Pontius Pilate is usually portrayed as an honest broker surrounded by fanatical hotheads. This portrayal is not based on what the gospel accounts tell us about Pilate. The Roman governor had a strong, vested interest in the outcome of Jesus' trial. Although the gospel writers portray Pilate's character and interests differently, they each give us a vivid picture of the alliances that closed in on Jesus.
People with executive power often like to see themselves as honest brokers. But power is a gift and is principally given for setting people free. Most of us have a great deal more power than we realize. We too can try to hide behind the ambiguities of public responsibility or the pretense that we have no vested interests. This chapter considers the nature of political power and the possibilities of the power we each have.
Rome and the Manipulation of Power
Rome dominated the Mediterranean world and many territories far beyond. The key source of wealth was land, and the Roman aristocracy was largely made up of great landowners. These landowners controlled the rest of the population of the empire through military force, tax collection, and a patronage network that assumed the extortion of bribes. Judea was no different. To understand the political dynamics of the four gospel accounts, one needs to place the events of the story between these controlling forces: soldiers, tax gatherers, and quislings (those in the governor's "pocket"). Among the first category we find the centurion whose servant Jesus healed; among the second category we find Matthew the disciple and Zacchaeus; among the third category we find Herod Antipas, Caiaphas, and Nicodemus.
The gospel accounts of Jesus' birth and death can be somewhat confusing because of the number of different people who seem to be in charge. F or example, when Pilate discovers Jesus is from Galilee, a region that was not directly ruled by Rome, he sends Jesus to Herod Antipas, the vassal ruler of that region (Luke 23.5 . 12). Later, the Jerusalem authorities (whom John's gospel confusingly and disturbingly calls "the Jews"), having condemned Jesus, need the Roman governor's authority to make this a death sentence. Pilate says to these so-called leaders, "Here is your king" . whereupon they respond, "We have no king but Caesar" (John 19.14 . 15).
This demeaning state of affairs is due to the manner in which the Roman emperor ran his empire. Rather than dominate and overrun his subject people, he creamed off perhaps 5 percent of the population to act as retainers. These people would get significant benefits in terms of the three most important things: wealth, prestige, and power. All that was required in return was loyalty to Rome. Thus at the time of Jesus' birth, Rome could afford not to rule Judea directly. I nstead, it simply controlled the people and raised taxes through a vassal king, Herod the Great. But Herod died shortly after Jesus was born, and his sons had neither his authority nor his skill. So following Herod's death, Rome took to administering the province directly, by installing a governor.
Nonetheless, they kept on the various hierarchies of retainers to act as intermediaries between them and the largely Jewish population. And well they might, for as some who are used to being in charge are fond of saying, "Why keep dogs and bark yourself?" Pilate and his predecessors had found a formula that meant they could control the province and meanwhile acquire considerable wealth for themselves, not by suppressing the people with military force but by manipulating those among the population who sought the three things that really mattered in the Roman E mpire: wealth, prestige, and power. That is why in the Gospels there are only occasional encounters and confrontations with Roman authorities and soldiers. Most of the disputes are with Rome's stooges . those whose obedience to Rome demonstrated they had lost all sight of being God's holy people.
The most interesting aspects in a society are those things that everyone takes for granted. Pontius Pilate is a significant figure, even before one considers his role in relation to Jesus' death, because he had achieved everything that his culture most valued. Pontius Pilate's parents would have been members of the Roman aristocracy among the equestrian class . in other words, rich and influential but not quite senator material. We could call them knights rather than lords. These knights used their class advantages to gain wealth, prestige, and power. The equestrian class generally served the empire in military office; if they succeeded, they could end up becoming a prefect of one of the more troublesome provinces. Judea was one of those provinces. I n AD 26, Pontius Pilate became its fifth prefect, or governor. His parents would have been very proud.
So the stage is set in Jerusalem: on the one hand stand the Jerusalem authorities, apparently manipulating the institutions of power but in practice in the pocket of the governor; and on the other hand Pontius Pilate, doing very well out of keeping the status quo and happy to let the Jerusalem authorities have a visible role in running the show. E nter Jesus of Nazareth at Passover. His presence was an issue that the Jerusalem authorities could not handle by themselves. He was not just a threat to the system of patronage and the manipulation of the elite; he was a threat to the Roman governor himself. Jesus not only emerged as a potential king, but he also undermined the dominant notions of wealth, prestige, and power and loosened their hold on the popular imagination. That was why it was inevitable that Jesus and Pilate would come face-to-face.
