Screen Pilates: Barry Dennen
Continuing a series on screen portrayals of Pilate that I began last year during Holy Week. 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 origin. 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 capital 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.
It would take many posts for me to detail how much I disliked Jesus Christ Superstar, which for me symbolized much of what was wrong in the world in the late sixties and the seventies. Taking pride in being historically inaccurate and a mishmash of ancient and modern, the play and film was just as confused theologically and totally divorced from traditional Christianity. Jesus is portrayed as petulant, weak and indecisive, a depiction which might be blasphemous if it had more thought behind it. However, amidst all of the dross there are a very few high points, and Dennen’s performance is the best of these.
The video at the beginning of this post depicts the sequence where Pilate has a dream about the upcoming trial of Jesus. Historically, it was Pilate’s wife who had a dream about Jesus:  And as he was sitting in the place of judgment, his wife sent to him, saying: Have thou nothing to do with that just man; for I have suffered many things this day in a dream because of him. (Matthew 27:19) Pilate in each of the Gospel narratives is portrayed as very reluctant to have Jesus executed, mystified as to why Caiaphas had Jesus brought to him, and wary that Caiaphas was seeking to shift the responsibility for the death of Jesus over to him. The dream of his wife was just what Pilate needed to give him a foreboding that this was not merely a routine execution, but a matter of extreme importance that he could not fathom. The song brings all of this out quite well.
The trial sequence in the above video demonstrates how confusing the whole affair must have seemed when viewed from Pilate’s eyes: Why did Caiaphas want this man dead? Why isn’t Jesus defending himself? Why is he answering my straight forward questions with cryptic remarks? A Jewish mob crying out that they have no king but Caesar? Jesus had a considerable following, where are they?
Pilate was the representative of Rome in Judaea. He had imperium granted to him by the Emperor, the power of life and death over every Jew he encountered, but in the Gospels he is shown as completely bewildered at the conflict between Jesus and the members of the Sanhedrin who sought his blood, a mere instrument in the skilled hands of Caiaphas. His washing of his hands is not only Pilates’ way of attempting to absolve himself of responsibility for the death of Jesus, but also a symbol of his removing himself as best he could from a situation that was simply beyond his ken.