In spite of the fact that he condemned Jesus to death, the Gospels present us a more favourable portrait of Pontius Pilate than that which we derive from secular historians. Josephus relates incidents that reveal him as the most insolent and provoking of governors. For instance, the Jewish historian ascribes to him a gratuitous insult, the story of which shows its perpetrator to have been as weak as he was offensive. It was customary for Roman armies to carry an image of the emperor on their standards; but previous governors of Judaea had relaxed this rule when entering Jerusalem, in deference to the strong objection of the Jews to admit "the likeness of anything." Nevertheless Pilate ordered the usual images to be introduced at night. When they were discovered, the citizens protested vehemently. Pilate had the crowd that he had admitted to his presence surrounded with soldiers, and threatened them with instant death. But they threw themselves on the ground, protesting that they would submit to this fate rather than that the wisdom of their laws should be transgressed. The governor had not reckoned on this. He was only "bluffing," and now he had to climb down, and the images were removed. On another occasion, described by the same historian, Pilate had seized the sacred money at the Temple and employed it in building an aqueduct, a piece of utilitarian profanity which enraged the Jews to such an extent that a vast crowd gathered, clamouring against Pilate and insisting on the stoppage of the works. Then the governor sent soldiers among the people, disguised in the garb of civilians, who at a given signal drew their clubs and attacked them more savagely than Pilate had intended, killing and wounding a great number. Although Josephus does not mention the incident recorded by St Luke (xiii.1), in which Pilate mingled the blood of some Galilean pilgrims with their sacrifices, this is entirely in accordance with his brutality of conduct in the events the historian records. Philo goes further, giving a story told by Agrippa, according to which Pilate hung gilt shields in the palace of Herod at Jerusalem, but was compelled to take them down as the result of an appeal to Tiberius Caesar, and adding that Agrippa described Pilate as "inflexible, merciless, and obstinate." He says that Pilate dreaded lest the Jews should go on an embassy to the emperor, impeaching him for "his corruptions, his acts of insolence, his rapine, and his habit of insulting people; his cruelty, and his continual murders of people untried and uncondemned, and his never-ending, gratuitous, and most grievous inhumanity." Josephus is not trustworthy, always writing "with a motive," and Philo must be considered prejudiced, since he saw too much of the worst side of the Roman treatment of Jews; and the wholly unfavourable verdict of these two writers should be qualified by what we read in the New Testament concerning the subject of them. The interesting point is that we have to go to the Christian documents for the more calm and just estimate of the man who crucified Christ. This fact should deepen our sense of the fairness of the evangelists. They evince nothing of that bitterness of resentment which the Jews, quite naturally, as the world judges, cherished towards their oppressors. They were the followers of One who had taught them to love their enemies, and who, when in mortal agony, prayed to God to forgive the men who had inflicted it. But further, the early Christians discriminated between the Jewish authorities, who planned and purposed the death of Christ and really compassed it, and Pilate, who was but a weak instrument in the hands of these men. The fact that the evangelists so clearly mark this distinction is a sign that they are in close touch with the events, and that they faithfully record what they know to have taken place. In a word, it is clear that we have a more just and accurate portrait of Pilate in our Gospels than the representations of him by Josephus and Philo, who are thus seen to be less trustworthy historians than the New Testament writers.
The word "Pilate" as a proper name has been variously explained. Some have derived it from the Latin pileatus, meaning one who wore the pileus, the cap of a freed slave, and so have regarded the Roman governor by whom Jesus was tried as a man who had been raised from the ranks of slavery. The worst condemnation of slavery is, that it degrades the characters of its victims, developing the servile vices of cowardice, meanness, and cruelty -- all of which vices are manifest in Pilate's character. But such a promotion as this theory implies would be most improbable. A more likely explanation connects the name with pilum, a javelin. The earlier name Pontius suggests the family of the Pontii, of Samnite origin, well-known in Roman history. It was customary to confine such an office as that which Pilate held to knights, men of the equestrian order. Nevertheless, it was not a very dignified office. It is described indefinitely in the Gospels as that of a "governor." But Pilate is designated more distinctly by Tacitus and Josephus as procurator of Judaea. This official served under the Legate of Syria. His proper duty was simply to collect the taxes of the district over which he was appointed. Thus he would be likely to come into contact with the chief local collectors, such as Zaccheus; and in this way he may have heard, and that not unfavourably, of One who was known as the "Friend of publicans and sinners." But in the turbulent districts -- such as Judaea and Egypt -- the procurators were entrusted with almost unlimited powers, subject to an appeal to Caesar on the part of Roman citizens. Soldiers were sometimes needed for the forcible collection of taxes, and the disturbed condition of these parts demanded an official in residence who could act at once and on the spot. The punishment of turbulence was with the rigour of martial law, which really means no law at all, but only the will of the man in charge of the army. A subordinate official lifted to a position of almost irresponsible power -- such was Pilate. We can well understand how a man with no moral backbone would succumb to its temptations. Pilate was a much smaller man than Gallic the proconsul at Corinth, and that other proconsul at Cyprus, Sergius Paulus, whom St Paul won over to Christian faith. But his pettiness in the eyes of Roman society would lead him to magnify his importance in the little world he was trying to rule like a king, though often with consequences humiliating to himself.
