Who Was Pontius Pilate? Benevolent Pawn, Bloodthirsty Tyrant or Misunderstood Hunk?
The answer, according to Rabbi Shmuley Boteach's Kosher Jesus, "has been used time and again to justify the worst Christian atrocities against Jews. It remains a crucial point of contention between the two religions even today."
August 18, 2013 - 2:00 pm
We are all grown-ups here. We understand there is no Easter Bunny, Santa Claus or truth in Hollywood. Nonetheless, the Pontius Pilate film rumored last winter to star Brad Pitt is a fine example of how even to this day Pilate’s role in Jesus’ death is whitewashed.
This script follows the evolution of Lucius Pontius Pilate from the sensitive son of a Roman Knight into a ferocious soldier whose warrior exploits make him a general and puts him on a political track under the Roman Emperor Tiberius. Promised a military governorship in Egypt, Pilate is instead assigned by Tiberius to become the prefect of Judea, at a time when Jerusalem was a cauldron of religious tensions between various factions of the Jewish faith. Pilate veers from the political fast track into the express lane to hell and historical infamy. Rather than a straight ahead Biblical film, Blasi’s script reads almost like a Biblical era Twilight Zone episode in which a proud, capable Roman soldier gets in way over his head. His arrogance and inability to grasp the devoutness of the citizenry and its hatred for the Roman occupiers and their pagan gods leads him to make catastrophic decisions. All of this puts him in a desperate situation and in need of public approval when he is asked to decide the fate of a 33-year old rabbi accused by religious elders of claiming he is King of the Jews.
This week’s reading in Boteach’s Kosher Jesus claims that throughout history to present, Pilate has been wrongly portrayed as nothing more than a benevolent pawn easily persuaded by those he’s conquered, washing his hands in innocence, and leaving the real cruelty to the Jews. But does this view of Pontius Pilate hold true by what we know of history?
Boteach says no. There’s more to the story.
In the clip above the historical accounts of Pilate are much more grave than that of a handsome, yet arrogant Roman soldier in over his head. The author explains that Tiberius was forced to recall Pilate from the governor’s post in 36 AD, because of Pilate’s extreme cruelty, and inhumanity.
Let’s think about this for a minute.
The Romans were a culture that later would light Christians on fire as torches to burn in Nero’s palace. They watched Christian men, women and children be eaten alive by lions as a spectator sport. And Pilate was too cruel for these people?
Just a week before Jesus was welcomed into Jerusalem, with shouts “Hosanna to the Son of David!” and “Blessed be he who comes in the name of the Lord!” These were not Romans shouting; they were Jews.
Then, when Jesus is brought before Pilate, he asks the Jews what to do with him?
This is where the author believes that the New Testament must have been later edited for political reasons — to slander the Jews and separate Jesus from Judaism. Pilate would not ask, what he considered to be an inferior people, what to do with a prisoner.
Boteach makes a compelling point and contrasts it with Matthew’s account:
“What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called the Messiah?” Pilate asked. They all answered, “Crucify him!” “Why?” What crime has he committed?” asked Pilate. But they shouted all the louder, “Crucify him!” When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “It is your responsibility!” All the people answered, “His blood is on us and on our children!”
Why would a man that is so entrenched in bloodshed bother to wash his hands and claim innocence? Why would a people go from complete adoration to incomprehensible cruelty in just five days? All roles seem reversed.
I’ve never been one to question the accuracy of scripture. Nor have I understood, how the two faiths could become such enemies. Could the whitewashing of Pilate be the answer? Boteach certainly thinks so, claiming this passage from Matthew has been used throughout history to justify Christian antisemitism at best, atrocities at worse.
Who else but the Romans could have carried out such a torturous death? Both Christians and Jews have suffered the most severe cruelty under Roman rule. Yet the two faiths blame one another. Are we still going to buy into the fantasy that Pilate was just a sensitive son of a Roman knight? Nothing more than an ambitious man in over is head, unwittingly thrown into history?
After 2000 years, its time we stop blaming religion and putting a pretty face on evil.