God’s People, part 229: Pilate

Read John 18:28-40; 19:1-16

“Pilate saw that he wasn’t getting anywhere and that a riot was developing. So he sent for a bowl of water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood. The responsibility is yours!’”  (Matthew 27:24, NLT)

When we think of God’s people, we tend to think one of two things. We might think of the Israelites who were God’s “chosen people”, or we might think of specific characters in the Bible. Either way, we tend to idealize the people we are thinking about. For instance, we may think that God’s people are super faithful, holy, perform miracles and live wholly devout and righteous lives. Unfortunately, this idealism enables us to distance ourselves from being God’s people, because we feel that we fall short of those ideals. As such, I have decided to write a devotion series on specific characters in the Bible in order to show you how much these Biblical people are truly like us, and how much we are truly called to be God’s people.

Pontius_Pilate_BustPart 229: Pilate. For a man central in the capital punishment of Jesus of Nazareth, there isn’t a whole lot known about Pontius Pilate. As far as is known he was a part of the well-established Pontii family, who were originally of the plebeian class. Plebs were the general population of free Roman Citizens and were not a part of the ruling Patrician class. Thus, Pilate’s family genealogy was of humble origins during the Roman Republic; however, the Pontii family flourished in the Roman Empire, and the family eventually attained the consulship, which was, at the time of the Empire, a symbolic representative of Rome’s heritage.

Pilate, himself, was appointed as prefect of Jerusalem in 26 C.E. Nothing is really known of him prior to that date. A prefect was a military officer who was appointed by the Emperor as a governor of a less important province of the Empire. At the time, Judaea was a province that was an annex (or extension) of the province of Syria. They typical term length for prefect was 1-3 years, Pilate stayed in his position until 36 C.E., a whopping ten years.

The only primary historical sources we have to rely on in regard to Pontius Pilate are the first century Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus, the Alexandrian-Jewish Philosopher and Historian Philo, and the New Testament Gospel accounts. Both Josephus and Philo describe Pilate as a brutal prefect and details some events that are seemingly left out of the Gospel accounts. This has led some scholars to argue that the New Testament Gospel writers were trying to sterilize and soften Pilate’s role in Jesus’ death in order to (A) not upset the Romans too much by the writings or (B) to lay more of the blame on the Jewish groups that were kicking Christian Jews out of the synagogues.

With that said, not all scholars subscribe to that theory and a close reading of the Gospels actually lead one to dismiss it altogether. First, the Gospel’s main focus with Pilate is on his part in the trial of Jesus of Nazareth. Aside from that, they don’t really mention him at all because, until he comes face-to-face with the Roman Prefect, there is no real reason to talk about him. Second, a close reading of the Gospels uncovers Jesus talking about a time when Pilate was particularly brutal in his dealings with the Galileans (people from Jesus’ home region):

“At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”
(Luke 13:1-3, NRSV)

It is clear that the Gospel writers were not trying to soften who Pilate was and, in my humble opinion, we get a fuller account of the man by reading both the Gospels and the works of Josephus and Philo. These works, when considered together, show a man who was both cunning and cruel. He was a politician who understood the need for diplomacy; however, he was also a military leader who knew how to crush any hint of a rebellion with a swift and brutal blow. The fact that he remained in his post for 10 years (9 to 7 years more than the average prefect) is an indication that he was able to balance cruelty with diplomacy.

In fact, Jesus’ trial is a good example of just how he did that. When Jesus was brought to him, he asked him questions and then found him to be “innocent of the charges.” Why? Because blasphemy against the Jewish God was not a concern of the Roman Empire. When his accusers claimed that he was a Galilean claiming to be king, he sent him to Herod who was Tetrarch (aka regional ruler) of Galilee. When Jesus was sent back to him, he then questioned him on charges of treason against Rome.

The end stunt of washing his hands clean of the blood was not a display that he considered Jesus innocent or that he even cared what happened to this Jewish rabble-rouser. Pilate would have seen Jesus as a threat, no doubt; however, it allowed him to pass the blame away from Rome and onto local Jewish officials. Why? So that he could avoid an uprising against Rome, of course.

Pilate wasn’t stupid and he knew that if he ordered the death of a Jewish Messiah figure during the busiest time of the year in Jerusalem, he’d potentially have a riot on his hands. What’s more, he couldn’t just let Jesus walk out alive either. So, he played some political theater. In the end, though, Pilate brutally put an end, or so he thought, to the Jesus movement.

What’s important for us to realize is that God’s people today, like the people in Jesus’ time, often look to the government as their savior and, in doing so, they sell out their true Savior in the process. Jesus was handed over to Pilate, not because the Jewish religious leaders liked Pilate, but because Jesus challenged the status quo and Pilate was the expedient way to avoid Jesus leading people further away from the authority of the religious establishment.

Pilate was a Roman who was known for his brutality and his sharp diplomatic wit. He represented the Roman Government, not God’s will. The same is true about our political leaders today, they represent the current government and national interests, not Jesus Christ who is the true and ONLY Savior of the world. Will we place our faith and hope in the government, selling out Christ in the process, or will we place our faith, hope and loyalty in Jesus Christ, at all costs? The choice is ours.

Who is your master? Jesus Christ taught us that we cannot serve two; therefore, we must choose only one.

Lord, you are my master, my Lord, my Savior, and my friend. Guide me away from looking toward anyone else for what can only come from you. Amen.

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