Dilemma or staged drama — is Pilate’s hesitancy real?
Jesus stands before Pilate, and in the confrontation between them, two worlds collide. The Man from Nazareth embodies the prophetic critique of the corruptions of power, and the Roman procurator represents the most highly organized form of worldly power the world has thus far seen. In this clash of competing interests, Jesus will be scourged, flagellated, and executed in Rome’s cruelest fashion.
And yet, in the Passion narrative, the figure of Pilate is most easily read as curiously passive and weak. It would seem, and has seemed to readers through the ages, that Pilate is hounded into crucifying Jesus by the insistence of the high priest and his supporters. Surrounding this scene is an even more curiously fickle crowd, most often identified (or misidentified, as we shall see) with the same folks who hailed Jesus’ entrance to the City with “hosannahs.”
Gospel distortion of Pilate?
The problem with this picture is that we know from rather firm historical records that Pilate was so excessively cruel that the Emperor recalled him from his position for making matters worse—in particular crucifying too many people. His “iron fist” policy in the face of Jewish troublemakers was counter-productive, much as the British policy of tough crackdown on the colonial protesters in Boston in 1775 backfired badly.
In the face of the contradiction between the New Testament narrative and the Roman records, many modern biblical critics decline to give any credit to the Passion’s portrait of Pilate. They see the story as it comes to us as an obvious attempt to shift the blame for Jesus death to “the Jews” by a second generation Jesus movement in order to protest their own blamelessness with regard to sedition or disloyalty to a government scrutinizing them after the catastrophic Jewish rebellion of 66-73 C.E., Romans like Pilate, Caligula, and Nero had provoked.
It certainly seems that there is a growing desire to appear reasonably “safe” to Roman authorities in the development of the gospel tradition—and therefore to highlight the role of Caiaphas and his supporters. This was no doubt a burning necessity for a group worshipping a Man convicted of sedition, and carting around the sacred scriptures of a people who rebelled against the Empire just as the Romans were beginning to notice the Christian movement. But does that mean the character of Pilate in the Story is wholly fictionalized? Or is there a way of reading the text that can reconcile Pilate’s public show of reluctance in the Gospels with his notoriously harsh rulership tactics? Pilate the cruel cynic?
Consider this reading that makes sense of the text, at least to me: what if the portrait of the vacillating, uncertain Pilate is based in a cynical, perhaps even sadistic tactic by the Roman governor? Pilate’s in-your-face tactics have already aroused protests to Rome—his bringing the pagan god-laden standards of the legion into the holy City, his erecting the image of the Roman eagle on an entrance to the Temple itself, and his swift and vindictive punishment for people accused of resisting Roman overlordship.
What if he has told Caiaphas that it is on the Jewish leadership to keep things in hand this Passover. After all, he keeps the high priest’s vestments for the fall Day of Atonement under lock and key in the fortress Antonia, overlooking the Temple—the vestments for the crucial New Year’s “Days of Awe” that annually allow Israel to shed the burden of the past year’s sins.
What if he has decided that he’s not going to be the “bad guy” this time and risk calling Rome’s attention to him after the recent protests? So, when the high priest, responding to Pilate’s demand that he “handle it” comes to turn this disturber of the peace over to Roman authority for sedition, Pilate plays “prove it to me,” and feigns perplexity before witnesses. What if his making the high priest plead for Jesus’ execution is a callous act of humiliation of the Jewish leader, every false statement of reluctance twisting the knife further? Then, finally, he “gives in” with a missive to Rome already in mind if needed which will say, “The local authorities convinced me this religious teacher was really dangerous. I didn’t offend them this time.”
As novel as this reading of the text may be, it reconciles the cruel Pilate we know from history and the vacillating milquetoast of the narrative. He would not be the first person with all the power concentrated in his hands to make somebody else be the fall guy for his own actions—which brings us back to Jesus and Pilate facing each other, each representing a very different approach to power.
Conflicting approaches to power
For Pilate and Rome, power is imperium—power over. For Jesus and his Way, power is power with, power for, and power to be shared, even given away. Jesus gives people power—charismatic power to disciples whom he trains in the ways of healing prayer and exorcism and personal power to people he delivers from disempowering demons and disease. For him, leadership is all about serving the needs of people so that they can become more powerful in service to God’s desires.
One has to careful here not to fall into the trap of “good Jesus/ bad Romans.” Pilate represents a particularly vicious exercise of Roman power, so much so he loses his job. Rome is not the stereotypical tyrannical villain of Hollywood epics, and the Romans certainly don’t see themselves that way. Rome has ended hundreds of years of warfare in the Mediterranean basin, cleared the sea lanes of pirates so goods can be shipped safely, built a remarkable system of international highways that facilitate travel and commerce—all part of the fabled “Pax Romana” that the majority of Mediterranean peoples found a welcome relief.
Moreover, the shift from direct Senate governance of the provinces to the growing Imperial bureaucracy and more highly organized military had ended some of the more egregious corruption of the past century, when Senators went out to be governors and plundered the provinces. While Rome will not tolerate rebellion, it has brought many blessings to the world. Rome will even allow the Jews a special dispensation not to participate in the rituals of reverence to the “genius” or “divinity” of the City and Emperor so long as they pray for the Emperor in the Temple. Jesus seems, and the early Christians surely did, give some room to “render to Caesar what is Caesar’s” — pay your taxes, obey the law, even “honor the Emperor,” as St. Paul puts it.
But, while Rome is keeping the peace, Jesus is clear that their power system is not meant by God to be center stage in human affairs. Power-over may be necessary as a outer safeguard of social order, but the God Jesus serves wants center stage to be a place where power is shared by people who lead other people. (This doesn’t imply pure democracy, of course, which never seems to have found traction in the early Christian movement, but it does mean “servant leadership,” one that empowers people to grow to full stature.)
Neither Pilate, nor Caiaphas, for that matter, is interested in Jesus’ Way—nor have most leaders been. As a recent president said, with a grin and a chuckle, “It would be a lot easier if I were dictator.” What Jesus stands for, even if Pilate had any interest in understanding it, would be, quite exactly, revolutionary. And so the charge against Jesus—that of a dangerous “revolutionary”—was, on the one hand, a cruel libel, but on the other ironically accurate.
I am a Christian in New Jersey with deep roots in and respect for the "generous orthodoxy" tradition of spiritual wisdom and for the insights of other spiritual pathways. Increasingly concerned about what this world-wide wisdom, particulary the Abrahamic prophetic message, should be saying about current affairs, both religious and secular, I finally decided to do this blog. Beside this, I love science fiction/fantasy, great mystery novels, world history, political history, poetry, music of most any kind, tennis, and art.
All these blogs are copyright by Robert C. Morris, all rights reserved.