When examining a historical person's life we have to factor in many points. We are all persons in a historical situation which shapes our beliefs, values, judgments and personalities. Our opportunities also determine who we are and what we do. Yet moral character and the choices that it leads us to make are significant. But sheer luck also matters greatly. Sometimes we find ourselves in situations where we are overwhelmed by forces greater than we can handle. These can be differences of physical or economic power, but at times we might encounter other forces that challenge our powers to cope.
Pontius Pilate was unfortunate to have found himself in a situation that was well beyond his capacity to handle.
The Road to Jerusalem
Pontius Pilate never imagined the role in history that he would play. He did not come from a great family, but a middle ranking one, so scholars believe. The Pontii were of the social class between the [high ranking] Patricians and the [[low ranking] Plebeians. They were of the equestrian class, and were not even truly Roman, as they were Sabines, members of a Latin tribe who had been subjected by Rome centuries before.
Nothing is known of his early life, but he almost certainly followed the standard career path for an aspiring person of his social rank, which invariably began with military service, in his case probably on the Rhine, which is where the action was. The name Pilate may be derived from pilum, meaning javelin, so it is possible that Pontius may have been adept with this weapon. He must have been a successful soldier, though he was not famed for any great deeds, otherwise he would not have had advancement.
Advancement depended upon one's getting the support of people powerful at the court of the emperor, who at this time was Tiberius. Some scholars have suggested that Pilate might have been a protege of Seianus [Sejanus] a freeman who had risen to favour at Tiberius' court, but who was later executed for an ambitious and totally unrealistic scheme to assassinate Tiberius and become emperor. This is a possibility, but is unprovable.
Advancement in imperial service was lucrative. Officials were expected to keep order and ensure that the flow of taxes was maintained, and they had the role of dispensing justice, which involved the right to pass the death penalty. But tax collection offered opportunities for profit, and officials could become rich on the process. As long as they kept order! The taking of bribes was not unknown.
Pilate was not the governor. He was a mere prefect or procurator, subject to the Roman governor of Syria. This meant that Pilate did not have legionary troops at his disposal. Instead he had auxiliary troops, more lightly armed than legionaries. Some auxiliaries were cavalry. John's Gospel mentions that the Chiliarch [literally commander of a thousand cavalry] was present at Jesus' arrest. Jesus was speared by a lancea [lance] a cavalry weapon. There were probably other troops at Pilate's disposal, but we do not know who they were.
Governing Judea was a job, but Pilate disliked Jerusalem. It was crowded, and replete with people who hated him. He preferred to reside at Caesarea, on the warm Mediterranean coast, away from Judea's sometimes cold holy citadel. But he had to go to Jerusalem for major festivals, to keep public order in a politically unstable country. There he would stay in Castle Antonia, safe from trouble. It was at one Passover festival sometime in the early thirties, maybe 31 AD, that he set off from Caesarea on a routine journey that would cement his place in history. It is known as moral luck, your reputation depending on events beyond your control; and Pilate's moral luck had just run out.
Stepping Into the Cauldron.
Pilate does not seem adept at human relationships, tact was not his strong point. Early in his term in office he had annoyed the Jews by smuggling his standards into Jerusalem against the agreement that Rome had with the Jews. The standards had pagan symbols on them. This is sometimes known as the incident of the shields. When his action was discovered the result was the predictable outbreak of rioting. Later on came the aquaduct incident, when Pilate decided that a new aquaduct for Jerusalem would be funded from temple tax, against the agreement with Rome. The Jewish authorities complained to Rome and Pilate was again forced to back down. He seems good at picking fights that he couldn't win. The chief priests had got the measure of Pilate. They had beaten him on two occasions. They would have been confident that it would be third time lucky!
Then there was Herod Antipas, Tetrarch [client king] of Galilee. Herod's father, Herod the Great, had ruled over Israel, but Antipas had only got Galilee, when Rome appointed a prefect to rule Judaea and Samaria. Herod yearned for his father's land to be returned. Herod would be staying with Pilate at Jerusalem, he dared not stay anywhere else, as the Jews hated him at least as much as they hated Pilate. The two men disliked each other. Not a happy situation!
There were the Zealots, a terrorist group who assassinated Romans and collaborators. Pilate could almost guarantee a murder during the festival from them.
Into this boiling pot of violence and hatred rode an itinerant preacher and his small band of religious enthusiasts. Surely, Pilate must have thought, these were the least of his considerations.
Pilate must have heard of Jesus, and he would have had Jesus spied on. But nowhere in the gospels do we read of Pilate attempting to interfere with Jesus' ministry or harm him. He probably did not see Jesus as a threat to Rome. Whether he had good will to Jesus we do not know, but anyone who had annoyed the chief priests, as Jesus had, would have earned some good will from Pilate.
