Pontius Pilate & the Truth

  • Posted: April 11, 2017
  • Category: Blog
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Easter is fast approaching, the yearly denouement of Christmas. Easter isn’t the hyper holiday that Christmas is. As a result, Easter hasn’t been drowned in shopping, parties and cloying movies. Maybe the Easter Bunny/Easter Egg paradox is to blame. Even very small children understand that rabbits don’t lay eggs, whereas Santa Claus and reindeer could have come straight out of a Disney movie. Perhaps the presence of April 15, as well as remaining balances on credit cards from Christmas overindulgence, dampens the possibility of Easter commercialism. Whatever the reason, coloring Easter Eggs and eating Peeps do not shine so bright that Easter is lost in the glare, unlike the fate of Christmas.

But for those of us who try to hold to our faith amid the howling cultural winds, Christmas is the story of a baby’s birth, while Easter is the story of that baby’s later death as a young man. Very different vibe. While the cheer of the season and the deep ruts of well-worn themes often obscure the Christmas story, the Easter story and its message stand naked before us. Even the rites of the church have traditionally recognized this difference. Forty days of Lent mark the coming of Easter, with Phat Tuesday the sole concession to joie de vivre. Jesus Christ in death and resurrection is a different emotional experience for us than Jesus Christ as a baby in a manger. I have certainly found this to be true in my own spiritual life.

At Easter, I often find myself thinking about Pontius Pilate. As my life has gained in years and experience, I find it increasingly hard not to feel compassion, even sympathy, for the man. Most who think of Pilate at all see a harsh Roman governor condemning Christ to a gruesome, almost unimaginably painful and humiliating death. We are blinded by the image of an old white man representing a patriarchal culture oppressing women, people of color and the LGBT community. Even those students of the Bible actually reading the texts see a weak man in a position of power sending Christ to a brutal death, fully aware that Christ is an innocent man. Both images fit our understanding of the world and the Easter story. Easter is a story of good and evil, black and white, no shades of grey. But in the Gospel of John, Pilate says something that haunts, words that hint at complexity and difficult choices.

The scene is a private audience in Pilate’s quarters. On the one hand, Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, representative of the Roman Empire in that time and place. On the other, Jesus, a non-descript Jew bloodied and beaten, freshly brought in from an interrogation and torture that had gone on for hours. Jesus is before Pilate, alone, as his Jewish accusers had refused to dirty themselves by entering a gentile’s dwelling, i.e. Pilate’s audience room. Pilate asks Jesus to defend himself against the charges the Jews have made against him. Pilate is well aware that Jesus is viewed with almost hysterical hostility by the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem. He is looking for any reason to keep Rome and himself apart from this very volatile and dangerous confrontation between Jesus, the Jerusalem mob and the Jewish leaders.

Jesus had remained silent when questioned while the Jewish leaders were present, but now he is alone with the Governor. Pilate asks Jesus to defend himself. He almost pleads with Jesus for a reason to let him go. Jesus responds to Pilate and they talk. In the interchange that follows, Jesus tells Pilate that he came into the world to “testify to the truth”. Pilate answers in words that open doors into dark rooms in my mind. He says, “What is the truth?” I can see and hear his frustration. The faint sneer on his face as he says these words almost palpable.

Men with responsibilities and experience of the world are like that when people around them start speaking of the truth, of what’s right. With all due apologies to Samuel Johnson, “the truth” is almost always the last refuge of the scoundrel. When we lose the argument, when we cannot pay for that which we want, when we want our own way no matter the cost, we take refuge in “the truth”.

What is the truth? I am chilled when I read this passage, because I hear myself. In Pilate’s place, I would say those very words. I often think those very words. The truth is elusive and hard to grasp. But when found, the truth is hard and it is unyielding. I try to speak truth but then it becomes uncomfortable. It becomes expensive. Getting along in the world requires compromise. In business, I have expressed my own view of truth by saying; “being right is very expensive”. The truth makes no allowances for circumstance and demands payment in full.

