Margins of Miraculous: Pilate by Shawn Blythe

How will people remember you?  It’s a question that many of us ask ourselves as we seek to live our lives in accordance with God’s will, but keenly aware of our abundant shortcomings.

Pontius Pilate is a classic example of a man for whom a single incident over-shadowed a lifetime of service to the Roman Empire.  Decisions made over the course of only a couple of hours would ultimately define him.  When somebody mentions the name of Pontius Pilate, nobody mentions his standing in the Roman equestrian order, nobody remembers his likely notable family roots back in Italy and nobody references his relatively long tenure as the governor of Judea. We all remember him as the man who (at least in earthly terms) condemned Jesus to the cross.

Pilate, like any prefect or governor, was a politician.  His ability to maintain his role as governor required a careful balance between the forces of Rome and the local Jewish population.  If he leans too heavily towards Rome, the people revolt, and he fails.  If he leans too heavily towards the local Jewish population, Rome sees him as a traitor, and he fails.

Pilate was the 5th Roman prefect of Judea to attempt this balance – following Coponius, Marcus Ambibulus (or my favorite alternative spelling for a politician: Ambivulus), Annius Rufus and Valerius Gratus.  The first three served roughly three years each, while Valerius Gratus and Pilate each served approximately eleven years.  Each of them worked with, but kept a tight reign over, the local leadership (Sanhedrin).  In fact, it was the Roman governor who appointed the high priest who led the Sanhedrin.

This relationship led to the potential for ‘conflicts of interest’ for the high priest as they sought to balance their responsibility to the Jewish people as both an administrative and religious leader, while at the same time keeping the Roman governor satisfied enough to maintain them in the position of high priest.  The high priests under Pilate’s predecessor were unable to maintain that balance.  Valerius Gratus went through several high priests before settling on Joseph Caiaphas in AD 18.  Caiaphas apparently learned from his predecessors mis-steps and managed to keep this role as high priest through the remainder of Valerius Gratus’ rule – and throughout the entirety of Pilate’s reign as prefect.  This is a significant length of time to serve as high priest and suggests a reasonably congenial relationship with the Roman government.

In fact, Caiaphas was only replaced after Pilate was recalled to Rome by Tiberius, likely due to Pilate’s mishandling of a revolt in Samaria.  Vitellius (Governor of Syria – under whom the rule of Judea fell) appointed his colleague Marcellus as a replacement for Pilate.  Marcellus in turn immediately replaced Caiaphas with Jonathan ben Ananus as high priest in order to wipe the slate clean.  The death of Tiberius ends the written record of Pilate as there is no indication of the disposition of his hearing, nor any further reliable record of his life.

Pilate was not known for running a clean administration and is often accused of collusion with Caiaphas to spend Temple treasury funds for projects outside their intended purpose.  He likely significantly mis-handled the sensitivities of the local population on at least three occasions, the last of which led to his recall to Rome.  His apparently cozy relationship with Caiaphas was ultimately not seen as a positive factor for either one of them.

But it is less than an hour or two of interaction with Jesus for which he is best known.  He came face to face with the human incarnation of God – but somehow managed the situation as just another task in a long list of tasks requiring his daily decisions.  He met Jesus for the first time early on Friday morning and by 9:00 a.m. Jesus was already being crucified (Mark 15).  Pilate likely went about his normal daily business for the rest of the day but was aware enough of the crucifixion timing to be surprised that Jesus was already dead when Joseph of Arimathea requested his body later that afternoon (Mark 15).  Pilate’s agreement to allow Joseph to take Christ’s body is the last Biblical record we have of Pilate.

All four gospel writers record Pilate’s role that day.  The Believer’s Prayer (Acts 4) also references Pilate’s actions.  Paul does the same in his sermon at Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13).  More contemporarily, Pilate’s deeds were incorporated as early as the eighth century into the version of the Apostle’s Creed that we know today.

Pilate was a man who believed that he had the power and authority to make decisions on his own accord (John 19).  I fear that he is very much like us in that regard.  We go about our lives pleading with God about the jobs we need, the healing we desire or the relationships we want created, ended or mended.  But we do so without the humility of Jesus’ addendum to his own pleadings “Yet, not as I will, but as You will” (Matthew 26).  We proceed without recalling the answer Paul received to his own supplications “My grace is sufficient for you” (II Corinthians 12).  Don’t get me wrong – God wishes to hear our prayers, but His answer will be within the context of God’s plan based on infinite love for us. 

Pilate’s interaction with the Savior of the world was limited in his view to the confines of his duties as Prefect of Judea.  He never allowed it to get any bigger than that.  He never permitted Jesus to become personal for him.

The final historical verdict for Pilate is somewhat mixed.  Some believe that he was convicted of crimes by Caligula (Tiberius’ successor) – perhaps even exiled or executed.  While others believe he may have taken his own life in remorse, or simply moved on to his next assignment, or just retired.  Some even treat him as a saint (e.g., Ethiopian Orthodox) and believe he and his wife eventually become Christians.

As we consider how we might be remembered, we should strive to leave no such ambiguity.  Our interactions with God should not be treated as distractions from the life we ARE leading.  They should be a continual reminder to repent of the life we WERE leading.  We should not try to place our exposure to the miraculous within the tidy box of our plans for the day.  It is an opportunity to unpack the box, examine each of the contents, and consider what should be kept and what should be thrown away. 

We should not make the same mistake that Pilate did in assuming that our interactions with Jesus fit within the confines of our world; rather we need to constantly remind ourselves that Jesus’ interaction with us has no such boundaries.