Jesus Meets Pilate
Each of the Gospels offers a different slant on the meeting of Jesus and Pilate, and it is important to attend to the features of each narrative. (I shall not consider Mark's account explicitly, since it is almost entirely included in Matthew's account.)
Matthew's gospel as a whole offers an extended study in how Jesus' teaching and ministry threaten the domination of the Jerusalem elites. The Jerusalem authorities are at Herod's side when he decides to wipe out the babes of Bethlehem (2.3 . 18); they seem to have as much to lose from the birth of a new king as Herod does. Later, they decide to kill Jesus (12.14) after he has perceived that the crowds have no adequate leaders (9.36). And the antagonism is not just on the side of the authorities. Jesus gives them every reason to hate him. He unambiguously denies that they represent God and calls them "blind guides" (15.14) before attacking the heart of their power. He claims they have transformed worship into profiteering and have kept their grip on the people by manipulating the temple taxes (21.12 . 13). He compares them to tenants who have betrayed their master (21.33 . 46), criticizes them as hypocrites and oppressors of the people, and finally announces that the temple, the center of their power, will be destroyed (24.2). The Jerusalem authorities and Jesus are on a collision course from the word go.
So it comes as no surprise that the Jerusalem authorities arrest and quickly condemn Jesus (26.57 . 68; 27.1 . 2). I t is telling that Matthew records Judas's suicide before Jesus has even reached Pilate. This suggests that Judas recognized the Jerusalem elite and Pilate as being hand in glove with one another: Jesus' death was now inevitable. This is a sobering introduction to the conversation between Pilate and Jesus. The outcome is not in the balance; it is already settled. There is no question of casting Jesus as good, the authorities as bad, and Pilate as a vacillating middle man. The popular view of Pilate as a man of reason manipulated by a bunch of fanatics is not Matthew's view. Pilate will do whatever it takes to maintain his stranglehold on Judea, and there is no reason whatsoever to alienate his chief allies. Judas is correct in realizing that Jesus is already doomed.
Pilate's interaction with Jesus comes in three overlapping scenes.
1. Pilate Questions Jesus
Meanwhile Jesus stood before the governor, and the governor asked him, "Are you the king of the Jews?" "You have said so," Jesus replied. When he was accused by the chief priests and the elders, he gave no answer. Then Pilate asked him, "Don't you hear the testimony they are bringing against you?" But Jesus made no reply, not even to a single charge . to the great amazement of the governor. (27.11 . 14)
Here is an explicit confrontation between two rulers. Matthew calls Pilate "the governor" at this point, to emphasize the contrast. The simple question is, "Are you the king of the Jews?" What the question means is, "Do you set yourself up as the leader of this people in defiance of the Roman E mperor, in defiance of me, and in defiance of the Jerusalem authorities?" A whole sequence of figures in the first century . Simon, Athronges, Menachem, and a second Simon . did exactly this, and each of them was rubbed out by emperor, governor, or local elite.
Jesus is not a conventional king. He subverts the Roman assumption that what matters is wealth, status, and power. He has no use for wealth. He says, "No one can serve two masters" (6.24). Instead, he points out how rich one is if one trusts in God; he points out how even Solomon in all his wealth was not clothed like the lilies of the field . yet God will clothe his people much more extravagantly than the grass of the field. Therefore, he says, "Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well" (6.33). He subverts conventional notions of status. He says, "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, . . . Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant . . . just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve" (20.25 . 28). And he has no use for power, at least understood in the Roman sense as power backed by force. He rides into Jerusalem on a donkey with palm branches rather than on a horse with weapons and booty (21.1 . 11). He says, "Do not resist an evil person" (5.39), and even at the moment of his arrest he warns, "All who draw the sword will die by the sword" (26.52).
But Jesus is still a king. He stays silent before Pilate, perhaps echoing the words of Isaiah 53.7, "He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth." But there is no reason for Pilate to doubt that Jesus is a king and thus a threat to Rome.
