Is History Kind to Pilate?


As President Clinton left office in January, commentaries and editorials addressed the subject of how he would fare in history. Most said it was just too soon to tell. History needs time to make it's judgements. Well it's been about 1,970 years since Jesus "suffered under Pontius Pilate" as we confess in the Creed. You would think that this is enough time for history to make an accurate judgement concerning him.

If you consult popular history, you have to answer the question, "Is history kind to Pilate?" with a decisive "No!" In the fourth century a church historian said that Pilate committed suicide. Traditions dating from the fifth century on have him tortured, exiled, insane, compulsively washing his hands, drowning, decapitated, being swallowed by the earth, and even suffering the ancient punishment for killing your father: Being sewn up in the skin of an ox with a rooster, a poisonous snake, and a monkey and then pitched into a river. By Medieval times legend had Pilate as a restless corpse wandering the earth.

Popular history has not been kind to Pilate, and can you blame it after hearing our Passion reading? But please note Pilate did give Jesus an honest trial. That is more than can be said for the Jewish leaders. Whole books have been written about the illegalities of Jesus' trials before the Sanhedrin, but no such books have been authored concerning Jesus' trial before Pilate. That's because Pilate conducted the trial according to the principles and procedures of Roman courts. Jesus' trial was conducted according to the form of what the Romans called "an investigation outside standard citizens' trial." It was the standard kind of trial the governor of a Roman providence gave a person not a citizen of Rome.

The problem popular history has with Pilate is not with the trial he gave Jesus. The Jews brought Jesus to him charged with 3 crimes: Jesus instigated rebellion. He opposed payment of tribute to Caesar, and He claimed to be Christ, a king. Pilate investigated these charges and duly reported that Jesus was innocent. After the initial examination, Pilate declared, "I find no basis for a charge against Him." When the Jewish leaders failed with their civil charges, they made a religious one. "We have a law, and by that law He ought to die, because He has made Himself the Son of God." Now this wasn't a concern of Pilate as a civil ruler. The Romans accepted the religions of the countries they conquered. However, this charge by the Jews showed Pilate that they were very agitated at Jesus.

Even after this religious charge, Pilate was determined to do the right thing and set Jesus free. He sent Jesus to Herod who was the ruler of the territory that Jesus was from. When Jesus came back, Pilate declared Jesus to be innocent based on not only his own investigation but on the basis of Herod's too. Pilate appears to be quite the stand up guy. So why is Pilate so vilified in popular history? What did he do that was so heinous, so deserving of almost universal contempt? I'll tell you what Pilate did. I'll tell you of what Pilate is guilty. The very same thing we are all guilty of, and that's the real reason Pilate is so despised: because we are so very much like him.

The only thing Pilate is guilty of is not doing the right thing. He sinned against his own conscience. He knew that Jesus was not guilty. He knew that it was only because of envy that the Jewish leaders had handed Jesus over. That's what Scripture says. Pilate knew Jesus was no criminal, no instigator, no one who deserved death. Yet, Pilate didn't do what was right. He did what was expedient. He didn't want a riot on his hands. He didn't want the Jewish leaders to stir up trouble for him back in Rome. So He sent innocent Jesus to His death.

I too have sent Jesus to His death. Like we sing in the hymn, "Whence come these sorrows, whence this mortal anguish?/ It is my sins for which Thou, Lord must languish;/ Yes, all the wrath, the woe, Thou dost inherit,/ This I do merit." In reality, I am the one who sent Jesus to suffering and death innocently. If I had not sinned, Jesus would not have suffered. If I had not sinned, Jesus would not have died. People call those who murder men, women and especially children "ungodly." But what do you call those who murder God?

My sins sent Jesus to suffer and die innocently in this I'm like Pilate. But what has earned Pilate so much scorn is really his expedience. "Hey, one dead Jesus is better than a riot. One dead Jesus is better than finding myself in trouble." Here is the real heinousness of Pilate's crime and of our's too. We give up Jesus all the time rather than suffer. Rather than make my flesh suffer by restraining it, I will indulge it. I can always repent. Rather than bearing the shame of owning a God who is weak and crucified in this world, I play that down. Rather than thinking every sin of mine really does impact the meek and mild Jesus I pretend they do not. I'll sit in my comfortable grudges, my fiery lusts, my familiar worrying while they haul Jesus out to that hill over there and pound nails through His hands and feet.

The fact that we can come so easily here Wednesday after Wednesday, and hear how Jesus suffers and think, "That's the way it ought to be," condemns us as Pilates. The fact that we can come to this altar Sunday after Sunday and partake of the very same Body and Blood that Jesus gave and shed on the cross and think no more about what we are eating than Pilate did his noon meal on Good Friday condemns us as the worst sinners of all. True enough Jesus said to Pilate that the Jews who handed Him over had the greater sin, but that didn't absolve Pilate's apathy. It makes it all the more disturbing. The boy who tortures the helpless kitten is evil, but what about the ones who stand around watching and not caring? What does our Pilate-like apathy toward the innocent suffering and death of Jesus say about us?

