Pontius Pilate was prefect of Judaea and Samaria between 26 and 36, responsible to the governor of Syria. Like most Roman nobility he was raised to use brutality when necessary to achieve personal and state goals. Thus when he came to Judaea he was convinced of the need to suppress dissent in Rome's name and used the techniques necessary to do it. Execution of prisoners, particularly messianic claimants and rebels, was part of his job and he did it without pity. Yet one day he encountered a different kind of prisoner.
Pontius Pilate is a controversial character in the Christian story, but he was a man facing up to a strange and charismatic prisoner who challenged his certainties.
Pilate has always intrigued me, but I have never known how to approach him. I toyed with a novel, but could not get it right. Do I approach him through the academic discipline of history; but this is inadequate to deal with religious issues? Can I approach him through a purely faith standpoint, but Pilate is merely a figure in the Passion drama, but not part of faith as such [though mentioned in the creed?] Purely psychological analysis is not my forte, and anyway, it misses the spiritual dimension of the process. I propose to look at Pilate from the standpoint of religious experience, trying to uncover the dimensions of the spiritual encounter that he underwent when he met Jesus. Religious experience has been one of my academic specialisms.
Photograph by Ian Scott
Pilate's Palace Courtyard at Caesarea
Pilate Until the Trial of Jesus
Pilate was the prefect of Judaea between 26 and 36. There are claims that he was anti-Jewish, and they have given rise to the view that he was a protege of the emperor Tiberius' favoured adviser, Sejanus, who was also anti-Jewish. Sending the Jews' enemy to Judaea was a provocative act. Some have disputed the connection with Sejanus, but was hard to be promoted at that period without Sejanus' support. Sejanus fell from power and was executed for treason, and it has been suggested that Pilate's connection with a known traitor undermined him and led to his weakness in the face of the claims that if he did not execute Jesus he was no friend of Caesar [the emperor Tiberius,who was not a good man, had become paranoid after his supposed friend Sejanus had betrayed him.]
The Catholic Encyclopaedia has a useful insight when it says that Pilate seems a type of worldly man, anxious to do what is right, as long as it does not involve any personal sacrifice. But I do wonder whether he had any genuine religious feelings. I suspect that in an age when Roman nobles were often cynical about the gods, Pilate may have been more religious than the average. My reason for thinking this is that early in his reign he smuggled some pagan standards into Jerusalem, against the specific imperial instruction to respect Jewish sensitivities. Why would he do this to provoke complaints and possibly worse early in his career? Possibly because he had a religious feeling for the standards. There is also the affair of the shields, when Tiberius made him remove certain shields that he had displayed in Jersualem as they contained pagan symbols. Why do it unless there was some religious sensitivity there?
The incident of the aquaduct shows some sense of right in Pilate's character. Temples in the ancient world used to fund public works, but the Jersualem temple had an exemption. It was therefore amassing wealth in vast quantities, which was doing no good for anyone, and the chief priestly families were growing richer all the time. But when Jerusalem needed a new aquaduct, Pilate decided that the temple was going to stump up the cash and that he would make it do so. Results: serious complaints to Tiberius and Pilate had to back down, again! Yet he was morally in the right here. Why should not the temple pay up for public works?
Photo by Derek Winterburn. This is an inscription mentioning Pilate
Pilate and his wife Claudia Procula did not like living at Jersualem. It was a mountain top citadel, cold at times and the people did not like them. So Pilate and Claudia decided to dwell in a fortified villa in Caesarea on the warm and beautiful Mediterranean coast. Yet at major festivals Pilate had to go to Jersualem, where he stayed in the Castle Antonina, along with his rival Herod Antipas, also in Jerusalem for the festival. Herod was even less popular with the Jews than Pilate was. Poor Claudia Procula was towed along after Pilate, doing her wifely duties and probably longing to be back by the seaside.
