As a lawyer and judge, my understanding of the Bible has naturally become colored by my experiences in, and knowledge of, the law and the legal system. Thus, in meditating on the gospel accounts of Christ’s interaction with Pontius Pilate, my focus in recent years has been on Pilate’s role as judge. I must confess that in the past it never occurred to me that Pilate was a judge. Yes, I understood that Pilate was the prefect of Judea and that he was the chief Roman official charged with implementing Roman law¯and, indeed, that he ultimately sat in judgment of Christ. Nevertheless, I did not think of Pilate as a judge¯certainly not in the sense that most people have thought of judges for hundreds of years¯wearing judicial robes, sitting in a courtroom, relying on precedent. After all, Roman law was not common law, and the main point of the gospel stories in regard to Pilate’s dealings with Christ is not that Pilate treated him unjustly but that Christ, who died an ignominious death, was completely blameless.
Furthermore, the gospel accounts dealing with Christ and Pilate vary in some respects, with greater emphasis being placed on those points significant to the particular writer: Matthew and Mark, for example, contain little discussion of Christ’s interaction with Pilate, except to state that Pilate was governor, that he asked Christ if he was a king and that Pilate sentenced Christ to death, “wishing to satisfy the crowd” (Matt. 27:11—26; Mark 15:1—15). Luke¯aside from being the only evangelist who mentions Christ’s appearance before Herod¯does relate more information than Matthew and Mark about his appearance before Pilate, but he never actually refers to the proceedings as a “trial” (Luke 23:1—25). And while the Gospel of John contains the most complete account of what transpired between Christ and Pilate, all the elements of the proceedings¯including the inquiry of Christ, his brutalization at the hands of Roman soldiers, and the manner in which Pilate rendered judgment and sentence¯are definitely not evocative of contemporary trials and due process (John 18:28—39; 19:1—16).
And yet, as one who has been called upon to sit in judgment of others, and after carefully reviewing the facts, I cannot conceive of Pilate as anything but a judge¯and an unjust one at that¯whose disgraceful actions on the bench should eliminate any view of him as a sympathetic historical figure “who wanted to free Christ but couldn’t.” To that end Pilate has often been inaccurately depicted in the movies as a strong Roman soldier compelled, almost against his will, to condemn Christ (think of Rod Steiger’s portrayal of Pilate in Jesus of Nazareth ), and in literature as “an unwilling player” who was “secondary” in terms of his participation in Christ’s death.
But there is reason to reject any such benign view of Pilate.
To illustrate, let us examine the relevant biblical passages. The gospels tell us that Christ was initially found guilty of heresy by the Sanhedrin for declaring himself the Messiah. He was then brought to Pilate on charges that he misled the people, opposed the payment of taxes to Caesar and maintained that he was a king (Luke 23:3). Upon hearing the charges, Pilate asked Christ, “Are you the King of the Jews?”, to which Christ responded, “You say so.” We are then told that Pilate addressed the Chief Priests and crowds saying “I find this man not guilty.” When they persisted, Pilate asked if Christ was a Galilean, “and upon learning that he was under Herod’s jurisdiction, he sent him to Herod who was in Jerusalem at that time” (Luke 23:7).
Thus, we see that Pilate, after a brief inquiry, adjudged Christ not guilty of a capital crime and decided to release him. But when his accusers persisted in claiming that Christ was “inciting the people with his teaching” (Luke 23:5), Pilate conveniently decided that the matter fell within Herod’s jurisdiction. There is no doubt in my mind that when Pilate transferred Christ’s case to Herod, he believed¯as any judge who has transferred a problematic case to another judge does¯that the problem was out of his hands. In essence, Pilate took the easiest and most expedient course available to him: shifting the problem to Herod. For if Christ was not guilty, he should have been released.
Christ’s appearance before Herod was uneventful: He refused to answer Herod’s questions, was mocked by Herod and his soldiers, and then sent back to Pilate. One can only imagine Pilate’s surprise and annoyance at seeing Christ appear before him a second time. According to Luke, Pilate then reiterated his finding that Christ was not guilty of any capital crime (Luke 23:14—15, 22). In fact, Pilate repeats this judgment on several occasions after being prodded by the crowd:
But all together they shouted out, “Away with this man!” . . . Again Pilate addressed them, still wishing to release Jesus, but they continued their shouting, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” Pilate addressed them a third time, “What evil has this man done? I find him guilty of no capital crime. Therefore, I shall have him flogged and then release him.”