Can't you feel the shame? Can't you feel the disgust? No wonder Pilate is pictured as going insane. No wonder he is pictured as compulsively washing his hands. But this is not how everyone pictures him. In fact, the early church didn't look on Pilate with an unfavorable eye. There is no church tradition of Pilate's suicide, execution or punishment in the 2nd or 3rd centuries. In fact, the pagan Celsus used this against Christianity saying that since Pilate suffered nothing for having condemned Christ, He couldn't have been God.

Pilate is favorably shown in the catacombs, and the early church fathers considered him a figure of the early church and held him guiltless of Christ's death. The early church understood "suffered under Pontius Pilate" not in the sense of blame but as historical documentation. One of the earliest church fathers proclaimed Pilate "was already a Christian in his conscience." The Ethiopian Church recognizes June 25th as St. Pilate and St. Procula's Day. (Procula is the name of Pilate's wife in Church tradition). Even Dante in his poem had no place in hell for Pilate; he did for Caiphas and Annas.

What am I saying? That a case could be made for Pilate not really being guilty? Some have tried that, but that is not the way of Christ. Christ never dealt with someone's guilt, someone's shame over sin by explaining it away the way we often try to do. Jesus didn't excuse Peter's denial. In fact, He bluntly confronted him with it on the shores of the Sea of Galilee after His resurrection. Jesus didn't explain Paul's murdering of Christians. His Holy Spirit indeed insured it was recorded for history. Jesus deals with sins, real horrible, heinous, stinky sins by forgiving them. What the church tradition of Pilate becoming a saint shows is that the blood of Christ, the innocent suffering and death of Christ was capable of making even Pilate a saint.

That doesn't make sense to me. It makes sense to me that Pilate would be a compulsive hand washer like a character in a Shakespear play. The popular depiction of Pilate in movies as a neurotic, troubled, spineless man rings true with me. Proverbs says, "The righteous are bold as a lion." So that means the unrighteous, those outside of Christ, those with their sins heavy on their consciences and in their fears ought to be jellyfish. However, it also means the righteous, those in Christ, those who stand in the blood of Christ by standing in their baptisms, those under the blood of Christ through Holy Communion don't need to have their sins heavy on their hearts.

Yes, dear friends, even Pilate could've been forgiven. Correction. Even Pilate was forgiven. From the cross, didn't Jesus say, "Father forgive them for they know not what they do?" Can't that be said of us all? When we give up Christ to crucifixion rather than struggle against our own sinfulness, do we really know what we're doing? When we can hear of His innocent suffering and death in the Passion reading and are moved less than we are by some sappy movie, do we really know what we're doing? When we can kneel before this altar and receive the Body and Blood of our God in our hands or mouths with no more care than we receive ordinary food, do we really know what we're doing?

Call it spiritual insanity; call it theological forgetfulness; call it ignorance of divinity, but we certainly don't know what we are doing anymore than a toddler does when he paints over the picture that has been in the family for generations. We really don't understand the depths of our sinfulness. We really can't appreciate the degree of our wickedness. We really don't know how wicked sinners we are. To us, the ax murderers and serial killers are the real sinners, not us. But not to Jesus. He is not ignorant of our sins or our sinfulness. He is aware of the secret faults, the sins that are hidden even to us, and for these He guiltlessly died, for these He innocently suffered.

Ignorance of what Jesus did for us is bad. Let us, however, not compound our guilt by turning away from what Jesus did for us. Let us not continue to be Pilates thinking that we really can get rid of our sins by pretending we're not guilty. Let us not continue to be Judases thinking that our apathetic, harden hearts are too far gone to be touched, washed, and cleansed by the blood of Christ.

Friends, if Pilate did indeed become a Christian, do you think Jesus wanted him living the rest of his days with a guilty conscience? Do you think Jesus would have said to Pilate what so many of you secretly say to yourself, "Your sins are so bad that you ought to continue to feel bad about them?" Or, "You haven't felt bad enough long enough to rejoice in the forgiveness of your sins."

No, no dear friends. Don't do that to the innocent suffering and death of Jesus. It was intense enough, long enough, hellish enough for even your sins. You do homage to your Lord, you do worship your Lord when you go about joyfully in the knowledge that for Jesus' sake you are more forgiven than you could possibly imagine. Don't you know how a loving father feels towards his kids after they have come to a knowledge of their sins and been forgiven by him? He delights in their joy, in their freedom from guilt. He doesn't want to see their consciences clouded at all.

Is history kind to Pilate? I'm not sure, but Jesus surely would have been. Amen.

Rev. Paul R. Harris

Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas

Midweek IV (3-21-01) "Suffered Under Pontius Pilate"