Jack Nicholson in an unforgettable scene in an otherwise forgettable movie, A Few Good Men, speaks for my relationship with the truth when he says, “Truth, you can’t handle the truth.” Jack Nicholson is right on the money. I can’t handle the truth. The truth is a bright light. Without the cover of shadows, of darkness, I cannot make a living, live with others or even live with myself. There is no need for philosophers or great books to tell us something so simple about truth. We know it. We learn it as children on the playground. We excuse ourselves, calling our compromises little white lies. These bits of darkness, these little white lies, allow us to live in harmony.

As for more serious matters, that’s why we have lawyers. But we comfort ourselves as we dissemble by telling ourselves that we don’t fudge on the important things; we don’t compromise our core values and beliefs. When it’s important, truth will not be compromised. These colors don’t run. But behind our bravado, we fear the truth. The Gospel of John explains our fears with these words:

“The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness understands it not.”

But there are other problems with truth. The truth does not easily reveal itself. The more one tries to find the truth, the more elusive it is. The more one knows about something, the harder it is to know its truth. It is a fact that the mythologies of Greece and Rome included Gods of Truth, both of them female. Perhaps the woman of mystery, now revealing, now hiding herself in an eternal game of seduction has much to say about the truth of truth.

Pontius Pilate knew many truths. Above all, he knew he didn’t want to be in Jerusalem. He spent most of his time in Caesarea, well fortified and a thoroughly Roman city far away from the contentious and prickly Jews of Jerusalem. Instead of the urbane and Adorable Caesarea, Jerusalem seethed with intrigue, reeking of blood and smoke from continual sacrifices at its Temple to a bloodthirsty and implacable deity. Jerusalem was a dangerous place for Romans to be, particularly now at Passover. Roman soldiers and citizens walking the streets alone risked a knife or garrote. To equate the Jerusalem of Jesus time to the Kabul or Fallujah of our own would not be stretching the truth. The Taliban of Afghanistan and the Jewish Zealots walking the streets of Jerusalem in the time of Jesus have much in common.

Pontius Pilate knew another truth. He knew that at the time of Passover, the city of Jerusalem had swelled to a population approaching two million Jews, high on religious fervor. Only a few days before, he had seen uncounted thousands of these Jews lining the road leading into Jerusalem. Crowds were cheering hysterically, waving palm branches and lining the surface of the road with the robes off their backs as this man standing before him had ridden into the city. They had called him, this unnaturally calm wretch standing before him, the Son of David. They had called for this Jesus to be their king. Tens of thousands had cried for this Jesus to rid Judea of the Roman oppressor, to rid Judea of Pontius Pilate and all he stood for. The pitifully small Roman garrison of Ft. Antonia had been powerless to control the streets of Jerusalem that day. He, Pontius Pilate, his wife, their children (?) would die bloody deaths, torn limb from limb, if things got out of hand in this strange and alien city that he hated. A mob of tens of thousands, high on religious fervor, chills the heart of the strongest man.

Pontius Pilate was well aware of another truth. He knew his own upper management very well. Pilate was what we might call a “middle manager” today. He was Governor of Judea responsible to see that taxes were collected and order kept. Upper management was very clear about his simple job description. They wanted tax money sent to Rome and no problems in Judea. Period. Upper management was the Emperor Tiberius, a hard and suspicious man on his best days when younger. Now he was old, paranoid and increasingly given to outbursts of blind rage when he was not carousing in his seaside villa with precocious preteen boys and girls. An ambitious circle of hard men around Tiberius governed in his name in Rome, feeding Tiberius’s vindictive suspicious nature in the service of their own ambitious ends. Anything other than good news from a province such as Judea raised its Governor’s head up in a wicked game of Whack-A-Mole.

Pontius Pilate knew that the Jewish leaders had his number. Already twice before they had put Pilate on notice as to their power in Jerusalem. Twice before, these same arrogant Jewish leaders who demanded Jesus’s crucifixion had instigated rioting in Jerusalem, interrupting the flow of tax money and disturbing the peaceful sleep of upper management. The fact that the Jewish leaders staged the rioting for their own purposes was not lost on Pilate. Even before baseball was invented, Rome had a “three strike” rule. Pilate’s career, most probably even his continued existence, could not afford a third strike.

