Pilate – Why Did He Condemn Jesus To Be Crucified?
Pilate will be forever known as the Roman Procurator who condemned Jesus of Nazareth to be crucified. Why he made this judgement defies logic considering Pilate himself and Herod the Tetrarch, son of King Herod, both found Jesus guiltless of any crime.
Politics often discard logic, even common sense. In the case of Pilate and Jesus, the politics were much deeper than conveyed in the Gospel accounts which primarily focused on the political pressures from the Jewish leadership. Roman influences were just as much, if not more, a significant factor.
Roman Empire politics were no different than they are today except perhaps the deadly end game objective with total elimination of the opponent, often by death – including Caesars. Each government level official had to try to avoid the pitfalls that come with authority, quite commonly from blood relatives and spouses.
Only two Procurators were sent to Judea by Tiberius Caesar during his 22-year reign. Gratus was first to be sent to Jerusalem where he served as Procurator for 11 years. One of his last actions was to appoint Joseph Caiaphas as High Priest. Pontius Pilate followed as the second Procurator sent to Judea by Tiberius and served 10 years.
Insights to the thinking and behaviors of Tiberius Caesar – what was or not important to him, how he viewed the Empire, his temperament, how he reacted to various scenarios – is key to understanding what drove the actions and behaviors of Pilate.
Tiberius highly regarded the policies and decrees of his predecessor, Caesar Augustus, for ruling the Empire saying, “I who respect as law all his actions and sayings.” Highlighting this, Tiberius was once observed sacrificing to the Divine Augustus.
Jews were to be treated with moderation. A decree by Augustus was chiseled into a pillar in the Temple of Caesar in Rome granting the Jews certain liberties – anyone who transgressed the decree was to be severely punished:
“Cesar Augustus, High Priest, and Tribune of the people ordains thus: …the Jews have liberty to make use of their own customs, according to the law of their fathers, as they made use of them under Hyrcanus the High Priest of Almighty God; and that their sacred money be not touched, but be sent to Jerusalem; and that it be committed to the care of the receivers at Jerusalem; and that they be not obliged to go before any judge on the Sabbath-day, nor on the day of the preparation to it, after the ninth hour… And if any one transgress any part of what is above decreed, he shall be severely punished.”
Augustus indeed took such action after a complaint by the Jews against Ethnarch Archelaus, a ruling heir of King Herod. Augustus banished Archelaus to Vienna and took away his wealth for treating the Jews harshly against his command. No doubt Pilate knew of the banishment and how Tiberius desired to follow the governing examples of Augustus.
As time went on, Tiberius became a ruthless ruler with the level of his depravity and cruelty on full display. Tacitus called it a “cruel temper” surmising absolute power perverted the actions of Tiberius. Josephus described Tiberius as having an “intractable” temper, a “tyrant.”
Religious beliefs of the Jews were considered “superstitions” by Tiberius, banned from the city of Rome. Jews in military service were assigned “to provinces of a less healthy environment.”
Walking a fine line, Pilate had to separate the superstition religion of Judaism from the treatment of the people of Judea. The risk – if a report got back to Caesar that Pilate had mistreated the people, bad things could happen to him. Thus was the authoritative profile of the ruler Pilate served.
Adhering to the view that Judaism was a superstition, Pilate treated the Jews accordingly. First, he provoked the Jews by moving his Roman troops from Caesarea to Jerusalem “to abolish the Jewish laws.” During the night, Roman ensigns with effigies of Caesar were brought into the city violating Jewish law prohibiting the images.
A rebellion ensued among thousands of Jews who petitioned Pilate to remove the images. In front of Pilate, Jewish zealots prostrated themselves on the ground pulling back their hair to expose their necks for the sword. Taken aback, Pilate removed the ensigns.
Next transgression, Pilate announced the construction of a Jerusalem aqueduct to be paid using the “sacred money” of the Jews. Triggering a protest by tens of thousands of Jews, they cast insults at the crier who made the announcement. Pilate himself took offense and had his Roman soldiers dress in disguise, mingle in the crowd and wait for his signal.
Addressing the crowd himself, more aspersions were now hurled at Pilate. Giving the signal, the soldiers pulled out daggers wounding and killing and many of the unarmed protesters, exceeding Pilate’s instructions.
In the next sequence of incidents with the Jews, Josephus wrote, “Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man…” He goes on to write “…Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men among us, had condemned him to the cross…”
With Pilate in Judea during the famed ministry of Jesus of Nazareth, it set the two on an inevitable collision course. After holding their own trial for blasphemy and rendering a verdict of guilty, the Jewish leadership brought Jesus to Pilate for judgement under the accusation of insurrection and tax evasion. As the Roman authority in Judea, the Procurator had little choice but to deal with the situation.
According to Luke 3:1, Jesus began his ministry in the 15th year of Tiberius meaning that Pilate was entering his fifth year as Procurator when the ministry of Jesus began. After a 3-year ministry, it reckons that Pilate was about in his 8th year as Procurator when Jesus was delivered to him to be judged.
By now, Tiberius was a seasoned Caesar in his 18th year of rule when his cruelties were well-known. Pilate had a long track record to consider and ponder the risks that came with working for a ruler considered a tyrant feared by even the Roman citizens.
Directly asking Jesus if he is a king, Jesus admitted to Pilate he is a King, but not of this world. Perplexed, Pilate sent Jesus to be judged by Galilee Tetrarch Herod Antipas, who just happened to be in Jerusalem at that time. No fault was found by Herod Antipas who sent Jesus back to Pilate.
Neither Tetrarch Herod nor Procurator Pilate found any guilt in Jesus for insurrection or incensus in spite of Jesus admitting to Pilate that he is a King. Pilate’s judgment decision in front of the Jewish crowd, who were shouting for Jesus to be crucified, compelled him to wash his hands of the contrivance saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood.”
Was Pilate’s illogical legal decision to crucify Jesus the result of political fears of the Jews and Tiberius Caesar as the Gospel of John alluded; or was it part of a divine Messiah plan where an innocent man was to be crucified – or both?
Indeed, Procurator Pilate also became a victim of politics. About two years later, the Samarians lodged a complaint to Vitellius, Roman provincial governor of Syria, against Pilate for his abuses of them. Vitellius removed Pilate as Procurator sending him to Rome to be judged by Tiberius, but the Caesar was murdered while he was enroute. Tradition holds Pilate, like Archelaus, was banished to Vienna by Caius, better known as Caligula.
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<https://www.britannica.com/biography/Julius-Caesar-Roman-ruler> “Tiberius.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2020. <https://www.britannica.com/biography/Tiberius/Reign-as-emperor>
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