PILATE PONTIUS (Fr. Varghese Paul, S.J.)

PILATE PONTIUS (Fr. Varghese Paul, S.J.)

Pontius Pilate is one of the most known characters of the New Testament for the fact that it was he who condemned Jesus to be crucified. We know about Pontius Pilate, the fifth Roman governor of Judea not only from the New Testament books but also from his contemporary Jewish secular historians Josephus and Philo. The fourth century Church historian Eusebius too has written about Pilate.

Pilate was appointed governor some three years before Jesus crucifixion. His wife was Claudia Procula. She was the grand-daughter of the Emperor Augustus and a illegitimate child of Claudia, the third wife of the Emperor Tiberius. Perhaps it was through her royal connection with the Emperor Tiberius that Pilate got the appointment as the Roman governor of Judea.

Historians like Josephus and Philo portray a different picture of Pilate than the one of the New Testament. For instance, Josephus has related anecdotes which show Pilate as obstinate, harsh, violent, cruel and a plunderer of Temple fund. In one case when Pilate assumed office he came to Jerusalem with his legions carrying the images of Caesar to the city and Pilate hang the images of Caesar on the walls of his fortress in Jerusalem facing the Temple! His predecessors have never done such things as they respected the sensibilities of the Jews who believed only in one God and did not allow any graven images.

The Jews protested against Pilate hanging image of Caesar facing the Temple by sending a large delegation to the governors residence at Caesarea. When the protest continued on the fifth day Pilate let his soldiers loose on the Jewish crowd and large number of protesters were killed according to John L. Makenzie, S.J. the author of Dictionary of the Bible (p.677). In another instance, Pilate fraudulently took temple fund from sacred Treasury and used it an aqueduct project for bringing water to Jerusalem city.

Biblical scholar and author, Ronald Brownrigg in Whos Who the New Testament describes Pilate that, He was a proud, hot-tempered, obstinate and aristocratic young man, capable of childish behaviour when he is crossed (p.219).

Pilate appears in all the four Gospels and in the Acts of the Apostles. He is also mentioned in the first letter of Paul to Timothy. In the Gospels Pilate is first mentioned by Luke referring to the time of the preaching of John the Baptist (Lk 3, 1). Luke again refers to Pilates responsibility for the killing of some Galileans, when they were actually offering sacrifice in the Temple. (Lk 13, 1)

Pilate was the governor of Judea for about 12 years. He was hated by both the Jews and the Samaritans for his covetous and cruel government.

In the four Gospels, Pilate appears as a ruler with no conscience or rather as a man who does not follow his own conscience! Though the historians picture Pilate as cruel tyrant who does not respect neither the traditions of his predecessors nor his subjects, the Jewish people, the four Gospels present a different picture.

Pilate is too eager to be in the good books of the Roman Emperor and preserve his governorship. So he plays safe into the hands of Jewish authorities. All four evangelists say that Pilate did not find any guilt in Jesus. I find no reason to condemn this man (Lk 23, 4). Pilate did try to release Jesus from accusations against him by the Jewish high priests and the people.

When Jesus is brought to Pilate by the Jewish authorities, Pilate first tells them to take Jesus and judge according to the Jewish law. Pilate said to them, then you yourselves take him and try him according to your own law (Jn 18, 31).

Then, Pilate learns that Jesus is originally from Galilee and so he sends Jesus immediately to the Governor of Galilee, Herod who was in Jerusalem at that time. Luke narrated the story. When Pilate heard this, he asked, Is this man a Galilean? When he learnt that Jesus was from the region ruled by Herod, he sent him to Herod, who was also in Jerusalem at that time (Lk 23, 6-7). Herod and his soldiers mocked Jesus and then sent Jesus back to Pilate.

Shrinking his responsibility again Pilate calls the chief priests and the people and tells them he or Herod has not found any guilt in Jesus. His conclusion is an attempt to please the Jewish authorities. Pilate says to them. So I will have him whipped and let him go (Lk 23, 16).

But the chief priests, the other Jewish leaders and the people relentlessly kept up their pressure on Pilate to condemn Jesus to death. Still Pilate makes another feeble effort to free Jesus. As a Passover festival gift from the Roman governor, Pilate offers to the Jewish authorities and the people to free the prisoner Jesus in the place of a well known prisoner named Jesus Barabbas (Mt 27, 16).

But the crowds of Jewish people led by high priests and other leaders shouted for freeing Barabbas and crucifying Jesus. When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, he gives in to the demand of the high priests and the people. Mathew says, Then Pilate set Barabbas free for them; and after he had Jesus whipped, he handed him over to be crucified (Mt 27, 26).

Pilate gives in to the demands of Jewish high priests and the people in condemning Jesus to be crucified.

In trying to free and save Jesus Pilate was outmaneuvered by the Jewish high priests and the people. But after Jesus death Pilate shows his true colours in two things. First, he composed the words in the title nailed to the cross of Jesus in Hebrew, Latin and Greek, Jesus of Nazareth, the king of the Jesus. The chief priests objected to the words and proposed different words. But this time Pilate stood his ground and said the famous words, What I have written stays written (Jn 19, 19-22).

Then, again after Jesus has died on the cross, Pilate does not care for the Jewish law which says that the bodies of the criminals should be thrown into common pit. So in the case of Jesus, when Joseph of Arimathaea approaches Pilate, he gives Jesus body to Joseph to give him for a proper burial. Only Mathew mentions that Pilate permitted the chief priests and the Pharisees to protect with a guard Jesus tomb against theft.

We do not know concretely anything further about Pilate. According to Ronald Brownrigg, Various traditions relate the execution of Pilate by Nero, his banishment to Vienne, his taking of his own life (Whos Who the New Testament p.225).

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