Romans were pragmatic about gods, they believed that the world was full of gods and spirits of various degrees of power, all demanding respect and capable of being stroppy if they did not get it, rather like mafia dons. Gods were capable of taking a fancy to unexpecting, but inevitably soon to be expectant human females. The offspring of such unions had superhuman powers. Besides these divine beings there was a world in which it was possible to be a magician. Pilate would have heard of Jesus' strange deeds, but he probably thought that Jesus was a benign magician.
Despite a minor incident in the temple in which only the priests who ran the temple market were discomfited, and an incident with the Zealots, whose leader Barabbas was now in the cells, the week was going well. Then the priests had the preacher arrested. Pilate had supplied troops to keep order during the arrest, but it was temple guards and the chief priests' servants who did the job. But Pilate could not have been happy. The city could reach flash point very quickly. Was his luck running out?
I will not retell the gospel story, but will focus on the way in which Pilate mentally weakened as the situation unfolded. He had ridden in on a warhorse and wearing imperial purple confident in his authority to control events and deal death. But a few days later the priests had sucked him into an arrest that was not on his agenda. He was not as fully in control as he had thought. Next day the chief priests arrived with a demand that he pass the death penalty, and they had a mob of supporters. Pilate had dealt death before, but killing your enemies is one thing, killing at the behest of your enemies is another. Pilate sent for Jesus, confident that the victim would be terrified into acquiescence.
Prisoners would have grovelled before the prefect, but Jesus was initially silent, apparently unafraid. The puzzled prefect asked Jesus did he not know that Pilate had the power to execute him, but Jesus replied that he would not have had power unless it had been given from above. It was, I believe, at that moment that Pilate felt the power and authority of Jesus' word, a word that spoke deeply to the heart and mind. One sentence had shown the hollowness of Pilate's power. The prefect was confronting a spiritual reality that he had never met before. But he was now trapped between a strange spiritual power, insistent priests and a mob of their supporters. A riot was brewing and in the narrow Middle Eastern streets of Jerusalem a riot was near to Hell. Control was slipping from Pilate's grip.
He tried to appease the mob by saying that Jesus was innocent, but he would flog him [ a brutal process with a multi-thonged bone-tipped whip] but the priests who were inciting the mob were in control on the ground, and they told Pilate that Jesus deserved to die because he claimed to be the Son of God, and we are told that Pilate's fears increased. I believe that it was then that the pagan Pilate had a flash of insight: the strange preacher and healer with his charismatic character may well be the offspring of a deity. Pagans believed that it had happened in the past. Had it happened again? Maybe Pilate began to fear that he was crossing a god.
But when the chief priests told him that if he released Jesus he was no friend of Caesar [John's Gospel chapter 19] they were trapping Pilate in a vice between a non-violent character who claimed to be the Son of God and a very violent one, an emperor who claimed to be a god. Caught in such a trap the once confident official handed Jesus over to be crucified.
Pilate almost fades from the gospel story, and in the Acts of the Apostles, which recounts the life of the early church, he plays no part and does not seem to have persecuted Christians. The persecutors in Judea were the chief priests and on one occasion Herod Agrippa the first, Pilate's successor.
But two incidents deserve mentioning. The first is that Pilate gave permission for Jesus' body to be taken down and buried. We cannot speculate with certainty on Pilate's motives for this act of mercy, but he may have been feeling guilty at a killing that he knew was unjust.
However, in the account of the events of Sunday morning he remains in the background. Pilate had appointed a squad of guards to police the tomb, but on the third day the tomb was open and Jesus' body had disappeared. Three gospels make no mention of the guards, but Matthew 28 says that they were shaken by fear and became as dead men. Scared, by the sound of it. But Matthew goes on to say that the guards put about the story that the apostles had stolen the body while they slept, but that the priests had agreed to square matters with Pilate. How historical is this account we cannot say, but the tomb was empty, the body gone and the guards fled.
The problem with this story is that sleeping on duty carried the death penalty, as did leaving one's post except when confronted by superior force. The guards were guilty of the latter and were confessing to the former. So why did Pilate not execute them? Had they encountered a situation beyond the powers of mere mortals to handle? He seems to have accepted their story. Maybe he understood their plight.
Pilate lasted in his post until 37 AD, when he made an ill-tempered attack on a band of Samaritans and was summoned back to Rome to stand trial before Tiberius. But Tiberius died before the trial and it is unclear whether the trial took place. After this there is no more to be said about him, save that the Coptic and Ethiopian churches believe that he and his wife made their peace with Christ and became Christians. These churches honour them as saints.
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