Pontius Pilate : A Somewhat Different Take

Not an easy job.

I always thought that Pontius Pilate is treated too harshly by many Christians. People who don’t even dare to contradict their neighbour when he talks astonishing bollocks in some religious matter are instantly ready to demand that Pilatus be ready to risk a revolution to save their hero. They talk the talk, but don’t walk the walk.

The reality on the ground is that the vast majority of the people in his position would have behaved like he did; nay, worse than he did. In fact, it can be easily said that Pilatus did for Jesus more than most would have done in his position and only receded when he saw that the Jewish leaders would give him no other alternative than acquiescence to their demand or all out fall out.

Still, the fact remain that Pilatus clearly sees that justice demands one behaviour, and politics suggests another. Put in front of the choice and being, well, a politician, he makes a politician’s choice; a shrewd move from a political point of view, but a catastrophic one from a moral one. He is, therefore, certainly guilty to an extent – and Jesus tells him so in his face – but clearly not evil, or cowardly.

Pilatus is remarkable for another revealing expression: when Jesus confronts him with the Truth, he replies with the famous: “What is truth”? Little he knew that two thousand years later, the same expression would still be used by all those who, like him, see the Truth in front of them but refuse to accept it, because the acceptance means a price they are not ready to pay. 

Pilatus is, then, not evil, but rather a mix of good intentions, political calculations, and less than steely moral standards. He perceives himself as doing “what he can” to help Jesus, but what he can is determined by the way he thinks. At the same time, he is acted as well as acting, as it is abundantly clear from historical sources that Rome truly didn’t want to see further troubles in Palestine. If Pilatus had started an all out confrontation, the first victim would have been himself and I wonder how many of us would, in the same situation, choose the heroic option: to throw to the dogs career and privilege – or worse – in order to make a point about a person he had never seen before – though he had heard about him -, who was unpopular among his own, and not even a Roman citizen.

Pilatus could, of course, have called the bluff and invited the Jews to the homicide-suicide: open revolt, Roman representative deposed or even punished, but Jewish hierarchy massacred by that time. Still, this is more easily said than done, as such a radical option can only be chosen by someone who has made a radical choice for truth. This was clearly neither the case in the concrete situation, nor part of the job description in general.

Pilatus chooses, therefore, to do not what is moral, but what is rational. Clearly, if he had chosen to accept the risk of a revolt over an individual case of such small (we would say today) geopolitical relevance for Rome, the accusations of having been utterly emotional and of having started a mess for the sake of his pal’s skin would have been, in the Roman perspective, clearly impossible to refute. Pilatus’ drama is, therefore, a dilemma that continues to be fascinating to this day and only the most stupid must tell themselves “If I had been in his place I’d have saved Jesus, of course!” Well, firstly with such a mentality you wouldn’t have been in his place in the first place and secondly no, you don’t even have the cojones to criticise the scandalous behaviour around you, so the jewish mob would have scared the crap out of you and no mistake.

Pilatus has become the epitome of cowardice, and I do not think it is fair. He behaves with consideration and humanity *; he goes to great lengths to save Jesus; he extensively tests the waters and leans himself out of the window more than most politicians of today would think of doing; but he recoils when he sees that no half solution is possible and that he is put in front of the fundamental choice and asked to decide whether justice or ragion di Stato should carry the day.

There is, I am afraid, a Pilatus in every one of us. His dilemma is our dilemma in our everyday fight to be coherent Christians; his ultimate moral defeat is, very clearly, ours.

I love to think that he has been forgiven and is now safely in Paradise. For obvious reasons, I like the “Good Romans” mentioned in the Gospels (say: the Roman centurion with the ill servant; or the other centurion under the Cross, Longinus, who – if memory serves – went on to convert and, some say, become a bishop). Pilatus doesn’t match them, but I don’t think he is the worst, either.

Tomorrow, I’ll hear the whole story again. Once again, I’ll be confronted with Pilatus’ dilemma. Once again, I’ll as myself what I would have done in his shoes (I mean really done, not as an armchair general safely talking with the benefit of hindsight, and of two thousand years of Christianity). And once again, I’ll bow my head in shame.

A prayer for Pilatus is, I think, fully in order.


* note that even his order to have Jesus flogged is from the background of the hope that after the flogging the Jews might renounce to have him executed.

Posted on April 21, 2011, in Catholicism and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. Irenaeus of New York

    Great post. I don’t think it is too different a take. I think Pilate tried to save Jesus three times. And some traditions say he and his wife converted. He was brought before Nero Caesar, and confessed Christ. He and his wife were immediately beheaded. It is recorded in some old syriac texts, and I think some orthodox churches even regard him as a saint.

    • Thanks Irenaeus,
      not really sure about those traditions (Nero became emperor more than 20 years after the facts, and by such a feat I’ll assume the matter would have been recorded in the West), but the fact that some traditions regard him as (later) a saint is in my eyes a confirmation that I was not too far from the mark 😉 .

      Unfortunately, in Italy Pilate is seen rather as the epitome of cowardice. “To be a Pontius Pilate” is a frequent way of saying (which I never use, by the way).

      Just between the two of us 😉 , I wonder how often a Pope acts exactly like Pontius Pilate when he appoints bishops whom he knows not fit for purpose, but who are in the grace of the local church hierarchy. Does he not acts short of the standard justice would demand from him, because he is afraid of revolt?


