The figure that most intrigues me in the Easter story is Pontius Pilate. Maybe it is because so little is known about him even though he plays a pivotal role in the story. It might also be that he may have had the same management style I have — trying to make those affected by a decision actually make the decision.
In college, I was walking down the aisle of books at the library and a fictionalized biography of him caught my eye and I took it home and read then entire book in one sitting.
The one thing I remember about the biography is it made clear the pressure that Pilate was under. Imagine if it was today and you were the governor of Iraq. You have the people tiring of the whole region, you have the leader’s approval rating dropping and then the leader says to you: Hey, get that region under control. Stop those insurgents, stop the killing and quiet that region down.
It is easy to say this from Washington. But if you are in Iraq, you’ve got the factions, you’ve got the unrest that is fostered by the presence of your soldiers.
That is the situation that Pilate found himself in. Rome had its own problems and it says to Pilate, get that situation under control, don’t let it blow up, don’t let unrest ferment.
So this is what is known of Pilate. He was of German origin, but was brought up near the borders of the Roman Empire. Because he was of royal birth, he was allowed to train in Rome. It was during this time that an uprising broke out in the Black Sea region and he was dispatched to put it down. And because he was successful he was given the title Pontius after the Black Sea region of Pontus.
The Roman emperor Tiberius then made him procurator of Judea in 26 AD. This was not seen as a plum assignment because it was viewed by Rome as a third-class province. There, he was supposed to maintain order, collect the taxes and looking after Tiberius’ estates.
Immediately Pilate made three decisions that infuriated the Jews, starting with marching the Roman army from Caesarea to Jerusalem and hung the shields of the army, which contained pagan gods on them, on the walls of Jerusalem. The leaders of the Jews protested to Tiberius and Pilate then retaliated by dressing some of the soldiers in civilian clothes and killing some of the Jews. Finally he took over the Temple treasury and extracted large sums of money to building an aqueduct. This almost caused a riot. He was then reprimanded by Tiberius.
What is known is that he ruled for 10 years from 26 to 36 A.D. That was the second longest reign over that region.
Roman historians described him as “insensitive, cruel, ready to use brutal force to keep order and incompetent.”
Others said he was weak, wavering and unsure of how to manage. When it came time to make a decision about Jesus, he literally washed his hands of it. But some of the Roman writings might have been done just to absolve Rome of any of the responsibility for the death of Christ.
What is known of Pilate’s last days is that three years after the death of Christ he was removed from his post by Caligula and in the Roman tradition committed suicide in disgrace. One story floated that Pontius Pilate converted to Christianity before his death, but there really isn’t any compelling evidence.
A new book: “Pontius Pilate: The Biography of an Invented Man” by Ann Wroe seeks to flesh out the man from the little known about him and to look at him from different vantage points.
Ultimately, you have to ask yourself of Pilate the same you ask of Judas. If the plan was for Christ to be tried and crucified in order to remove original sin from man, then if Pilate had been a forceful commander and had freed Jesus when he was brought before him then this would not have worked. Wroe considers that Pilate might have been “God’s secret agent,” unable to avoid the role that had been chosen for him in the great plan. In the same way, Judas had to identify Jesus so he could be arrested and tried.
The scriptures do hint at the fascination of Pilate for Jesus as he interrogated him to decide what to do with him.
That is what this generation has that we who look back at historic figures don’t have. A thousand years from now historians can look at George Bush and at Iraq and at all the statements and plans and make up their own mind about him. We can’t do that with figures like Pontius Pilate since almost nothing is known about his thoughts, his perception of life. A nice long diary would be nice but there isn’t one. A two-hour Larry King interview would be nice, even video tape of Christ’s appearance before Pilate would let us look at the body language, hear the words and their inflection and draw some conclusions.
So I may not have liked him. I may have found him one-dimensional, a brute. Or I might have found a Macbeth or Hamlet character, agonizing over the decision he had to make at Easter.
Well, it’s interesting to think about it even if there is no definitive answer.
For the record, I have never hear of any German origin for Pontius (I guess this is the 'Hausen Legend') ... I have never heard of any 'royalty' connections ... I have never heard about Pontius being connected to some victory in Pontus (of course, it would have been an agnomen, not a nomen if that's the case).