At some point in the proceedings, Pilate ordered Christ scourged, although the gospel accounts differ in terms of when this took place¯Luke and John place the scourging at a point during the proceedings; Matthew and Mark place it at the end, after Pilate has adjudged Christ guilty. Conceivably, the scourging could have occurred at either time: Historically, prisoners sentenced to death were required to be flogged before execution. Yet, the timing of the scourging in Luke and John is entirely consistent with Pilate’s attempts to ameliorate the people by imposing on Christ some punishment short of death.
The Gospel of John contains the most explicit references to the judicial nature of the proceedings before Pilate. Its version of Christ’s examination by Pilate is the most detailed of all the Gospels, with Pilate asking Christ the questions, “Who are you?”, “What is truth?”, and, “Where are you from?” (John 19:9). As in Luke, Pilate repeatedly states that he finds Christ not guilty: “I am bringing him out to you, so that you may know I find no guilt in him.” (John 19:4).
All of the Gospels are consistent in their representation of the fact that Pilate eventually adjudged Christ guilty not because he was actually guilty but because that is what the crowd wanted. In Matthew, for example, we are told that “while [Pilate] was still seated on the bench, his wife sent him a message, Have nothing to do with this man’”, after which, he offered the people gathered there a choice:
“Which of the two do you want me to release to you?” They answered, “Barabbas!” Pilate said to them, “Then what shall I do with Jesus called the Messiah? They all said, “Let him be crucified!” But he said, “Why? What evil has he done?” They only shouted the louder, “Let him be crucified!” When Pilate saw that he was not succeeding at all, but that a riot was breaking out instead, he took water and washed his hands in the sight of the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood. Look to it yourselves.” (Matt. 27:20—24).
Luke states, “With loud shouts . . . they persisted in calling for his crucifixion, and their voices prevailed. The verdict of Pilate was that their demand should be granted.” (Luke 23:23—24). And in John, after Pilate again expressed his desire to release Christ, the crowds responded “If you release him you are not a Friend of Caesar. Everyone who makes himself a king opposes Caesar.” When Pilate heard these words he “brought Jesus out and seated him on the Judge’s bench” and “handed him over . . . to be crucified” (John 19:12—16).
In examining these facts objectively, I cannot imagine a more unjust judge than Pilate or a more unjust judgment than the one rendered by him. Unable to hold to the correct and just decision he initially made concerning Christ’s case, Pilate attempted to shift responsibility for making a decision, first to Herod, and then, to the crowds outside the Praetorium. Moreover, rather than having the people judge the case on the evidence¯as a jury would¯their judgment was to be based on a ridiculous and, as we know, rigged procedure in which they were to choose between prisoners. Finally, having ostensibly placed the decision in the hands of the people, Pilate, in an unparalleled act of weakness, pleaded with them to change their judgment.
Try to imagine, if you can, a situation where a judge, rather than rendering a decision, asks the people in his courtroom to resolve a case, and then tries to dissuade them because he believes they are wrong.
In the end, knowing that Christ was innocent but too afraid to go against the crowd, Pilate reluctantly condemns him to death. Yet, even in his final judgment, Pilate demonstrates moral and judicial cowardice, for he attempts to shift the responsibility for Christ’s death onto the crowd by “washing his hands” and saying, “Look to it yourselves.”
For a judge to commit any of the wrongs committed by Pilate on the bench¯abrogating his duty to render a just decision on the merits, pandering to public opinion, repeatedly vacillating and temporizing, and imposing an undeserved sentence¯would constitute gross weakness and incompetence. But to commit all of these acts in a single case is an abomination. That the people who handed Christ over to him may have been guilty of the greater sin (John 19:11) and that Pilate unwittingly cooperated in God’s salvific plan, does not absolve him of his guilt in failing to treat an innocent man with justice.
The Honorable Vito M. DeStefano is a New York State Supreme Court Justice.