Pontius Pilate  

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What Is Truth?[1] (1890) by Nikolai Ge

Pontius Pilate was the Procurator (governor) of the Roman Judaea province from the year 26 until 36. He is typically known as the sixth Procurator of Judea, but some sources cite him as the fifth. In modern times he is best known as the man who presided over the trial of Jesus and ordered his crucifixion.


What is truth?

Unlike the synoptic gospels, the Gospel of John gives more detail about that dialogue taking place between Jesus and Pilate. In John, Jesus seems to confirm the fact of his kingship, although immediately explaining, that his "kingdom" was "not of this world"; of far greater importance for the followers of Christ is his own definition of the goal of his ministry on earth at the time. According to Jesus, as we find it written in John 18:37, Jesus thus describes his mission: "[I] came into the world...to bear witness to the truth; and all who are on the side of truth listen to my voice", to which Pilate famously replied, "What is truth?" ("Quid est veritas?")

Whatever it be that some modern critics want to deduce from those differences, the end result was the same for Jesus and Pilate, as it was in all the other three Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke). In the same chapter of John 18 verse 38 (King James Version, compare with other versions) the conclusion Pilate made from this interrogation was: "I find in him no fault at all".


Plays and films dealing with life of Jesus Christ often include the character of Pontius Pilate due to the central role he played in the final days of Christ's life. Writers have found various reasons to make Pilate a main character and to fill in any unknown details of his life. Pilate has been portrayed in a number of different ways:

  1. A weak and harried bureaucrat
  2. A hard governor who rules with an iron fist
  3. A man who clearly sees how the story of Jesus will affect human history
  4. A man who regrets his role in Jesus' death (to greater or lesser extents, depending on the work)
  5. A man who is oblivious to the significance of the Galilean he condemns to death
  6. A tired governor who doesn't care and wants Jesus out of his hands

