Gospel of Matthew
Claim to fame: Has the power to pardon Jesus. Like Herod, also fails.
Even though Pilate is actually the one who sentences Jesus to die, he tends to get off pretty light in all the gospel accounts. Matthew mainly puts the blame on Judas and the blood-thirsty crowd that's egged on by the religious authorities. Yet somehow, the guy actually ordering the crucifying gets off scot-free. That's kind of weird….
He's the Decider
In Matthew's Gospel, the religious authorities hand Jesus over to Pilate to seal the deal. The trouble is, Pilate can't quite figure out what Jesus has done wrong. In fact, he seems a lot more impressed with Jesus than the Jewish people do:
- "The governor was greatly amazed" (27:14).
- "[Pilate] realized that it was out of jealousy that they had handed him over" (27:18).
- "He asked, 'Why, what evil has he done?'" (27:23)
Even Pilate's wife gets in on the action. In a short little aside, unique to Matthew, she tells him, "have nothing to do with that innocent man," and explains that she had a dream totally exonerating Jesus (27:19). Dream hints again. Pilate knows what to do, right?
We Predict a Riot
Not quite. Even though Pilate clearly doesn't want to put Jesus to death, he starts to get a little worried about the unrest in the crowd. In fact, a riot is starting to break out (27:24). In the end, Pilate decides that it will be much easier to just to crucify Jesus and make the crowd happy. After all, he's just an insignificant Jewish peasant, right?
Pilate does something that only happens in Matthew: he washes his hands (27:24). Literally. He gets out a big bowl of water, dips his hands in, and basically tells the crowd: This is totally on you guys. Way to dodge responsibility, Pilate.
Essentially, Pilate's role in the story is to vouch for Jesus's credibility and to highlight just how awful the religious authorities truly are. But is that what really happened?
More Than Meets the Eye
But Pilate isn't just a stock literary bad guy. He's also a very real person, who actually served as the Roman governor of Judea from 26 to 36 CE and sentenced Jesus to death (source). And though he comes off as sort of a nice guy in Matthew's Gospel, in reality, he was anything but.
Pilate managed to keep rule over the Judean province for ten years, but his relationship with the Jewish people was often strained. The Jewish historian, Josephus, tells us that Pilate repeatedly tried to put Roman emblems in the temple (a violation of Jewish law because they commemorated other gods). That didn't make for very happy subjects.
Another Jewish historian, Philo, wrote that Pilate "was a man of a very inflexible disposition, and very merciless as well as very obstinate" (On the Embassy to Gaius, 38:301). Not exactly a ray of sunshine. He was ultimately removed from Judea by the Roman Emperor after he ordered some powerful Samaritans to be killed.
Would the real Pilate have given a second thought about sentencing Jesus to death? Maybe. If his relationship with the Jewish authorities was hostile, he might have refused to play a part in their little game. He does what he does because he can see that the crowd isn't going to give up and that they might even turn violent. After all, they outnumber him and his job is to keep the peace. Why not just execute this guy and get it over with? Pilate takes the easy way out.