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Whyte's Dictionary of Bible Characters

Pontius Pilate

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IT was Pontius Pilate who crucified our Lord. But for Pontius Pilate our Lord would not have been crucified. In spite of Pontius Pilate our Lord might have been stoned to death before the palace of the high priest that passover morning. Or, lest there should be an uproar among the people, He might have been fallen upon and murdered when He was on His knees in the garden of Gethsemane that passover night. The assassins of the city might have covenanted with Caiaphas that they would neither eat bread nor drink water till they had killed Jesus of Nazareth. The whole council of the scribes, and the elders, and the chief priests had finally determined that Jesus of Nazareth, one way or another, must be put to death; but, with all that, it was Pontius Pilate who put Him to the death of the cross.

Pontius Pilate was the Roman governor. He was the Roman procurator placed at that time over Judah and Jerusalem. He was Cæsar's representative and viceroy. What Tiberius himself was in Rome, all that Pontius Pilate was in Jerusalem. The Emperor Tiberius had made a special selection of Pontius Pilate, and had sent him east with special instructions to govern, with his very best ability, the very difficult province of Judea. Pilate's was a much-coveted post among his rivals in Rome, but he had not found it to be a bed of roses. For, as the Jews had been the hardest to conquer, so had they continued to be the hardest to hold down, of all the races that ever writhed under Cæsar's heel. The conquest of Jerusalem, and the military occupation and civil management of that city and the surrounding country, cost the Roman Empire far more men and far more administrative anxiety than all that Jewry was ever worth. But the Roman statesmanship was not to be baffled, nor were the Roman eagles to be chased out of Jerusalem, by that malignant remnant of the Hebrew race. And thus it was that a procurator of such sleepless vigilance and such relentless temper as Pontius Pilate was selected and sent out to mingle the blood of all Jewish insurrectionaries with their sacrifices. And it had demanded all Pilate's personal astuteness, and all his practised statecraft, and it had called forth no little of his proverbial cruelty also, in order to stamp out one outbreak of the insurgent Jews after another. Till it would be hard to tell which of the two was by this time the more exasperated at the other: Pontius Pilate at the rulers of Jerusalem, or the rulers of Jerusalem at Pontius Pilate. The rage and the revenge of the rulers of Jerusalem against Pontius Pilate burn to this day like coals of juniper in the pages both of Philo and of Josephus.

But of all the problems and responsibilities that had arisen in his province during Pilate's procuratorship, nothing had so much perplexed him, nothing had put him so completely out of his depth, as this widespread and mysterious movement originated by John of Jerusalem, and carried on by Jesus of Nazareth. Pilate had often wished that he could detect one single atom of danger to the Roman domination in John or in Jesus, or in any of their disciples, or in any of their doctrines or practices. But, absolute wolf for Jewish blood as Pilate always was, he was not wicked enough nor wolf enough to murder an innocent man merely because he could not comprehend him.

'Divine and Most Illustrious Tiberius,' so ran one of Pilate's procuratorial reports about this time, 'all is quiet here. I have had my troubles with this insufferable and ungovernable people, but neither watchfulness nor firmness has been wanting on my part. Only, the former matter of Jesus the son of David still perplexes me. I sometimes wish that a wiser man than I am were in my place, so that he might better report to you about this mysterious movement among this people. Had this Jesus been an ordinary Jewish zealot, or an insurrectionary of an everyday order, my duty to my master would soon have been fulfilled. But, as a matter of fact, Jesus the Christ, as he is called, is worth more to my administration than any legion of my armed men. He is the most peaceable and inoffensive of men. I know what I say, for I have had him and his discipleship watched and reported on in all places and at all times. Not only so, but it was only last week that I determined to be a spy upon him myself, so perplexed was I with all that I had heard about him. I accordingly most effectually disguised myself, a thing I had never done before, and went to where he dwelt and told him that I had for long been a secret disciple of his. I am come by night. I told him, for fear of his enemies and mine. But instead of his royal descent from David, or his Hebrew Messiahship, or any pretensions or expectations of his of any kind, he would speak to me about nothing and about no one-David nor Solomon, Cæsar nor Caiaphas-but only about myself. Jew, or Roman, or whatever I was, I must be born again, he insisted. I must be baptized in Jordan, confessing my sins. Till I was so born again, I, like all men, loved the darkness rather than the light, because my deeds were evil. And, that the only way to know the truth, and to be sure of the truth, and not to be afraid or ashamed of the truth, was just to do my duty to the truth, and to do nothing else. And when I asked him why he did not leave this so untruthful and so unfriendly land, and go and open a philosopher's school about all these things in Rome or Athens or Alexandria, his only reply to me was that he was not sent but to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. And, then, his eyes and his hands as he dismissed me from his presence were absolutely the eyes and the hands of a king. I shall not lift a single finger against this "King of the Jews," as his disciples call him, till I am commanded by Cæsar so to do.'