Pontius Pilate knew that an Idumean family known as the Herod’s ruled much of Judea in Rome’s name. The Herod’s hated both the Jewish leaders and each other. In their turn, hate was not nearly strong enough a word to describe the feelings of the Jewish leaders towards the Herod’s. In addition, the Herod’s were well connected with upper management back in Rome. Everything Pilate did in Judea was the subject of gossipy letters back to the bedrooms of Roman palaces, letters calculated to serve the best interests of the jealous and corrupt family of vipers known as the Herods.

Pontius Pilate knew that the Parthian Empire stretched across a vast expanse to the north and east of his province of Judea. Rome and Parthia, both large and powerful empires, shared an uneasy peace, punctuated by sporadic war. The Middle East of 33 AD was little different than the Middle East of today. Two large Roman armies, commanded by talented and charismatic generals, had met disaster on the desert sands against the Parthians within living memory.

Even more concerning was an incident some thirty years before. A group of highly placed Parthian officials had made a secret visit to Judea, meeting with King Herod, raising tensions between Rome and Parthia to a high pitch. Pointedly, these ministers of the Parthian government, known as Magi, had made no secret of their search for the birth of a prophesied Jewish king, a prospect sure to be heard by Roman ears. It was said, the whispered word on the street, that these Magi had given gifts and homage to this very same man as a baby, this Jesus standing before him. The possibility that Parthia might use political upheaval around this man as a pretext to cause trouble for Rome was a very real concern to Pilate.

Pontius Pilate knew that his wife had complained of a dream concerning this man before him. Because of that dream, she had begged him to stay away from this Jesus. His wife’s plea was profoundly unsettling. Even a chauvinist pig is wary of unsettling household peace, but also Judea was a seriously spooky part of the world. This was not the sane and sensible Roman west, gods were taken seriously in Judea. Dreams were signs; signs and portents meant the gods were involved. Stakes were even higher than they appeared.

Pontius Pilate knew many truths. If he released this man Jesus, his past experience told him that the Jewish leaders would stage riots. Another breakout of riots in Jerusalem and he would be recalled to Rome in disgrace, to face an angry Tiberius. Even if Pilate could keep the inevitable rioting quiet, that sleazy family, the Herod’s, would report that he did not execute a man hailed King of the Jews by the mob in Jerusalem. The letters spread around Rome would call it treason and nothing attracted the paranoid Emperor Tiberius’s attention like reports of treason.

But if he freed Jesus, being recalled to Rome and likely execution was the least of his worries. It was far more likely that this man Jesus would accept the mob’s offer of a kingdom and rise in open revolt, if only to avenge the beatings and humiliations he had endured at the hands of Roman soldiers. Even if Pilate was not torn apart in the street tomorrow by an out of control mob, life would be short if such a rebellion started. Millions of Jews against a few hundred Roman troops could have only one end.

If he executed this man, if he swallowed his pride and acquiesced to the Jewish leaders, the mob was likely to go berserk and tear him limb from limb anyway. His future looked to be in the hands of the mob in either case. It didn’t look like the Jewish leaders could control it at this point anyway. They could stir it up, but could they keep it from exploding? He hated them. They had caused his humiliation before the Imperial court twice before. These arrogant Jews continually and ostentatiously rubbed his nose in their power over him. He would welcome the opportunity to humble them, but this was probably not the time.

I can’t help but think that Pontius Pilate was not such a bad sort as men go. He was a man caught in a very hard and personally frightening situation. He probably wasn’t a very brave man either. Roman governors with soldierly qualities tended to wind up governing provinces along the Rhine or the Danube where the Germanic tribes loomed. It was only twenty years since the Teutoburg Forest disaster in Upper Germania had rocked Rome, had broken the spirit of the now deified Augustus. Judea was more suited to a man with a political skill set, perhaps hosting political dinner parties, rather than leading legions into battle.

It is possible to see in the Scripture the picture of a man maneuvering to keep Jerusalem and Judea from simply exploding into bloody revolt all around him. One can even make the case that Pontius Pilate was an honorable man doing the best he could to keep the peace though he has only a weak hand. Even though he sees in Jesus a great threat to himself, Pilate tries to offer him a way out, not once but again and again. But Jesus will not take the way out because he has been sent to testify to the Truth. As an aside, it is interesting to think that Pilate himself may be the most likely source of their conversation recorded in Scripture.

