Why did Pontius Pilate seemingly lose his nerve when confronted with Jesus of Nazareth?
The four Gospels have treated the memory of Pontius Pilate rather kindly. It portrays him as a weak minded, timid leader afraid of making decisions, especially in the case of Jesus of Nazareth. However, non-Christian historians from his era paint a much different picture of this enigmatic man.
The Jewish historian Josephus suggests that Pilate was probably an Italian born Roman citizen and most likely held certain military posts before the Roman Emperor Tiberius appointed him prefect or governor in 26 A.D. The areas he ruled included Judea, Samaria and the area south as far as the Dead Sea to Gaza.
His duties were primarily military in terms of preventing any uprising by citizens attempting to throw off Roman rule. He was responsible for collecting imperial taxes and had judicial authority. He also had absolute power over the non-Roman citizens of his province. Most other civil administration matters were in the hands of the local ethnic governments.
At that time, in the district of Judea and Jerusalem, the Jewish Sanhedrin and its president, the High Priest, Caiaphas, made most of the decisions regarding the locals. Another historian, Philo, reports the rule of Pilate consisted of extreme harshness, pride, violence, greed, continual executions without trials and unbearable cruelty. In other words, he was a typical Roman ruler.
Even so, Pilate wisely formed a coalition with the local religious leaders which proved an effective strategy for establishing control. Mutual interests of wealth, power and status held this alliance together.
Several incidents are recorded of Pilate’s actions that infuriated the Jewish population. These included his hanging banners bearing the likeness of the emperor and placing shields inscribed with the emperor’s name near the Temple, which was viewed as idolatry by the people.
He also used money from the Jewish temple to fund the construction of an aqueduct which created much hostility. Therefore, the alliance with the temple leaders was very instrumental in keeping order. Considering his usual cruel modus operandi in dealing with his subjects, it seems odd indeed that he would seemingly lose his nerve when confronted with the Jewish leaders and their prisoner, Jesus.
Pilate was in Jerusalem staying in Herod’s palace because it was time for the most important Jewish holiday of the year, Passover. If unrest or some kind of insurrection against Roman rule would occur, it would happen during this celebration and he wanted to make sure everything stayed under control. His presence was a not-so-subtle warning to the people that they were expected to behave.
The Gospels tell us that Christ was seized in Gethsemane and taken to the home of Annas, the father-in-law of the high priest, Caiaphas. He was then sent, bound to Caiaphas where he was questioned in a kangaroo court type fashion by the chief priests and the scribes, as well as the high priest himself. Finally, at daybreak, he was taken to Pilate’s headquarters.
I’ve often wondered if Pilate was angry at having to go outside at such an early hour to resolve whatever complaint these Jews had because he didn’t seem to want to deal with them. His first attempt to pass the buck was when he asked what the accusation against Jesus was. The leaders told him if He wasn’t doing something they considered wrong, they wouldn’t have brought Him to be tried. Pilate impatiently retorted, “Take Him yourselves and judge Him by your own law.” (John 18:31 ESV)
The Jews made it clear they wanted Him crucified and they needed Pilate to issue the sentence, as it wasn’t lawful for them to put anyone to death without approval from Roman authorities. Pilate took Jesus into his quarters and began to question him. When the chief priests and elders made their accusations, Jesus stayed totally silent and did not try to defend himself.
Matthew 27:13-14 (ESV) says, “Then Pilate said to Him, ‘Do you not hear how many things they testify against you?’ But He gave him no answer, not even to a single charge, so that the governor was greatly amazed.”
It was obvious to Pilate that Jesus was no rebel and was not guilty of the trumped up charges. He realized Jesus’ accusers had delivered Him up out of envy. From then on, Pilate tried to free Him. First, he told the chief priests and elders he found no fault in Him.
Since Jesus was from Galilee, he sent Him to Herod to be questioned since Galilee was in his district. This is the second time Pilate tried to pass Jesus off to someone else to judge. This behavior was entirely out of character for this ruler.
Herod was excited to meet Jesus, as he had heard many things about Him and was hoping He would perform some miracle for his amusement. However, Jesus stood silent and refused to answer any of Herod’s questions, even as the priests and elders, again, stood around vehemently accusing Him. After mocking Jesus and dressing Him in a purple robe, Herod sent Him back to Pilate.
Once again, Pilate called His accusers together and told them that neither he nor Herod could find any fault worthy of death. He offered to “punish” or have Jesus scourged, thinking this punishment would be severe enough to satisfy His accusers. They refused his offer and kept calling for His crucifixion. Then Pilate offered to either release a notorious rebel Barabbas or Jesus, as was custom at Passover. He was astonished they chose Barabbas and continued to call for the death of Christ.
Pilate then had Jesus scourged. Afterwards, he presented Him to the crowd and they again demanded his death. Pilate, once again, defended Him saying he found absolutely no reason to put Him to death. According to John 19:7 (ESV), the Jews yelled, “We have a law, and according that that law he ought to die because he has made himself the Son of God.” This made Pilate very fearful, for the Romans were notorious for having literally dozens of gods. For all Pilate knew, Jesus was one of them.
He brought Christ back inside and asked Him where He was from. Jesus did not answer. Pilate was becoming more desperate and said to Him, “You will not speak to me? Do you not know that I have the authority to crucify you?” (John 19:10 ESV) Jesus, after being nearly beaten to death and most likely in the beginning stages of hypovolemic shock from severe blood loss, looked at Pilate and calmly answered, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above. Therefore, he who delivered me over to you has the greater sin.” (John 19:11 ESV)
Now, that’s not something Pilate was accustomed to hearing from a prisoner! This powerful governor with the reputation of being cruel and violent, uncharacteristically squirmed between knowing he would be condemning an innocent man and facing an ever more excitable and riotous crowd who could, at any moment spiral out of control. He could not afford for this to happen.
About this time, as Pilate was seated on the Bema, a seat of judgment on the Gabbatha, a mosaic pavement in front of the palace, he received an urgent message from his wife, Claudia Procula. Matthew 27:19(ESV) says she warned, “Have nothing to do with that righteous man, for I have suffered much because of Him today in a dream.” The pressure mounted.
After one last attempt to reason with the crowd, the Jews told him that if he released Jesus, he was not Caesar’s friend. This was a veiled threat from the Jewish leaders. In other words, if Pilate did not acquiesce to their demand, they might charge him with treason against Rome. By this time, Pilate had had enough.
He called for a bowl of water and symbolically washed his hands before the crowd, announcing that he was innocent of Jesus’ blood. He then turned Christ over to the soldiers to be crucified. As a last act of defiance and control, Pilate had an inscription attached to the cross, printed in Aramaic, Latin and Greek which stated, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” The chief priests, rather emboldened by their new found but temporary power, instructed Pilate to change the wording. Pilate answered, “What I have written, I have written.” (John 19:22 ESV)
So who was this man, this normally ruthless, brutal, cold-blooded governor of Judea? When confronted with Jesus, what happened to his customarily unyielding, heavy-handed methods of dealing with accused criminals? Was it the early hour that softened his stance? Was it the unexpected warning from his wife not to deal with, “this righteous man”? Or was it something else? Did he somehow subconsciously recognize the Deity of Christ?
I have to wonder which man was the “real” Pilate and if his life was forever changed by his encounter with the Son of God.