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'What is truth?' (John 18:38) - The tunnel vision of Pontius Pilate
Very little is known about Pontius Pilate, aside from that infamous occasion when he was required to decide on a case involving blasphemy and sedition in the person of the miracle-worker from Nazareth named Jesus Christ.
There was something peculiar about this case. Claudia, Pilate's wife, had even had a dream about it. As the Evangelist St Matthew tells us, 'While Pilate was sitting in the judgment hall, his wife sent him a message: 'Have nothing to do with that innocent man, because in a dream last night, I suffered much on account of him'.' (Matthew 27:19)
From the Scriptures we can surmise that Pilate must have had a fairly good Roman educ- ation, for the questions directed at Christ are poignant and thought- provoking: 'Are you the King of the Jews?' (John 18:33); 'Am I a Jew? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me; what have you done?' (John 18:35); and, 'What is truth?' (John 18:38).
Pilate seems sincere as he tries to understand the man before him but he becomes perplexed, in particular, with the latter question that Christ does not answer, 'What is truth?' He is also quick to inform the Jews, 'I find no crime in him' (John 18:38).
Ironically, it is this last phrase that reveals Pilate as both a man of virtue and of cowardice. For Pilate is wise and good enough to understand that the man in front of him is innocent, but has not the strength of character to stand up for the truth when pressed.
Although some may feel sympathetic toward Pilate, and have even considered his defence of Christ's innocence to be a mark of saintliness, there can be no excuse for Pilate having Christ scourged, when he knew Christ to be an innocent man.
This view is cemented when Pilate addresses the crowd, after the scourging: 'See, I am bringing him out to you, that you may know that I find no crime in him' (John 19:4). And yet again shortly after, 'Take him yourselves and crucify him, for I find no crime in him' (John 19:6).
The shallowness of Pilate's commitment to justice is revealed when he is tested by the Jews regarding his loyalty to Caesar. For this reason alone, his concern for personal security and ambition, Pilate knowingly accepts false witness and sentences to death a man not only innocent of crime, but one completely free of sin.
From the Gospel accounts Pilate cements for himself a place in history for villainy, for a man who kills in error is distinct from one who kills with the knowledge that what he does is wrong. Pilate's tunnel-vision in permitting a sentence of guilt for Christ arises from a pre- existing condition of pride. He will risk only so much for the truth and no further; he cannot see the full canvas being painted out in front of him, for he chooses not too.
What other reason did the Procurator have for sentencing Christ to be executed while insisting that a plate be placed on the cross, written in three languages, that Christ was King of the Jews, had he not had more than a mere suspicion that somewhere in what he ordered written was that truth he so desired to find.
When Pilate addressed the crowd with 'Ecce homo'(Behold the man') he knew that he was condemning to death an innocent man. He knew that he had had an encounter with the Truth, but he also knew that for him, the Truth was not worth dying for, but rather it was better off dead.
The apocryphal Gospel of Peter and The Acts of Pilate both try to piece together the life of Pontius Pilate after the Crucifixion, and some of the Church Fathers have even quoted them as sources. Yet what became of Pilate, we do not know. Perhaps he did turn toward the God that he had had executed.
But one thing is certain enough on that afternoon when his order to kill Jesus was carried out. When an earthquake shook the ground below his feet, and a thunderstorm rocked the sky above his head Pontius Pilate, knowing that he had killed an innocent man, a man that had so disturbed his wife in a vision, could not have been impervious to the gravity of what he had done.
He must have known, as he entered and exited historical memory, that his actions would have lasting import.
Dr Andrew Thomas Kania, who is from Perth, WA, is at present studying at Oxford University.
Reprinted from AD2000 Vol 22 No 4 (May 2009), p. 20
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