Portrayals in literature / music

  • Pilate appears in the Mystery Plays and Passion Plays, the most notable being in the Cornish cycle in which he is summoned to Rome by Tiberius and sentenced to death for killing Jesus because this crime cannot be contained by earth, sea or water and so immediately proceeds (body and soul, rather than just soul) to hell.
  • In the Vestibule of Hell in Dante's Divine Comedy, a figure is seen "who made the great refusal". This is interpreted to be either Pontius Pilate or Pope Celestine V.
  • In Anatole France's short story The Procurator of Judaea, Pilate has retired to Sicily to become a gentleman farmer. This story is an example of the "oblivious" interpretation of Pilate. He has forgotten everything about Jesus and the part that he (Pilate) played in his trial.
  • Pontius Pilate is portrayed in Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita as being ruthless, yet complex in his humanity; the novel describes his meeting with Jesus the Nazarene, his recognition of an affinity with and spiritual need for him, and his reluctant but resigned and passive handing over of him to those who wanted to kill him. Here Pilate exemplifies the statement "Cowardice is the worst of vices", and thus serves as a model, in an allegorical interpretation of the work, of all the people who have "washed their hands" by silently or actively taking part in the crimes committed by Joseph Stalin.
    • This novel inspired The Rolling Stones 1968 song "Sympathy for the Devil". The song's title and lyrics may have been derived from Bulgakov's portrayal of the Devil. Pilate is referenced in the verse: "And I was around when Jesus Christ / had his moment of doubt and pain / made damn sure that Pilate / washed his hands, and sealed his fate". Due to Soviet censorship, the book was not fully published in Russian until 1966 and the first UK translation, by Michael Glenny, appeared in London in 1967. It was an immediate success d'estime and a favourite of (Jagger's then girlfriend) Marianne Faithfull, who pressed a copy into Jagger's hands. Thus the timeline (and, to anyone familiar with the directions from which Culture passed into the Stones circle) seems likely.Template:Or
    • The Master and Margarita and Pilate are also referred to in the Pearl Jam song "Pilate", on the album Yield.
  • In Robert Graves's novel King Jesus, Pilate is an unscrupulous opportunist who tries to prevent Jesus' death by convincing Jesus to become the King of the Jews (in reality a puppet monarch of Rome) because, in the novel, Jesus is the son of Mary, who is of a royal Jewish line and the daughter of the last Hasmonean and Antipater, the son of Herod the Great. Jesus refuses the offer because his kingdom "is not of this world". Pilate eventually grows exasperated and leaves him to die.
  • Pilate appears in three stories in Karel Čapek's collection Apocryphal Tales. In "Pilate's Evening", the weary governor wonders why Jesus' friends and relatives did not come to try and save him, and wishes that they had. "Pilate's Creed" features a dialogue between Pilate and Joseph of Arimathea. Their argument reflects the conflict between sceptical humanism (Pilate's famous "What is truth?") and religious certainty (Joseph's reply, "The truth in which I believe"). "The Crucifixion" features a world-weary Pilate disgusted with the political machinations that led to Jesus' condemnation.
  • In Roger Caillois' short novel Pontius Pilate (1961), Pilate is portrayed as a vacillating colonial administrator who, during the day after Jesus' arrest, receives advice from his wife, from Judas Iscariot and from a Chaldaean friend who has amassed an immense knowledge of the world's various religions. In the end, he is shown as "a man who despite every hindrance succeeded in being brave".
  • In The Flame and the Wind, a novel by John Blackburn, the aged Pilate is wracked by guilt over Jesus' death and directs his heir to find out if Jesus was really the Son of God.
  • The Dutch writer Simon Vestdijk's 1938 novel De nadagen van Pilatus (The Last Days of Pilate) presents an account of Pilate's life after the crucifixion.
  • Ann Wroe's Pontius Pilate: The Biography of an Invented Man is an attempt to provide the obscure official with a biography suitable to the man who is so influential to the Christian story.
    • The Royal Shakespeare Company debuted a performance piece called The Pilate Workshop in the summer of 2004, which attempted to cast Wroe's research in the form of a mystery play.
  • Retired California politician James R. Mills wrote a novel titled Gospel According to Pontius Pilate in 1978. Pilate is described as an ordinary, cynical politician whose primary concern is to keep the local population content and maintain social order, rather than particular sense of rightness. This view of Judas Iscariot is also featured in Taylor Caldwell's novel I, Judas.
  • In the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar, Pilate has three songs. In "Pilate's Dream", he foresees that history will mention his name and leave him the blame of Jesus' death. In the song "Pilate and Christ", an arrogant and mocking Pilate perhaps realizing manipulation by the Sanhedrin, tries to prevent Jesus' death by sending Jesus to Herod. "You're Herod's race! You're Herod's case!". In the song "Trial Before Pilate", a sympathetic Pilate pleads with Jesus to speak to him, saying that he believes the accused has "done no wrong" but "ought to be locked up" for insanity. Receiving no answer from the silent Jesus, Pilate eventually grows exasperated and tells him, "Die if you want to, you misguided martyr." Barry Dennen played Pilate on the "Brown Album", on Broadway and in the 1973 film version of the musical, directed by Norman Jewison, with Fred Johanson taking the role in the 2000 revival, directed by Gale Edwards.
  • The Collection of Short Stories The Night Chicago Died by Tom Wessex contains a story entitled "An Afternoon on Skull Hill", in which the author supposes that Gestas, one of the thieves crucified with Christ, was in fact Pilate's illegitimate son.
  • Pontius Pilate is mentioned in the drama The Crucible by Arthur Miller. Protagonist John Proctor yells "Pontius Pilate! God will not let you wash your hands of this!", to Reverend Hale as Proctor's wife is being arrested.
  • In Nicolas Notovith's "The Lost Years of Jesus" (1894) (an apocryphal Gospel he claims to have found in the Leh lamasery, Ladakh), Pilatus is seen as an evil man and the Jews as mild and compassionate.
  • In the 2004 Superman storyline "For Tomorrow", a story with strong messianic themes, a priest dying of cancer (and a confidant of Superman) is transformed into a biological war machine, codenamed "Pilate", who rampages through a paradise dimension created by Superman. He retains enough of his humanity to regret his murders and sacrifices himself.
  • In Jeffrey Archer's 1980 collection of short stories A Quiver Full of Arrows, one of the stories, "The First Miracle" tells of how a 12-year-old Pontius Pilate meets Joseph and Mary as they arrive in Bethlehem, and gives them the food that his mother had sent him to buy.
  • In Toni Morrison's book Song of Solomon, Pilate is the name of Macon Dead's sister.
  • Friedrich Nietzsche wrote that Pilate is the one powerful personality in the Gospels.
  • Hungarian psychologist Péter Popper wrote a novel in 1997 Peloni or the Testament of Pilate in which Pilate portrays himself as a cultivated Roman bewildered by Judea and the Jews. Pilate experiences some of the divine power of Jesus and executes him on Jesus's own impulse.
  • Pilatus is the central figure in The Karma Killers a 2009 novel by Angelo Paratico. His birthplace is given at Bisenti in South Italy, where he retired meeting every Easter with Longinus in the nearby town of Lanciano.
  • The preface to George Bernard Shaw's On the Rocks includes a dramatization of the meeting between Jesus and Pilate.
  • A song by UK-based songwriter Howard Dobson called This Is Jesus (King of the Jews) looks at the Passion of Christ from Pilate's perspective.
  • In October 2012, a Spanish journalist speculated on the possibility of Pontius Pilate, as well as some of the soldiers who murdered Jesus, being of Catalan descent.
  • In the song Elysian Fields off of Megadeth's album Youthanasia where Dave says, "Pontious Pilate is still washing his hands..."