Pilate's headquarters were at Caesarea, by the sea coast, the Roman capital of Palestine; but he came up to Jerusalem with a troop of soldiers at the Passover, to prevent any disturbance among the vast hosts of pilgrims then gathered together in the city, just as Turkish soldiers now mount guard at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre during the Easter celebrations, to prevent the Christians from quarrelling and fighting. That is how it was he happened to be present when Jesus was arrested and brought up for trial. In this fact also we may see why the Jewish authorities felt it necessary to hand their Prisoner over to the Roman governor; although, a few years later, they were able themselves to execute the death sentence on Stephen in the Jewish mode, by stoning, and still later to do the same with James, the Lord's brother.
All four Gospels refer to the trial of Jesus before Pontius Pilate; but the fullest information is to be obtained from the third and fourth. St Luke throughout both his works seizes every suitable opportunity for setting out the scene of his story on the large stage of the world's history, and he is especially interested in showing it in relation to the imperial government. Thus, while Matthew only connects the time of the birth of Jesus with the reign of Herod, a Jewish note of time, Luke also associates it with Caesar Augustus and the chronology of Rome; and later, while Matthew does not say when John the Baptist began his work, but notes the imprisonment of John as the occasion of the commencement of our Lord's public ministry, Luke carefully records that it was "in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judaea" (Luke iii.1), that John the Baptist began preaching and baptizing. It is this same evangelist only who refers to Pilate's savage slaughter of the Galileans at Jerusalem. The author of the Fourth Gospel does not mention Pilate before the time of our Lord's trial, but he gives us a much fuller account of that trial than any of his companion evangelists. Next to John, our fullest account is in Luke. On these two authorities therefore we must mainly rely. But John's is not only the most ample and fully detailed narrative; it also furnishes us with by far the most vivid and convincing portrait of the Roman governor. This is one of the numerous cases of life-like character-drawing with which the Fourth Gospel abounds. Nicodemus, the woman of Samaria, Thomas, Judas, Mary Magdalene, and now Pilate, are all known to history from St John's portraits of them. Should not this significant fact lead us to attach great weight to his portrait of Jesus Christ, which soars above the Christ-pictures of the synoptics in the most exalted Divine glory?
Jesus had been tried soon after His arrest before Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin, the supreme council of the Jews, and there He had been condemned to death, not on the charge for which He had been arrested -- threatening to destroy the Temple -- for the evidence against Him had broken down, but for blasphemy during the course of His trial, when adjured by the high priest to declare whether He was the Christ. But the presence of Pilate prevented the council from executing their sentence (as doubtless they would have done if he had been away at Caesarea), in defiance of the law, which was entrusted to a weak and capricious governor. Accordingly they brought their Prisoner to the procurator's residence -- probably Herod's palace, a magnificent building with two marble wings, containing large rooms sumptuously furnished, and spacious porticos surrounded by gardens and enclosed in a lofty wall with towers, situated in the western district of the city, and approached by a bridge across the Tyropaean valley. The facts that a later governor, Gestius Florus, resided here, and that Pilate lived in Herod's palace at Caesarea when in that city, and that he hung the shields about which there was so much trouble in the Jerusalem palace, make this view more probable than the traditional idea that the trial of Jesus took place in the Castle of Antonio, the imperial barracks, close to the Temple.
The Jews objected to enter this fine palace, because as a Gentile residence it was defiled, and therefore defiling, and they wished to be "clean" for the feast they were to eat in the evening. Pilate humoured them, and had his conferences with them outside the building. Seeing their object and observing their temper, he must have discovered at once their miserable hypocrisy. These were the men who affected to be the leaders of the one pure faith on earth, a faith which looked with scorn on the "idolatry" of the cultured Roman. He must have regarded them with immense contempt. If his tone is cynical, it is but a match for the unmitigated cynicism of their conduct.
