3 April 2015

John 19:1-37

“When the chief priests and the police saw him, they shouted, ‘Crucify him! Crucify him!’ Pilate said to them, ‘Take him yourselves and crucify him; I find no case against him.’” (v. 6)

Psalm: Psalm 22


Pilate is one of the few people apart from Jesus, his family and the 12 to be named not only in all 4 Gospels but also in Acts and 1 Timothy. More intriguingly, Pilate has the distinction of being one of only three names in the historic creeds: Jesus, Mary, and Pilate.

In contemporary historical accounts, Pilate emerges as a brutal ruthless Roman prefect who is reported for his cruelty and whose hard-line approach incited both Jews and Samaritans to civil disobedience. Indeed it is thought that Pilate's governorship of Judea ended in AD36 when he was sent to Rome to answer charges of brutality.

Jewish historian and philosopher Philo describes Pilate as "a man of inflexible, stubborn, and cruel disposition". We get some insight into this face of Pilate in Luke 13:1: "There were some present at that very time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices."

Alongside the face of Pilate which emerges from contemporary historical record, is the Pilate of the Gospels, a Pilate who is convinced of Jesus' innocence. As John tells the story, privately and personally Pilate is convinced of Jesus' innocence. Three times Pilate is recorded saying he finds no case against Jesus, and a total of five times he rejects the calls of Jesus' accusers for a guilty verdict.

A third face of Pilate is the public face of Pilate. This is the governor who makes his ruling, the prefect who gives orders to soldiers, the politician who makes a difficult political decision, the keeper of the peace who hands Jesus over to be crucified. It is this face of Pilate that is memorialised in our creeds.

Why does Pilate get a mention in the historic creeds? I imagine it is because the creeds are careful to locate the crucifixion in our history. They assert that the crucifixion of Jesus is not mere myth, not a legend, not an origin story but rather it is rooted in a particular time and place, in our world and our history.

So who was Pilate? Was he the brutal Roman described by Philo? Was he the man depicted as privately on the side of Jesus in the Gospels? Was he the governor who ordered the crucifixion of Jesus on the cross of public order and political expediency? Pilate is a man of many faces.

The Gospel writers do us a great service in revealing to us something of the paradox of Pilate's private and public life. But I think they do more than that. I think what we see in Pilate is the potential for what he can be as the consequence of his interaction with Jesus. Something appears to happen to Pilate when he is inside the building engaging with Jesus that he is ultimately unable to translate to his engagement with the crowds outside the building

Pilate is not alone: people who gather inside a building to engage with Jesus often have trouble translating that into their encounter with the wider public once they leave the building.

To Ponder

  • How do you make your private faith known in the public square?
  • Are there any elements of your private faith that you have difficulty acknowledging in public? If so, what are these?

Bible notes author

The Revd Dr Calvin T Samuel

The Revd Dr Calvin T Samuel is a Methodist minister, currently stationed as Director of Wesley Study Centre, Durham - a Methodist theological institution which is part of St John's College within the University of Durham. Prior to this he was New Testament Tutor at Spurgeon's College in London and Chaplain to Farringtons School in Kent