A cowardly man

IAN HUNTER

Pontius Pilate was an appeaser; a man who preferred avoiding trouble even if it meant avoiding the truth; a man, sad to say, much like me.

"Jesus is condemned to death by Pilate"
by Michael D. O’Brien

Through 40 days of Lenten observance, Christians metaphorically follow the footsteps of Christ along the Via Dolorosa, the path from the Garden of Gethsemane -- where Christ prayed that if it were possible he might be spared the cup of suffering; "Nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done" -- to the place of a skull, called Golgotha, where what awaited Jesus was the cruelest form of execution the Romans had devised, a cross.

For Catholics, the path is followed by praying the Stations of the Cross, perhaps the most moving liturgy in all the Church. Whenever I read the passion narrative, or hear it read aloud, I am always struck by the ambivalent role of one man, the Roman procurator Pontius Pilate.

Pontius Pilate -- a name of infamy for two millennia. But what does Pilate really connote? The Church has had trouble answering that question.

In most provinces of Christendom, Pilate is reviled as a corrupt judge, one who despite Jesus's manifest innocence condemned him to death. But this has not been a universal view: The Coptic Church considers Pilate more favourably, while in the Abyssinian Church he has been canonized, Saint Pontius Pilate. Why these sharply disparate views?

In part because the Gospel accounts themselves differ. The earliest Gospel, Mark, depicts Jesus as mute before Pilate who perfunctorily hands him over to be crucified. Matthew depicts Pilate vacillating, particularly after his wife has a dream of Jesus and warns her husband to "have nothing to do with that innocent man." When Pilate cannot persuade the mob, he publicly washes his hands and tells them that he is innocent "of the blood of this just man." Luke's Gospel says that Pilate was so anxious to avoid condemning Jesus that, on learning that Jesus was a Galilean, Pilate "remitted the case to Herod." But Herod, "that fox," (as Jesus once called him) was not so easily outwitted; Herod questioned Jesus, scourged him and then sent him right back to Pilate.

But it is John's Gospel which gives the most detailed and fascinating portrait of Christ before Pilate. John describes a lengthy, civil discourse, in the course of which Jesus gives an extraordinary answer to Pilate's question: "Are you a king?" Jesus says: "To this end was I born and for this purpose came I into the world that I should bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice." Jesus implies here that in all times and places, there will be a party of truth-seekers who will be drawn inexorably to his words. This is both a prophesy and an unassailable statement of fact. And Pilate, no fool he, then says: "What is truth?"

We do not know what happened to Pontius Pilate. We know that his procuratorship in Judea lasted from 26 to 36 A.D., and came to an end just around the time of the crucifixion. In his annals, the Roman historian Tacitus says that Pilate was later recalled to Rome.

What will Herod think? What will the chief priests do? Will the mob riot if I don't give in? With such fears, rather than with the truth in mind, Pilate delivered up Jesus to be crucified.

Many fanciful stories have been spun about Pilate's later conversion, even martyrdom. But the truth is that Pilate just disappears from the historical record. I suspect that if, in later life, Pilate had been asked about Jesus of Nazareth he might scarcely have remembered him; only one crucifixion, after all, among many.

In Pontius Pilate we see not a stupid man (he asked the right question), not even a deluded man ("I find no fault in him"), but rather a cowardly man: a man who having glimpsed the truth (the prisoner's innocence) nevertheless yielded to political pressure. What will Herod think? What will the chief priests do? Will the mob riot if I don't give in? With such fears, rather than with the truth in mind, Pilate delivered up Jesus to be crucified.

How often we emulate Pilate, by preferring the politically correct to the true answer. Some churches even emulate Pilate. The church must not offend women; so hymnals and liturgies are ransacked in search of any word or phrase that might possibly give offence. The church must not offend homosexuals; therefore its historic teaching is suddenly stood on its head. The church must be open to change; and before long a new-age pantheism replaces worship of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

What sort of man was Pontius Pilate? An appeaser; a man who preferred avoiding trouble even if it meant avoiding the truth; a man, sad to say, much like me.


 


ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Ian Hunter, "A cowardly man." National Post, (Canada) March 30, 2009.

Reprinted with permission of the National Post.

THE AUTHOR

Ian Hunter is professor emeritus in the faculty of law at the University of Western Ontario.

Copyright © 2009 National Post




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