Pilate inquires as to the crime with which the Prisoner is charged. At first, the Jews do not give an explicit reply, only stating that they have already found Him guilty. Pilate catches at that. His weakness, so pitiably apparent throughout the whole proceedings, appears at this early stage. Desiring to shirk the responsibility of deciding the case -- he would use the first apparent loophole of escape. Since the Jews have taken this case in hand, let them carry it through, dealing with it according to their law. They are not to be caught by that flattering suggestion. They know that they have not the power of life and death. Pilate would not let them kill Jesus. His proposal, which on the surface looks like the granting of a privilege, amounts to this, that they may exercise ecclesiastical discipline, excommunicate their Prisoner, or perhaps fling Him into jail, possibly scourge Him. But the worst of these punishments will not satisfy their determined hatred, or rid them of the haunting fear inspiring it, that Jesus will undermine their influence with the people. Nothing less than His death will put an end to that danger; so they thought, although the event proved that it was this very death of Christ that was to lead to the victory of Christianity over Judaism. This, however, even His own disciples could not foresee, much less could it enter into the minds of His enemies among the Jews.
Thwarted in his first attempt to escape, and compelled to try this difficult case, Pilate enters the palace where Jesus is kept under arrest, and questions Him. He has been informed that Jesus claims to be the king of the Jews. Is that so? Is the charge but a piece of malicious slander? If it is, there is an end of the matter. Pilate is not going to lend himself to humour the whim of those hateful Jews, whom he affects to despise while in his heart he is mortally afraid of them. There is nothing of the bearing of the violent insurgent in this calm peasant who stands before him. Surely this is some stupid mistake, or there is more Jewish malice in it than Pilate can fathom. But the Roman magistrate soon discovers that he is dealing with no ordinary man. Jesus takes his measure in a moment. Pilate is a feeble creature, with no character, insincere, dishonest. He must be made to feel his littleness. We can imagine how our Lord would fix on him a penetrating gaze before which the shallow nature of the man would become apparent, as He asked whether this cross-examination was genuine, or whether Pilate was prompted to it; whether, as we should say, it was "a put-up affair" -- "Sayest thou this of thyself, or did others say it concerning Me?" Picture the situation -- the great marble palace, the representative of Imperial Rome clad in the purple robe of office, and seated in his chair on the dais, the surrounding officials and bodyguard; and then the peasant from Galilee, alone, unattended, undefended, come straight from insult and mockery in another court, and that after a night of mental agony. Observe how completely the relative position of judge and Prisoner are reversed, at least, to the eyes of the onlooker. Jesus calmly questions Pilate, calmly tells him of the limit of his power, and calmly claims the kinship for himself -- there of all places -- in the Roman governor's residence, speaking to this governor himself, knowing that it must seal His own fate. The two powers are now face to face -- the world-power of Rome, outwardly so imposing, but at this moment shrinking to insignificance, looking so vulgar, so mean, so sordid, so unreal, so essentially weak, in the person of the paltry governor; and the heavenly power, the power of truth and goodness, the Kingdom of God represented by the provincial Prisoner whose inherent dignity of Presence is seen to be all the more sublime for the contrast. And Pilate? How does he view this? He is manifestly disconcerted, but he tries to hide his awkwardness under a mask of Roman scorn. "Am I a Jew?" he exclaims, in a tone of measureless contempt. It is like the contempt of Agrippa when, in response to St Paul's enthusiastic appeal and close home-thrust, he cried, "With but little persuasion thou wouldest fain make me a Christian!" Pilate reminds Jesus that He has been given up by His own people. Jews might be expected to stand by a fellow-Jew under the Roman tyranny. How comes it to pass that the Jewish people have brought a man of their own race to the foreign tribunal, prosecuting Him before this alien power, seeking His death from the hated Imperial government? What can He have done to bring about so unusual a situation? Pilate is perplexed; and the answer of Jesus does not clarify the magistrate's ideas. It seems only more mystifying. Jesus describes His kingdom, so different from any institution bearing the name that Pilate has ever heard of. It is not of the order of things in this world. If it were, of course Christ's servants would fight, as do the servants of the claimants of earthly thrones. But they do not resort to violence. The kingdom and its methods of government are both unearthly. Pilate is interested, perhaps amused, with what now seem to him the fancies of a fanatical dreamer. He pursues the inquiry, we may suppose, with a smile on his lips, "Art thou a king, then?" he asked. There is no ambiguity in his Prisoner's reply. He is a king. This strange kingdom, not resting on any basis of earthly power, dispensing with fighting, with all that an army suggests, with force, is the very opposite to Pilate's idea of a state. Rome was materialistic to the core. Her rule rested on brute force. The Empire, the Imperium, was the dominion of the Imperator, that is to say, of the commander-in-chief of the army. It was a military despotism. Nominally the government was still republican, and the older and more peaceable provinces were administered by proconsuls, whose appointment rested with the senate, or was supposed by a legal fiction to rest with that body. But the newer and more troublesome provinces were governed as conquered territory directly by the emperor as the head of the army. Now Judaea came in this latter division. Pontius Pilate and his superior, the Legate of Syria, were both directly responsible to Tiberius Caesar. Pilate was Caesar's officer under military direction. Military methods characterised the procurator's rule. To a man placed as Pilate, the notion of a ruler independent of fighting supporters, and that in territory held down by force of arms, was simply absurd.
