The New Testament devotes a great amount of material to the trials of Jesus - more even than to the crucifixion itself. There were six stages taking up the whole night as well as the morning preceding His death. The gospel writers paint pictures of the various characters involved in the drama - the Jewish priests, Judas his betrayer, Peter who denied him, Herod Antipas and Pontius Pilate to whom the greatest amount of material is devoted.
In many retellings of the story - sermons, Sunday school lessons, movies, TV episodes - Pilate is treated as a minor character, in others as an evil, unprincipled man. But the Gospels themselves portray him almost sympathetically, as a troubled, confused, frustrated person; a man who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time; a truly tragic figure.
There is also much historical material available concerning Pilate. Josephus the contemporary Jewish historian and others give background for an understanding of the man. An inscription with his name and title - "prefect" has even been discovered. He served as prefect (Josephus calls him procurator) of the Roman province of Judea from 26-36 AD. It is thought that he held this position under the patronage of Sejanus the prefect of the Praetorian guard, the most powerful man in Rome.
Pilate is pictured by history as a cruel "law and order" governor. He had cruelly quelled Jewish demonstrations and riots in the past (see Luke 13:1) and at the time of Jesus' trial his position was shaky, as the Jews had powerful connections in Rome and by this time Sejanus had fallen from power.
So when the Jewish Sanhedrin brought Jesus to Pilate on Friday morning after their night-long trial, he clearly did not want to get involved until they insisted that Jesus was guilty of a capital crime and accused him of crime against the Roman emperor - especially of claiming that he himself was a King - their Messiah.
Pilate's interrogation of Jesus is described in all four Gospels with each writer supplying various details. It is John's gospel, however, that describes it most vividly:
"So Pilate entered the Praetorium again and called Jesus and said to him, 'Are you the King of the Jews?'Jesus answered, 'Do you say this on your own or did others tell you about me?'
Pilate answered, 'I'm not a Jew, am I? Your own people and their chief priests handed you over to me! What have you done?'
Jesus answered, 'My Kingdom isn't of this world. If my Kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But now my Kingdom is not from here.'
Thus Pilate said to him, 'So then you are a king?'
Jesus answered, 'You say that I am a king. For this reason I was born and for this reason I came into the world, that I might testify to the truth! Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice.'
Pilate says to him, 'What is truth?!!''' (John 18:35-38a)
We can almost hear the frustration in Pilate's voice - perhaps anger - at the Jewish accusers, at Jesus. He had found himself in a dilemma. Shall he free an innocent man and anger the Sanhedrin or should he simply go along with them? After all, to Pilate, Jesus was just another Jew, another provincial. Pilate had disposed of a number of them in the past. One more would seem to be no problem. Or would it? Does Pilate perhaps recognize that the man standing before him is more than just one more provincial? Does he suspect that Jesus just may be the person his accusers said he was falsely claiming to be?
Both Luke 23:4 and John 18:38b tell us that at this point Pilate gives his verdict: "I find no guilt in this man!"
It is probably at this point that Pilate, upon hearing that Jesus is from Galilee, sends him to Herod Antipas, who after mocking him, returns him to Pilate with no decision (Luke 23:5-12). Luke tells us that Pilate now for the second time pronounces a Not guilty! verdict and offers to chastise and release Jesus (Luke 23:13-16). All four Gospels tell us that the crowd at this time demands that Jesus be crucified and that Pilate release Barabbas, an insurrectionist and murderer.
In the meantime Pilate had received word from his wife, "Don't have anything to do with that innocent man. I've suffered a lot today from a dream about him!" (Matthew 27:19) As the crowd continues to demand Barabbas' release and Jesus' crucifixion, we can almost hear Pilate screaming as he says, "Why? What evil has he done?" (Matthew 27:23)
Pilate appears to be doing all he can to save Jesus from the death penalty. He has Jesus scourged; the soldiers mock him and plant a crown of thorns on his head. Pilate has him again brought out to the crowd, bloodstained and beaten, and we hear Pilate's shout, "Behold the Man!" (John 19:5) Could it be that Pilate is hoping this will satisfy the bloodlust of the crowd? He twice again pronounces Jesus not guilty! But when the priests continue to demand his death, Pilate gives in and says, "Take him and crucify him yourselves!"