And that is the troubling part of the Easter story. Pontius Pilate knew many truths, but when the Truth stood before him, he did not see it. Frightened and beset by problems, he did not recognize the Incarnate Son of God standing before him. He saw only his own truths. From the Scripture, it is clear that Pilate knew Jesus to be an innocent man. Yet he surrendered Jesus to be executed by the Jews in the Roman fashion by Roman soldiers, assuring the Jerusalem mob of Rome’s complicity in the execution. He did the bidding of the Jewish leaders that he hated because he saw no other alternative.

Pontius Pilate could have obeyed his conscience and saved Jesus, at least for a time. If he did so, he would probably be executed back in Rome for treason, having protected a man he had every reason to believe was Rome’s sworn enemy. Of course he risked not only his own life. His wife, his children, his extended family would likely share in whatever punishment came to him. Roman justice assumed that treason was an infectious disease. Treason infected not only the man, but extended to his entire family as well.

His fear of what might happen was not the frightened worry of a cowardly man. Thirty years later, the situation Pilate feared finally came to pass. The Jews revolted. Roman forces in Judea were massacred. In response, Rome assembled an army under Titus Flavius Vespasian, future Emperor and founder of the Flavian Dynasty, to put the uprising down.

In the bloody years that followed, ending with the sacking of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple, the chronicles of the time say that over one million Jews died in Jerusalem alone. Those chronicles also say that many of those slain did not die by Roman hands but instead were killed by fellow Jews during internal fighting. It is said that the construction of the Coliseum in Rome was paid for by the gold found in Jerusalem’s Temple.

What am I to think of Pontius Pilate? What does my faith ask me to think of Pontius Pilate? Despite his terrible deed and twenty centuries of vilification, I can’t help myself sympathizing with him. He was a man so much like me. He was capable and ambitious; else he would not have risen to be Governor of a province. Of course by our standards he was cruel and callous. He ordered Jesus to be flogged and allowed him to be crucified. But in that cruelty, he was simply a man of his time and culture, doing no more or no less than he had been taught or was expected.

Pontius Pilate was caught in a hard place. Like me, he was skeptical of claims to the truth, of those claiming to be in the right. I have no doubt that he would agree with me “being right is expensive”. He couldn’t see the Truth amidst all the truths of his life. Even if he did see the Truth, it demanded more than he was prepared to give. His encounter with truths of his world hardened him. When Truth appeared before him, he was too hard, too callused, to see him or respond to him.

Pontius Pilate has been seen through the ages as an evil man, the man who crucified Christ. We like the characters in our stories painted in black and white. We see Pilate and his enemies, the Jewish leaders, painted black. They are all evil men. Not like us at all.

Those parsing the texts of Scripture and teaching our children the stories of the Bible are correct. Pontius Pilate was a weak man, complicit in conspiracy and condemning to a brutal death a man whom he knew to be innocent. Pontius Pilate ignored his conscience and did what was wrong. He was an evil man. But then men like Pontius Pilate are why Easter was necessary in the first place.

But then I am a weak man too. In his place, would I have done any differently? That is why Easter was necessary for me.





2 Responses to “Pontius Pilate & the Truth”

  1. usr753 says:

    Pilate’s reluctance to execute Jesus in the gospels has been seen by Anchor Bible Dictionary and critical scholars as reflecting the authors’ agenda.

  2. Ed Holub says:

    What a well written article. I had to read again, with some foot notes in my Bible, John 19: 1-16. I appreciated your
    dissertation on the “truth”.

    Unlike you, I never sympathized with Pilate, his “weakness” being his downfall. But now I understand your thought
    process. Many factors are involved here, including the Jews, Pilate, his wife, Caesar, Tiberius, The Herods,the Magi,
    and the Lord Jesus Christ. But then, did the Lord order these people and these events to pave the way for Jesus’
    death and resurrection? The 4th last sentence in your article makes me believe such.

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