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Pilate Washed His Hands and Sealed His Fate

by Rick James

 

Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged.  The soldiers twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on his head.  They clothed him in a purple robe and went up to him again and again, saying, “Hail, king of the Jews!”  And they struck him in the face.

Once more Pilate came out and said to the Jews, “Look, I am bringing him out to you to let you know that I find no basis for a charge against him.”  When Jesus came out wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe, Pilate said to them, “Here is the man!”

As soon as the chief priests and their officials saw him, they shouted, “Crucify! Crucify!”

But Pilate answered, “You take him and crucify him.  As for me, I find no basis for a charge against him.”

The Jews insisted, “We have a law, and according to that law he must die, because he claimed to be the Son of God.”

When Pilate heard this, he was even more afraid, and he went back inside the palace.  “Where do you come from?” he asked Jesus, but Jesus gave him no answer. “Do you refuse to speak to me?” Pilate said.  “Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?”

Jesus answered, “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above.  Therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.”

From then on, Pilate tried to set Jesus free, but the Jews kept shouting, “If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar.  Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar.”

When Pilate heard this, he brought Jesus out and sat down on the judge’s seat at a place known as the Stone Pavement (which in Aramaic is Gabbatha).  It was the day of Preparation of Passover Week, about the sixth hour.

“Here is your king,” Pilate said to the Jews.

But they shouted, “Take him away!  Take him away!  Crucify him!”

“Shall I crucify your king?” Pilate asked.

“We have no king but Caesar,” the chief priests answered.

Finally Pilate handed him over to them to be crucified.  (John 19:1-16)

The historicity of Pontius Pilate is a case study in the current trends of archaeology.  It wasn’t long ago that critics questioned the existence of Pilate because of little corroboration from historical documents. But in June of 1961, while excavating an ancient Roman amphitheater near Caesarea, archaeologists uncovered an enormous limestone block bearing an inscription that dedicated the structure to Tiberius Caesar.  Naturally, part of the inscription named the person who had dedicated it.  It read, “Pontius Pilate, Prefect of Judea.”[1]

This stone is part of a larger archipelago of recent discoveries confirming historical pieces of the New Testament:

•  In Acts 18:12-17, we read how Paul was brought before Gallio, the proconsul of Achaia.  At Delphi, an inscription of a letter from Emperor Claudius was discovered stating, “Lucius Junios Gallio, my friend, and the proconsul of Achaia.”[2]

•  Romans 16:23 names Erastus, a coworker of the apostle Paul, as the treasurer of the city of Corinth.  Archaeologists excavating a Corinthian theater discovered an inscription that says, “Erastus in return for his aedilship [appointment to public office] laid the pavement at his own expense.”  The pavement was laid in A.D. 50.[3]

•  In John 5:1-15, we find the story of how Jesus healed a man at the Pool of Bethesda.  John described the pool as having five porticoes.  This site had been in dispute until recently, forty feet under the surface of the present city, archaeologists discovered a pool with five porticoes.[4]

And the list of discoveries goes on.  One prominent archaeologist examined Luke’s references of thirty-two countries, fifty-four cities, nine islands and key historical figures.  He didn’t find a single mistake.[5]

I’m not sure what my point in all this was.  Perhaps it was that every person, in his or her lifetime, should go on an archaeological dig.  Or maybe it was a plea to preserve our natural resources.  No, I don’t think that was it.  Oh yes, the historicity of Pilate.

Pilate was the Roman governor in Judea.  Israel was a conquered territory, and while maintaining a strong degree of indigenous leadership, it still wobbled on the puppet strings of Rome.  As Rome did not want to supply arms to local vigilantes or insurrectionists, the Roman governor alone had the power to execute capital punishment, and so it was inevitable that the case of Jesus would bounce its way into Pilate’s court.

The etymology of the Greek word used in the Bible for “sincerity” or “transparency” literally means “judged by the sun,”[6] the opposite of which is duplicity:  having hidden motives and agendas.  It’s a word picture meaning, that when you bring something out into broad daylight, all mysteries vanish, veneer is stripped away, and reality is laid bare.  Pilate’s encounter with Jesus seems to have had this glaring effect, and what we witness is a heart starkly divided, allegiances cubicled like office space—a lack of sincerity and integrity.

On the one hand, Pilate had a bloodthirsty mob trolling the waters like sharks awaiting a man overboard.  Jesus, however, had masses of supporters, and Pilate did not want a riot or civil war, as his role in Israel was to prevent them.  Add to that the political pressure exerted by the local Jewish leaders (the Sanhedrin), and a recent Roman mandate ordering him to make all efforts to accommodate them.[7] But there was not only pressure from below on the organizational chart; there was also pressure from above.  Jesus had claimed authority (to be the King of the Jews) reserved for Caesar alone, and failure to make an example out of him would not play well in Rome, meaning Pilate’s next job might be janitor at the Colosseum.

None of this would have been such a problem if it were not for the nagging sense that his prisoner might actually be who he claimed to be—the Son of God.  In a personal interrogation of Jesus, Pilate sought to intimidate and assert his authority—“Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?”—but as the interview progressed, he had all he could do to maintain eye contact and a firm handshake.  Despite Jesus’ appearance of absolute vulnerability and weakness, Pilate sensed an intrinsic power and authority that made him squirm and left him questioning everything:  his senses, his intuition, his beliefs, his life.

Indecision is usually rooted in one of two things:  either you’re not sure what the right decision is or you do know but you lack the moral courage to act on it.  In this case, the evidence would argue for the latter.  Pilate refused to make a decision about Jesus, and attempted to wash his hands of the responsibility.

But history did not afford Pilate that option.  In the end, I’m not sure it will afford any of us that option. There really are moments and issues in life where a failure to act, decide or cast a vote is to, in effect, have voted in the negative.  According to the Gospels, our decision about the Messiah is one of them. We will all find ourselves at some point sitting in the seat of Pilate, having to weigh repurcusions and implications, having to decide about Jesus.  For Pilate, the demands of the masses, of Rome, of his career and of his reputation ultimately drowned out the whispers of his conscience.  He consented to the demands of the people:  “Finally Pilate handed [Jesus] over to them to be crucified” (John 19:16).

The lack of Jesus’ supporters within the rancorous crowd can be attributed to the smaller public hearing set within the precincts of the military barracks, with a crowd hand-picked by the chief priests.  As befitting Pilate’s lack of sincerity and integrity, the entire judicial operation did not take place in the full light of day, but rather before a sleeping Jerusalem was even aware of what had transpired.  By 9:00 A.M., Jesus had been tried, condemned and crucified.

___________________________________

[1]  Paul M. Maier, Pontius Pilate, (Garden City, N.Y.:  Doubleday, 1968).

[2]  John McRay, Archaeology and the New Testament (Grand Rapids:  Baker, 1991), p. 227.

[3]  Norman Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Apologetics (Grand Rapids:  Baker, 1999), p. 47.

[4]  J. A. Thompson, The Bible and Archaeology, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), pp. 414-15.

[5]  Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia, p. 47.

[6]  Murray J. Harris, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 2005), p. 185.

[7]  Paul W. Barnett, Jesus and the Logic of History (Downers Grove, Ill.:  InterVarsity Press, 1997), pp. 84-89.

 

This article is excerpted by permission from the book Jesus Without Religion by Rick James, available through CruPress at CruPress.com.

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