Well, it was while Pontius Pilate's procuratorial despatch was still on its way to Rome that the case contained in it came to a head in Jerusalem. It was the morning of the passover, and it was still early, when Jesus of Nazareth, with His hands bound behind His back, was led up by the whole Sanhedrim to Pilate's judgment-seat. As soon as he had sat down on his seat of judgment-Pilate demanded of the rulers of Jerusalem, "What accusation bring ye against this man?" They answered and said, 'If he were not a malefactor, and indeed deserving of the death of the cross, we would not have brought him before thee. We found this fellow perverting the people and forbidding the people to give tribute to Cæsar, saying that he himself is Christ a king, and the Son of God.' When Pilate heard that, he took the prisoner apart, and asked Him, "Whence art Thou?" Pilate's heart was made of Roman iron, and his Roman heart had never failed him before. But, altogether; what with all he had heard and seen of our Lord already; and what with all he heard and saw of Him that morning; Pilate's heart absolutely stood still as he ventured to put to Him the staggered question: "Whence art Thou?" And Pilate's secret fear became downright terror when his prisoner looked up at him with such eyes, but answered him nothing. It was at that very moment that Pilate's wife exclaimed to her husband: 'How dreadful is this Roman prætorium to me this passover morning! Let us arise and return to Cæsarea! Have thou nothing to do with this just man, for I have suffered many things this whole past night in dreams and in visions because of him!' Just what shape her great sufferings had taken all that night we are not told. She, too, may have had reports brought to her about the preaching of John and Jesus. She, too, may have had her spies set upon Him. She, too, may have had told her some of His tremendous sermons that very passover week. For all Jerusalem-from top to bottom-was ringing with those terrible passover parables of His And, out of all that she had seen and heard and apprehended,-what sufferings may not have come to Pilate's wife in her divinely-ordered dream that so awful night? She may have seen the Son of Man coming in His glory, and all His holy angels with Him. And she may have seen the kings of the earth, and the great men, and the rich men, and the mighty men, and her husband among them, hiding themselves in the dens and in the rocks of the mountains: and saying to the mountains and the rocks, Fall on us, and hide us from the face of Him that sitteth on the throne. 'Have thou nothing to do with that just man,' she said, 'for I have suffered some fearful sights this night because of Him!' "Wife," said the gaoler of Derby, with a doleful voice, "I have seen the day of judgment: and I saw George Fox there, and I was afraid of him, because I had done him so much wrong, and had spoken so much against him in the taverns and the alehouses."

