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.