2. Pilate Consults the Crowd
Now it was the governor's custom at the F estival to release a prisoner chosen by the crowd. At that time they had a well-known prisoner whose name was Jesus Barabbas. So when the crowd had gathered, Pilate asked them, "Which one do you want me to release to you: Jesus Barabbas, or Jesus who is called the Messiah?" For he knew it was out of envy that they had handed Jesus over to him. While Pilate was sitting on the judge's seat, his wife sent him this message: "Don't have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him." But the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus executed. "Which of the two do you want me to release to you?" asked the governor. "Barabbas," they answered. "What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called the Messiah?" Pilate asked. They all answered, "Crucify him!" "Why? What crime has he committed?" asked Pilate. But they shouted all the louder, "Crucify him!" (27.15 . 23)
Here is a choice between two prisoners . Jesus Barabbas and Jesus called the Messiah. This scene undermines any reading of the story that paints Pilate as the evenhanded agent of justice. For justice is an early casualty of the whim of public opinion.
The choice, and the fact that both prisoners have the same name, Jesus ("Savior"), highlights the meaning of the title "Messiah". Messiah means "King of the Jews". and King of the Jews means a challenge to Jerusalem and Rome. It is common today to regard politics and religion as largely separate spheres of influence, and certainly of authority. But such a distinction meant nothing to Caiaphas, who saw himself as leader of the people in his role as high priest, and it is not clear that it meant much to Jesus either. When Jesus says to Caiaphas, "You will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven" (26.64), it is pretty clear that the days of the cozy collusion between Caiaphas and Pilate are numbered.
Pilate sees that the Jerusalem authorities are jealous of Jesus, but his bread is buttered on the Jerusalem authorities' side, and he adeptly manipulates the crowd to ensure that Rome continues to appear as benefactor and is never revealed as oppressor.
3. Pilate Washes His Hands
When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. "I am innocent of this man's blood," he said. "It is your responsibility!" All the people answered, "His blood is on us and on our children!" Then he released Barabbas to them. But he had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified. (27.24 . 26)
This concludes a masterful passage of political activity by Pilate. Not only does he dispose of a threat to his power system, but he also manages to get those most oppressed by the system ("all the people") to proclaim that the execution is their responsibility. His true motives are revealed when he has Jesus flogged before handing him over to be crucified . hardly the act of a reluctant fair-dealer.
The first scene brought together Pilate the governor and Jesus the king. In the second scene the contrast was between Barabbas the savior and Jesus the savior. Here now in the third scene is the most ironic contrast: Pilate, who presents his actions to the people as "innocent" and "for you", and Jesus, whose death points out Pilate's guilt, and who has already said at the Last Supper that his life is "poured out for many" (26.28).
Matthew presents Pilate as a hideous parody of the Messiah. It is the Messiah who comes to set people free, but here it is Pilate who teases the crowd by offering to set free one of their prisoners. It is the Messiah who, though politically committed, is innocent of all wrongdoing, but here it is Pilate who washes his hands, feigning innocence. I t is the Messiah who should be attracting the unswerving loyalty of the Jerusalem authorities, but here it is Pilate who has the high priests and scribes at his beck and call. Pontius Pilate is no honest broker but a pale imitation of Jesus.
Luke mentions Pontius Pilate three times before the passion narrative, and each reference provides a helpful introduction to his role in the story. Pilate first appears tucked in between the emperor Tiberius and the local ruler Herod Antipas in a list of those in control of the region (and whose authority is implicitly questioned by John the Baptist, to whose ministry this list is an introduction) (3.1). He later appears as a governor who executed some Galileans and mixed their blood with their sacrifices (13.1). This portrays him as a ruthless man who doesn't hesitate to break taboos to execute punishment and who apparently fears no reprisal. Then he finally appears in the introduction to the question about paying taxes to Caesar. The scribes and chief priests plot to trap Jesus and hand him over to the governor (22.2). There seems no question that handing Jesus over to the governor means Jesus' fate can be relied upon.
The way Jesus challenges Rome is explicit in Luke's gospel from the very beginning. Gabriel tells Mary that her son will "be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father D avid, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end" (1.32 . 33). Mary announces that through her son, the Lord God "has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble" (1.51 . 52). This is hardly encouraging reading for Rome and its allies. Meanwhile Zechariah also realized that God is giving I srael "salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us" (1.71). The angel tells the shepherds that the baby is Savior and Lord . two titles closely associated with Roman emperors (2.11). And Jesus' reign is to be one of peace . the very state that the Pax Romana claimed to bring to all of Rome's subjugated peoples. Jesus' peace is more than the absence of conflict; it is the flourishing of all creation founded on the right worship of God. It is a peace Rome cannot comprehend.
So a showdown between the two global authorities is inevitable. Luke's account has four scenes.
