Summary: Who was Pontius Pilate? Read this sermon to find out more.
Passion/Palm Sunday Yr C, 1/04/2007
Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, &
Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s
South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta
“Jesus and Pontius Pilate”
Today we focus on one of the key actors of Christ’s Passion, Pontius Pilate. In our Nicene Creed we confess the following: “For our sake he (i.e. Jesus) was crucified under Pontius Pilate.” And in our Apostles’ Creed we confess a similar truth: “He (i.e. Jesus) suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.” Both of these creeds reflect the truth of what is recorded in all four Gospels—Pontius Pilate, the Roman prefect of Judea, was responsible for the trial, sentence and crucifixion of Jesus. Who was this Pontius Pilate anyways? What kind of a person was he? Let’s take a closer look.
Pontius Pilate, according to an inscription verified by archaeologists in 1961, in Caesarea Maritima, was Roman Prefect of Judea. He held this office for ten years, from A.D. 26-36. In light of the political power structure in Judea at this time in history, it seems that Pilate may have been a shrewd, politically correct type of politician who knew how to protect and preserve his political power.
According to biblical scholar, Dr. David L. Tiede: the high priesthood was a complex political and religious office in first-century Palestine, and the Romans controlled it as much as possible. Since the era of Herod the Great, who killed the last of the Hasmonean priests, the Romans appointed the high priests and at times controlled the rituals by holding the priestly vestments. For many years a new high priest was appointed annually by the procurator, but Caiaphas was reappointed for 18 years, including 10 by Pilate. He knew how to get along with the Romans.1 I would add that the reverse also seems true; Pilate knew how to get along with the high priest Caiaphas.
According to Jewish historians writing about Pilate, the Prefect of Judea comes across as: insensitive to Jewish religious scruples and all too ready to use brutal force to repress any dissent. According to Jewish historian Josephus, Pilate allowed Roman troops to enter Jerusalem bringing idolatrous images of the emperor. Only after the Jews vigorously protested in a confrontation with Roman soldiers, only then did Pilate remove them. The historian Philo records a similar incident, and the Jews were so offended that they sent a letter of appeal to Rome against Pilate, and only then, upon the emperor’s intervention did Pilate comply with the Jewish wishes. Josephus also writes about Jewish protests against Pilate when he ordered that funds from the Jerusalem temple be taken to build an aqueduct for Jerusalem. On this occasion, Pilate had Roman soldiers, dressed as Jewish civilians and armed with hidden clubs, mingle with the shouting crowd and attack the people at a prearranged signal. Many were killed or hurt.
In Luke 13:1, Pilate comes across as a political tyrant, with no respect for people of faith, having orchestrated the murdering of Galileans—mixing their blood with the blood from the sacrifices they were offering in the temple.
Again according to Josephus, Pilate was recalled back to Rome in A.D. 35 to give an account of a brutal slaughtering of a crowd of Samaritans, who had no intention of violence against Rome. Pilate treated the event as an insurrection and attacked the crowd with cavalry and heavy infantry, killing many in the battle and executing the leaders among the captured.2
As you can see, based on these accounts, Pilate was certainly no saint or righteous ruler by any stretch of the imagination. Now let us take a look at Luke 23 and see what kind of picture Luke presents us with here.
In verse one to seven, we are given an account of Pilate’s first meeting with Jesus. Jesus here is brought before Pilate by some of the Jewish religious authorities. They accuse Jesus of “perverting our nation, forbidding us to pay taxes to the emperor, and saying that he himself is the Messiah, a king.” This first charge of perverting our nation, according to Dr. Tiede, was one of being a false prophet, hence a religious charge. Most likely Pilate didn’t want to deal with such a charge—leaving it up to the religious leaders. The second charge, “forbidding us to pay taxes to the emperor,” now one would think that such a charge may have been taken seriously by Pilate, but according to Luke, he doesn’t even address it. There is irony in this charge, for the Jewish leaders who lived by their laws would have followed the law of not bearing false witness against one’s neighbour—yet, that is what they are doing here. Jesus never forbade Jews to pay the emperor taxes, rather he had taught that one should give to God what belongs to God and give to the emperor what belongs to the emperor. The third charge, his claim that he was the Messiah-king, of course, for Luke and us Christians is true, but he is a different Messiah-king than either the Jewish leaders here or Pontius Pilate had in mind. He was not a military-political leader with the intention of overthrowing the Roman occupation by violent means. His rule was one of peace and love, over and above all earthly powers.