By: John Gardner
The role of Pilate has always been among the most confusing aspects for me in the story of the Passion of Christ. Why does this figure play such an important role in the story? Why was it necessary to narrate Pilate’s conversations with Jesus and the crowd in such detail and even to memorialize Pilate’s name in the Nicene Creed?
Four times in John’s Gospel Pilate asks questions which are translated in English as “What?’ In Latin, a language in which case, tense, and mood are more precise, these appear as quam, quid, and quod. Further questions appear in Matthew and Mark. John’s story is the more detailed and contains some tantalizing glimmers of possible understanding – and statements of absolute truth.
In John 18:28, Pilate asks “What (quam) accusation do you bring against this man?” This was important. For someone to be crucified, the charge had to be worthy of death under Roman law, and the person’s name and crime would then be indicated on the titulus, a sign affixed to the vertical crossbeam of the condemned. Without a crime, Roman law could not order crucifixion, which is why Pilate suggested simply delivering Jesus to be scourged and then released (Luke 23:16). The answer was a masterpiece of circular logic (“If this man were not doing evil, we would not have delivered him over to you.”), and Pilate sees right through it, leading to his first deep conversation with Jesus, about whether he was, in fact, King of the Jews.
Pilate then asks (18:35) “What have you done?” (Quid fecisti?) Jesus responds with the statements that his kingdom is neither “of” nor “from the world.” Power, Jesus states, comes from above – and his kingdom is, by implication, from above. When Pilate asks whether Jesus is a king, he responds that he came into the world “to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate famously responds “What is truth?” (Quid est veritas?)
Finally, having yielded to the crowd’s insistent and furious demands for Jesus’ blood – and after ignoring a heartfelt plea from his wife – he inscribes the titulus “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” To the anger of the chief priests at the title, Pilate simply responds “What I have written, I have written.” (Quod scripsi scripsi.)
What does all this mean? Pilate has been variously and rightly described as cowardly, brutal, vacillating, weak, sarcastic, calculating, political, self-serving, and spiteful. And yet . . . .
Earlier in the story we see another aspect of Pilate’s character as well. In Matthew 27:14, Pilate is “amazed” that Jesus gives no response to the charges when he is at risk of a brutal death. Pilate also asks the crowd “What evil has he done?” (another quid). He clearly desires to release Jesus on the ground that “nothing deserving death has been done by him” (Luke 23:15).
Look at the second dialogue between Jesus and Pilate (John 19:8ff). After Pilate says “Behold the man!” to the crowd, Jesus doesn’t directly answer Pilate’s question about where he is from but does state that Pilate would have no power unless it had been given to him “from above” – a fact only Jesus would know. The chief priests and officers then say that Jesus “has made himself the Son of God.” When Pilate heard those words, John reports that “he was even more afraid.”
Afraid? He should have been outraged – what was this Galilean tekton doing usurping one of the titles of Caesar? Tiberius was the son of “divus Augustus.” That alone should have been enough to crucify him under Roman law, yet Pilate was afraid and after another brief exchange with Jesus, sought to release him once again, giving up only when he was threatened with disloyalty to the worldly kingdom, Rome, that he served. Why?
And then there is the titulus – “King of the Jews”; “What I have written, I have written.” Why?
The titulus was in three languages: Aramaic, the daily language of the local Jews; Latin, that of the Roman conquerors; and Greek, the common language of the eastern Mediterranean. All who were in Jerusalem for the Passover could see it and understand that this was Jesus. It must, as Rubens’ famous painting of the Raising of the Cross shows, have been large, “that he may run who reads it” (Hab. 2:2). The life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus are historical facts; we are reminded that this is history, not merely theology and certainly not mythology, every time we say the Creed. Jesus was crucified “under Pontius Pilate” – at a specific point in history, and for this world-changing event Jesus states that he came into the world.
But – King of the Jews? Son of God? Did Pilate in some way believe it? Was that why he was afraid? Was he hedging his bets with God? Superstitious or polytheistic, happy to add another divinity to his pantheon? We cannot know, but we do know that thanks to Pilate’s choice of words, Jesus hung on a cross describing his kingship, without qualification. Whatever his intent, whatever the state of his heart then or later, Pilate’s inscription of that title was his judgment, in both senses of the word. And it is a reminder that Pilate sat on the judgment seat, while Jesus was under judgment for our sin and will come again as Judge of the world.
Romano Guardini in The Lord notes something else about Jesus’ trial which hints at an answer and, more important, an application: When Pilate asked Jesus questions, Jesus “sees that there are depths to this Roman.” Jesus declined to answer questions related to the formalities of the charges and the trial, but Guardini reads the questions and imagines Jesus’ thoughts: “perhaps you are asking because something in you desires to know. That something I will answer.” He still will. We have only to ask in sincerity.
Opinions differ as to Pilate’s fate; Guardini states that Pilate is “sucked . . . into a confusion so dark and deep that he is no longer sensible of the gruesome and ignominious folly he is committing.” The early Christians Tertullian and Eusebius believed that he, along with his wife, eventually converted. Again, we cannot know – but we do know that “everyone who is of the truth” listens to Jesus voice. He speaks, because he is alive – alive after being condemned to death by Pilate but conquering death by death and triumphing over it on Easter. To know “What is truth?,” follow Jesus, our risen Lord.
Alleluia, Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia!