Our previous post on the enigma of Judas was sobering. How could someone so near Jesus, his teaching, and his miracles end up so far from him? Scripture usually emphasizes God’s love and gracious promises that draw us to him, but God knows we need warnings like the story of Judas to keep us there.
The story of the Roman governor Pilate’s examination of Jesus is another sad chapter in the Fourfold Gospel Traditon. Pilate was prefect of Judea from 26-36 CE. He condemned Jesus to the cross even though he knew Jesus was innocent. In this post we focus again on the Gospel of John, where power figures largely into the story. The Jewish leaders were not empowered by Rome to carry out capital punishment on their own, so Pilate the governor enters the story. Frustrated by Jesus silence, powerful Pilate threatens him with crucifixion (John 19:10). That’s when Jesus speaks truth to power.
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Additional Passion Week-related Posts:
- Following Jesus through Passion Week
- The Cross: For Us, By Us, and In Us
- Why does it matter that the tomb was empty?
- Easter isn’t over: Learning about Life with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus
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Pilate is well known outside the New Testament
Archaeology: the Pilate Stone. Many who tour Israel see a replica of this stone at Caesarea Maritima. It contains a inscription honoring the Emperor Tiberius. Originally it was part of a building dedicated to the Emperor, but it was discovered in 1961, damaged, in the ruins of another building. The Latin inscription likely read in part as follows (the bracketed letters are an educated guess):
[DIS AUGUSTI]S TIBERIÉUM To the Divine Augusti Tiberieum
[…PONTI]US PILATUS …Pontius Pilate
[…PRAEF]ECTUS IUDA[EA]E …prefect of Judea
[…FECIT D]E[DICAVIT] …has dedicated [this]
Archaeology: the Pilate Ring. A bronze ring excavated during the 1968-1969 season at the Herodion near Bethlehem was discovered in November 2018 to have Pilate’s name on it. The ring is rather simple, with a wine vessel surrounded by Pilate’s name in Greek: ΠΙΛΑΤΟ (PILATO). It is identified as a stamping ring that Pilate or one of his officials may have used to seal documents. See images of the ring and learn more about the discovery here.
Pilate in Ancient Literature. The Roman historian Tacitus mentions Pilate in passing (Annals (15.44) in connection with Nero’s scheme to blame the Christians for the fire which destroyed much Rome. The Jewish writers Josephus (Jewish War 2.169-77; Antiquities 18.55-62) and Philo (Embassy to Gaius 299-305) both refer to Pilate’s problems in governing the Jews.
Pilate served as prefect of Judea from 26-36 CE. His successors were Felix and Festus, mentioned in Acts 23 and 25. Pilate was known to be a heavy-handed governor who resorted to brutal repression at the slightest provocation. He brought Roman insignia that were viewed by the Jews as idolatrous into Jerusalem, provoking a major conflict with the Jewish leaders. He was eventually deposed and sent to Rome for a hearing before Tiberius, who died before the hearing could take place. According to certain early Christian traditions, Pilate eventually committed suicide.
Pilate in Early Christianity. The Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed both mention Pilate’s name in connection with the crucifixion of Jesus. Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History (2.2.1-4) portrays Pilate as sharing the story of Jesus’ resurrection with the Emperor Tiberius, who keeps an open mind on the question. The same source also refers to Pilate’s suicide (2.7) as the judgment of God. The apocryphal Gospels of Peter and of Nicodemus tend to exonerate Pilate, blaming Jesus’ crucifixion on the Jews. The apocryphal Acts of Pilate portrays him as a convert to Christianity who is martyred for his faith. Eventually both the Coptic and Ethiopian churches came to venerate Pilate and celebrate annual feasts in his memory. Regrettably, much of this early Christian tradition concerning Pilate is contrary to the manner in which he is portrayed in the Fourfold Gospel tradition. Some of it is apparently motivated by anti-Semitism—it exonerates Pilate and blames the Jews alone for Jesus’ crucifixion. As we will see, from a biblical standpoint Pilate is not a saint to be celebrated.
