As Rowan Williams notes in his book Tokens of Trust, “Only three human individuals are mentioned in the Creed, Jesus, Mary and Pontius Pilate.” In the Apostles’ Creed—the baptismal declaration of the ancient church—we proclaim a belief in Jesus Christ, “conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit,” “born of the Virgin Mary,” who “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.” It is sometimes observed that in naming Mary and Pilate, the Creeds are thereby rooted in a very particular time and place in history. But for Williams, there is more to it than this. Both the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds name Jesus, and then “the one who says ‘yes’ to him; and the one who says ‘no’ to him. You could say that those three names map out the territory in which we all live.” That is the territory between affirmation and renunciation; between Mary’s words in Luke 2—“May it be done as you have said”—and Pilate’s refusal to make any choice other than the politically prudent one—“So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified.”
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That there was any hesitation on the part of Pilate to have Jesus executed is perhaps the most surprising piece in the gospel narratives. In Mark’s account there are few words exchanged between Pilate and Jesus, yet he still hesitates when the crowds begin to call for Jesus to be crucified: “Why, what evil has he done?” The other gospels have more dialogue, and show Pilate wrestling at a deeper level with the prospect of sentencing a presumably innocent man to death. Matthew includes a detail not offered by any of the others; that “While Pilate was sitting on the judgement seat, his wife sent word to him, ‘Have nothing to do with that innocent man, for today I have suffered a great deal because of a dream about him.’” (Matthew 27.19) Some biblical scholars have interpreted all of this as a bit of a gloss on the part of the gospel writers to shift the blame away from Pilate and the empire he represents, and squarely on to the shoulders of the Jewish authorities, revealing both a latent anti-Semitism and a desire to not offend Rome. But I don’t buy it.
For one thing, those gospel writers were all Jews, and on the whole they understood Jesus to be not a replacement for Judaism but a fulfillment and recapitulation of the ancient covenant. Certainly in the case of Matthew’s gospel, the intended audience is a Jewish one. At times John’s gospel does feel more hostile, but his issue is more with those who place themselves in open opposition to the Jesus movement than it is with Judaism as a whole.
And for another, the reality is that the Roman Empire was hostile to the church, and remained so for the better part of 300 years. As an Empire, it didn’t much care about a new religion built around some itinerant Galilean peasant preacher, except when it looked as if that movement had the potential to become a substantial social force. Then the heat gets turned up. Even if the gospels of Luke and Mark are both pretty clearly addressed to Gentile audiences, the fact remains that to be a believer—Gentile or otherwise—was fast becoming a dangerous prospect.
And here’s the thing. Pontius Pilate, in his role as Governor and procurator of Judea was notoriously violent and ruthless. One ancient source notes that a complaint was lodged with Caesar to the effect that Pilate was “inflexible, stubborn, and cruel,” and at one point he was actually recalled to Rome to give account for the violence of his administration. And Rome had a pretty strong stomach for violence.
Yet all four of the gospels tell—each in its own way and each with unique details—that confronted by Jesus, Pilate hesitated.
At least some of you will know the musical “Jesus Christ Superstar,” the rock-opera version of the passion story from the early 1970s. In that telling, Pilate initially comes across as arrogant and self-assured:Who is this broken man cluttering up my hallway? Who is this unfortunate?
To which a soldier answers, “Someone Christ, King of the Jews.”Oh, so this is Jesus Christ, I am really quite surprised. You look so small, Not a king at all. We all know that you are news, But are you king? King of the Jews?
And when Jesus answers (as he does in Mark…), “That’s what you say,” Pilate responds with a kind of fury:What do you mean by that? That is not an answer. You’re deep in trouble friend, Someone Christ, King of the Jews.
Yet a little later in the narrative, Pilate is neither arrogant nor enraged by Jesus, but rather baffled.Where are you from Jesus? What do you want Jesus? Tell me. You’ve got to be careful. You could be dead soon, Could well be. Why do you not speak when I hold your life in my hands? How can you stay quiet? I don’t believe you understand.
As the lyricist Tim Rice imagines things, there is something close to compassion in Pilate’s voice. Yet with words that echo the narrative from John’s gospel, Jesus answers,You have nothing in your hands. Any power you have, comes to you from far beyond.
“You’re a fool Jesus Christ,” Pilate replies, and again he is all self-assured arrogance, and the path to execution is again opened.
As portrayed in Jesus Christ Superstar, Pilate is essentially confident in his power. There are other ways of understanding him. I would like to read some extended sections from Frederick Buechner’s book, Telling the Truth, in which a whole other side of Pilate is explored. For Buechner, Pilate is a bureaucrat (which is actually true; any authority he has can in fact be pulled out from under him by Caesar, in whose name he serves), and to make the point the story is recast in the late 1970s.
