He knew not what he did

Ann Wroe reopens the case of Pontius Pilate, reviled throughout Christian history He knew not what he did: the Pilate case reopened
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If you were asked to list the three most dramatic confrontations in history, the chances are that one of them would be the moment, in AD 30 or 33, when Jesus Christ faced Pontius Pilate, the Roman prefect of Judea. It was, as far as we know, a routine hearing and condemnation that led to the routine Roman punishment of the cross. But it has become far more than that. The trial of Jesus was not merely a trial for anyone who described it, from the gospel writers onwards. It was the moment when God met man and let himself be sentenced to death; a death that was to change the world, but also one, according to Christian doctrine, that had been planned and predicted ever since the beginning of time.

The scene has been depicted over and over again. Jesus, battered and bleeding, faces a sceptical Pilate. Jesus can barely stand; Pilate sits or lounges on an ivory chair with, as often as not, a leopard-skin rug thrown across it. He is sophisticated, exuding effortless power, but is also worried; as well he might be. Huge forces, we know, are working behind the scenes. An old order and a new order are in conflict here. One is oppressive and secular, the other liberating and spiritual. One is darkness, paganism, superstition, while the other is truth and light. Pilate is one, Jesus is the other. They are two symbolic figures. But they are also, lest we forget, two men flung together in a judgment hall who were almost bound to misunderstand each other.

In the drama of the Passion, which is read in churches today, Pilate is by turns angry, sarcastic, suspicious and despairing. Most of all, he wavers. He can't decide what to do. He drifts towards pardoning Jesus, then drifts away again. He thinks Jesus is innocent, but then isn't sure. He keeps going out, coming in, going out again; his agitation is physical as well as mental. More than once he tries to pass the buck - to Herod, to the chief priests, to the crowd - but it doesn't work. In the end, when he has just made the bold decision to go all-out for saving Jesus, the crowd (according to John) reminds him that his first duty is to his boss, the Emperor Tiberius; and he capitulates completely. It is a desperate show of equivocation, made only slightly more palatable by the sneaking feeling that we ourselves might not do much better. Would we recognise God if He stood in front of us? And, even if we recognised Him, at what cost - to ourselves and to others - would we try to save Him?

For some modern scholars, this wavering Pilate is a nonsense. A Roman governor, they point out, would not have wasted two minutes thinking about a shabby Jewish malefactor; and this was particularly true of Pilate. One contemporary, Philo, describes him as violent, thuggish, stubborn and fond of executions without trial. Another, Josephus, records two incidents when dissent was bloodily suppressed. Jesus himself is told of some Galileans "whose blood Pilate mingled with their sacrifices". How can this be the soft-hearted man who tries, in John's gospel, to intercede for Jesus? How can this even be the fair-minded man who, in the other gospels, wants to pause before condemning him and listen carefully to the charges?

Yet, possibly, it is. The Pilate of Philo and Josephus is not just a comic-book tyrant, but more complicated. In Josephus, at the start of his term, he provokes the Jews by ordering the imperial standards to be carried into Jerusalem. They protest en masse, and, after five days of stand-off outside the palace in Caesarea, Pilate prepares to kill them. First, he has been typically stubborn; now he is typically brutish and violent. But, when the Jews fall on their faces rather than withdraw, he suddenly rescinds his order. He is "astonished" that their devotion to their laws and their God can be so intense. And he is affected even to the point of humiliating both himself and Rome.

Again, in Philo, he gets into trouble with the local rulers for putting up expensive votive shields to the emperor inside his borrowed palace in Jerusalem. Here, he squirms even more acutely than in the trial; for if he takes them down he will offend Tiberius, but if he leaves them up the local rulers will complain to Tiberius anyway. As in the trial, there is no way out short of capitulation and humiliation. In this case, Pilate refuses to budge; but, as Philo remarks in a fascinating aside, the local rulers could see that, in his heart, he had repented. He was sorry, but he was too proud to say so; so they told the emperor about him, and (according to Philo) he was rebuked with spectacular ferocity.

So Pilate is a man who gets stuck, usually in messes of his own making. He does provocative, tactless things, and then can't think how to make matters right. His first instinct seems to be to dig his heels in, even reinforcing stubbornness with violence. But he is also, according to both these accounts, a man who can suddenly be touched by surprise and by regret at what he has done.

We can rely on nothing in the gospel accounts, of course; they are not meant to be historical. Josephus and Philo have to be taken with some salt as well; such is the nature of reporting. But these finer details of Pilate's character, which seem to glimmer in all the accounts of him, mean it is not implausible that he hesitated in the trial, too. And this moment of hesitation is vital. It is where all the drama of the meeting is concentrated: where our redemption hangs in the balance. Will Pilate go through with this, or won't he? And if he decides in the end to spare Christ, would that in any case be the right thing to do?

The trial gives us three moments when Pilate seems to hesitate. The first, which all the evangelists agree on, comes when the Jews first bring Jesus to the Praetorium. Pilate asks whether he is the King of the Jews, and then what he has done; and when the high priests have listed the charges, they expect the condemnation. But it doesn't come. However Pilate does it - whether by interviewing Jesus more closely (in John), or sending him to Herod (in Luke), or just turning over the charges in his mind (in Matthew), he balks, and slows the proceedings down.