Pilate is mentioned several times in the NT outside of John
Pilate is mentioned in Acts and 1 Timothy in addition to the well-known references in the Synoptic Gospels:
- Pilate was governing Judea when John’s ministry began (Luke 3:1).
- Pilate executed some Galileans (Luke 13:1).
- Pilate presided over Jesus’ trial and crucifixion (Matt 27:1-66; Mark 15:1-47; Luke 23:1-56; John 18:48-19:42).
- Pilate had decided to release Jesus (Acts 3:13).
- Pilate conspired with Herod, the Gentiles, and the Jews to execute Jesus (Acts 4:27).
- Pilate was asked by religious leaders to execute Jesus despite the lack of evidence against him (Acts 13:28).
- Jesus made a good confession before Pilate (1 Tim 6:13).
Pilate in John 18-19
The drama in John 18-19 plays out with alternating public and private scenes. Pilate is in the middle, so to speak, of the antagonism between the Jewish leaders and Jesus (see the visual below). He knows Jesus is innocent (John 18:38; 19:4, 12), but he fears the Jewish leaders will get him in trouble with the emperor if he sets Jesus free (John 19:12-16).
Here are the scenes of the drama:
- The leaders publicly bring Jesus before Pilate (18:28-32). When Pilate says Take him away and judge him by your own law, the leaders reply We are not permitted to put anyone to death.
- Pilate privately interviews Jesus for the first time (18:33-38). When Pilate asks Jesus Are you the king of the Jews?, Jesus replies My kingdom is not an earthly kingdom . . . I came into the world to testify to the truth. Pilate cynically responds What is truth? Pilate’s cynicism about the truth of Jesus’ words revealed his reliance on Roman imperial power. He thought, as the old saying goes, that his might made him right. Pilate was confident that he wielded absolute power, power that made Jesus’ truth irrelevant. But Jesus will have more to say about this in 19:11.
- Pilate publicly addresses the leaders (18:38b-4). Convinced that Jesus posed no threat to Rome, Pilate tells the people I find no guilt in him . . . would you like me to release him? They reply Not this man, but Barabbas!
- Pilate privately has Jesus flogged (19:1-3). Soldiers flog Jesus, crown him with thorns, and place a purple robe on him in order to mock him: Hail, king of the Jews! This shows us what the representatives of the powerful Roman empire thought of the Jews and their apparently powerless king.
- Pilate publicly presents Jesus to the leaders (19:4-7). Perhaps thinking that flogging Jesus would satisfy the people, Pilate presents him to them again: Here is the man. When the leaders persist with Crucify him, crucify him!, Pilate says I find no guilt in him. At this point, the leaders present a new charge against Jesus: he called himself the Son of God.
- Pilate privately interviews Jesus for the second time (19:8-11). Apparently worried that Jesus may be a god come to earth, Pilate asks where are you from? Jesus has already hinted at the answer (18:37) and is silent. Pilate is exasperated and shouts Don’t you realize I have the power to release you or crucify you? Jesus replies You would have no power over me at all unless it were given to you from above. This ends the dialogue between Jesus and Pilate.
- Pilate publicly delivers Jesus to be crucified (19:12-16a). Once again Pilate attempts to release Jesus, and once again the people demand Jesus’ crucifixion. Pilate asks Shall I crucify your king?, and the people reply We have no king but Caesar.
- Jesus is crucified at Golgotha between two other men (John 19:16b-18).
- Pilate’s public inscription (titulus) on the cross (JESUS THE NAZARENE, THE KING OF THE JEWS) was disputed by the leaders, but Pilate refused to accept their edit: What I have written, I have written. (19:19-22).
- Jesus’ garments are divided by the soldiers, fulfilling Psalm 22:18. He speaks to his mother and the beloved disciple: Here is your son . . . here is your mother. He utters his last words It is finished and dies (John 19:23-30).