1. The Stirrer and the Unstirred
Then the whole assembly rose and led him off to Pilate. And they began to accuse him, saying, "We have found this man subverting our nation. He opposes payment of taxes to Caesar and claims to be Messiah, a king." So Pilate asked Jesus, "Are you the king of the Jews?" "You have said so," Jesus replied. Then Pilate announced to the chief priests and the crowd, "I find no basis for a charge against this man." But they insisted, "He stirs up the people all over Judea by his teaching. He started in Galilee and has come all the way here." (23.1 . 5)
The contrast in Luke's account is between the Jerusalem authorities and Pilate. The former repeatedly complain that Jesus has been causing trouble throughout Pilate's domain, leading the common people astray. The latter consistently appears to underestimate Jesus.
The Jerusalem authorities show the limits of their imagination (or their tendency to fabrication) by the way they convey Jesus' answers to their questions. On taxes, Jesus places the whole practice of loyalty to Rome within the larger question of loyalty to God (20.25). Likewise on kingship, he places the rule of the status quo within the larger perspective and timescale of the coming of the Son of Man (22.69). If the Jerusalem authorities construe such remarks as a crude thrust for power, Pilate equally misinterprets them as harmless philosophizing. Jesus has none of the trappings of majesty - armed followers, citadels, wealth, a royal entourage - so how can he be a serious threat? Pilate is not stirred and waves his key allies' concerns away without serious consideration.
2. The King and His Parody
On hearing this, Pilate asked if the man was a Galilean. When he learned that Jesus was under Herod's jurisdiction, he sent him to Herod, who was also in Jerusalem at that time. When Herod saw Jesus, he was greatly pleased, because for a long time he had been wanting to see him. From what he had heard about him, he hoped to see him perform a sign of some sort. He plied him with many questions, but Jesus gave him no answer. The chief priests and the teachers of the law were standing there, vehemently accusing him. Then Herod and his soldiers ridiculed and mocked him. Dressing him in an elegant robe, they sent him back to Pilate. That day Herod and Pilate became friends - before this they had been enemies. (23.6. 12)
Herod is a parody of Jesus. He thinks of himself as a king and has all the royal trappings that Jesus lacks. In an extraordinarily ironic moment, Herod dresses Jesus as a king. Jesus, perhaps overcome by the degree to which Herod has debased the notion of kingship, holy living, and the Jewish people in general, does not even speak to Herod. There is no sign of the kind Herod thought Jesus might be good for.
Herod is also a parody of Pilate. Pilate really does have power - or kingship, or at least an army. He does not seem to be troubled by having disposed of the Galileans (in the way Herod is anxious about having executed John the Baptist [9.7 . 9]). But Herod impresses Pilate by seeming to regard Jesus as beneath his concern. Thus Herod shows himself as impervious to the protests of the Jerusalem authorities. For the first time, Pilate takes Herod seriously; a man who sees Jesus as irrelevant is clearly a man who knows where true power lies.
3. Jesus Is Dismissed as Irrelevant
Pilate called together the chief priests, the rulers and the people, and said to them, "You brought me this man as one who was inciting the people to rebellion. I have examined him in your presence and have found no basis for your charges against him. N either has Herod, for he sent him back to us; as you can see, he has done nothing to deserve death. Therefore, I will punish him and then release him." (23.13 . 16)
Pilate executes judgement. N either he nor Herod has genuinely examined Jesus, but it is a mark of his superiority that he considers Jesus unworthy of his attention. To underline Jesus' low status, Pilate resolves to give him a light flogging. (There were three degrees of flogging, and this was less grueling than the others.) F logging was not so much a punishment as a way of reminding the poor that they were powerless. Torture has been used in a similar way in recent times, not so much to extract information as to humiliate the prisoner and remind everyone who is in absolute control.
4. Pilate's Politics Overcome His Arrogance
With one voice they cried out, "Away with this man! Release Barabbas to us!" (Barabbas had been thrown into prison for an insurrection in the city, and for murder.) Wanting to release Jesus, Pilate appealed to them again. But they kept shouting, "Crucify him! Crucify him!" F or the third time he spoke to them: "Why? What crime has this man committed? I have found in him no grounds for the death penalty. Therefore I will have him punished and then release him." But with loud shouts they insistently demanded that he be crucified, and their shouts prevailed. So Pilate decided to grant their demand. He released the man who had been thrown into prison for insurrection and murder, the one they asked for, and surrendered Jesus to their will. (23.18 . 25)
The crowd's demand is, in the terms of the story so far, totally unreasonable. They ask Pilate to crucify a harmless man of no status and ask for the release of a known revolutionary. Pilate is forced into facing up to his basic political commitments. By not listening to his key allies, the Jerusalem authorities, he has provoked them into making wild demands. His arrogance is getting him into trouble. Much better to remember the alliance that keeps Judea under his and Rome's stranglehold, give the Jerusalem elite their curious request, and avoid jeopardizing the cozy coalition.
