Pontius Pilate As Politician
“Saint Pontius: The Passion, Pilate, and the political vocation,” Raymond J. DeSouza, National Review (April 8, 2004).
- He tries to turn the matter back on the Sanhedrin, even though he already suspects that Jesus is innocent.
- When they refuse, he accepts the case and puts various questions to Jesus, no doubt hoping for some information which will give him a way out of the affair. In accepting the case, Pilate accepts the responsibility for making a correct judgment, but even though he finds no evidence against Jesus, he refuses to release Him outright.
- Discovering the Jesus is a Galilean, he sends the whole matter over to Herod, who is in Jerusalem. Not a federal problem, Pilate says. This one’s a matter for the provinces. Herod does not cooperate and sends Jesus back to Pilate.
- Pilate attempts to have his prisoner and release him too. In a masterstroke, he decides that he can implicitly condemn Jesus and then release him for the Passover amnesty. To guarantee the desired outcome, in which Pilate would take credit for both condemning and releasing Jesus, Pilate offers the crowd the murderous Barabbas as an unsavory alternative. Alas, the crowd is not distracted from the matter at hand and chooses Barabbas; Pilate’s plan is foiled.
- Pilate has Jesus scourged–a serious punishment in its own right, and administered to an innocent man solely in the hopes of placating the crowd. The crowd is not placated.
- Pilate repeatedly asks the crowd what they want done with Jesus. He appears stung by the accusation that he will be accused of disloyalty to Caesar if he lets Jesus go. So he gives the order for crucifixion.
- Washing his hands, Pilate denies all responsibility for the order he himself has given. He is not responsible; it is the will of the people...
Pilate was quick. Pilate was clever. St. Luke gives another testament to Pilate’s wiliness: That day, Herod and Pilate, who had hitherto been at enmity with one another, became friends (Luke 23:12).
So it would appear that at the end of Good Friday, Pilate could look back on a crisis averted, an important political friendship established, a debt no doubt owed him by the Sanhedrin for his accession to their plot, and as for the messy business of crucifying an innocent man–- well, he had plenty of answers should his wife bring that up over dinner. It was, after all, not what he wanted to do, he tried to avoid it, and anyway it wasn’t his fault as the crowd was determined...
The evangelists likely did not doubt that they were painting a damning portrayal of Pilate. His conduct is not that of a man consumed by rage or overpowered by events. He is cool and in control of himself. His compromises are not capitulations. They are careful calculations; calculations in which the fate of an innocent man is no more than dust on the scales.
So why the widespread estimation of Pilate as a sympathetic figure? Likely because so many of our political, moral, and cultural leaders are in his mold, widely praised for their moderation, their willingness to compromise, their ability in holding together a winning coalition. And if a few principles have to be sacrificed along the way, that too can be washed away.