The Passion of Pontius Pilate

As we approach Holy Week and Easter, I’ve been re-reading the gospel accounts of the events surrounding Jesus’s crucifixion. At the climactic moment of his conviction and sentencing, the Roman governor Pontius Pilate offers a choice to the assembled crowd: spare one of the condemned from his fate, either Jesus or the criminal Barabbas. In the liturgy, when reading this part of the gospels on Good Friday, the congregation plays the role of the crowd, selecting Jesus to be crucified.

Fairly certain the mob is mistaken about the man-god’s guilt, Pilate fidgets. “Why, what evil hath he done?” The mob is more interested in retribution than a fair trial. Pilate buckles and the execution proceeds: “he took water, and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this just person.” (These quotations are from Matthew, though the accounts of Mark and Luke are similar.)

The governor’s unenviable situation resembles the moral challenge of all elected leaders in a representative democracy–though by this time Rome was of course an autocracy and Pilate a political appointee–to balance personal conviction against public demand. To satisfy the crowd’s demand would be profoundly unjust. To stand in their way would have been disastrous and perhaps impossible (Matthew says, “When Pilate saw that he could prevail nothing…”).

Apart from Jesus and Mary, Pilate is the only man named in the Apostles’ Creed and its variants. We don’t mention the disciples, we don’t recognize any individual prophet–only Pilate, spokesman of Rome, civil servant, and pagan, appears in the basic statement of Catholic and Protestant faith. Creation is discussed without Adam, the incarnation without the apostles, prophecy without Elijah; why not the crucifixion without Pilate? This may be an accident of history, an effort by the early Christian leaders who developed the original “Old Roman Symbol” to establish canonical belief in the crucifixion as a definite historical event in contrast to the contemporaneous polytheistic landscape of myth and legend. It may serve as a reminder of the severity of Jesus’s suffering–not only did he “suffer death and was buried” but also endured hours of torture, which is useful to remember in order to emphasize the cosmic importance of his sacrifice. Still, two millennia of Christians intoning “crucified for us under Pontius Pilate” seems a heavy burden for a provincial governor’s soul.

Pilate is regularly castigated in Christian dialogue as not only a ruthless dictator but an impotent coward who sacrificed righteousness to placate the mob. It seems to me that his choice was more complex than that. Protecting Jesus would likely have jeopardized the precarious political order of Jerusalem and perhaps all of Judea, already a volatile and violent region. And there’s little reason to think Pilate could have stopped them that day had he tried. That doesn’t justify his decision to sanction a false prosecution–“it’s too hard” is never a convincing excuse for abandoning principle–but it does make it a curious thing that Pilate is so disparaged. Didn’t he, in the end, show a good deal more compassion and virtue than the crowd? And after all, isn’t the moral message of Good Friday that we all have the capacity to act as vindictively as those who forced Pilate’s hand?

In the end I’m less concerned with Pilate’s modern public image than the kind of political behavior it encourages among Christians. Fixating on Pilate’s responsibility is blame-shifting. It’s like raging at our own elected officials, who, faulty as they may be, are charged with the impossible task of mediating their own convictions and their constituents’ demands, in order to lessen our own perceived role and responsibility in maintaining civic health and promoting good governance. Imagine that.

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