Our Lord's further explanation seems to Pilate still more out of keeping with the notion of royalty. Jesus says He was born to be a king in order that He might bear witness to the truth. A king -- truth -- what have these two words in common, the one referring to the most real region, the other to the most ideal? To Pilate, the conjunction is absolutely incongruous. "What is truth?" he asks, as he turns away, too contemptuous to wait for an answer. This famous utterance has been quoted as a text for the anxious inquirer, and preachers have gravely set themselves to answer it. Jesus did nothing of the kind. Evidently it was not a serious inquiry. Pilate flung off the very idea of truth -- a mere abstraction, nothing to a practical Roman. Still, though he was not seeking any answer to his question, by the very tone of it he suggested that he did not possess that gem which those who hold it prize above all things. "The Scepticism of Pilate" is the title of one of Robertson's greatest sermons. The preacher traces it to four sources: indecision; falseness to his own convictions; the taint of the worldly temper of his day; and that priestly bigotry which forbids inquiry, and makes doubt a crime. Pilate is the typical sceptic, who is worlds removed from the "honest" doubter. Serious doubt, which is pained and anxious in the search of truth, is in essence belief, for it believes in the value of truth, if only truth can be discovered; but typical scepticism not only does not credit what the believer takes for truth, but despises it as not worth seeking. That is the fatal doubt, a doubt that eats into the soul as a moral canker.
Nevertheless, although what is of supreme value to Jesus is reckoned by Pilate as of no importance whatever, the cross-examination has satisfied the magistrate of the innocence of his Prisoner. His duty, then, is plain. He should acquit the innocent man. But he dare not do so immediately. That howling mob of Jews and those odious priests and Sadducees of the council are determined on the death of their victim. Pilate has made himself well hated by the roughness of his government. Nothing would please the Jews and their leaders better than to have some chance of impeaching him before his jealous master at Rome, on the charge of leniency to treason. Pilate quails before the terrible possibility. In face of it he simply dares not pronounce a verdict of acquittal. Yet he means to do all he can to effect the escape of his Prisoner. His inbred instinct for justice prompts him to this; for the Romans cherished reverence for law, and even so corrupt a ruler as Pilate was not independent of the atmosphere of his race. Then it would be a bitter humiliation to let his judgment be overruled by those contemptible Jews. He would be heartily glad to confound and disappoint them. More than this, he had begun to feel some awakening interest in his remarkable Prisoner. He had come to the conclusion that Jesus was a harmless dreamer; but he had felt some faint shadow of the spell of the wonderful Personality. If only it could be managed with safety to himself, he would be glad to have Jesus set free.
