Pilate’s Dilemma

Pontius Pilate was awake early. It appeared that it was going to be a normal spring day in Jerusalem. At least that’s what he hoped. He had been appointed as the fifth Prefect to the Roman province of Judea and Samaria by Emperor Tiberius in 26 A.D. His job was to keep the region quiet, free from revolts, and to oversee his emperor’s policies—a difficult task since the Jewish people were tired of Roman tyranny. The prominent religious leaders of the city were also awake early. In fact, they had been busy all night in litigation to convict a prisoner. Now they were at the Praetorium (judgment hall) with their bound victim. Pilate must have wondered, What do they want so early in the morning? He would know soon enough. This was to be the day on which Pilate would face his greatest dilemma.

Philo, a Jewish-Hellenistic philosopher, described Pilate’s administration as “harsh” and “corrupt.” As a result, the religious leaders constantly sought ways to undermine his effectiveness and discredit him before Caesar. Naturally, this made Pilate neurotic and anxious to do whatever it took to run a smooth administration. In the pursuit of good public relations, one of Pilate’s first acts was to exercise his prerogative in selecting the Jewish high priest. He realized that this office and his had to work together for the benefit of peace. But high priests usually had their own agendas. Pilate’s choice as the best candidate for the job was Yoseph ha Caiaphas—a choice that would later play a part in his ruin.

From the earliest days of his administration, Pilate arbitrarily made bad decisions. Two incidents recorded by Josephus reveal how he came to be hated by the people.

At one point, Pilate decided to flaunt his authority by moving the winter headquarters of his army from Caesarea Maritime to Jerusalem. Knowing the Jewish people’s abhorrence of graven images, he secretly marched the army to the city after nightfall. At dawn, the soldiers gave homage to their standards bearing the likeness of Tiberius Caesar. The city exploded in rage. An angry mob rushed to Pilate’s residence in Caesarea. They surrounded his house and demanded that the idolatrous objects be removed. Pilate learned what Cicero meant when he said, “They are a noisy and tumultuous people.” For five days they clamored. The affair turned into a struggle of determined strong wills.

What was he to do? If he gave in, it would show weakness. If he didn’t, it might spark a massive revolt. And Emperor Tiberius would consider any uprising a personal insult. Pilate decided to call their bluff. He ordered his army to surround the people. The crowd was told to accept the standards or be killed. To his amazement, they threw themselves down on the ground and exposed their necks to the sword. “We would rather die than see our laws broken,” they shouted. Pilate had never seen such a thing. He backed down and removed the standards. The religious leaders saw a weakness in the armor of his character. Pilate was afraid of Caesar and wanted to please him at all costs.

Another incident concerned a water problem in Jerusalem. Pilate had ordered a water aqueduct to be built. It was a good idea. However, he intended to use funds from the Temple treasury to finance the project. The people reproached him in mass street demonstrations. Again, what was he to do? The safe thing would be to back down and keep the peace. Pilate, however, ordered his soldiers to slay the protesters. The religious leaders saw another character flaw that could be exploited to their benefit. Pilate was cold-blooded.

[Pilate’s] bad policies…put him at odds with the people. Pilate knew that his standing with both the Roman and the Jewish authorities was shaky.

His bad policies, as evidenced in these two incidents, put him at odds with the people. Pilate knew that his standing with both the Roman and the Jewish authorities was shaky. Therefore, he chose to use safe and convenient means to maintain the peace. But life was not going to be easy for Pilate. Shrewd Caiaphas and his associates would soon exploit his weakness for their own agenda.

Passover was a disquieting time for the Romans. The nationalistic Jewish zealots often tried to stir up the masses against Rome. Extra legions came to Jerusalem from other posts to fortify the garrison for crowd control. Roman oppression had become intolerable, and the Jewish people resented their intrusion. Pilate was confident that all would go well that spring day—until he came face to face with Jesus.

“What accusation bring ye against this man?” Pilate demanded (Jn. 18:29). The accusers dodged the question. “If he were not a malefactor, we would not have delivered him up unto thee” (Jn. 18:30). Pilate sensed something was wrong because, in effect, they were saying, If he weren’t a transgressor, why would we bother? Therefore, they thought, he (Pilate), who had pledged to protect and uphold Roman law, should, without any inquiry, sentence their prisoner to death.

To escape the snare, Pilate threw the ball back into their court. “Take ye him, and judge him according to your law” (Jn. 18:31). His aim was to force them to record in detail their findings and submit a petition for capital punishment. He could then review the matter and determine if the sentence could be sustained. The burden was on the Sanhedrin. But they didn’t want the responsibility of this case. They threw the ball back to him, insisting on strict legal procedure. “It is not lawful for us to put any man to death” (Jn. 18:31). Their sudden adherence to what was lawful and what was not must have seemed suspicious to Pilate. It was obvious to him by now that they wanted him and all of Rome to bear the responsibility of Jesus’ death. The question in his mind was, Why?

