Pontius Pilate Walks Among Us

By Lorin Swinehart

pontius pilate

 

“We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence always encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

—Elie Wiesel

Jesus of Nazareth was railroaded. Some have commented that he must have been a black man because he couldn’t get a fair trial. Those who identify themselves as Christians, who profess to follow his teachings, believe that the entire passion drama had to play out exactly as it did, that it was all preordained, that Jesus willingly offered himself as a sacrifice for all mankind, that those who took part in the ancient drama were filling roles long anticipated by the great prophets.

Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than he who lays down his life for his friends.”

This, however, does not get the perpetrators off the hook. We are all responsible for our actions as well as for our inaction, as, indeed, were Judas, Pilate, the members of the Sanhedrin, the Roman torturers and executioners, and the frenzied mob foaming and shouting, “Crucify Him.”

History tells us little of Pontius Pilate, the fifth governor of the Roman province of Judea, other than that he was of the Pontii family and that he served under the Emperor Tiberius. The historian Josephus tells us that he was removed from his high position as a consequence of his use of excessive violence while suppressing a Samaritan revolt. Previously, he had apparently acted in such a manner as to outrage the Jewish citizens of his province. After his recall to Rome, he may have simply retired from public service. There are legends among Coptic Christians that he converted to Christianity and was martyred, thus becoming a saint.

All four authors of the Gospels tell us that Pilate could find no fault in Jesus, nothing to justify his execution by the excruciatingly painful method of crucifixion, a days-long process of asphyxiation. “Nothing deserving death has been done by him.”  

Pilate may have feared a riot, even an insurrection, if he did not acquiesce in the gathering crowd’s demands. According to the Gospels, Pilate attempted repeatedly to release Jesus. At one point, he punted Jesus to King Herod in order to get rid of him and to free himself of any decision-making. Herod sent Jesus back. Pilate offered up an alternative to the mob: a murderer and thief named Barabbas, who was scheduled for execution. The mob demanded the release of Barabbas and the death of Jesus.

What to do? Pilate, it seems, dithered. After a bit, he sent Jesus to be scourged, apparently hoping that such a dire punishment would discourage the Nazarene rabble-rouser from further disruptions and sate the crowd’s bloodlust. Many victims of scourging died from the procedure, from blood loss, pain, shock, and dehydration. It was a brutal process whereby the flesh could be stripped down to the bone by the scourge, resembling a cat-o’- nine-tails, with bits of lead or bone at the ends of each strand. Perhaps seeing Jesus in such a wretched state after being scourged would sate the mob’s bloodlust.

The crowd continued to be dissatisfied, demanding crucifixion. St. Matthew tells us that Pilate symbolically washed his hands of the matter and shouted, “I am innocent of this man’s blood!”

One doubts that any victim of a lynch mob over the succeeding centuries would find one such as Pilate innocent. Fearing another uprising by the populace under his governance, did he fear retribution from his superiors back in Rome if he stood in defiance of the slavering populace? If that is the case, then Pilate seems to have been motivated more by cowardice and a desire to maintain his political position than any sense of humanitarianism. If such is the case, it was not the first or the last time that a political hack has placed his own self-interest ahead of the good of his country or a commitment to simple justice, a situation with which we are not unfamiliar in our own particular time.

As the crowd continued to insist, “Crucify him!” Pilate acquiesced, setting the stage for one of mankind’s greatest injustices. 

How many whom Jesus had healed, treated with kindness, were among the crowing multitude demanding his death. Treachery to benefactors is nothing new in the annals of human history. In “The Divine Comedy,” Dante places Judas alongside Cassius and Brutus, fellow traitors to lords and benefactors, in the very lowest level of hell.

While the Easter story is familiar to most, even to non-Christians, the remainder of Pilate’s life has become lost in the fog of time. His supposed deeds are listed in the apocryphal “Acts of Pilate,” dated in the fourth century, but one must be judicious in citing the Apocrypha. Some items, like the Gospel of St. Thomas, are worthy of serious scholarship, while others, like the Gospel of St. Peter, strike the reader as a bit crack-brained. All we are told by the Gospel writers is that when Pilate learned of Jesus’s death on the cross, he was surprised at how soon it had occurred and granted the body to Joseph of Arimathea for burial.

In surrendering Jesus to the will of a frenzied Lynch mob, Pilate added him to a long, tragic list of others who have suffered and died at the hands of humanity at its worst, including those who were served up for entertainment “to the masses of fans in the Roman arenas, so-called aristos who fed Madame la Guillotine during the Reign of Terror and innocent southern black men lynched and burned to the accompaniment of hoots and cheers from mindless, slack-jawed white automatons.

Among mankind’s many offenses, failure to protect an innocent person from a lynch mob must rank among the very worst. In an often-quoted speech, the 18th century British statesman Edmund Burke said, “The hottest fires in hell are reserved for those who remain neutral in times of moral  crisis.”

One can hope that Pontius Pilate did actually repent of his earlier conniving and cowardice and turn his life around.

 

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