Depending on whom you ask, Pontius Pilate is either one of the great villains of history or a saint – and that’s just the views among Christians. Pilate, of course, was the Roman governor in Judea when Jesus of Nazareth was condemned for allegedly proclaiming himself king of the Jews. One problem in making a proper assessment is that, with the exception of early Christians and a few Jewish historians, history has next to nothing to say about Pilate. Judea was one of 40 provinces in the Roman Empire during the first century CE, and, apart from periodic uprisings by the locals, was considered something of a backwater. Given Judea’s troublesome history, Pilate’s primary task was to keep the peace, which no doubt loomed large as a consideration when he was called upon to decide Jesus’ fate.
If Pilate’s main job was to keep the lid on, he did a remarkably poor job of it, both before and after Jesus’ crucifixion. He had a perfect knack for stirring things up through his cultural insensitivity, then overreacting to any sign of trouble. For example, he moved Roman soldiers to a fortress next to the Temple in Jerusalem and put up military standards bearing an image of the Emperor Tiberius. This led to a dangerous standoff with Jews protesting this violation of their religious commandment against “graven images.” Pilate backed down on this occasion, but a year later clubbed to death protestors after he looted the Temple treasury to pay for an aqueduct. He clashed again with the locals when he placed golden shields in the courtyard of his palace in Jerusalem with an inscription honoring Tiberius as the “son of God.” This time the complaints reached the emperor in Rome, and he ordered Pilate to move the shields to the imperial temple in Caesarea. The verdict among Pilate’s detractors was perhaps best summed up by the Jewish philosopher Philo, who condemned “his venality, his violence, his thefts, his assaults, his abusive behavior, his frequent executions of untried prisoners, and his endless savage ferocity.”
You would hardly recognize this description of Pilate from the way the he was portrayed in the New Testament gospels. Yes, he condemned Jesus to death. But, contrary to his reputation for “endless savage ferocity,” Pilate was plainly ambivalent in this instance and acted only after pressure from the Jewish authorities, backed by a bloodthirsty mob. The Jews did not have the authority to get rid of Jesus on their own, so they needed Pilate to do their dirty work. They hoped he would cooperate if they portrayed Jesus as an insurrectionist who called himself “king of the Jews” – an act of treason against the emperor. However, Pilate saw through their game and wanted no part of it. He proposed to flog Jesus and let him go. Desperate, his accusers now played their trump card. They told Pilate, "If you release this man, you are no friend of the emperor.” In his previous attempts to curry favor with Tiberius by displaying his image or a laudatory inscription, Pilate had succeeded only in offending his Jewish constituents. Worse, his maladroit actions had required the emperor to intervene. How to set things right without stirring up more trouble?
Jesus proved to be of little help, refusing to defend himself against the false accusations against him. Pilate did not know what to make of him. “Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?" he asked. Jesus answered, "You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above.” Now power was something Pilate understood – or at least he thought he did. He had the power of life and death over those living in Judea. But, of course, his power depending entirely upon pleasing the emperor in Rome, and his relationship with Tiberius was shaky at the moment – something the chief priests and elders in Jerusalem were able to exploit for their own benefit. In reality, Pilate had handed over his authority to them.
Jesus was claiming a still higher authority, one that this Roman bureaucrat could not begin to understand. “My kingdom is not from this world,” Jesus explained when Pilate pressed him to respond to the accusation that he was king of the Jews. What did that mean? Jesus had been brought before Pilate at his palace in Jerusalem, with all the trappings of the Roman Empire. Jesus could have been saying, “My kingdom has nothing to do with worldly pomp.” Or he could have been saying, “My kingdom has nothing to do with this world at all.”
Jesus’ encounter with Pilate is perhaps best understood in light of St. Paul’s statement about powers and principalities. “We are not contending against flesh and blood,” he wrote in his Epistle to the Ephesians. Pilate, whatever else you might say about him, was flesh and blood. You could certainly make the case that Rome represented the “world rulers of this present darkness.” But Paul made clear that worldly powers and principalities -- and minions like Pontius Pilate -- were ultimately mere pawns of “the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” This is why Jesus did not bother to make his case before Pilate. He knew his fate had already been sealed by powers far beyond anything Pilate could imagine.
Pilate’s fate is a matter of some conjecture. In his encounter with Jesus, he was told, “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice." To which Pilate famously replied, “What is truth?” However, he may not have been as clueless as his query suggests. There was a lively tradition in the early church that Pilate did listen, however belatedly, and eventually converted to Christianity, along with his wife, who had advised him to “have nothing to do with that innocent man.” This tradition survives today in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which regards both of them as saints. However, evidence more in keeping with Pilate’s prior behavior suggests he was recalled to Rome after yet another botched run-in with the locals, this time in Samaria. He was then either executed or forced to commit suicide by Emperor Caligula, and his body was dumped in the Tiber.