The figure of Pontius Pilate has always intrigued me. The fifth Prefect of Judaea, Pilate looms large in the Gospels. His name Pilate indicates that his family was of Samnite orgin. Pilate is mentioned by the Roman historian Tacitus as having condemned Jesus. In 1961 a block of limestone was discoved at the site of Caesarea Maritima, the Roman capitol of Judaea, bearing an inscription of Pilate dedicating a Roman theater there. That is almost all we know about Pilate outside of the Gospels, Josephus and Philo. Pilate today would be forgotten, instead of being the best known Roman who ever lived, but for his role in sentencing Jesus.
This is the start of a series examining how Pilate has been presented in films. First up is Rod Steiger, the method actor to end all method actors, and a character actor who achieved stardom with intense, some would say frequently over the top, performances. Steiger gives an interesting portrayal of Pilate in the superb Jesus of Nazareth (1977). Overworked and tired, with a bad temper on edge, he is forced to judge Jesus, and clearly finds the dispute between Him and the Sanhedrin to be completely incomprehensible. His queries to Jesus, “Who are you? What are you?”, sum up how mysterious this business is to him, and echoes the query of Jesus to his Apostles: “Who do you say that I am?”
Ultimately Pilate condemns Jesus and this sequence may be viewed here. To forestall a riot, Pilate sentences Jesus to be crucified. Pilate still obviously finds Jesus to be utterly mysterious. His wondering who is the real threat to Rome, Barabbas or Jesus, before he passes sentence on Jesus as the mob howls for him to free Barabbas, indicates that he understands at some level that this is all very important, but he simply cannot fathom why. Steiger portrays Pilate as world weary and baffled by his encounter with this strange Galilean.
The bafflement is probably historically accurate. Jewish religion was astonishing to Pilate as this quotation from Josephus’ Jewish Antiquities: 18. 55-59 demonstrates:
Pilate, being sent by Tiberius as prefect to Judaea, introduced into Jerusalem by night and under cover the effigies of Caesar which are called standards.
This proceeding, when day broke, aroused immense excitement among the Jews; those on the spot were in consternation, considering their laws to have been trampled under foot, as those laws permit no image to be erected in the city; while the indignation of the townspeople stirred the countryfolk, who flocked together in crowds.
Hastening after Pilate to Caesarea, the Jews implored him to remove the standards from Jerusalem and to uphold the laws of their ancestors. When Pilate refused, they fell prostrate around his palace and for five whole days and nights remained motionless in that position.
On the ensuing day Pilate took his seat on his tribunal in the great stadium and summoning the multitude, with the apparent intention of answering them, gave the arranged signal to his armed soldiers to surround the Jews.
Finding themselves in a ring of troops, three deep, the Jews were struck dumb at this unexpected sight. Pilate, after threatening to cut them down, if they refused to admit Caesar’s images, signaled to the soldiers to draw their swords.
Thereupon the Jews, as by concerted action, flung themselves in a body on the ground, extended their necks, and exclaimed that they were ready rather to die than to transgress the law. Overcome with astonishment at such intense religious zeal, Pilate gave orders for the immediate removal of the standards from Jerusalem.
The trial of Jesus probably struck Pilate as simply one more aspect of the religious fervor of the Jews that to him was completely alien. If he could have foretold that this trial would cause him to be remembered forever, and for his name to be recited by countless tongues for 2000 years, I imagine he would have been either struck dumb in shock or convulsed with manic laughter. Pilate came to govern a strange land for Rome and instead encountered a stranger destiny. Rod Steiger’s performance perfectly portrays this aspect of Pilate who uncomprehendingly judges God and is the unwilling instrument by which the sacrifice of Calvary is made to free us from our sins. Baffled is the word for Pilate’s role in this divine drama.