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Easter: Pontius Pilate in the Mirror!
Every year, as the Passion narrative of Jesus’ agony, betrayal, trial, crucifixion and death unfolds, my focus almost inevitably strays for a few fleeting seconds toward Pontius Pilate...

April   |   2000   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

... If only he had not given in to the blackmailing throng! If only he had not released Barrabas!

Pilate was a truly interesting character! Just imagine the miasma of contradictions that roiled in this man during Jesus’ trial! Pilate knew what was right, but could not bring himself to do it. He felt moved by Christ, but dared not follow up on his feeling. He was intelligent, but was unable to grasp a transcendent argument. He ought to have been strong, but allowed fear and pragmatism to pull him around like a puppet. In short, he was then what many Christians are today! We too strive to be like Christ, but we almost invariably fail and end up like Pilate.

However, the truth still remains that we know little about the character of the real Pilate. We do not even know the name his mother, wife or friends called him by! We do not know any part of his career before his time in Judaea, nor do we have any notion of what happened to him after Tiberius recalled him. Yet, plenty of people have tried to fill in the gaps! Early Christian apocryphal writers scrambled to embroider Pilate’s conduct - especially when they imagined that he began to feel not-so-secret Christian sympathies. Medieval Christians invented Pilate’s origins, which they took to be German, and built up his disreputable childhood and youth. Tremendous myths were created to account for the lost years of Pilate’s life. As a result, the mythological Pilate emerges ten feet tall!

In fact, he is a myth and a symbol as much as he is a historical character. He embodies the State facing the Church; the pagan world facing the Christian one; the sceptical and rational man confronting the spiritual; and not least ourselves encountering Christ. Everyone who wrote about Pilate drew him as they wanted him, and people ceaselessly projected their own ideas on him. However, three basic sources shed light on this man: Philo, Josephus and the gospels. And the character that emerges is that Pilate was arrogant, stubborn to a degree, deeply disliked Jews, believed in the superiority of Rome and employed brutish means to attain his objectives.

However, Pilate was also capable of being moved and feeling sorry too. When the gospels say that Pilate ‘marvelled greatly’ at Christ’s demeanour, Josephus reminds us that he had also marvelled when the Jews lay down before him at Caesarea and said they were prepared to die rather than admit the images of Tiberius into Jerusalem. In that case, Pilate was sufficiently moved to rescind his order. Such a man might well have thought for a moment before condemning Christ. But even if he did not, it can still give us a strange sort of comfort - ‘the thrill of the unconscious’, as the philosopher Johannes Koening puts it - to think that he might have done so. After all, might we not have done the same in his place too?

I wish you all a glorious, hopeful and reconciling Easter! As the empty tomb proclaims out loud to all those who have eyes to see and ears to hear, He is Risen! He is Risen Indeed! Hallelujah!

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2000   |   April


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