- Pilate privately grants permission for the victims’ legs to be broken (19:31-37). Jesus has already died, so breaking his legs was not necessary, This fulfills prophecy: Not one of his bones will be broken (Exod 12:46; Num 9:12). Apparently the soldier thrust his spear into Jesus’ side to make sure he was dead, unaware that this act fulfilled another prophecy: They will look on the one they have pierced (Zech 12:10; Rev 1:7).
- Pilate privately grants permission for Joseph to bury Jesus (19:38-42). Jesus was buried by Joseph and Nicodemus: the place of the crucifixion was near a garden, where there was a new tomb.
For a detailed video lecture on John 18-19, go here.
Speaking Truth to Power
This drama of truth confronting power power presents a wide array of characters—which of them do you identify with? They range from the main antagonists, Jesus and the religious leaders, to others who are more or less aligned with one of the two antagonists. Pilate is in the middle, Although he wields the power of imperial Rome, he is morally weak. Cynical about truth, he soon succumbs to political pragmatism—he is a prince who would have made Machiavelli proud.
What do we learn from Pilate? Pilate’s political power was not coupled with moral courage. He had no soul. His only core value was maintaining his own status. Faced with the King (John 1:49; 12:13-16) who personified and testified to God’s truth (John 1:14-18; 14:6), he scoffed at the very idea of truth (John 18:38). Later he threatened Jesus with his power, and Jesus pointed again to the truth, this time to the God who gave Pilate his power (John 19:11).
When Jesus spoke truth to power, Pilate doubted the existence of truth. Later, when Pilate spoke power to truth, Jesus testified to the truth that Pilate’s power came from God above, not from the emperor in Rome.
At least cynical Pilate was consistent: he didn’t believe in truth, so he chose to do whatever furthered his power. He would do anything to maintain that power. Anything, including sending Truth to the cross. When Jesus spoke truth to power, Pilate spoke power to truth. What else could he do? But Jesus true truth trumped Pilate’s false power. There are many remains in the Mediterranean world that testify to ancient Rome’s powerful past. There are living churches all over the planet that testify to Jesus’ past, present and future power. That’s the truth.
Can we talk apolitically about politics for a moment? Today in the USA (as well as in many other places in the world) political tensions are at a fever pitch. If you believe the respective talking points, it’s political correctness vs. patriotism, cancel culture vs. family values, social justice warriors vs. redneck capitalists. Both sides like to signal their virtue to their fellow true believers with poses and postures that only further the polarization. Faithful followers of Jesus have differing views on these matters; Christians play prominent roles on both sides. The words of Jesus to Pilate are instructive to all of us, whether our political leanings are to the left or to the right. We need to remember what Pilate scoffed at and Nebuchadnezzar learned—God rules over the kingdoms of the world and sets up over them whomever he chooses (Dan 2:37-38; 4:17, 25, 32).
Pilate scoffed when Jesus told him the truth that his political power did not come from Tiberius Caesar in Rome but from God above. Maybe our preoccupation with political power, and our intolerance of people who don’t view politics like we do, shows that we are more like Pilate than we would like to think. Perhaps it’s even worse—our commitment to political power veils our lack of commitment to gospel power. If we have come to the place where we center our lives more on a four-year election cycle than on our annual remembrance of Jesus’ Passion, we are worshipping idols. Whatever our political views, they are relativized when we find ourselves at the foot of the cross. The ancient truth of the Gospel vastly transcends whatever current power we think we have found in political theories.
Want to speak truth to power? Read the end of the Bible and focus on this truth about power: Jesus won! Pilate was weak, though he appeared to be strong. Jesus was powerful, though he appeared to be weak. Which of the two do we resemble most?
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And then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea. They sang: Blessing and honor and glory and power belong to the One sitting on the throne and to the Lamb forever.
—Revelation 5:13 NLT
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