Marcus Borg suggests that on the Sunday prior to the crucifixion [now known as Palm Sunday] Pilate arrived in imperial grandeur, processing into Jerusalem on his war horse, surrounded by troops and servants,along with officials in their grandeur, a presentation of the might of imperial Rome. But as Pilate was entering on one side of Jersualem, coming in through the Eastern gate was a rag tag band led by someone riding in a donkey. Borg thinks that Jesus was deliberately challenging the imperial pretensions. The whole affair was a staged act of comedy to prick the bubble of worldly pretensions.
Pilate would have known of Jesus. The Himis manuscript found in Asia claims that he had had spies on Jesus all the time. This is realistic. He would therefore have known that Jesus was non-violent, but was hot to handle. In that riot torn-land Pilate was probably grateful that there was a preacher talking peace rather than revolution. He would have known of the healings and exorcisms, and like many pagans he was sensitive to spiritual power from a range of sources. The prefect was therefore aware that he was dealing with someone special here. In this he differed from Jews, who responded to Jesus from within their own faith: many loved him, but others thought him an imposter, a false messiah. Pilate had neither these advantages or disadvantages that Jewish faith brought. As a pagan he simply took the view that there was a holy man with a lot of power [Josephus confirms that Jesus did mighty acts, and the Jewish writings attribute them to magic, so he must have done them.] But this would have made Pilate nervous. A spiritually powerful person on the loose in his territory, that's not an easy one to handle! Furthermore, pagans accepted that there were many gods, so Pilate would have thought that Israel's god existed, and as it was likely that Jesus had this god on his side, you had to be careful.The strategy was probably for Pilate to sit out the festival and wait for everyone, including Jesus, to go home.
But Pilate reckoned without the priestly plot. Jesus had annoyed the chief priests. He had done the worse that you could do to a rich person. Come between him and his money. The priestly families were corrupt. They had turned the outer court of the temple into a market, where only they could trade, and where they sold sacrificial animals at high prices. Furthermore, they insisted that only special money could be used in the temple, so there were priestly money changers who were taking commission from the temple-goers. The bazaar of the sons of Annas was a great money spinner for the chief priests. Note that the ordinary priests, whom Jesus never condemned, and the pharisees had no part in this racket. Then Jesus came along with a large crowd and trashed the place. A day's trading was lost. Jesus doom was sealed. The chief priests were out to get him, and Pilate was being sucked into their plan.
Jesus of Nazareth
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Charisma and Presence
I must delineate the position on Scripture that I take, as this is the academically honest way to work. There are three broad positions: liberal [why they use this word I know not] conservative, and literalist. Literalists believe that every word is literally correct. This is a hard position to sustain. Liberals believe that the whole story is broadly fictional, to express existential truths. Conservatives, of which I am one, believe that the gospels attempted to tell the truth about Jesus. tried to get their facts right, but sometimes did not, and that the writers had to organize their material as well as they could, but did put their personal slant on it. Thus I believe that the events of the gospels did occur, but that total accuracy is not available. The writers had to make do with a jumble of facts emanating from the church and the general population of Judaea.They had to impose a religious and historical order onto them.
Here we come to the nub of the encounter, the idea of presence. There are hints in the gospels that Jesus' word had the ability to have deep impact on the spirit. Jesus had this strange quaity that we call presence, which purely academic history cannot handle. In Luke 24 when the two disciples meet the risen Lord on the road to Emmaus, but do not recognize him until he breaks bread with them, they have the hindsight to say "Did not our hearts burn within us when he explained the Scriptures to us" as though this sensation was what happened to people who listened to Jesus' word. We also see in the healings of Jairus daughter and the young man of Nain that his word could penetrate the depths of a non-conscious person. In the cases of these two, he summoned them from the edge of death.The paralytic man in Mark chapter 2 heard Jesus' word telling him that his sins were forgiven, and he was so assured that the [probably] hysterical paralysis caused by guilt was relieved. Bornkamm, writing in Jesus of Nazareth, suggests that Jesus had authority, the ability to assert himself in encounters with others. What we are dealing with here is a charismatic presence. Meeting Jesus was, I believe, a profound religious experience; and Pilate was about to meet him.