Portrayals in film / television

  • The 1927 silent epic, The King of Kings directed by Cecil B. DeMille featured Victor Varconi as Pilate, a Roman bewildered by the Jewish belief in the One God, who attempts to save Jesus but is ultimately thwarted by his own cowardice.
  • In the 1935 film The Last Days of Pompeii, Pilate (played by Basil Rathbone) is portrayed as a harried politician who, at first, sees the necessity of crucifying Jesus but becomes a man consumed with guilt reflecting on his judgment.
  • In the 1951 Family Theater TV presentation, "That I May See", Richard Hale portrays Pilate as a frustrated official hoping to keep Jerusalem quiet in the wake of the Crucifixion.
  • Also in 1951, Family Theater presented another TV film, as an episode of "A Triumphant Hour" - "Hill Number One". It featured Leif Erickson portraying Pilate as a belligerent administrator, rationalizing the necessity of sending Christ to the cross, yet confused by his wife, Claudia Procles (a variant from ancient doctuments of "Procula", played by Joan Leslie), and her attraction to the dead Nazarene.
  • In the 1952 "Studio One - Pontius Pilate," Cyril Ritchard's Pilate is an ambitious politician married to the Emperor's daughter, Claudia Procula (Geraldine Fitzgerald). His life falls apart after Claudia leaves him to become a Christian. He spends the next several years vengefully hunting her down.
  • Lowell Gilmore portrays Pilate as a stern and resolute prefect, a strongman, who is a quite reasonable magistrate in the case of Christ's trial.Template:Citation needed He was featured as Pilate several times in 1950s: The Living Christ Series (his character was on hand from 1952 to 1957), I Beheld His Glory (1952), and Day of Triumph (1954), an almost shot for shot remake of DeMille's The King of Kings (see above).
  • Richard Boone played a calm and stern, though, slightly guilt-ridden Pilate in The Robe (1953), wearied by the quarrelling of "factions" surrounding his sentencing of Christ to the cross. His action in condemning Jesus is particularly singled out as unjust by the principal character Marcellus Gallio (Richard Burton). An interesting touch is that he asks again to wash his hands, forgetting he'd done so at the conclusion of the trial of Jesus.
  • Frank Thring portrayed a somewhat jaded though shrewd Pilate in Ben-Hur (1959). He is a good friend of Judah Ben-Hur's Roman adoptive father, Quintus Arrius, but he reminds Ben-Hur that he wields the emperor's own authority to keep peace in Judea. He would go on to portray Herod Antipas two years later for Nicholas Ray.
  • Hurd Hatfield portrayed Pilate in Nicholas Ray's film King of Kings (1961). The film portrays an overtly militaristic Pilate – his caravan is attacked by Barabbas and his followers in the movie – and he is also characterised as being vain, aloof, cynical and overly legalistic. He and his wife, Claudia Procula (Viveca Lindfors), are also shown as having an interest in the life and actions of Jesus before his trial and crucifixion.
  • 1961 saw the release of Barabbas, in which the murderer and revolutionary (Anthony Quinn) is pardoned in place of Christ by a cynically amused Pilate Arthur Kennedy who is perfectly aware that he is releasing the wrong man. Pilate is equally confidant that Barabbas will be arrested once more.
  • Again in 1961, came George Schaefer's television production of Give Us Barabbas for the Hallmark Hall of Fame. While different from the Anthony Quinn movie, it covers much the same ground. Dennis Kingplays Pilate as an older, coldly, world-weary aristocrat condemned by the Emperor to keep the peace in the least sophisticated backwater of the Roman Empire. To him the condemnation of Jesus is just another crucifixion in a land that, for him, isn't worthy of being a province of the Empire.
  • Jean Marais portrayed Pilate in Irving Rapper's film Pontius Pilate (1962) supported in his administration by his wife, Claudia Procula (Jeanne Crain) and opposed by the high priest, Caiphas (Basil Rathbone who played Pilate in Last Days of Pompeii - see above).
  • Telly Savalas portrayed Pilate in George Stevens' film The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) as a gruff strongman. Although Pilate would prefer to crucify Barabbas rather than Jesus, he is not portrayed as being especially sympathetic towards Jesus. As Pilate watches Jesus led away to crucifixion a narrator underscores the scene by repeating the words of the Apostles' Creed and the Nicene Creed: "suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried". Angela Lansbury has a cameo as his wife Claudia Procula.
