Very early in the morning the leading priests and the elders of the people met again to lay plans for putting Jesus to death. Then they bound him, led him away, and took him to Pilate, the Roman governor. [Matthew 27:1-2 (NLT)]
Pontius Pilate was the Roman prefect (or governor) of Judea from 26 to 36 AD. He was responsible for the collection of taxes, managed construction projects, and had the sole authority to order a criminal’s execution. His most important duty, however, was to maintain law and order and, if he couldn’t do it through negotiation, he did it by any means necessary.
Around 50 AD, Philo of Alexandria wrote about Pilate’s “briberies, insults, robberies, outrages and wanton injuries, executions without trial, constantly repeated, ceaseless and supremely grievous cruelty.” Ancient historian Flavius Josephus reported that after Pilate exhausted the Temple treasury to build an aqueduct, the Jews gathered in protest at his use of sacred funds. After sending soldiers dressed as Jews into the crowd of protesters, at his signal, they removed clubs hidden in their cloaks and beat many of the protesters to death. According to Josephus, Pilate eventually was removed from office and sent back to Rome after using excessive force to prevent a suspected Samaritan insurrection. Both historians described Pilate as exceedingly loyal to the emperor, stubborn, and insensitive to the Jews.
Pilate died in 39 AD and some traditions hold that he was executed while others that he committed suicide. The early Christian author Tertullian claimed that Pilate became a follower of Jesus and tried to convert the emperor to Christianity. These claims, however, are mere speculation. That Pilate existed, however, is not. In 1961, while excavating an ancient Roman theatre in Caesarea, a piece of limestone was found that was inscribed with both the emperor’s and Pilate’s names and the words “Prefect of Judea.”
Unable to sentence Jesus to death, the Sanhedrin brought Jesus to the governor. Pilate and the Sanhedrin shared a common interest in maintaining the status quo. Although he knew Jesus had been arrested on trumped up charges, Pilate also knew of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem when people had hailed Him as the long-awaited king. Rome wouldn’t welcome the news of an unauthorized king and, if Pilate allowed Jesus to remain in Judea, the governor would be accused of disloyalty to Rome. Pilate knew Jesus’ death was the expedient political solution for all and, yet, he appeared to be hesitant to take action.
Based on the gospel accounts of Jesus’ trial, some commentators find Pilate indecisive, easily manipulated by Sanhedrin, and weak in his capitulation to the mob. Others, however, disagree with that assessment. That Pilate managed to serve ten years as prefect when the typical term was three tells us he was a man of political acumen and ancient historians described him as headstrong and authoritarian. As governor, Pilate held the power—only he could pronounce capital punishment and he was the one who appointed (or dismissed) the head priest. Since Pilate knew that he would appear weak if he yielded too quickly to the Sanhedrin’s wishes, some scholars suggest that what seemed like hesitation on Pilate’s part was just the governor making the Sanhedrin sweat a little and beg. In the end, Pilate did exactly what he wanted but he’d put the Sanhedrin in his debt by seeming to do them a favor.
We’ll never know whether Pilate was manipulated by the Sanhedrin or he shrewdly manipulated them. Whatever his motives, Pilate knew Jesus was innocent of all charges when he ordered the crucifixion of the Son of God. Putting the blame on the Sanhedrin and the angry mob that shouted “Crucify him!” Pilate disclaimed any responsibility for shedding innocent blood and literally washed his hands of the matter. Whether he voluntarily put Jesus to death or was pressured into his decision, Pilate was a political and moral coward and washing his hands couldn’t absolve him of his guilt.
Being compelled or pressured never releases us of our responsibility to do the right thing. Regardless of circumstance, we must take ownership of our actions. Remember: while we can be tempted to sin, we never can be forced to do it!
Sin is a brat that nobody is willing to own; and many deceive themselves with this, that they shall bear no blame if they can but find any to lay the blame upon; but it is not so easy a thing to transfer the guilt of sin as many think it is. [Matthew Henry]