Luke's Pilate is no more an honest broker than Matthew's. The difference between the two portrayals is this: in Matthew's version, Pilate knows Jesus is dangerous but is concerned to unload the blame for Jesus' death onto others; in Luke's version, Pilate is never convinced Jesus jeopardizes anything of any significance . what is jeopardized is Pilate's relationship with those who control the common people on his behalf. Pilate's recognition that he needs to shore up this key relationship brings about his change of heart and Jesus' death.
John narrates a constant antagonism between Jesus and the people John calls "the Jews". By "the Jews", John refers not to the people of Israel in general (a fact forgotten in centuries of Christian persecution of Jewish people) but to the elite group centered around the high priest and his entourage. Jesus calls himself the "good shepherd" and regards the Jerusalem authorities as "hired hands" or "bandits" (10.1, 8, 11 . 12). He criticizes their control of the temple as exploitative (2.13 . 22), and he implies that they are blind to the work of God (9.39 . 41).
The conflict with "the Jews" is but part of Jesus' deeper conflict with "the world". This is another technical term that means not simply everything that God created but rather refers to everything that rejects the grace of God. Jesus knows the world "hates" him (7.7). Behind the world lies the devil, the "the prince of this world" (12.31). Whenever John uses the term "prince", he is grouping all those who are agents of this "prince of this world"; this includes the Jerusalem authorities (7.26, 48) and Pilate himself.
John's account of Jesus' meeting with Pilate is deftly woven into seven scenes, taking place alternately inside and out. The significance of the location is in each case more than circumstantial, as we shall see.
1. Outside: Jesus Is Handed Over
Then the Jewish leaders took Jesus from Caiaphas to the palace of the Roman governor. By now it was early morning, and to avoid ceremonial uncleanness they did not enter the palace, because they wanted to be able to eat the Passover. So Pilate came out to them and asked, "What charges are you bringing against this man?" "If he were not a criminal," they replied, "we would not have handed him over to you." Pilate said, "Take him yourselves and judge him by your own law." "But we have no right to execute anyone," they objected. This took place to fulfill what Jesus had said about the kind of death he was going to die. (18.28 . 32)
The contrast throughout the narrative is between what takes place outside and what takes place inside. O utside, Pilate does what he has to do to maintain his functional but uncomfortable relationship with the Jerusalem authorities; the object of the narrative's criticism is the Jerusalem authorities. I nside, the heart of Pilate's rule is gradually revealed . indeed the heart of the Roman Empire, the justification for all its double-dealing and its velvet fist. And the heart is empty. The fact that John's gospel places Jesus' death on the day of preparation for the Passover emphasizes that Jesus is the Lamb of God. This portrays Pilate as Pharaoh and Rome as Egypt and further condemns the Jerusalem authorities as failed versions of Moses. The additional edge in John's trial scene is provided by the fact that Pilate's soldiers have joined the temple police in arresting Jesus (18.3), hence the authorities' bewilderment that Pilate is now stalling on Jesus' execution.
2. Inside: God's King and the World's King
Pilate then went back inside the palace, summoned Jesus and asked him, "Are you the king of the Jews?" "Is that your own idea," Jesus asked, "or did others talk to you about me?" "Am I a Jew?" Pilate replied. "Your own people and chief priests handed you over to me. What is it you have done?" Jesus said, "My kingdom is not of this world. I f it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place." "You are a king, then!" said Pilate. Jesus answered, "You say that I am a king. I n fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. E veryone on the side of truth listens to me." "What is truth?" retorted Pilate. (18.33 . 38a)
The first part of this dialogue hangs on John's ambiguous use of the word Jew. O n first reading, it seems obvious that Jesus, not Pilate, is a Jew. But in John's gospel, Jew means "leader in Jerusalem who has become a quisling of Roman authority". So in this sense, Pilate is more of a Jew than Jesus is. "Your own people" becomes a heavily ironic phrase, since Pilate has the Jerusalem authorities in his pocket.
