This year I’m trying to follow Redeemer’s New Testament bible reading plan. Not too long ago, I came across a very familiar passage where Pilate is depicted as reluctant to hand Jesus over to be crucified. This is the Pilate we have all come to know and love. This is the only Pilate most of us know. He seems somewhat sympathetic, at the least very hesitant to hand over the seemingly innocent Jesus.
But this is not the only Pilate “we” know in history. In fact the Pilate we know in history, was quite the opposite. He was ruthless. He killed numbers of people. In fact Jocephus even records that he was sent back to Rome because he too harshly suppressed a Samaritan uprising. Now I don’t know if its fair to put him in Herod the Great category (that dude killed plenty of family members), but he was not an “LOL” type of guy for sure.
Numerous scholars have treated the biblical accounts as inaccurate because of what we “know” about Pilate in the “real sources” (albeit few in number). Despite the fact that Jocephus has just as much of an agenda as the biblical writers, seeing as he was the quintessential “Benedict Arnold”-I know Jocephus came first so it should be the other way around-I don’t think that there is any real contradiction. I personally, and obviously, place more weight in the God inspired scriptures, but I think both pictures of Pilate are probably equally as accurate.
Would a ruthless dictator go out of his way to wipe his hands of the death of an innocent man? Isn’t this out of character?
The answer to the former is yes and the latter is no. Here are a few reasons why I think so. By the way, this type of thinking also comes into play when scholars try to discern which letters Paul actually wrote.
Underneath every behavior is a heart motivation. We are not simply reflex creatures. So when anger overtakes a man because his kingdom (literally, though we could use it metaphorically since most of us aren’t governors or prefects I presume) is threatened, he might respond in an over-the-top harsh manner. By the way, if a Roman governor is removed for harshness, that is really saying something. But consider what is important: his kingdom and protecting that kingdom. He could be fearful of losing His kingdom, and what is one way of saving it? Punish severely any uprising. In another instance, fear could prevent him from doing the just thing (releasing Jesus). Fear could make him want to pacify the crowd and prevent any uprising. He’s afraid to do the right thing. Fear could also drive him to say, “This dude is innocent, and if it comes back to bite you in the butt, then remember my response!”
The same fearful guy can be ruthless to many, and hesitant to order a single execution. Pilate is actually acting quite consistently with his heart idolatry (his literal kingdom) which leads to a heart motivation (fear), and then the concomitant actions (prevent uprising, crush uprising).
One thing we know about people from the bible is that they are incredibly complex. They are broken because of sin but redeemable and beautiful. This is true not only in general but also in specifics. David murdered people and committed adultery, yet wrote most of the Psalms. Abraham had faith and was bold enough to leave his hometown of Ur, and willing to sacrifice his only son, yet in one situation he also was too scared to admit his wife was actually his wife (He claimed it was his sister-not a prescription for a healthy marriage). He had both faith and fear. Radical faith and radical fear.
One the thing we know about people from simply observing them is that they/we are incredibly complex. Humanity is flat out complex. Blaise Paschal called this the “greatness and wretchedness” principle and it is included in his apologetic work Pensees. Humans are capable of great good (obviously in relation to humanity not God) and also capable of great evil. Not in general, but specifically. The same people who do great things, do great harm. Preachers can bless their congregations but with their tongues chastise or neglect their families. Parents can sacrifice for their children, yet really only do so because of what their children will bring to them via sports, relationships, scholarships. Athletes can be charitable, caring about the good of humanity through cancer foundations, yet be completely self absorbed as well.
In an interview with Dan Patrick, one sports writer astutely recognized this complexity in Lance Armstrong. When asked who is Lance really, the writer simply responded: both are true of him. He cares about others but at the same time is completely self-absorbed. In 2000 years, could anyone look at history and say, one depiction is clearly wrong?
We Christians can encourage people at one moment and say the meanest things the next. Humanity is complex because we are made in the image of God and yet fallen because of sin’s curse. And that is completely observable!
That people question the scriptures’ authenticity because “Bible Pilate” looks different than “Secular Pilate” is quite ironic. Christianity recognizes this complexity, offering an anthropology (theology of mankind), that is completely consistent with observable sociology. That is one of Pascal’s arguments.
For a religion to be true it must have known our nature; it must have known its greatness and smallness, and the reason for both. What other religion but Christianity has known this? (433)
If people were simply monolithic creatures, thoroughly predictable, and without any sense of complexity, then these two accounts of Pilate are completely inconsistent. But because of what we know about biblical anthropology, which fits like a glove with what we can observe sociologically about mankind, we can affirm both depictions are accurate and consistent. We are complex.
People are incredibly complex. In the words of Eric Clapton, “Before you accuse me, take a look at yourself.”