Why? Some people imagine it may have been because Jesus moved and interested him from the start, but this seems unlikely. Jesus, to him, would have looked like any other bound and battered Jew. Pilate had probably heard the stories about him, from his spies as well as from his Jewish contacts. It is possible that the tales of healing interested him; that would have excited a Roman's curiosity, and medieval writers liked to think that Pilate and his wife needed treatment anyway for, respectively, liver trouble and nervous headaches. Yet the most plausible reason for Pilate's hesitation at the very start of the trial, if it happened, is rather simpler. The governor instinctively resisted doing anything the Jews asked him to do, especially if they were peremptory about it; and if he thought it would irritate them to pause in this case, he would take great pleasure in doing so.

The next moment of hesitation - it is often imagined - comes in John's account, when Pilate, interviewing Jesus more closely, asks "What is truth?" It is a splendid question, festooned down the centuries with huge garlands of interpretation. John may have invented it for his usual theological purposes; but if he did, it is strange that he does so little with it. Why not at least have a go at continuing the conversation, and let Jesus get a few more points in?The apocryphal fourth-century "Acts of Pilate" carry it on for a few moments, at least. But in John, Pilate goes out immediately to pronounce Jesus innocent. Those who imagine a pause between the question and the exit - a pause in which prisoner and governor regard each other, just for a moment, with either terrifying intensity or frustrated longing - are probably wrong. "What is truth?" was more probably just a quick, clever challenge-question, to which Pilate did not really want an answer and would have been astonished if he had received one.

The third moment of hesitation is, however, a much richer and more suggestive one. Again, we have no proof that it happened, and it may just have been part of the rich theological tapestry that John was weaving. Nonetheless, for me, it is the crux of the whole story; the part I most want to believe is true. This is the moment when Pilate, having been told that Jesus has claimed to be the Son of God, goes back into the Praetorium with him and, really frightened now, asks Jesus, "Where are you from?"

This question is not a simple one. Pilate knows that Jesus is from Galilee. He is asking him something different: by implication, whether he is divine. It is interesting that John, at this point, makes so much of Pilate's fear, which he has not mentioned before. Pilate, according to the archaeological and written evidence, clung to Roman forms of religion almost to a fault (and it was to a fault, if you were in Judea): putting ritual objects on his coins, building what appears to have been a temple to Tiberius in Caesarea, taking the holy standards into Jerusalem, putting up the holy shields in his palace. What is more, having flaunted these things, he was always deeply resistant to removing them, because it was sacrilege. His own loyalty to the emperor and his own job were also in play, of course; but Pilate's religious superstitions seem to have been genuine. If a man claimed to have come down from the realm of the gods, as so many Graeco-Roman gods had done, perhaps he should be given the benefit of the doubt.

Jesus is not very helpful to him. He refuses to answer that particular question. But he then goes on to make some remarks about the nature of his power which, according to John, confirm Pilate in his desire to release him. That desire doesn't last very long, of course; one mention of Tiberius, and Pilate forgets it.

The real god in Rome trumps the possible god in Jerusalem, and Jesus is sent to Golgotha. In Matthew, Pilate washes his hands in expiation; but this no longer counts as hesitation, because the deed is done.

"Where are you from?" That is Pilate's moment. It is an opening in a cloudy sky: the light breaks in, and it is the light of redemption. He could do the right thing. He could believe in Jesus, and he could save him. But here the complications of later theology enter the picture, because saving him is not, in truth, the "right" thing. Jesus has been sent to redeem mankind by his blood, and Pilate's business, true to the type of most Roman governors, is to shed it without compunction. He is not meant to hesitate; he will do mankind no favours. All the odder, then, that down the centuries so much has been made of that hesitation, as if we all want him to capitulate to the divine grace of his extraordinary prisoner; and all the odder that he is so reviled for the choice he eventually made, on that awful Friday we call "Good".

Good Friday leads on to Easter; out of crucifixion, we are given Resurrection. But this brings with it a puzzle. If the Resurrection happened, as all Christians believe, why is there no Roman witness? Why is there no record of a reaction from Pilate, who, after all his waverings, was now so grotesquely humiliated? If his encounter with Jesus had brought with it even a moment of hesitation, wouldn't he have felt that uncertainty even more strongly with the news of his victim's rising from the dead? Could that uncertainty even have grown, to become something like faith?

Tertullian thought so, as did Justin Martyr. The Copts of Egypt and, to some extent, the Greek Orthodox Church, still give Pilate veneration as someone who recognised Jesus (if only so far as to wash his hands of him). In one Coptic apocryphal work, Pilate goes to the tomb of Jesus and, standing among the abandoned grave-clothes, weeps for what he has done.

It is a striking image. The more realistic one is that Pilate never thought about Jesus again, once he had filled in the necessary forms recording his execution. And yet Jesus lived, and was seen in Jerusalem. The news of his Resurrection, according to the gospels, was everywhere. Only Matthew thinks to explain why Pilate never reacted: the Jewish high priests bribed the soldiers at the tomb not to tell him, and offered them protection from his violence if he ever found out. In the Middle Ages, this story - almost certainly fantasy - was hugely popular.

Something like it would still seem to be necessary. Was Pilate really so impervious, so dismissive of Jewish tales about magical mystery men, that he would not care two hoots about the Resurrection, assuming he heard of it? Possibly. But many Christians like to think - and the ancient sources bear them out, in part - that the Pilate who conducted the trial of Jesus was capable of being pricked by conscience and touched by the light, at least for a moment. They like to think that Jesus moved him just a little. To believe in the Resurrection, perhaps we also need to believe that the glory of Easter reduced a Roman prefect, violent, tactless and sarcastic as he was, to stupefied silence. Miracles do happen.

Ann Wroe's `Pilate: The Biography of an Invented Man' is published by Cape at pounds 17.99