  • Barry Dennen, in Norman Jewison's musical Jesus Christ Superstar (1973), portrayed a cruel Pilate who after suffering a prophetic dream (which in the Gospel of Matthew is dreamed by Pilate's wife) is very reluctant to put Christ to death, but succumbs to mob pressures.
  • Rod Steiger portrayed Pilate in Franco Zeffirelli's TV miniseries Jesus of Nazareth (1977). In this version, Though quite intelligent, Pilate is angered by Jesus' refusal to defend himself. After condemning Jesus to death, Pilate is told by one of his aides that he cannot release Barabbas, "an assassin and enemy of Rome." Pilate replies, "I wonder...Who is the real enemy?" In Anthony Burgess's novel Man of Nazareth, based on Jesus of Nazareth, Pilate is portrayed as being more sympathetic towards Jesus, recognising the validity of his doctrine and even telling Jesus he is free to go, although Jesus tells Pilate he has to condemn him to death.
  • In the comedy Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979), Pilate is portrayed by Michael Palin as a foolish man who has trouble pronouncing the letter "r" (pronouncing it like a "w"). He is also unable to remember who is in his prisons and seems to be easily offended.
  • The 1980 TV film, The Day Christ Died based on Jim Bishop's best selling book, featured Keith Michell as Pilate politically aligned with Caiphas (Colin Blakely) working with him to rid the land of Jesus. Hope Lange portrayed Claudia. Bishop's family demanded the elimination of the Catholic journalist's name from the production because the script strayed so far away from his book's narrative.
  • The 1986 film The Inquiry has Harvey Keitel portraying Pilate as a suspicious, nervous yet ruthless bureaucrat, certain that Titus Valerius Taurus (Keith Carradine) has been sent by Tiberius to investigate him rather than the possibility of the Resurrection of Christ.
  • David Bowie portrayed Pilate in Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), based on the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis. In the film, Pilate is portrayed as world-weary and somewhat sympathetic towards Jesus (Willem Dafoe), but believes he has to die to preserve the local status quo.
  • In the 1999 film Jesus, Pilate is played by Gary Oldman as a cynical manipulator of the events surrounding Christ's death, in an effort to overawe the locals.
  • In the 2000 remake of Jesus Christ Superstar for video, Pilate was played by Dutch-born actor Fred Johanson. Johanson's portrayal was different from Dennen's, as he was portrayed as a more Nazi-style macho figure, the costume utilized was noted by critics to be similar to that of Street Fighter villain M. Bison.
  • In the animated film The Miracle Maker, Ian Holm voices Pilate. He is a stern figure, with a dislike for the Jews and respect for a tribune (Lennie James) who has overseen the crucifixion of several hundred of them. However, he is reluctant to put Jesus to death after meeting him and is only moved to do so after Caiaphas (David Schofield) warns him that Rome will see him as a traitor for protecting this so-called Messiah.
  • In Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ (2004), Pilate is played by Bulgarian actor Hristo Shopov. Pilate speaks fluent Aramaic as well as Latin (his first language) in this film. He is extremely reluctant to sentence Jesus to death and appears very sympathetic to him.
  • 2004 also saw the Paulist Productions television movie, Judas, Tim Matheson plays the role of Pilate.
  • The Final Inquiry is the 2006 remake of The Inquiry. In this storyline, Hristo Shopov reprises his role as Pilate, but with a much darker strain. He colludes with the High Priest in an attempt to cover up the Resurrection by attempting to convince Taurus (Daniele Liotti) it was all a sham.
  • Greg Hicks plays the role of Pilate in the 2013 television miniseries The Bible as a stern and ruthless governor determined to keep the peace in Judea. This version of Pilate, fearing that Tiberius Caesar would blame him for any uprisings, accedes to the demands of Caiphas to have Jesus crucified despite his wife's warnings of the disturbing dreams she's had which convince her that Jesus is an innocent man. While he feels Jesus has too high an opinion of himself, Pilate seems sympathetic and even perturbed that the Jews would choose to release Barabbas over the preacher.

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