The "truth" is that God is acting in Jesus to set his people free. Hence it makes sense to talk of Jesus as a king in the sense discussed in relation to the other gospel accounts . a liberator. Pilate cannot see this. He cannot even imagine it. Hence his words, "What is truth?" Inside is empty.
When Jesus says, "My kingdom is not of this world", he is not saying, "I am spiritual and have no interest in the political." He is saying, "I have a kingdom that your imagination . rooted in the Āeworld', the politics of the devil . cannot comprehend."
3. Outside: Jesus or Barabbas
With this he went out again to the Jews gathered there and said, "I find no basis for a charge against him. But it is your custom for me to release to you one prisoner at the time of the Passover. Do you want me to release Āethe king of the Jews'?" They shouted back, "No, not him! Give us Barabbas!" Now Barabbas had taken part in an uprising. (18.38b . 40)
The true nature of Pilate's alliance with the Jerusalem authorities is revealed in this scene. Pilate regards Jesus' kingdom language as irrelevant because Jesus has said he will not fight (18.36). Meanwhile, the Jerusalem leaders ask for Barabbas . a well-known combatant. I n other words, both Pilate and the Jerusalem authorities recognize that violence and military muscle is what counts in the end. Barabbas is safe because he accepts the terms of the battle . a battle everyone knows Pilate will win. What follows is a brutal display of imperial violence.
4. Inside: Romans Flog Jewish Pretensions
Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged. The soldiers twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on his head. They clothed him in a purple robe and went up to him again and again, saying, "Hail, king of the Jews!" And they slapped him in the face. (19.1 . 3)
We are back inside, and there is no veneer of civility any more. The last inside scene revealed the emptiness of Roman rule. This scene reveals its brutality. Pilate shows what Romedoes to anyone who claims to be a king. But the scene has plenty of irony. It is gruesome that Pilate is acceding to the wishes of Jesus' own people, who are more protective of Rome than even Pilate is. And Jesus is dressed like Caesar . with a royal purple robe and a crown of thorns (a parody of the emperor's laurel wreath).
5. Outside: Pilate Parades the Prisoner
Once more Pilate came out and said to the Jews, "Look, I am bringing him out to you to let you know that I find no basis for a charge against him." When Jesus came out wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe, Pilate said to them, "Here is the man!" As soon as the chief priests and their officials saw him, they shouted, "Crucify! Crucify!" But Pilate answered, "You take him and crucify him. As for me, I find no basis for a charge against him." The Jews insisted, "We have a law, and according to that law he must die, because he claimed to be the Son of God." (19.4 . 7)
Pilate is teasing the Jerusalem authorities by dangling Jesus before them. The scene begins to make sense when one sees Pilate as tormenting them by seeming to toss Jesus to them and then pulling him away. Suggesting they crucify Jesus is a form of humiliation - they have no power to do so. The whole scene affirms where power really lies in Jerusalem.
6. Inside: The Power of the World and the Purpose of God
When Pilate heard this, he was even more afraid, and he went back inside the palace. "Where do you come from?" he asked Jesus, but Jesus gave him no answer. "Do you refuse to speak to me?" Pilate said. "Don't you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?" Jesus answered, "You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above. Therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin." F rom then on, Pilate tried to set Jesus free, but the Jews kept shouting, "If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar." (19.8 . 12)
Suddenly, the tone of the scene changes. Pilate becomes afraid (I would translate "very" instead of "even more" in 19.8). This man claims to be the Son of God. This is not just a king . a threat to Pilate's own power, although absurd because without violence. This is a god - the God - and hence a threat to Caesar himself, and not only to Caesar but to the whole Roman sense of the transcendent. Violence is no longer the issue. This means that Pilate, for the first time, is powerless. He hastens inside and asks the fundamental question, "Where do you come from?"
This is the fundamental question because it is the one that began John's gospel. John begins with a description of where Jesus comes from (1.1 . 18). A whole host of characters feel their way toward the same discovery - including Nicodemus (3.13), the Samaritan woman (4.25 . 26), the disciples (6.33), and the people of Jerusalem (7.29). Jesus' response gives the question a twist by turning it on Pilate, saying that Pilate's authority comes "from above" - the same place as Jesus' authority. I n these circumstances, the background cries of the Jerusalem authorities sound absurd - painfully absurd. The Jerusalem authorities - who should know all about God - call on Caesar, whom Pilate has just begun to discover is only in power for as long as God's patience lasts. The Jerusalem authorities should know this, so their sin is the greater. The death of Jesus is going to be not the triumph of the Jerusalem authorities or the domination of Rome but the victory of God. One can understand Pilate's panic.