  2. Irenaeus of New York

    Hi Mundabor,

    My mistake, I meant Tiberius instead of Nero. Yes, I understand the skepticism on those traditions. I do think them possible though because even in the West we lost some important things (i.e. the latin version of the Gospel of Mark). I dont think Pilate converted in any public manner right away (like Constantine, a shrewd politician). However, as a gentile asking “What is Truth?”, he was symbolic of those people who did not receive revelations from God. It was an honest question in my opinion, and Jesus does try to explain to him something of who He is. Pilate also acts as the judge who pronounces Jesus as blameless(a spotless lamb). He was a good judge of Jesus’ humanity, but he was blind to his divinity. In all, he surely did not have the greatest sin, as Jesus says to him as much.

    Have a Joyous Easter!

    PS – Of course, this may be spurious
    //Under the “Trial and condemnation of Pilate.”

  3. Irenaeus of New York

    As for your question on how the popes have acted… yes, there is some truth to that simularity. But like Pilate, the popes are good at judging humanity and not necessarily holiness. True holiness is never advertised and hard to detect from afar. I assume they only know what the nuncio for a particular geography tells them. Then there comes the question of unity. Much like a sacrament of matrimony, you have to put up with abuse and everything else because you are comitted to the union. The unity of the Church is no different. Popes try to do damage control and marginalize the bad and promote the good… but popes are not very successful these days. They have to trust what people say of the candidates for bishop. In short, the Pope knows that the unity of the Catholic church hangs by a thread. They cannot exercise too much authority overtly. However, where we see failings in appointments, we see other improvments that are far more impactful because they last longer than a bishop.

    • Does the unity of the Church really hang by a thread, Irenaeus?
      Or is it now the weak Popes, and the rebellious mentality they encourage, make their actions more difficult still?

      I frankly believe that if Popes started to do things properly, the rest of Catholicism would not only not abandon them – which would be their problem, anyway- but they would find that the church is reinforced and made stronger byhis action.

      There can be no doubt that the Popes (this one, the former one, and the Conciliar one) perfectly well know and knew what damages the bishops they appoint make to the fold. One would have to be blind not to see. Still, they continue to avoid necessary conflicts for the sake of the peaceful living.

      The church is indefectible. A Pope should never, ever put dangers of schisms (real or, as I think, imaginary) before his duties to the fold. If he puts up with an ever deteriorating Catholicism, Catholicism will continue to deteriorate.


  4. Irenaeus of New York

    No doubt, they encourage rebellion through weakness. Docility is looked at as some sort of Catholic virtue these days when it is actually a vice. Most of our sheppards have forgotten that the roman collar is a military collar that demands discipline, sacrifice, courage and conviction. Instead it has become a leash to be led around and kicked like a dog… and the decision to muzzle oneself is exalted as some sort of Christ like pacifism. Christ was no pacifist when it came to the things that were important.

    However, I do think the Holy Father is wiser than most people think. He knows there is a winter coming in the West. He chose the name Benedict because he knows there will be a repeat of history where the 1st world civilizations collapse and it will be up to the Church to do something. The Church will shrink dramatically, and I believe it is his aim to nurture pockets of the faith that can be the ‘good yeast’ for it to grow again. He knows that stirring the pot overtly will cause schism(germany,austria) or marginalize himself the way Paul VI did, but MP’s like the Summorum Pontificum is a slow but massive sea change. I suspect he will take more dramatic steps before he is through. The Church may be indefectible, but it is reducible to a remnant.

    Never under-estimate the disinformation fed to the pope. i.e. Pius XII was constantly lied to about Fulton Sheen. His Holiness did not even want meet with him for many, years because of the lies. Even though Fulton headed a dicastery and merited a visit on many occasions. The truth was revealed in the end, with much remorse by the Holy Father.

    • “Most of our sheppards have forgotten that the roman collar is a military collar that demands discipline, sacrifice, courage and conviction. Instead it has become a leash to be led around and kicked like a dog… and the decision to muzzle oneself is exalted as some sort of Christ like pacifism. Christ was no pacifist when it came to the things that were important.”

      Irenaeus, what a powerful and beautiful statement!!

      My take on Pope Benedict is that behind this supposedly monstrous intelligence hides a man that has all the right ideas, but lacks the guts to put them into practice. He can’t (as in: cannot) send people like Niederauer to San Francisco or Vincent Nichols to Westminster and delude himself that this is not going to cost souls.

      I also question the lack of courage: he shouldn’t have appointed Wagner for Linz if he feared the confrontation; but once Wagner was appointed, he shouldn’t have caved in to the pressure. Once he caved in, everyone knew that the boss would bark, but never bite and the rest is history.

      Summorum Pontificum is another example: great historic step, after which he has allowed the bishops to systematically boycott his work.

      Pope Benedict will, I think, be remembered as a Pope with a great interest in questions of principle, but without the energy or guts to work to the renovation of the Church with the unpleasant, nitty-gritty part of daily conflict and quarrel.

      I fear that with advancing age he’ll not become stronger, the contrary will very probably be the case.

      I used to consider him a very good Pope and after Summorum Pontificum he truly became my hero. The Wagner affair was a great disappointment and, in retrospect, the first wake up call.

      A good Pope, yes. A massive improvement on his predecessor, without any doubt.

      But a great Pope? Nope.


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