Neither the religious leaders nor Pilate realized how God was working out His plan of redemption. Jesus was indeed to die—and on a Roman cross, for all the world to see, “That the saying of Jesus might be fulfilled, which he spoke, signifying what death he should die” (Jn. 18:32).

The pressure rose as three specific accusations were leveled against Jesus. “And they began to accuse him, saying, We found this fellow perverting the nation, and forbidding to give tribute to Caesar, saying that he himself is Christ, a king” (Lk. 23:2). Pilate had no choice. He had to question the accused. Their statement that they “found” Him “perverting the nation” indicated some kind of previous investigation into Jesus’ being a traitor to Rome. Still, Pilate knew something was wrong.

It was obvious that the religious leaders were acting contrary to their normal character and behavior. First, in reference to their claim that Jesus was “perverting the nation,” Pilate had never heard any Sanhedrin member speak of the nation of Israel as one of the many politically conquered subjects of Rome. Usually Israel was presented as a lofty, exalted, spiritual community with a glorious kingdom to come. They were obviously condescending to him. Second, they complained that Jesus was a danger to his jurisdictional rule. Since he had arrived in the region, Pilate had received nothing but grief from the leaders and the people. This sudden concern for his administration was a bit ludicrous. Then there was the matter of Jesus’ forbidding the payment of taxes. This was a serious charge, to be sure, but taxes were always a sore point with conquered people. Finally, why would they hand over one of their own countrymen—one who claimed to be their Messiah and King—to die? How absurd!

Pilate must have wondered why the Sanhedrin was straining to induce him to condemn Jesus. They were, in essence, saying to him, Can’t you see the problem? The whole region under your charge is in danger. Execute him now!

In spite of the fact that he knew the situation was a theological dispute, Pilate had to do something. To do nothing would be an insult to Tiberius, and Pilate’s enemies would be all to glad to let him know about it.

The basic charge placed Christ against Caesar. Therefore, from Pilate’s perspective, the issue in this litigation was Jesus’ claim to kingship. He therefore began his interrogation with, “Art thou the King of the Jews?” (Jn. 18:33). Jesus replied that indeed He was a King and that His kingdom was a community of truth. Obviously rattled by this response, Pilate asked, “What is truth?” (Jn. 18:38). Then, exerting his authority in the hope that his position would carry some weight, he informed the chief priests and the multitudes that he found no fault in Jesus. He thought that with this declaration of Jesus’ innocence, the unpleasant business would go away. But more accusations were hurled against Jesus, and it obviously upset Pilate that Jesus held His peace.

Then an opportunity arose for Pilate to escape the situation. Jesus was from Galilee, which was under the jurisdiction of Herod Antipas, who just happened to be in Jerusalem at the time. Pilate sent Jesus to Herod, hoping he would acquit or condemn the victim. Appreciative of the Roman acknowledgment, Herod and his men sported with and mocked Jesus but then sent Him back to Pilate.

Pilate was in real trouble. The situation was becoming more and more difficult. Although he had already declared officially that he found Jesus guilty of no crime, he continued with the trial. If he released Jesus, the religious leaders would appeal to Caesar. If he condemned Jesus without solid legal evidence, the people would revolt. Either way, Roman justice would be viewed as a travesty, and Pilate had to make a decision between two equally bad alternatives. He certainly was on the horns of a dilemma.

Pilate’s decision was pathetic. “I will, therefore, chastise him, and release him” (Lk. 23:16). By this unlawful action, Pilate, as a judge, violated the highest protocol of civil law—equal justice for all. The moral thing would have been to set Jesus free. Instead, he was motivated by expediency. His own personal safety was more important than doing the right thing.

A fitting memorial to Pilate lay hidden beneath the sand on the shore of the Mediterranean for centuries. In 1961, a team of archaeologists uncovered a stone bearing an inscription of Pilate’s name. Originally it was a dedication stone to a pagan temple erected in honor of Emperor Tiberius. That temple was later destroyed, and the stone was reused as a landing step for a stairway at the huge amphitheater visible today at Caesarea Maritime. Imagine, the name of Pontius Pilate—Prefect of Judea and Samaria, the one who told Jesus that he had the power to crucify Him or set Him free—was for centuries stomped on by thousands of pleasure-seeking theater attendees. What a legacy for a cowardly judge!

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