Pontius Pilate in the Four Gospels
MARK’S GOSPEL ‘Pilate in Mark’s gospel is not a weak governor, bowing to public pressure and the demands of the chief priesthood. Instead he is a skillful politician, manipulating the crowd to avoid a potentially difﬁcult situation, and is a strong representative of imperial interests.
Although Mark clearly lays primary guilt for Jesus’ death upon the Jewish leadership, Pilate is not exonerated. He plays a vital part in the chain of events leading to the cruciﬁxion and shares the guilt involved therein….
At his death not only is Jesus deserted by his closest supporters but the whole political world of ﬁrst-century Palestine, both Jewish and Roman, have sided against him. The Jewish leadership have arrested and condemned him but Pilate sends Jesus for cruciﬁxion.’
(Pontius Pilate in history and interpretation, Helen K. Bond & John Court, Cambridge University Press, 1998, p.117)
MATTHEW’S GOSPEL The Matthean Pilate plays a much less significant role within the Roman trial scene than the Markan Pilate. The governor attempts to show his innocence by publicly washing his hands and telling the Jewish crowd to see to Jesus’ execution themselves. Yet, like the chief priest in 27.4 who say the same words to Judas, Pilate is already too deeply implicated and cannot abdicate his responsibilities....
Whilst not so harsh and calculating as in Mark, the Matthean Pilate is none the less indifferent towards Jesus and willing to let the Jewish authorities have their way as long as he does not have to take the onus of responsibility.(p.136-7)
LUKE-ACTS In a drastic revision of his Markan source, Luke’s major apologetic purpose in 23:1-25 is to use Pilate as the ofﬁcial witness to Jesus’ innocence and to lay the blame for Jesus’ cruciﬁxion ﬁrst on the intrigues of the chief priests (vv. 1-12) and then on representatives of the whole Jewish nation (vv. 13-25).
This theme continues throughout Acts where Roman involvement nearly always follows Jewish plots. But once Pilate has three times declared Jesus innocent, Luke does not seem intent upon painting a glowing picture of Roman administration. In fact, quite the reverse. As C. H. Talbert notes, ‘Pilate appears more as an advocate who pleads Jesus’ case than as a judge presiding over an ofﬁcial hearing’.
He refuses to become involved with the charges and simply declares Jesus innocent. He does not want to bother with the case and seizes the opportunity to pass Jesus on to Herod. But Herod, who does question Jesus at length, albeit for self- interested motives, sees Jesus as no threat and returns him to the governor.
Eventually Pilate convicts a man whom he has declared innocent and releases a rebel and murderer because of the demand of the people. Bowing to Jewish pressure he undermines not only his own judgement but also that of Herod. In the end, Jewish mob pressure has triumphed over Roman justice. The weak Pilate has let down ﬁrst himself and Herod, second the Roman administration he represents. (p.159)
JOHN’S GOSPEL The Johannine Pilate is far from a weak and vacillating governor. He takes the case seriously and examines Jesus but quickly realizes that he is no political threat to Rome. He seizes on the opportunity, however, not only to mock the prisoner but also to ridicule ‘the Jews’ and their messianic aspirations. Only once does he try to release Jesus and that is after the religious charge has been brought against him, a charge which the superstitious pagan ﬁnds alarming.
Brought back to reality by the political threats of ‘the Jews’, Pilate resumes his mockery. But this time he is on the judgement seat and he is guiding ‘the Jews’ in a certain direction.
Although he ﬁnds Jesus’ messianic claims ridiculous, he reasons that the prisoner is claiming some kind of kingship and could be dangerous in the crowded city at Passover time. By the ﬁnal scene, Jesus is to be put to death.
But Pilate will exact a high price from ‘the Jews’. If they want Jesus executed, they must not only renounce their messianic hopes but unconditionally accept the sovereignty of Caesar. Only after this does Pilate hand Jesus over for cruciﬁxion.
The Johannine Pilate, particularly in Scene 6, is reminiscent of the Roman governor in Mark’s account. In both the prefect is harsh and manipulative, mocking the people and goading them into rejecting their messianic beliefs….
In the proceedings before Pilate, all earthly authority is judged and found wanting by its response to Jesus. The contrast between the true, digniﬁed, other-worldly kingship of Jesus and that of Caesar implies that each member of John’s community, constantly coming up against the might of imperial Rome, will always have to decide vis-a-vis the Empire whether Jesus is his king or whether Caesar is. (p.192-193)
The execution of Jesus was in all probability a routine crucifixion of a messianic agitator. Pilate, however, executed only the ring-leader and not his followers. This may betray a dislike of excessive violence, but also indicates prudence at the potentially volatile Passover season. Again, the governor appears to have worked closely with the Jewish hierarchy. (Pontius Pilate in history and interpretation, Helen K. Bond & John Court, Cambridge University Press, 1998, p.204)