Photgraph by Midiman
The Arrest and Trial.
Pilate had a minor role in Jesus' arrest. The taking of Jesus on the Mount of Olives was done by the chief priests' servants and a detachment of Jewish temple guards. John's gospel mentions the presence of the chiliarch, commander of a thousand, as part of the arresting band. The chiliarch was the officer in charge of a cavalry ala, the type of unit based at Jerusalem. Interestingly, it is John's gospel that says that Jesus was pierced by a lancea [lance] which was the type of weapon used by Roman cavalrymen,and this consistency in fact gives weight to the story. The presence of the chiliarch shows the importance placed on the arrest, but the ala [cohort] was present probably as back up. Pilate was concerned only with public order.
We know not whether Pilate thought that his role was over with the arrest, but he was astute enough to know that the priests wanted the death sentence, so he would have been on the alert. But he did not like the chief priests, after the affair of the aquaducts, and was disposed to do them no favours.Furthermore, he wanted no trouble.
But in his encounter with Jesus he displays a level of uncertainty strange in a Roman official used to exercising power. Academics have thought that this was due to early Christians trying to excuse their Roman persecutors and pin the blame onto the Jews. Maybe there is an element of this, but academic history has completely failed to see the significance of religious experiences. Pilate was encountering a strong presence/personality and knew it. When Jesus refused to answer his questions he did not behave like a Roman official, who would simply have passed the death penalty without further ado for disrespecting imperial authority, but rather points out that he has the power to kill Jesus, whereupon Jesus stated that he would not have power unless it had been given him from on high. The calm and assertive strength of Jesus' presence would not have been missed by the prefect. The presence would have come through in the moments of silence, which can be a profound mode of communication. Pilate sensed the profound authority of the prisoner before him.
Pilate could handle Jesus statement that his kingdom was not of this world, as he would have heard of sacred kings. There was in Italy the king of the wood at Nemi, who maintained his position by fighting off all challengers. As long as the sacred king obeyed the law and paid taxes, no problems.
We are told that when Pilate was told that Jesus deserved to die because he had claimed to be God's son, he became nervous. Pagans thought that gods could impregnate human females, and he may have suspected that one with this level of presence just might be a divine offspring. Pilate was getting out of his depth and knew it. Worse, we are told by Matthew that Claudia Procula sent him a message saying that she had been disturbed by a dream she had about Jesus. Pagans took dreams seriously and this would have worried him. But Pilate was trapped between a charismatic figure and the threat that the emperor might be annoyed with him; and Tiberius was a nasty character. Jesus might be a son of God, but Tiberius was in Pilate's eyes a real god and was likely to take issue if a messianic claimant was let off the hook. He yielded to blackmail and allowed the execution.
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The problem should have been disposed of with the burial, and Pilate granted a request for Roman guards to be stationed at the tomb. But on the Sunday he heard reports that the tomb as empty. Here we come upon an often overlooked point. Matthew's Gospel tells us that the guards claimed that the disciples had stolen the body while they were asleep; but Roman guards who slept on duty were executed. This lot were not, so Pilate must have thought that they had some valid explanation. Matthew says that the guards were bribed by the priests to tell this tale. We cannot but imagine Pilate laughing to himself about the priests' discomfiture.
But neither he nor the other culprits lasted long after the crucifixion. Caiphas was dismissed in 36; Herod was sacked by Tiberius in 37, on false charges. Pilate made a catastrophic misjudgment when he took Samaritan worshippers for rebel and slaughtered them. He was recalled to Rome in disgrace, but before his trial was due, Tiberius died. But Caligula seemed to have had no time for Pilate, and his life was hard until he finally committed suicide in 39, so it is believed. The Ethiopian church believes that he converted to Christianity and honours him as a saint. It is also said that Claudia converted to the Christian faith, and she would not have been the only high ranking Roman matron to do so. But none of this has been proved