their lives.
Contemporary Christians however, face the additional challenge of how to make Christianity compatible with their increasingly secular environment, without undermining the former and forfeiting the latter. Although this may appear to raise the continuous argument of faith and its role in the culture wars, the challenge and potential paradox go beyond popular political discourse.
Just as Pilate was presented with a choice to “save” Jesus or condemn him, contemporary Christians face a choice of how to “save” the presence of faith in everyday secular life, and from their perspective, in front of crowds that seek an end to such a presence. Consider, for example, the social anxiety that religious people – not just Christians – experience when the subject of prayer in public spaces, or prayer as a response to social ills, is raised. (This experience may be more observable in big cities than in small cities and towns.)
Christians, especially “politically moderate” ones, might see themselves as caught between cowardice and dilemma too. The cowardice is to agree with a political assertion of some who argue that faith, or faith as it influences public life, must be removed from the public space entirely. The dilemma is to choose between this removal, and a refusal that is often encountered with accusations of forcing those without one’s religious values to be subject to it, or put more candidly, “Shoving one’s religion down everyone’s throats.”
Christians, like Pilate, also have power in their contemporary context in the West by virtue of religious freedom, historical influence, and at present, even numbers, as far as identification is concerned. Being a Christian (or being assumed a Christian) in the West is still a position that occupies privilege. While different Western nation-states have privileged some Christian denominations over others, and some have faced prejudice, by and large, the persecution of most Christian groups in the West is meager, if not altogether nonexistent in the contemporary culture.
Still, the tide of a less religious populous is a reality that all religious people must face. The position of Christians is unique however, given their influence in recent history. The potential paradox that lay ahead might see practicing Christians proclaim their power (freedom) to bring faith into public life, all the while heeding to the pressures of the (secular) crowd in political and cultural discourse, and then claiming just as Pilate did, that they are innocent of consequences wherein faith is sentenced to death in the public space.
It must be said – as is often emphasized – there exists a separation of church and state, and rightly so, for the benefit of those who choose to be religious, and those who do not. In that light, those who may praise secularization as a response to religious intolerance and historical injustice must be careful not to then turn to a certain political perspective of agnosticism as the religious default of the state. It is worth wagering too, that religious institutions, for their many historical and current faults, have a net social advantage for societies and communities including social relationships, health, and economic benefits.
In thinking of the Good Friday celebration, Christians will once again remember that Passion story that is the birth of the Christian faith. Pilate will be a feature in it, but his participation will cease to be the focus of the day. Today is about the Passion of the Christ.
Still, after this Easter weekend, practicing Christians may want to revisit Pilate and his role in the Passion. The paradox of Pilate may be a cautionary tale, a societal forecast, or a theological warning for the contemporary Christian; the paradox of Pilate may very well be their own paradox that lay ahead in the not so distant future. Will Christians find a better alternative than Pilate? Or will they too wash their hands?