Pilate Was One of the Bad Guys

by David Mills

North Texas Catholic


Ecce Homo (Pontius Pilate Presenting Christ to the Crowd) by Tintoretto.

The Romans were in it up to their eyeballs. We tend to forget that. Two groups had Jesus executed: the Jewish religious leaders and the Roman political rulers.

Most Christian preaching through history blamed the Jews. It did that partly for the embarrassing reason that many Christians disliked Jews, even hated them, and looked for excuses to hurt them. (Look up the 1349 massacre of 6,000 Jews in Mainz for just one example.) Christians also tended to see themselves as descendants of the Romans, and no one wants to blame their ancestors for murdering God.

We can forget we are the Jews. They were us. They were us as we would have been had we lived then.

The Palm Sunday Mass tells us this, when it gives us the crowd’s lines in the Gospel reading. A reader does Pilate’s lines. We say the Jews’ lines. In other words: Who killed Jesus? Find a mirror. The answer’s never “Those guys.” It’s always “Me and my friends.”

But we can also forget that we are the Romans. Even today, Pilate and the Romans in general tend to get a pass. They just did their jobs. In the wrong place at the wrong time. Nothing personal, just business. They were pagans, they didn’t know any better.

And besides, the explanations run, the emperor could have had Pilate executed or tortured for failing to keep Palestine under control. The poor man was under a lot of pressure. And Pilate could have the men he commanded killed or tortured for screwing up.

So when the Jewish leaders brought this alleged trouble-maker to him to be executed, everyone from Pilate on down must have thought: better safe than sorry. If you crucified an innocent man, at least you didn’t get killed yourself. And so what if he is innocent? He’s just a Jew.

Pilate, he was just running his little part of the Roman empire. He didn’t care if Jesus was a hero or a villain. He was only today’s political problem. Pilate needed to keep a lid on things and Jesus had ticked off a lot of people. The Jewish leaders had riled up a bunch of people who were standing outside yelling. The situation could easily get out of control, if he didn’t give them what they wanted. It gets out of control, the emperor hears about it, he’s toast.

St. John Chrysostom, the great preacher of the fourth century I wrote about last time, says that Pilate “was not a very wicked man.” But Pilate was wicked. Very wicked.

I think we see that in the Gospel story, as I’ll explain in a minute. The two great Jewish historians of the first century, Philo and Josephus, describe a brutal, vicious tyrant.

Josephus tells about his stealing money from the Temple treasury to build an aqueduct to Jerusalem. People gathered to protest. He sent soldiers in regular clothes into the crowd. Then he signaled to them to pull out the clubs or daggers they’d hidden in their clothes and attack the protesters. They beat a lot of them to death, and also many people who just happened to be watching. It’s rule by terrorism.

Still, just reading the Gospel stories, Christians have tended to give Pilate a pass. We do that today. He looks bad, but the real problem, we think, are the scheming religious leaders and that screaming mob outside. That’s wrong as a matter of history. Pilate did just as much to kill the Son of God as the religious leaders.

It’s even more wrong spiritually. We are the Jews. But we’re Pilate and his soldiers too. I think we’re even more like him than we’re like the Jews.

You can read the story as either Pilate trying to be fair and then deciding that was too much trouble, or as Pilate being politically calculating the whole time. In either case, he was so corrupt he sent an innocent man to die a horrifying death, because it was easier and safer. His washing his hands and saying “I’m innocent, it’s your fault” when he was guilty is really contemptible.

This hits close to home. How many times have we done the wrong thing, or didn’t bother to do the right thing, because doing the right thing would cost us? How many people have we hurt that way? In the Palm Sunday Gospel, we could easily say Pilate’s words as well as the mob’s.

The Romans were in it up to their eyeballs. We tend to forget that. Two groups had Jesus executed: the Jewish religious leaders and the Roman political rulers.