David Herdson calls for an Easter resurrection of Pontius Pilate’s reputation

March 30th, 2013

Would 21st century politicians would have any acted differently?

The politician allowing the unjust crucifixion of the Son of God was never going to get a particularly good press by history, particularly one the Church wrote.  Pilate accepting Christ’s innocence only causes his reputation to fall further: cynical political cowardice set against selfless suffering.  Yet the Church’s authorship of the story and the priorities of religion (as against government) do have quite a dramatic distorting effect.  Politics, after all, is the art of the possible; religion is not confined by such worldly limitations.

At this point, let’s not get too bogged down in the actual facts of the matter.  What’s important now is the myth rather than the man.  Partly that’s because the man is quite tricky to pin down given the partial (in both senses) and very distant evidence but mainly it’s because whatever the truth, it’s the image which resonates down the centuries.

Politicians have to reconcile any number of conflicting influences – the interests of their superiors, of their supporters, of their clients, of the mob (or these days, electorate); avoiding giving ammunition to those who have ill intent towards them; in office, governing effectively and avoiding excessive ferment, often with inadequate resources to impose a solution.  And that’s besides the advancement of any personal ambition or agenda that a politician has.  This remains as true today as it was two thousand years ago; it is simply a function of how power works.  Politics is compromise.

So when faced with what he would have seen as the Christ problem, Pilate first tried what many politicians would do: he passed it on to someone else.  When it landed back on his desk, he was faced with a choice between on the one hand, the demands of the mob and the local religious leadership, and of his imperial duty to maintain peace and order, and, on the other, of his inability to find good cause to satisfy the mob’s demands and of his own need to maintain Rome’s prestige by at least appearing to take decisions on his own initiative.  Unsurprisingly, he too tried to find middle way – Christ’s scourging rather than crucifixion and then the offer of his release (the alternative choice supposedly being unacceptable) – and twice they were rejected.  Such are the problems of governing irreconcilables.  Perhaps Pilate was fortunate that there was no tabloid press in the first century.

History records it as the ultimate act of political cynicism and indeed, standing for right against vested interest is a virtue, to a point.  If on a smaller scale, politicians go along with policies every day that they are not comfortable with or have actively opposed.  It’s part of the bargain that enables the state to implement other policies they do favour (or in opposition, the ability to build an electoral machine that can in future become the government).

Pilate in all probability wasn’t a pleasant person.  He certainly wasn’t a particularly successful politician or administrator.  Still, does he deserve the opprobrium of the ages?  I’m far from convinced so.  I doubt that many leaders, faced with the pressures he did, would have acted much differently.

David Herdson