The Damnation of Pontius Pilate

David Bowie as Pontius Pilate in The Last Temptation of Christ

Do you often read yourself into stories? I do, or at least I find myself gravitating towards one character or another that I feel the most sympathy. Who is it that you see yourself in when you read the Scriptures? When you read the story of David and Goliath, the story of the meek confronting the mighty, do you see yourself always in God’s young anointed one, or do you let yourself recognize the worldly might that you possess, that might make you yourself an obstacle to the good in the world? What I’m asking is for the reader, especially those who find themselves in places of power to allow the Scripture to call them to task and not simply affirm them by placing them in a false narrative of suffering.

Let’s go to the room where Jesus stood before Pilate, the living embodiment of Roman power in the Passion stories. Who are we there? Are we the lamb slain before the foundation of the world? Most likely we identify with the man who is the stand-in for the world’s superpower of the time, the Roman Empire. I mean, of course, Pontius Pilate himself. After all, he represents the most powerful state in the world and therefore is precisely where modern, white, American Christians should find themselves, and not in the place of the condemned Christ. We represent the machine that condemned Christ to death. Unfortunately, that recognition can lead to our excusing Pilate in the same ways we often excuse ourselves: he is put in a difficult position, he is just trying his best to navigate competing forces and maintain peace, etc. It is easy for us to show understanding towards him. Yet, the Gospels’ portrayal of Pontius Pilate disbelieving Jesus’ guilt but executing him anyway for fear of the crowd does not depict a sympathetic figure at all. In my estimation, the New Testament’s portrayal of Pilate reveals a possibly greater sin: Pilate has knowingly killed an innocent man in order to preserve his own life, status, and sense of order.

Pontius Pilate occupies a curious place in Christian history. In the ancient Christian statements of belief, which we call “creeds,” he is the only named historical figure. His place in the creed, however, is not exactly a place of honor: the creeds connect his name to the suffering of Jesus Christ. As governor of Judaea, he was almost singularly responsible for the death of Jesus. The fact that Jesus was killed under the governorship of Pilate remains “one of the surest facts of Christianity,” as scholar Helen Bond puts it.[Bond, Helen, Pontius Pilate in History and Interpretation, xi.] This fact is attested by not only the four Gospels of the Christian Bible, but also the Roman historian Tacitus. Yet, some see in Pilate a sympathetic figure. In fact, historically the blame often circumvented Pilate entirely and focused instead on the entire Jewish people. He became a saint to some in the East under the conviction that he later converted, despite the lack of any historical evidence. Historically, and dangerously, it has become easy for readers to offload the responsibility from Pilate onto the Jewish leadership. This move has had disastrous results, to say the least. Further, I don’t believe the Gospels intend for us to absolve Pilate of responsibility. He is the figure most directly responsible for the death of Jesus, and it is for good reason that the privileged of the world see themselves in him.

To see Pilate’s guilt more closely, we narrow our reading on one particular Gospel. On its face, the Gospel of John may appear to have one of the more sympathetic portrayals of Pilate. Here, he comes first to the crowd saying “you take him and judge him according to your law!” (John 16:31, my translation). They refuse, claiming that they cannot enforce capital punishment. After examining Jesus, Pilate returns to the crowd saying “I find in him no cause [for punishment]” (John 18:38). Pilate appears at every turn to satisfy their need for justice without resorting to bloodshed. After he has Jesus flogged, Pilate returns and exclaims, famously, “behold! The man!” (19:5). Still, they need death. Many have read Pilate’s actions as one of a weak, ineffectual leader.

Yet, a reading of the whole narration gives a fuller picture. It does not make sense to say that Pilate is completely at the mercy of the people considering the enormous power he wields. The armed forces who arrest Jesus are most likely Roman forces.[There is debate as to this point. Some understand this as referring to a Jewish force. One reason, among others, that these are probably Roman forces is the fact that the term always refers to Roman forces in other NT books (Arthur Wright, “What is Truth?”)] Pilate, in fact, wields terrible power. Of course, he is quite vulnerable as well. Jesus’ title of “Son of God” is one that belongs first to Caesar, and the challenge that Jesus presents is to the very power that props up Pilate. Pilate also must navigate a tense relationship with the Jewish authorities. In fact, it is his very inability to respond well to a Samaritan uprising that would be Pilate’s undoing in 37 AD. Still, we cannot simply look at Pilate and say that he had no other choice. If he truly believed that Jesus was innocent, he could have risked uprising and his own position in order to protect him. Just as Pilate offered up Barabas alongside Jesus for the people to choose one for death, Pilate had to choose between Jesus and his own position in the world as a part of the Roman establishment. He chose to put Jesus to death. So, far from just having his hands tied, Pilate is a victim of needing to continually prop up his own power and maintain his sense of security.

Pilate’s ambition reminds me of a leader from my birth state, Alabama: George Wallace. Wallace was the governor from 1963-1987 if we include a period of time where he ran his wife in his place to circumvent term limits. His initial run for governor in 1958 was a failure because of his more moderate stance on segregation. For this reason, he more than matched his opponent’s segregationist stance in 1962 and won. The Southern rock band Drive-by Truckers would later write in their spoken-word “The Three Great Alabama Icons”:
“George Wallace died back in
’98 and he’s in Hell now, not because he’s a
racist. His track record as a judge and his
late-life quest for redemption make a good
argument for his being, at worst, no worse than
most white men of his generation, North or
South, but because of his blind ambition and his
hunger for votes, he turned a blind eye to the
suffering of Black America. And he became a pawn
in the fight against the Civil Rights cause.”

The damnation of George Wallace and that of Pontius Pilate is from a willingness to crush innocents for the purpose of their own security and the maintenance of their power. As we find ourselves in the trial of Jesus, we are confronted with the ways we have purchased our own security at the cost of others. We cannot wash our hands of our culpability, as Pilate tried. To choose to not work actively for the sake of innocents to keep our own position in the world is to inherit the damnation of Pilate as our own.