“‘What is truth?’ retorted Pilate.” – John 18:38
Christians, beware of using the Passion story as your only source for history.
In Passion plays and movies, Pilate is often portrayed as weak, vacillating and intimidated by a bloodthirsty mob. He agonizes over the situation, and eventually washes his hands of any responsibility for Jesus’ death to avoid a riot. But there’s more to Pilate.
1. According to the Jewish historian Josephus, when Pilate brought images of Caesar on Roman shields and standards into Jerusalem, protesters gathered. He threatened to ”cut them in pieces, and gave intimation to the soldiers to draw their swords.” The Jewish protestors refused to budge, and Pilate eventually relented.
2. Josephus records that Pilate built an aqueduct using temple treasury money. When protestors gathered, he had soldiers dress like common men, “gave the signal from his tribunal, and many of the Jews were so sadly beaten, that many of them perished by the stripes they received.”
3. Philo, a Jewish philosopher, described Pilate’s “…corruption, his cruelty, and his continual murders of people untried and uncondemned.”
4. Luke mentions the “Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices” (13:1).
5. According to John, a detachment (speira) of soldiers accompanied Judas and temple officials at Jesus’ arrest. The Greek word speira is a cohort of 600 Roman soldiers, who would have been under Pilate’s command.
With these points in mind, I read the Pilate in the Passion story differently. He agonizes over the Jesus situation, sees Jesus as a threat but uses him as leverage. When he sentences Jesus to death, he is asserting his power over the Jews, not relinquishing it. He takes a beaten, bloody insurrectionist, dresses him up like a king and presents him to the Jewish aristocracy. The conversation goes like this in John 18:
Pilate: “Shall I crucify your king?”
Chief Priests: “We have no king but Caesar.”
That was precisely Pilate’s point.