With all his heart would Pilate have fallen in with his wife's warning, had it been possible for him to do so. He did not need her urgent message. He knew far better than she did that the prisoner at his bar was a just man, and something more than a just man, but that only tied up Pilate's hands all the tighter. "Have thou nothing to do with that just man!" Yes; but how is Pilate to get rid of that just man, hunted to death as both that just man and his judge both are by those inhuman hyænas who fill the palace court with their bloodthirsty cries? 'Tell me,' was Pilate's despairing reply to his trembling wife; 'tell me how I am to wash my hands of this just man: tell me how I am to set him free, and at the same time to satisfy his enemies, who have both him and me in their power?' But as their clamour still went on Pilate caught at one of their cries and thought he saw in it a loop-hole for himself at any rate, if not for his prisoner. "He stirreth up the people from Galilee to this place!" they cried. Now, as Pilate's good planet would have it, who should be in Jerusalem that passover morning but Herod Antipas, under whose jurisdiction all Galilee was, and Jesus therefore, as a Galilean. And the tetrarch was vastly pleased with the unexpected recognition of his royal sceptre, when this Galilean prisoner was sent by Pilate to receive Herod's sentence on him. And all the more so, that Pilate and Herod had had so many quarrels together about this very matter of Herod's jurisdiction. But here is the Roman governor, in his own city, and at his own instance, recognising in the most open and handsome way the too-oft invaded rights and prerogatives of the king of Galilee. "And the same day," says the Evangelist, "Pilate and Herod were made friends together again." And made friends, as that poor fox little knew, at such a cheap price on Pilate's part! But Pilate was not to get so easily rid of our Lord as all that. Herod Antipas was more of a circus-master than a serious-minded monarch; and, instead of taking up the case that had been referred to his jurisdiction, all that Herod aimed at was to get some amusement out of the accused. 'He is the King of the Jews, is he? He is a candidate for my royal seat, is he? Then put the white coat of a candidate upon him, and send him back to Pilate. The Governor will enjoy my jest: and it will somewhat cement our recovered friendship!'

It is impossible for us to enter into all our Lord's thoughts as He was dragged up and down the streets of Jerusalem that passover morning. Dragged in cords from Gethsemane to Caiaphas, and from Caiaphas to Pilate, and from Pilate to Herod, and from Herod back again to Pilate. And all the time with all the shame and insult heaped upon Him that the evil hearts of His enemies could devise. Our Lord's thoughts and feelings at all times are a great deep to us. But Pilate was a man of like passions with ourselves, and we can quite well understand what his thoughts and his feelings were when the chief priests were back again with their prisoner at the prætorium. What is Pilate to do? With all his power and with all his diplomacy what is Pilate to do next? You all know what he did next. He put up Jesus to the vote of the people against Barabbas, trusting that the gratitude and the pity and the sense of fairplay among the common people would carry the day. But, difficult as it is to explain, they all suddenly turned round and cried out with one voice, "Away with Him! Away with Him, and release to us Barabbas!" "Why?" demanded Pilate, with indignation and exasperation, 'What evil has this man ever done? Neither Herod nor I have found the shadow of a fault in Him.' You have seen the vote taken at an election-time in your own city. And you have seen how ill-will, and envy, and personal spite are so much more active at such times than justice, and gratitude, and goodness, and truth. Ignorance, and prejudice, and pure maliciousness, will come out to the polling-booth on their crutches and will need neither your canvasser nor your carriage to come for them. "Not this man, but Barabbas!" cried the rulers of the Jews; and to a man the rabble of the people cried out with them, "Away with Him! Away with Him! Crucify Him! Crucify Him!"

Whatever the wicked spirit may have been that took possession of the populace of Jerusalem that awful passover morning, the Holy Ghost Himself witnesses to us that it was the wickedest spirit in all hell that had come up and had taken possession of Caiaphas and his colleagues now for a long time. And we knew it before it was told us. We have seen it coming all the time. And Pilate saw it that morning, and had seen it coming all the time, and had told Tiberius about it. Our Lord's life and teaching and wonderful works, and the multitudes that were attracted to Him by all that;-it would have been the New Jerusalem above, and Caiaphas would have been a sanctified saint in heaven, not to have had his heart burned up with envy within him at our Lord's popularity with the people. It is at this moment in the Passion Play at Ober-Ammergau that the chorus comes forward with this warning to us:

'Tis envy-which no mercy knows,
In which hell's flame most fiercely glows-
Lights this devouring fire.
All's sacrificed unto its lust-
Nothing too sacred, good, or just
To fall to its desire.
Oh! woe to those this passion sweeps
Helpless and bound into the deeps!

