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Tales of Forever - Preview 16

Pontius Pilate provides a universal mirror for all who investigate the age-old mystery: “What is truth?”

Pilate: as The Public Defender

A Conscience in Crisis

One of the most enduring mysteries regarding the life and death of Christ is the question of the true state of mind of Pontius Pilate when he washed his hands in the presence of the angry mob and declared, “I am innocent of this man’s blood.”1

Did Pilate really regret sentencing Jesus to die? Or did he merely regret being ensnared in yet another civil debacle that threatened his political career? To this day, the judgment of history clearly remains divided. Nevertheless, considering Pilate’s reputation for strong-arm tactics and his utter lack of human sensibilities, it is much easier to assume that he was more concerned about his political future than the so-called “troublemaker” who had been handed over to him for judgment.

The written testimony of The New Testament, however, is characteristically ambiguous concerning Pilate’s motives. Without a doubt, the gospel writers are faithful in their representation of the governor’s persistent attempts to extricate Jesus from the machinations that sought the demise of the Nazarene. Pilate is a man repeatedly portrayed with a conscience in crisis, clearly dumbfounded by the treatment of Jesus by religious leaders among His own nation.2 But as to the specific motives of the governor, the canonical Scriptures do not say. Once again, the observation of history regarding this provocative question is much akin to the psychological phenomenon invoked by the Rorschach test. As if it were entirely a matter of literary choice, the gospel writers seem to have purposely designed their message in such a way as to leave this question of Pilate’s state of mind to readers themselves. In this way, the governor becomes a type of all mankind who stand in their own judgment over the presiding of the court. In this way, Pilate provides a universal mirror for all who would themselves seek to investigate the age-old mystery: “What is truth?”3

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In this regard, then, the debate over the genuine motives of Pontius Pilate seems to be less about the governor himself, and more about the observer who is seeking to understand Pilate’s state of mind. As it turns out, this is very similar to what happens when someone examines the meaning of the life and death of Jesus. In other words, just as everyone reveals the true nature of their heart based on their response to the claims that Jesus made about Himself, everyone similarly reveals the truth about themselves in their response to the man whose fate it was to judge Him.

Did Jesus really orchestrate His own death, as the gospel writers have implied? Or was He inadvertently trapped by forces beyond His control, as critics have suggested? If you answer yes to the former question, it implies that you believe that Jesus’ claim to be the Lamb of God is valid; answering yes to the latter implies that you think Him to be an impotent pawn, and thus incapable of saving anyone through His death. Likewise: Did Pilate intercede on behalf of Jesus because he really believed it was the right thing to do? Or was he just trying to avoid further bloodshed because he thought it might advance his career? If you answer yes to the former question, it implies that you believe Pilate tried to release Jesus because he actually believed that He was innocent, and thus worthy of being released; answering yes to the latter implies that you think him to be an opportunistic politician merely trying to save face in the midst of no-win situation. In both cases, answering yes to the former question places you smack dab in the camp of the eternal optimist, while answering yes to the latter puts you squarely in that of the confirmed pessimist.

From Enemy to Ally

Just as with all potent mysteries, questions like these will never be strictly answered by means of empirical evidence. Instead, they are questions that the Scriptures present as universal crossroads for humanity to engage with, psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually. The significance of the truth they seek to impart come to us not by dictating the absolute meaning of said events and persons but by providing us with a vehicle for empathy and catharsis, which ultimately leads one to a more meaningful awareness into one’s own life. No wonder that The Bible has proved to be such an enduring document. Not only does it constitute a landmark in the history of world literature but also with such concepts as compassion, justice, and equity. In this way, The Bible has, throughout the centuries, paved the way for the most enlightened form of jurisprudence—one that insists that a person is deemed innocent until proven guilty. Even with a man as notorious as Pontius Pilate—a name that has ever since been linked with political impotence and moral ambivalence—the gospel writers never once crossed the line of reading into the scene their own views of guilt or innocence. They were simply faithful to what was said or done, without any added conjecture as to why a certain thing was or was not done.

As a result of this ambiguous telling of biblical history, however, contradictions abound concerning the life and death of Pontius Pilate. On one hand, Philo, the first-century Jewish philosopher, said of Pilate: “He was a cruel man with a furious temper, stubborn and merciless.”4 On the other hand, Philo reports that this same Pilate was of an entirely different temperament when he feared that an investigation by Tiberius Caesar would expose the truth about his reckless tactics as a hard-bitten political boss.5

So ends this Preview of TALES OF FOREVER. To read more, please click on one of the following links:

To continue with this series, read an Excerpt to see that when Pilate washed his hands and declared: I am innocent of this man’s blood, he was standing in for all mankind.

Read the Next Preview to see that in nearly every generation what was thought to be true was overturned by a new way of seeing things.

Read the Next Excerpt to see how, from time to time, there are drastic changes, where man, world, and God appear in a different light.

Read the Previous Preview to see that in nearly every generation what was thought to be true was overturned by a new way of seeing things.

Read the Previous Excerpt to see how, from time to time, there are drastic changes, where man, world, and God appear in a different light.

To read this series from the beginning, go to the First Preview to discover a work that sheds light on long-lost truths that most modern-day Christians know nothing about.

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Selected Bibliography

1. Matthew 27:24

2. John 18:35

3. Ibid. 18:38

4. On the Embassy to Gaius: The First Part on the Treatise on Virtues, Philo, 238.301 & 303

5. Ibid. 238.302