Matthew Skinner: Pontius Pilate Vs. Jesus: Was It a Fair Trial?

With apologies to Jesus, Paul, and others, I think the most interesting figures in the New Testament are Judas and Pilate.

It's not that I gravitate to villains over heroes. (Then again, The Godfather is my favorite film. And at a dinner party I'd rather sit next to Sauron than a bunch of hobbits.) Judas and Pilate intrigue me because, even though they play such major roles in Jesus' destruction, the biblical writings hardly give clear insight into these men's motives or character. Situated at the central piece of the Christian story, both of them make me wonder.

I'm not alone. Throughout history Christians have tried to get into Pilate's and Judas' heads, subjecting them to all sorts of speculative scrutiny. Some consider them the vilest of sinners; some call them accidental saints. Kind of like Gollum, maybe.

Judas and Pilate are important parts of the story not just for their own sake. As the gospels present them, they also inform us about Jesus. I'm going to set Judas aside for another day and focus here on Pilate. This requires us to do a little probing into the gospel accounts and into history. Then we'll return to why Pilate is significant for understanding Jesus.

Pilate: Really Good at His Job

One common perception of Pilate is that he wavers uncomfortably when placed in the position of deciding Jesus' fate. After all, each gospel tells of him posing questions to others about what he should do with his prisoner. Some Bible readers see him as overwhelmed by insistent leaders of the Jerusalem priestly aristocracy and threatened by a volatile mob.

It's worth noting that this viewpoint may support the notion that the gospels' accounts of Jesus' trial deliberately downplay the offense Jesus might have caused to Roman society. It has also regrettably been made to serve agendas of anti-Semitism among Christians, with catastrophic consequences throughout history.

Others say Pilate was simply lazy or uninterested in pursuing justice. Drawing from New Testament passages that refer to Jesus as innocent (Luke 23:47), suffering unjustly (1 Peter 2:18-23), and guilty of nothing that would warrant a death sentence (Acts 13:28), they conclude that Pilate's main failing was negligence.

But there's a more plausible possibility. I've argued, following the lead of other scholars, that the gospels actually portray Pilate as shrewdly in control of the proceedings and very aware of what he needs to do when Jesus stands before him as a purported king.

The gospels depict Pilate as doing his job very well, pursuing the paramount values of the Roman Empire at Jesus' expense. Two things support this conclusion: a historical outlook on Pilate, and an awareness of how Jesus provoked opposition.

What History Tells Us

Jesus of Nazareth was crucified in or near Jerusalem during the reign of Pontius Pilate. This is perhaps the element of the gospels most easily verified by standards of historical inquiry. Only the most radical historical skeptics would doubt this.

Still, it's extremely difficult to reach firm conclusions about the precise events that transpired between Jesus' arrest and execution. The gospel accounts do not agree with each other about the details, and they employ the trial scenes to great effect as showdowns over authority and truth. Trials have always made for great drama. These scenes become opportunities to emphasize claims about Jesus' identity (as king and Christ) and to attest, ironically, Jesus' ultimate authority even as the political authorities tighten the noose around him.

Other historical information adds to the picture.

Pilate is not discussed much in ancient nonchristian sources, but at least one of them excoriates his abusive governance. We know much more about the authority of Pilate's office, as a prefect of a Roman province during the first half of the first century. These men functioned as extensions of the Roman emperor's authority, and so in practice their authority was nearly absolute when it came to dealing with perceived deviants.

Likewise, jurisprudence in a Roman province (like Judea) at that time didn't usually concern itself with formal legal procedures. The empire was too young and the provincial bureaucracies too small for a "legal system" to have become widely established. A prefect's job was to keep the peace and preserve Rome's interests. As long as his actions were not so egregious as to incite widespread opposition or to imperil the privileges that he and society's other elites enjoyed, a guy in Pilate's position could (and, in Rome's eyes, should) do whatever was necessary to promote Rome's prerogatives and assert its dominance.


If, indeed, Pilate would have been prone to maximize imperial interests, then -- from the perspective of the social values that guided how he exercised his responsibility -- Jesus got what he deserved. My friend Greg Carey suggests exactly that when he writes:

"Jesus was executed by the legitimate authorities of his day for acts he actually committed ... An objective observer watching Jesus during the last week of his life could have predicted his death. [His] behaviors were provocative, and as the Gospels tell it, they led inexorably to the cross." (page 79)

As the gospels present them, Jesus' deeds and statements were hardly without political significance, even if Jesus himself may not have been trying to expel the Roman occupiers. Yet he challenges deeply embedded social conventions, embarrasses the Jerusalem authorities (who, as the local aristocracy, were more allies than adversaries to Pilate), and proclaims an alternate "kingdom."

The death he died -- a seditionist's death -- offers his executioners' take on the life he lived.

What Pilate means for Jesus

How does all this affect how we understand Jesus and his death?

The historical circumstances make the possibility of Pilate being overwhelmed, negligent, or unfair decrease in likelihood. When a low-status detainee like Jesus appears before him, with the words "king" and "kingdom" swirling about, there's no reason for Pilate to delay the inevitable, unless it's to provoke onlookers and in the process reassert Roman dominance a little more.

When you listen to the trial story, hear the cruel sarcasm in Pilate's voice as he menacingly considers aloud the fate of the "king" before him. Read the questions he poses to others as leading; they are artifices. Notice how he makes onlookers share in the judgment he pronounces; they come to voice his imperial "logic." He coerces expressions of fealty to Rome when he makes them declare what he must do to anyone purported to be a king.

As the well-traveled Apostles' Creed puts it, Jesus "suffered under Pontius Pilate." What does this mean for Christians who confess it? The primary focus in the gospels is not on the raw pain Jesus endures in dying on humanity's account (sorry, Mel Gibson). Under Pontius Pilate, Jesus suffers subjugation. He suffers the full dehumanizing brunt of the authority structures that embed themselves in our world and protect their turf at all costs.

The trial narratives also emphasize Jesus' identity; he appears as an ironic, seemingly powerless king. Where can Jesus be found, and how is he discovered? Jesus' experience under Pilate suggests he becomes glimpsed and known even now precisely in those kinds of contexts. He becomes a savior who exposes ravenous expressions of oppression, even as he becomes vulnerable to the same. The human resolve to protect ourselves from both criticism and new possibilities becomes forever inscribed upon him, as permanently as the nails of the cross will.

We might find ourselves in these stories, too, if we move from wondering about Pilate to wondering about ourselves. Jesus' trial, as the gospels tell of it, criticizes ancient Roman abuses. But it also shows -- as Pilate perceived -- that Jesus' message always holds out hope for a really different society. And so it exposes our weak spots, especially the ones we shore up the most with our instruments of power.

Yet even hobbits know how dangerous power can be, whether it's lodged in a ring or an office. Pilate was who he was. But we shouldn't forget that the Bible doesn't promise any of us alone can do much better at avoiding power's destructive potential.

[Originally posted on The Huffington Post, April 22, 2011. Used by permission.]