7. Outside: The Betrayal of God and the Handing-Over of Jesus
When Pilate heard this, he brought Jesus out and sat down on the judge's seat at a place known as the Stone Pavement (which in Aramaic is Gabbatha). I t was the day of Preparation of the Passover; it was about noon. "Here is your king," Pilate said to the Jews. But they shouted, "Take him away! Take him away! Crucify him!" "Shall I crucify your king?" Pilate asked. "We have no king but Caesar," the chief priests answered. F inally Pilate handed him over to them to be crucified. (19.13 . 16)
Inside, Pilate has been exposed as empty, powerless, and full of fear. So in his moment of truth, he heads straight outside, thus displaying that he is more dependent on the Jerusalem authorities than anyone could previously have realized . he depends on them to give his authority meaning. All he has left is their subservience. He returns to playing his game with them - the game he plays best, dangling Jesus before them. And finally he elicits the ultimate reversal: "We have no king but Caesar", say the chief priests, a perfect summary of their betrayal as leaders of God's people. Pilate is mesmerized by Jesus; the chief priests are mesmerized by Caesar. Pilate has exposed the emptiness of the chief priests' authority, and Jesus has exposed the emptiness of Pilate's.
Washing Our Own Hands
We have seen that Matthew (like Mark) portrays Pilate as an expert political manipulator who succeeds in disposing of an apparent threat to his authority while at no stage appearing to shoulder any culpability for doing so. Luke's account suggests that Pilate underestimates Jesus but that he disposes of Jesus in order to maintain his alliance with the Jerusalem authorities. John's is the starkest narrative, in which Jesus is the light of truth that exposes the emptiness of Pilate and the profound betrayal of the temple leadership.
I have followed each account in detail because I believe that together these readings transform our understanding of Jesus' death and the reasons for it. The political option Jesus represented is no remote or abstract ideal; it is a live option today. I ts full dimensions will emerge in the course of this book, but at this stage I shall simply highlight two moments in the story of Jesus and Pilate that form a backdrop to what follows.
The first is the moment when Pilate washes his hands (Matt. 27.24). It is a moment that has passed into proverb and cliche and has become part of the vocabulary of self-justification. But it must not be forgotten that it is a charade. Pilate wants the crowd to believe that Jesus' death is no responsibility of his. (He has succeeded in persuading untold numbers of Christian readers of the gospel of his "spin" on Jesus' execution.) But he is the governor. He has absolute power. Jesus has come before him, and he disposes of Jesus.
So the first thing the passion narrative teaches about politics is to be very skeptical about anybody who wants to sigh and say, "Really, there's nothing I can do." There is plenty that Pilate can do - but he has established at the beginning that Jesus is a threat, so everything that he does from then on is directed to destroying Jesus. Washing his hands is just a cynical smokescreen.
But what about the more charitable reading? I n the more charitable reading, Pilate's hand is forced by the fanaticism of the crowd. I n this case, the fault still lies with Pilate. Pilate has no reason to let the crowd force his hand. This is not a democracy (even Power and Pas sion / 48 though the crowd scene falsely suggests it is); he is the governor, and no one in Judea can oust him. The second lesson of this narrative is that those in power do no good by failing to realize the power they have. Power is not wrong or bad or inherently corrupt; it is given for a purpose - to reflect the truth, to set people free - and only becomes sinister when it is not used for the purpose for which it has been given.
Few people today have a monopoly of political power in the way Pilate did. But many people have overwhelming power in smaller spheres - families, churches, voluntary organizations, neighborhoods, businesses, hospital wards, classrooms, building sites, football stands. Such people need to learn from the gospel accounts of Pontius Pilate. I t is deeply manipulative to set someone up to be crucified and at the last minute so arrange things that one can deny all responsibility. I t is no use allowing others to prevail upon you through persistence, passion, or emotional blackmail if you are in a position where you alone have the power to be just.