[Pilate] is essentially a law-and-order man, and he is maintaining them as best he can. If the malcontents, the eggheads, and the bleeding hearts, want to carry on about rottenness at the heart of things, that is their business. His concern is with the rottenness in the streets, and his business is to keep the ship afloat from day to day. All in all he is not doing a bad job of it. There are no major complaints from Rome. The Jews are happy enough with their Jewish puppets. And he himself, if not exactly happy, is happy enough.
[Once at the office, his wife phones and talks to him about that recurring dream she’s been having.] When his wife finally hangs up and he swings back to his desk, he finds he is no longer alone. They have brought the up-country messiah in for questioning. Pilate is caught off-guard, and before he knows what he is doing, he takes a cigarette from an onyx box on his desk and lights up.
The man stands in front of the desk with his hands tied behind his back. You can see that he has been roughed up a little. His upper lip is absurdly puffed out and one eye is swollen shut. He looks unwashed and smells unwashed. His feet are bare—big, flat peasant feet although the man himself is not big. There is something almost comic about the way he stands there, bent slightly forward because of the way his hands are tied and goggling down at the floor through his one good eye as if he is looking for something he has lost, a button off his shirt or a dime somebody slipped him for a cup of coffee. If there were just the two of them, Pilate thinks, he would give him his carfare and send him back to the sticks where he came from, but the guards are watching, and on the wall the official portrait of Tiberius Caesar is watching, the fat, powdered face, the toothy imperial smile, so he goes through with the formalities.
“So you’re the king of the Jews,” Pilate says. “The head Jew,” because there hasn’t been one of them yet who hasn’t made that his claim—David come back to give Judea, back to the Jews.
The man says, “It’s not this world I’m king of,” but his accent is so thick that Pilate hardly gets it, the accent together with what they have done to his upper lip. As if he has a mouth full of stones, he says, “I’ve come to bear witness to the truth,” and at that the procurator of Judea takes such a deep drag on his filter tip that his head swims and for a moment he’s afraid he may faint.
He pushes back from the desk and crosses his legs. There is a papery rustle of wings as the pigeon flutters off the sill and floats down toward the cobbles. Standing by the door, the guards aren’t paying much attention. One of them is picking his nose, the other staring up at the ceiling. Cigarette smoke drifts over the surface of the desk—the picture of his wife when she still had her looks, the onyx box from Caesar, the clay plaque with the imprint of his first son’s hand on it, made while he was still a child in nursery school. Pilate squints at the man through the smoke and asks his question.
He asks it half because he would give as much as even his life to hear the answer and half because he believes there is no answer and would give a good deal to hear that too because it would mean just one thing less to have to worry about. He says, “What is truth?” and by way of an answer, the man with the split lip doesn’t say a blessed thing. Or else his not saying anything, that is the blessed thing. You could hear a pin drop in the big, high-ceilinged room with Tiberius grinning down from the wall like a pumpkin, that one cigarette a little unsteady between the procurator’s yellowed fingertips.
Perhaps too ordinary a picture of a man history remembers as “inflexible, stubborn, and cruel”? Perhaps. But then again, when the philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote her book about the trial of the notorious Nazi war criminal Adolph Eichmann, she subtitled it, “The banality of evil.” Part of what Arendt came to see was that Eichmann was a functionary, a bureaucrat, and someone willing to carry out the agenda of the regime, regardless of the shape of that agenda. We imagine true evil must be somehow devious or maybe even glamorous. Oftentimes it is little more than prudent; a necessary, even routine decision, that leads to yet another necessary and routine decision. Banal. Calculated. Killing.
“[O]ne of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, ‘You know nothing at all! You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.’” (John 11:49-50)
Why have I dwelt so much on the figure of Pilate, on this day on which we surely should be focusing on the passion and death of Jesus? Because like Pilate—the arrogant Pilate who is momentarily stopped in his tracks, or the prudent Pilate who has a decision to make, or maybe the harried Pilate who just needs to take the path of least resistance (the truth be damned)—we do all sorts of things for all kinds of justifiable reasons. If we can’t see something of ourselves in the awful figure of Pontius Pilate—in the one who says ‘no’ to Christ, and so chooses self-interest and self-preservation over all else—we might as well stop this liturgy now and all go home.
The problem is, if we’re honest we can see in ourselves something of Pilate. And of Judas who betrays him, Peter who denies knowing him, Thomas who will later doubt the possibility that there is anything beyond death, and all the rest of the cast of characters in this story. That’s why we can’t call it all off and just go home.
In the end, pray that we can see in ourselves something of Mary, who dared to say “yes” under the most extraordinary of circumstances, and who was willing to stand by her son even as he died on his cross.
And pray that we can see in ourselves something of the centurion who stood slack-jawed at the foot of the cross and confessed, ‘Truly this man was Son of God.’
Pray that we can hear that unnamed centurion, and speak with him, and find something of ourselves in him. Because for all that he, too, was just doing his job, he still saw—and spoke to us—the truth.
Jamie Howison, Good Friday 2012