Pontius Pilate, Patron Saint of Pundits

Pontius Pilate, Patron Saint of Pundits
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Pontius Pilate was Roman governor of Judea for a decade during the reign of emperor Tiberius. By the standards of the Roman empire, Pilate was a competent but minor official. Scholars argue about his title. Was it prefect or procurator? What did that mean in terms of the number of troops he could command? Stirring stuff for specialists, maybe, but not enough to get most of us worked up.

Pilate's name is known to us for another reason. He is the official who sentenced to death by crucifixion a Jewish religious leader of some note. This is remembered in all four Gospels of the Bible and in the Nicene Creed. Every time Catholics and many other Christians repeat the Creed, they profess faith in Jesus Christ who "was crucified under Pontius Pilate," but who miraculously was returned to the world of the living days later.

With such a black mark against him, you'd think Pilate would be a universally diabolized figure, at least among churchgoers, as the Man Who Killed Christ. This is not the case. Some parishioners do indeed think Pilate was a straightforwardly evil man. They are in the minority.

This is so because of the way the four Gospels present Pilate's role in the gruesome affair. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John offer us different perspectives on a sliding scale -- from Pilate the cautious pragmatist to Pilate the tortured, trapped, and tragic figure. Multiple church historians report him committing suicide later.

A small sliver of believers offers another, unlikely interpretation: Pilate the religious icon. The Gospel of John gives us a Pilate who was impressed by and afraid of Jesus and who "sought to release him" many times -- by pleading over and over again with the crowds.

When Pilate told them to "Behold the man!" it was a moment of high mockery. The governor was pointing to a bloodied, beaten Jesus with a crown not of metal but of thorns cutting into his head, saying in effect, "Come on, people, don't you have a heart? Hasn't this man suffered enough?"

John's Pilate finally gave in because of the mob's threat to drop a dime on him to his bosses in Rome, but only after Jesus seemed to tell him other folks would be much more to blame. The other three gospels offer far less rosy pictures of Pilate -- pictures not nearly so influenced by the Jewish-Christian conflicts of the late first century -- but one ancient religious body, the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, considers him a saint.

That strikes most of us as a real stretch. Saints are supposed to have faith, and we have no good reason to suppose that he did. In one Jesus-Pilate exchange, the rabbi is reported to have said, "Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice." Pilate didn't hear it. "What is truth?" he retorted. This practical and not pious man didn't bother to stick around for an answer.

Yet there was one admirable moment in the Gospel story that should mark Pilate out as a sort of Patron Saint of Pundits -- a man still worth toasting after we've filed our copy, if not venerating. It came after the crucifixion of Jesus had begun.

Above the head of most crucifixion victims was nailed a bill of particulars. It detailed the offenses for which the man was being publicly put to death by Rome. Jesus's sign recognized him as "king of the Jews," which did not sit well with some of the folks who remanded him to Rome for judgment.

Thus we get the comic image of folks who had won everything, who had pushed for their hated enemy to be executed and prevailed upon Rome to pick up hammer and nail, asking the already aggravated governor to get up on a ladder and edit his own death sentence. With the forceful words, "What I have written, I have written," Pilate refused.

If there is any reason to praise Pilate, it is found in those words. They show off not only stubbornness and exasperation, but also an insistence that one's words ought not be held hostage to the ever-multiplying whims and grievances of others. What he had written, he had written. That's a truth of sorts, one that has been remembered to us to our great benefit.

Jeremy Lott is editor-at-large of RealClearPolitics and author, most recently, of William F. Buckley.

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