And who has such power? The investor has the power to relocate funds to organizations that have a social dividend . for example, those that lend money to disadvantaged people who would normally find it next to impossible to get credit, or those that finance low-cost properties for people struggling to climb onto the housing ladder. The shareholder has the power to oust directors who will not steer their company in the ways of fair and sustainable practices. The voter has the power to unseat a government or local authority that mishandles power. The trustee has the power to intervene in a voluntary organization that is being turned into the poodle of its chief executive. The union member has the power to invoke restraint on oppressive practices or harassment in the workplace. The shopper has the power to purchase fairly traded goods and shun the products of corporations that mistreat their staff or the environment. The football fan has the power to speak to the police about racist chanting in the stands.
On one housing estate there was a large empty field, fenced off by the county council. Local residents had often asked to be able to use it for sport and recreation, but there were always civic reasons why it was not possible . mostly referring to the debris on the park and fears of litigation. O ne morning two local parents arranged for a street of children to clear the park of cans, bottles, and other litter. They made sure the newspapers were aware. They did not tear down the fences, but they carefully dismantled all the local authority's reasons for keeping the fences up. Soon, soccer matches were being played on the field. The council seemed to be able to find sums of money for equipment after all. I t became obvious that attempting to sell the park to a major retail developer would be politically disastrous. Those two parents began with a bottle clear-up. Within weeks they had a youth movement. It turned out they were not as powerless as everyone initially thought.
It is no use saying, "Really, there's nothing I can do." Politics begins when one realizes there is plenty one can do. Discipleship begins when one realizes that what one must do is to do what Jesus did.
"What Is Truth?"
John's account of the meeting of Jesus and Pilate shows the emptiness of Pilate's inside, of the inside of his regime in Judea, and ultimately of the inside of the whole Roman E mpire. I t is summed up in his question, "What is truth?" This is the second key moment in the story of Jesus and Pilate.
Pilate is running a ruthlessly efficient machine. I t makes the common people powerless subjects, it makes the social, political,and religious elites willing quislings, and it makes him exceptionally wealthy. Like most ruthless bureaucracies, it doesnít pause too long to ask the question why. The justification for almost every venture is that it will maintain the status quo.
Pilateís world is not as far from todayís world as it may at first appear. What they have in common is that truth is a difficult thing to talk about. On a famous occasion, one of T ony Blairís aides intercepted a telling question to the British prime minister with the unforgettable words ďWe don't do God.Ē In other words, please don't dig down to the truth issues. Weíre trying to run a bureaucracy that keeps most people happy most of the time. It gets us reelected. Don't unsettle the equilibrium by asking why. The aide was very wise of course Ė the media uproar whenever a British prime minister refers to ultimate purpose in general or to God in particular (for example when Blair later said that God would be his judge over the I raq invasion) shows that the British public finds such questions deeply uncomfortable. Pilate would have been quite at home in British political life.
The words ďWe don't do GodĒ display vividly how public life in Western democracies has settled for an instrumental notion of truth. Something is true if it works, if it gets you to the next place. No one ever discusses what the final place is. F or example, in Britain people work very hard so their children can go to the best school. (They either work hard to get a good salary to pay school fees, or they work hard to earn enough money to buy a house in the catchment area of a ďgoodĒ state school, or they work hard to argue with the education authorities to get their child into such a school.) At the best school, pupils work hard to get to the best university. Once there, students work hard to get the best results. T he best results enable them to get the best jobs. But what are the best jobs? T he ones that make enough money to send oneís children to the best schools, of course. T his is what I mean by an instrumental notion of truth and value. I t is a circle from which I cannot escape until I find a different way of defining the word best.
For Pilate, all that was to be hoped for was more of the same. Jesus asked him why. H e had no answer. Jesus stretched Pilateís imagination farther than it was able to go, and Pilate snapped and went out to resume his merciless taunting of the Jerusalem authorities. Pilate couldnít imagine an order not founded on the threat of violent military force, a competition R ome would always win. But Jesus pointed to an empire not founded on force, an emperor who set his people free, a life not bounded by death Ė and he called this ďthe truthĒ. You can see Pilateís brow furrowing, his eyes finding it hard to focus, the solid legs beneath him beginning to shake.
Does Jesus stretch our imaginations? Do we allow him to challenge our instrumental notions of truth? D o we take the risk of letting him dismantle the deftly prepared PowerPoint presentations that tell us how to make our companies, organizations, or families richer, safer, fitter, stronger? Does it suddenly begin to strike us that we are Pilate in this story, saying to Jesus, ďDonít disturb my carefully ordered world. Donít look at me like that. I ím not powerful. I ím not a manipulator. I ím not a person who finds it best to avoid asking why. Iím not. Iím not. Iím not. . . . Am I?Ē