Accordingly we now see Pilate resorting to a series of devices in order to escape from his vexatious dilemma. From this point his conduct opens out to us a curious study in psychological phenomena. The ingenuity of Pilate in resorting to one expedient after another, is very striking. Evidently he has keen wits, and he uses them with some agility. But it is all in vain. He is pushed from each of the positions he takes up by the same stubborn, relentless pressure which he invariably finds to be irresistible. The explanation is, that though he has intellect, he lacks will-power. On the other side there is not much need for intelligence, but there is the most obstinate will. The Jews possess a clear notion of what they want, and a set determination to have their way. In such a contest there is no doubt which side will win. When will is bitter against intellect, it is the latter that succumbs. The determined will forces itself through all opposition that rests only on intelligence, reasoning, contrivance. Intellect does not count for nothing; allied to a strong will, as in Calvin, Cromwell, Napoleon, it helps to effect gigantic results. But in the sphere of action, it is will-power that tells in immediate results. Even here, reason may conquer stupid obstinacy in the long-run. But you must give it time; and you must have honesty of character. Neither condition was present in this case of Pilate. He had to decide promptly; and his moral nature was unsound. Such a man under such circumstances will never find his most cunning devices a match for the set determination of his opponents. So Pilate, feebly protesting, helplessly scheming, is pushed back step by step; and ultimately he concedes everything demanded of him, and the final issue is more humiliating to himself and more cruel to the innocent Prisoner whom he is trying to shield, than it would have been if he had yielded at the beginning. The real victim of this tragedy in the palace is not Jesus, it is the soul of Pilate. We seem to see a weak man being thrust down a steep place, resisting and catching at the shrubs and rocks that he passes, but torn from his grasp of them and finally flung over the precipice.
Pilate's first device was to send Jesus to Herod Antipas, who happened to be at Jerusalem at the time. It was a compliment to the frivolous "king of Galilee" to remit a Galilean prisoner to his judgment, and Pilate would gladly rid himself of the awkward case by this ingenious device. But it was useless, for the simple reason that Herod had no power of life and death in Jerusalem, and Pilate soon had his Prisoner on his hands again. Next he clutched at the custom of releasing a prisoner during the feast. Here was a chance for letting off Jesus without declaring Him innocent. But this suggestion was hopeless. If the Jews were set on effecting the death of Jesus, they would not give up their right to choose their prisoners to be released, and take at the dictation of Pilate the very man they wanted to have done to death. They clamoured for an insurgent, Barabbas, a man caught red-handed in the very crime for which these hypocrites professed in their new-fledged loyalty to Caesar to be anxious to have Jesus executed. The cynicism of their choice is palpable. By daring to make it, they show in what contempt they hold Pilate. The governor loses ground considerably by this false move. Then he tries to throw the blame of the murder of Jesus, which he sees he cannot prevent, on the Jews. A new motive urges him to escape from the responsibility of committing a judicial murder. His wife had sent a private message warning him to "have nothing to do with that righteous man." She had been much disturbed by a dream about him. Romans were slaves to omens and auguries, and the most materialistic of them felt some awe of dreams, although they had lost faith in real religion. Your confirmed sceptic is often slavishly superstitious in the secret of his soul. It is a way the spiritual has of avenging itself on the man who openly flouts it. Boldly flung out of the window, it creeps back into the cellar and vexes the soul with petty tricks played on the subterranean consciousness. The man who expels his good angel is haunted by imps and elves. He who will not believe in God and despises truth succumbs to the message of a dream.
More anxious now than ever to escape responsibility, Pilate calls for water and publicly washes his hands, telling the Jews that the innocent blood will be on their heads. They accept the awful responsibility. What do they care for the weak Roman's scruples? He is doing their will, and of course no hand-washing can cleanse his conscience from the stain of guilty compliance.
Yet one thing more Pilate will do. He will scourge Jesus. Perhaps that may satisfy these savage Jews. For scourging was a savage punishment. The whip was loaded with lead and sharp fish-bones, and at every stroke the flesh was cut. Men often died under this severe treatment. Pilate had it inflicted on Jesus, knowing Him to be innocent; but hoping that, if He survived, no more might be required. It was an abominable compromise. If Jesus were innocent -- and Pilate knew He was innocent -- He should have been set free unscathed, with apologies for a mistaken arrest. If he were guilty, of course he ought to receive the death-penalty for the crime of treason. Justice could allow of no middle course. But Pilate is not thinking of Justice. He only wants to escape the onus of killing an innocent man. Then he has Jesus brought forth, bleeding, in agony, His lacerated flesh exposed to the view of that heartless multitude. "Behold the man," says Pilate. "Look at your victim; is not this enough?" If Pilate thought his appeal ad misericordiam would touch those hardened sinners of the Sanhedrin, he was strangely mistaken. The sight of their victim in His agony only maddens them. They are like hounds who had tasted blood. Like hounds, they "give tongue," and yell for His death. Pilate can resist no longer. He has played his last card, and it has been taken. Thoroughly humiliated and quite helpless, he gives sentence, and so in spite of the governor's desperate efforts to escape the stigma of his awful crime, it goes down to all the ages that Jesus was "crucified under Pontius Pilate."