Pontius Pilate was a politician. He was the Roman governor of Judea and like many first century Romans, he was a pragmatist. His job was to keep the peace and he had five infantry cohorts and a cavalry regiment under his command (5,000 men) to maintain order.
The Jewish rulers who convicted Jesus of blasphemy needed Pilate’s authority to get a death sentence. And they were willing to disturb the peace. The accusations the chief priests, temple officers, scribes and elders brought to Pilate against Jesus were largely political. In Pilate’s court, Jesus was tried as a tax rebel and a pseudo king. Pilate never really grasped Jesus’ admission that he was indeed a King, but he did get that Jesus was innocent. Even his wife saw Jesus as a “righteous man.” So, “innocent” was Pilate’s initial decision rendered for Jesus.
Then, Pilate’s pathetic pragmatism kicked in. Jesus’ accusers found the crowds to be easy to manipulate. Pilate learned that once their anger was stirred, they were not easily appeased. He offered the people a choice between releasing Jesus or a notorious prisoner (a robber and murderer) named Barabbas. We all know who they chose, but we seldom reflect on the fact that Pilate made such a cynical offer in the first place. He governed with no apparent concern for justice. He just wanted to appease those with the loudest mouths and to manipulate a convenient political outcome. When he asked the people what evil Jesus had done, Pilate just let their loud shouts carry the day. Persistent passion smothered all concern for justice. He caved. Then he washed his hands, proving that unbelievers can also be ridiculously legalistic and superficial when it comes to self-justification.
During Pilate’s interrogation of Jesus, the defendant said he was born to testify to the truth (John 18:37). Jesus was not speaking the language of pragmatism so Pilate was clueless. He asked, “What is truth?” (vs. 38) but took no interest in a reply. He went out to declare Jesus’ innocence to his angry accusers.
Are you shocked that a politician who cared little for justice would care even less for truth?
As Pilate deliberated, the demands for Jesus to be crucified heated up. Pilate’s strategy to just have Jesus flogged went nowhere. They told Pilate, “We have a law, and by that law He ought to die because He made Himself out to be the Son of God.” (John 19:7). Then Pilate became “even more afraid.” He returned to Jesus seeking a last resort excuse to release him. Then Jesus’ accusers made the ultimate threat: “If you release this man, you are no friend of Caesar; everyone who makes himself out to be a king opposes Caesar.” (John 19:12). They used political pretext to get their way. They had religious titles but were pragmatic politicians to their core.
Pilate’s final sentence was that a man he knew to be innocent should die. His verdict was purely to placate the Sanhedrin and the crowds. Consequences mattered to Pilate, not truth. He feared conflict. Others suffered for his moral cowardice. His soldiers scourged Jesus and ridiculed him mercilessly with mock reverence, face-slaps and public expectoration. Pilate had clean hands but a corrupt heart. He was weak before Jesus’ accusers throughout the trial but with Jesus dying on the cross, he suddenly held firm when the Jewish rulers asked him to take down Pilate’s note saying, “JESUS THE NAZARENE, THE KING OF THE JEWS.” Whether capitulating or holding firm, Pilate’s focus remained on emotional reaction and pragmatic politics. He ignored principle.
A 4th century bishop named Eusebius records that Pilate eventually committed suicide after an investigation in Rome led to his condemnation for his part in a massacre of innocents. His pragmatism failed him in the end.
Today, when you see a politician distort truth and justice to get elected, that’s Pilate. If lies are needed to get a bill passed, politicians like Pilate will lie. What is “truth” anyway? Judges who play activist politics on the bench rather seek justice are Pilate incarnate. A Pilate could stand up tall for traditional marriage in a campaign and decimate it when in power if political rewards are forthcoming. They can flip on a dime to please people or avoid conflict. I could see Pilate blaming everyone but himself when difficulties rise and claiming top credit for positive developments. If others are hurt, that’s politics. Pilate would thrive today.