What did Pilate really think? A reflection for Good Friday

I am publishing this blog two days before Good Friday in order that those who read it can reflect both now and on the day itself what Good Friday actually means to them.

It is based on John 18:28 – 19:16 (nrsv).

Context: When we read this version of Christ’s passion, we can almost feel ourselves becoming caught up in the action. Are we among the crowd who having been whipped into a frenzy by the Chief Priests and Pharisees, are demanding Jesus be put to death for blasphemy in exchange for the release of a known murderer and criminal named Barabbas? Or are we among those of Pilate’s staff who possibly witness the exchange between Pilate, Jesus and the crowd outside his headquarters? Or are we among the soldiers who carry out the scourging at the pillar and who then mock Jesus by putting him in a purple robe and placing the crown of thorns on his head and hailing him as King of the Jews? What about Pilate himself, what was possibly going through his mind during these exchanges? In Luke’s account he takes to consulting Herod as Jesus is a Galilean, and in Matthew’s gospel, Pilate’s wife makes a brief appearance warning him to “Have nothing to do with this innocent man, for today I have suffered a great deal because of a dream about him”.

Whichever account we choose to accept, Pilate as representative of the emperor Tiberius, was tasked with ensuring law and order in Judea which was subject to sporadic outbreaks of violent resistance by Jewish Zealots, who favoured the violent overthrow of roman rule in Palestine. Given the political and religious sensitivity of the Passover, it is quite likely that Pilate took the path of least resistance when faced with an angry crowd calling for Jesus’ crucifixion. In this scenario, this is how Pilate might have recorded the events of that first Good Friday.

Jerusalem, Judea, The Passover, AD29

They came early this morning dragging some poor wretch with them who they accused of blasphemy against their God. Their God, whose laws prevent them mixing with non-Jews, to prevent ritual defilement just so they can eat their Passover meals. It comes to something when the representative of Rome must go outside as if being summoned, to then face a mob and be asked to pass judgment on someone who may not even have committed any offence. When I asked them to specify the accusation against the man – a Galilean – they replied, “If he were not a criminal, we would not have handed him over to you”.

When I challenged them to judge him instead according to their law, they responded that they were not permitted to put anyone to death. All of which is true, but it seems somewhat expedient that they have already in their minds decided on his guilt, yet want me to be the executioner!

Given the agitated nature of the mob I summoned the prisoner inside and proceeded to question him by first asking him directly, was he King of the Jews? His immediate response was to enquire if I asked this for myself or did others tell me about him? Not being a Jew I have no idea who this man really is but wanted to know why his own people had handed him over to me. His answer was somewhat perplexing, “for his kingdom is not of this world” he said. If it were, his followers would be fighting to keep him from being handed over to the Jews, but as it is, his kingdom is not one that we would readily understand. “So, you are a King”, I asked him trying to establish a rationale for is behaviour. “You say I am” he replied, but he maintains he was born and came into the world to fulfil a destiny – to testify to the truth and those who testify to the truth listens to his voice. “What is truth?” I reply, not really expecting a coherent answer.

Yet again I say to the waiting crowd outside that I find no evidence or case against this man but as it is the custom of the time, I am willing to release someone, some criminal or subversive. When I ask if I should release the King of the Jews, the crowd – clearly influenced by their leaders – demand the release of the bandit called Barabbas. I ordered the prisoner to be flogged by way of punishment for being a public nuisance. The soldiers determined to humiliate him further, press a crown of thorns to his head and dressing him in a purple robe so they might mock this self-proclaimed king of the Jews. I present this pathetic figure of a king to the crowd to show that he is no more than a man, another itinerant troublemaker who this God of theirs seems to attract, but who has committed no offence for which he should be condemned to death. Once again, the crowd angrily demand he be crucified for blasphemy for it is their law he suffers death for claiming to be the son of God.

This gives me some concern as our rule in Palestine depends on the co-operation of the local elite, so I go inside and ask the Galilean where he was from? Receiving no answer, I tell him that I have the power of life and death over him, to release or to crucify. Once again, his answer perplexed me. He said, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given to you from above; therefore, the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.”

Clearly this man has stirred Jewish emotions, each time I try to release him they become even louder and more agitated to the extent they may riot. They even claim that to release him would be seen as unfriendly to the emperor himself.

Given Jerusalem’s prominence within the empire and its history, can I really afford to risk this situation getting out of control and word getting back to Rome which may see me recalled or even replaced? If I give in to their demands and give him over to crucifixion will this placate them? Is the life of one man a price worth paying to ensure stability during this important festival which means so much to the Jews not only from Jerusalem, but across Palestine as a whole?

I bring the Galilean outside and the crowd once again demand his death. I sit on the stone of judgment and ask the crowd, “Shall I crucify your King?” The crowd respond, “we have no king but the emperor”. This settles the matter and having symbolically washed my hands to show the matter is concluded in their favour, hand the prisoner over for crucifixion.

Later however as I write this, I wonder what it is that makes a man behave the way this man did? What is it about their God that makes people act the way they do? Was he really who he claimed to be, or was he just another itinerant blasphemer – Palestine appears to be full of them. I suppose we will never know, like all threats to our position it had been dealt with efficiently and permanently and normal service seems to have been resumed.

I doubt we will hear any more about it!

Whether these were Pilate’s actual thoughts is pure speculation on my part but it isn’t hard to make the connection. Pilate was weak and indecisive, more concerned about retaining his position than dispensing true justice. Pilate though perhaps unwittingly, became a central figure in the Easter story as much as Jesus, Peter or Caiaphas, for without him there would not have been a Good Friday and all that followed afterwards.

As we approach the season of Easter once again, let us pause to remember its true message. How the barbaric killing of an itinerant preacher from Nazareth was not the end, merely the beginning of what was and still forms the central tenet of the Christian faith; the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ which gave rise to the promise of new life in him and which continues to this day.