Pilate had never heard of the Jerusalem that is above, but no man knew better than he did the Jerusalem that was yelling like all the furies all around him. Caiaphas had put on his holiest of masks that holiest of mornings, and he had demanded swift execution to be done on this traitor against Cæsar and this blasphemer against God. But Pilate was not a child. Heathen as Pilate was, and hardened as a stone in his heart as he was, he both saw down into, and despised and detested every high priest, and scribe, and elder of them all. It was a noble hyperbole that was put upon Plato's tombstone: "Here lies a man too good and too great for envy." But that literally true epitaph, and no hyperbole, could not have been written even on Joseph's new tomb as long as Caiaphas remained alive in Jerusalem. Our Lord Himself was neither too good nor too great for Caiaphas's envy and ill-will, nor for Pilate's selfish cowardice and open sale of truth and justice. For, all this time, with all his power, and with all his pride, and with all his astuteness, and with all his resource, the chain of his terrible fate was fast closing around Pontius Pilate. And his rage, and his pain, and his pride drove him well-nigh demented. Never, surely, since mortal man was first taken and held fast in the snare of Satan, was any miserable man more completely seized and carried captive of his past sins and his present circumstances, than Pontius Pilate was that passover morning. And it all came to a head, and the fatal chain was all riveted round Pilate for the last time, when the savage threat was spat up at him: "If thou let this man go, thou art not Cæsar's friend!" That was enough. For at that Pilate took water, in his defeat and despair, and washed his hands before the multitude, and said: 'I, at any rate, am innocent of the blood of this just person: See ye, his murderers, to it.' And they saw to it.

All that is not the half of the history of that awful morning to Pontius Pilate, and of all that he went through. But that is enough to set Pilate sufficiently before our eyes in the hour and power of his fatal temptation. And all that is told us in order that we may turn our eyes inward and ask ourselves what we would have done that passover morning had we been in Pilate's place; had we stood between the deadly anger of Cæsar at us on the one hand, and with only a just man to be scourged and crucified on the other hand! We would have done just what Pilate did. To protect ourselves; to stand well with our masters, and to preserve our paying post; we would have washed our hands, and would have scourged Jesus, righteous man and all. Who here, and in this hour of truth, will dare to cast a stone at Pontius Pilate? What self-seeking, what self-sheltering, what truth-selling, what soul-selling man?

O break, O break, hard heart of mine!
Thy weak self-love and guilty pride
His Pilate and His Judas were:
Jesus, our Lord, is crucified!

I know all the old legends, sacred and profane, about Pontius Pilate, and about his miserable end. But I shall not believe any of them. I shall continue to hope against hope for poor Pontius Pilate. If my sale of my Saviour, and of my own soul, has so often chased me up to the Cross of Christ, so I think Pilate's remorse must have chased him. And as he washed his hands in water that passover morning, so I shall hope he washed his hands and his heart ten thousand times in after days in that Fountain for sin which he had such an awful hand in opening. The world would not contain the books if all the names of all the chief priests, and scribes, and inhabitants of Jerusalem; and all the governors, and centurions, and soldiers of Rome, who came to believe on Christ crucified were to be written in them. "Ye men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man approved of God, Him ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain. And now, brethren, I wot that through ignorance ye did it, as did also your rulers. But unto you first, God, having raised up His Son Jesus, has sent Him to bless you, in turning away every one of you from his iniquities." Who can tell? With that glorious Gospel preached far and wide, and with the Redeemer's prayer offered with His own blood to back it on the Cross, Father, forgive them: who can tell? I, for one, shall continue to hope for Pontius Pilate, as for myself. For-

O love of God! O sin of man!
In this dread act your strength is tried,
And victory remains with love:
Jesus, our Lord, is crucified!

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Bibliography Information
Whyte, Alexander. Entry for 'Pontius Pilate'. Alexander Whyte's Dictionary of Bible Characters. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/wbc/p/pontius-pilate.html. 1901.

Lectionary Calendar
Friday, November 22nd, 2019
the Week of Proper 28 / Ordinary 33
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