At this point the priests come up with a new accusation: "We have a law and according to that law, he needs to die because he made himself out to be the Son of God!" (John 19:7)
John tells us here that, "When Pilate heard this accusation, he became even more afraid" (19:8). While it may be doubted that Pilate was a religious or superstitious man, he was a Roman and the gods would have been a part of his culture. Myths of gods taking human form would have been familiar to him. Add to this mix the fact that he had been in the center of Judaism for a number of years and must have gained some knowledge of their belief in the Invisible God with an unutterable Name. And then there was his wife's dream. Certainly the frightening possibility must have crossed his mind that he, Pilate had been forced into trying an earthly representative of a God much more powerful and frightening than his own. So he again returns to the Praetorium with Jesus.
"'Where are you from?' he said to Jesus. But Jesus didn't give an answer.
So Pilate says to him, 'Aren't you talking to me? Don't you know that I have the authority to release you and I have the authority to crucify you?!'
Jesus answered him, 'You'd have no authority over me if it hadn't been given you from above. Because of this, the one who handed me over to you has the greater sin!'" (John 19:9-11)
We're told that after this, "Pilate was seeking to release him." But the Jewish leaders had one more trump card, "If you release this man, you are not Caesar's friend! Everyone who makes himself a king is opposed to Caesar." (19:12)
It was apparently these words that caused Pilate to cave in. "Friend of Caesar" was probably an official title that Pilate had, one that provided privilege. Pilate was already in hot water because of his previous acts against the Jews and the fall of his patron. This could be the final straw. A Jewish complaint to Rome could lead to his losing his position, even (literally) getting the axe. It was no longer the question of Jesus or Barabbas, but of Jesus or Pilate!
But Pilate makes one more effort: he presents Jesus to the crowd with a shout, "Behold your King!" When they shout louder for Jesus to be crucified, we can hear Pilate pleading? Shouting? Screaming? "Shall I crucify your King?" to which the chief priests reply, "We have no King but Caesar!" (19:14, 15)
Matthew tells us that Pilate also feared a riot, and that he "took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd, saying, 'I am innocent of this man's blood! See to it yourselves!'" to which they answered "His blood be on us and our children!" (Matthew 27:24, 25)
And Pilate handed Jesus over to them to be crucified. But Pilate did get the final word. While all the Gospels tell us that the charge for Jesus' crime which was nailed to the cross over his head, said, "Jesus of Nazareth the King of the Jews," John tells us, "The chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, 'Don't write The King of the Jews, but that he said I am the King of the Jews.' Pilate said, 'What I have written, I have written!'" (John 19:21, 22)
This in no way, of course, justifies Pilate's actions. The early disciples recognized that there was enough blame to go around. An early prayer recorded in the Book of Acts names "Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the people of Israel" as those who "were gathered together against (God's) holy servant Jesus" (Acts 4:27). That's pretty all inclusive.
We in our day may justly put blame on Pontius Pilate; it's easy for us to do. It's easy to think of him as an evil, unprincipled man, one willing to condemn an innocent man - our Savior - to save his own skin. But if I may, I'd like to imagine Pilate addressing us as he wipes his hands:
"I had to do it. I had no other option, did I? What do you suppose would have happened to me if I had released Jesus? The Jewish Sanhedrin would have accused me to Caesar himself. I would surely have lost my position that I had worked so hard to attain. It could even have cost me my life. I wasn't willing to take that risk. After all, I have a wife and family to look out for. That's important, isn't it? I've got to keep my job - and sometimes that requires compromise doesn't it? Am I really that different from you 21st century American Christians? Or maybe I should ask, are you really different from me? I looked out for number one. Don't you do the same?"
"My gods are made of bronze, granite and plaster. You claim to worship the God who made the universe. To me Jesus was just another provincial - expendable if necessary. You claim him as the Son of God, as your Savior, as your Lord. You claim to have surrendered your all to him. But what if those claims could cost you your life? Your family? Your job? Your comfort? Would you behave any differently than I did? Or would you too wash your hands of Jesus Christ?"
"Think about it!"