Easter Sunday is April 8 and the quickly approaching holiday has pushed me into action. This year I want to do more than purchase new grass for the kids’ Easter baskets and stock up on Cadbury Eggs. Because I can name the significant players in the Easter drama but know very few facts about each of them, I am currently perusing various references found in the Gospels. I am also using search engines on the Internet to find background facts not provided in Scripture.
This informal research project has become more fun than I could have imagined because these people are fascinating and complex. The lack of documentation in some cases presents us with the opportunity to speculate and wonder. This is one of the reasons why I enjoy my Christian faith. There is a rich history to learn and contemplate. It is a faith for the thinker and the feeler. And while God makes use of people, events, and his spirit to reveal his character and methodologies, he also reveals himself through appointed people and events. Such was the case with Pontius Pilate.
Why might we spend any time considering the man who signed Jesus Christ’s death sentence? And what is it about him or any other person who lived two millennia ago that can possibly enlighten us today? We are, after all, so modern, Western, and progressive. And yet, as I venture more deeply into adulthood, it occurs to me that all that makes us human today was equally present among the ancients. They were jealous and trusting, fearful and brave. They were weak and strong, free spirited and principled — things I observe in others and myself every single day. Human reactions and rationale are identifiable whenever and wherever people live. Human reactions cross cultural and economic boundaries.
It is his obvious humanness and the speculation that still swirls around Pontius Pilate that bring to mind this most noteworthy man. And even though we know very little about Pilate before he was appointed governor of the province of Judea, serving during the ministries of John the Baptist and Jesus, there is enough evidence to make theory building rather enticing.
Such is the case with his employment as governor. Some historians believe Pilate came from a mountainous region north of Rome and was the son of noble stock. If this theory has any accuracy, he was enough of a city boy to conceal his country roots and was able to play up to men of position who were known to promote men into public office. Others believe Pilate was befriended and mentored by Sejanus, Commander of the Praetorian Guard and right hand man to Roman Emperor Tiberius.
Whatever the facts, Pilate may have had military experience and some knowledge of financial administration. And whether he was a puppet or a gifted, regional power, Pilate served an unheard of 11 years, living in the Palace of Herod at Caecarea that housed a force of 3,000 soldiers. At his command troops would move to restore control among the Jews when needed and were surely in Jerusalem at the time of the feasts when many visitors increased the chance of disturbances.
The gospels portray Pilate in several ways. In Mark he appears as calculated and set on embittering the crowd against Jesus. He taunts Jesus by calling him, “King of the Jews.” In the book of John, Pilate seems almost sympathetic to Christ, yet he wants no trouble from the Jews who constantly disagreed with his political decision making and seemed reactionary and unafraid to protest. In the book of Luke, Pilate is portrayed as weak. After declaring Jesus innocent of any law breaking on three separate occasions, he finally orders his execution to resolve a potentially explosive situation that might have embarrassed his superiors and compromised his own employment.
Following Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, legend takes over where facts disappear. According to one legend, Pilate and his wife became Christians after witnessing the drama surrounding the crucifixion. Another claims Pilate fell into personal misfortune and committed suicide. Whatever the case, Pilate was given one great moment to rise above a political crisis and demonstrate remarkable leadership. He seemed to know what was right, but struggled for creativity and strength when the fire was hot. There was so much to lose personally had he allowed Christ’s ministry to continue. And so, according to biographer Ann Wroe, “Pilate wrote the memo.” He quickly got rid of the problem called Jesus. He turned his back on greatness, by shrugging and writing.
Yet, where would we be today without that historic memo?