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Pilate: prisoner of history?

22 March 2024

Charles Moseley meditates on the trial of Jesus and the exercise of power


Christ before Pontius Pilate: medieval Italian manuscript miniature

Christ before Pontius Pilate: medieval Italian manuscript miniature

“Crucifixus etiam pro nobis sub Pontio Pilato” — He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate

AS A lad, I was taught that this clause was there to anchor the date, reasserting the fact that Christianity is the only religion that claims an exact historical event at its birth (Anno Domini dating is still centuries in the future). Fine. But I think much about Pilate, with sympathy.

He had a rotten job. The Jews were notoriously awkward, and some — the Zealots — vocally regarded Roman rule (not an “occupation” in the modern sense) as something that must be overthrown, as the Maccabees had tackled the hated Seleucid kings.

Pilate has already had serious trouble with them; and he does not get on with Herod. From a Roman perspective, the Jews are impossibly touchy about their strange religion. Why can’t they be like other enlightened people, observing the rituals of the Olympian gods, and (if they must) believing in a Supreme Being, both good and true, but one who makes few demands on you, about whom one can have good philosophical discussions over wine and dinner?

Pilate is a middle-class man, of no family or influence, in a key job, in a key strategic province, at the Emperor’s notoriously arbitrary pleasure. He has to watch his back, so to speak, on every side.

AND then this storm breaks, just when Jerusalem is bursting at the seams, and in a state of heightened emotion because of one of those festivals. This man is brought before him. Clearly, there is no case to answer; but that is not what the influential Jews want to hear. Wriggling, Pilate gratefully sees that, as a Galilean, Jesus belongs in the jurisdiction of Herod (Antipas), and shunts him off there.

But to no avail: back he comes. And those politic voices — “It is expedient that one man should die for the people” (they really thought that they were doing the right thing, too, don’t forget) — insist on death for this (as they see it) dangerous demagogue. The last thing they want is popular disorder that Rome’s garrison would have to quell.

“Why, what evil hath he done?” Pilate knew that death was undeserved. He has a choice: stand up for law and justice (which is his job), or bend the rules to save a riot, possibly a rebellion. Still he wavers. Scourge him — bad enough, even for a criminal, and this is self-evidently no criminal — and let him go? No chance. Release him under the customary amnesty? But the primed crowd call for the release of the bandit Jesus Barabbas, “Son of the father”. Then the killer phrase: “If thou let this man go, thou are not Caesar’s friend.”

And so poor Pilate, like so many civil servants before and since, is trapped: his own security, the well-being (as he sees it) of his province, good relations with the powers he must work with — all depend on just this little bending of the rules, even if it perpetrates a gross injustice.

Spare us, O Lord, from such a test. I do not know what I would have done. All choices are wrong on some level. If I had been Harold Macmillan in 1945, I would, I think, have repatriated the Polish officers — and had nightmares ever after, as he did.

PILATE had to confront Jesus, too. All the Gospels, and especially Mark’s, present no “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild” (as one of Charles Wesley’s less distinguished efforts puts it), but with someone impatient — “Can’t you dunderheads see?” — challenging, disturbing, authoritative; in the old sense of the word, awful. And he will not say a word. If he would only speak, it would help. Silence is terrifying; a challenge, a reproach.

Pilate has heard that the priests had asked “Art thou the son of God?” What did that mean for a Roman? Theou huios was quite a claim — to political authority — and divi filius to a Roman was a claim to kinship with, to the authority of, the Julian dynasty. Terrifying: he must put a stop to it. “Art thou a king, then?” And back it comes: “You say so.”

Pilate cannot push the responsibility anywhere else. An appeal — “ Know you not that I have power?” — is almost a plea: “Talk to me, tell me what this is all about, give me some help.” But it elicits only an uncomfortable reminder, not least of the changeableness of imperial favour: “You would have no power at all if it had not been given to you from above.”

WHEN I go round the Stations of the Cross (where a church has them), I try to get into focus in my mind the heart-breaking events of that terrible couple of days. Most awfully, in this tragedy (for it is most certainly that, in the strictest definition), there are no villains — only decent men, trapped in a machine of power, trying to do what they think to be right.

For the people’s sake, the Jewish authorities were desperate to prevent anything that might provoke disorder, even revolt. Judas — who knows what his motives were? Certainly not just money: 30 pieces of silver is no fortune. Perhaps, by provoking a crisis, he hoped to put pressure on Jesus (whose unquestionable, supernatural power he has seen) to take a course that Judas knew was the right one?

If you consider the reclining plan we can work out for that last dinner, Judas is honourably placed: he was trusted; he was, after all, the bursar. And, when Jesus sent him off to go and do what he had to do — which we read as his foreknowledge of betrayal — it might simply have been sending him out to buy, say, more wine. This would explain why the other disciples do not seem to have been bothered by his departure.

HEROD, only half Jewish, had two fronts to cover: his relations with the Jewish Establishment and with those cosmopolitan Romans. Pilate, governing one of the most awkward places in the empire, is desperate to avoid provoking those pesky Jews any further, and to keep his nose clean with Rome, and with Tiberius, to whom he owes everything in his career.

He has to choose between standing up for the law and justice that his commission empowers him to administer — with incalculable consequences if he releases Jesus — and expediency. And the silence of the Sufferer, emptying himself of all power and might, challenges, infuriates, and overwhelms him.

So the tragedy plays itself out. What happened to Pilate, then at the summit of his political career, and now for ever simply a dating reference? We don’t know. In the late Gospel of Nicodemus, there is a section, “The Acts of Pilate”, in which Pilate reports to Tiberius on the whole trial. (Actually, Tiberius was dead by the time the legate of Syria sent Pilate back to Rome for his brutal squashing of a Samaritan revolt.)

Some early Fathers, like Tertullian, were sympathetic, and report a tradition that he became Christian. I hope so. We ought to pray for him, just as we ought to pray for all people who have the impossible job of exercising power — and pray that we are not asked to take on that burden; for we cannot know how well we would fulfil it.

Dr Charles Moseley is a Life Fellow of Hughes Hall, Cambridge.

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