Most discussions about Pontius Pilate conclude that he was weak, indecisive and even cowardly. My reading of the New Testament yields a better picture of him.
Let’s first consider a few distinctions between the two major players in bringing about the crucifixion of Christ: Pilate and the Jewish religious leaders.
Pilate likely was a follower of one or more of Rome’s pagan gods. In his role as prefect over Judaea, Samaria and Idumea from A.D. 26-36, he sometimes infuriated his Jewish subjects by disrespecting their religious customs. His tenure, according to Philo, was characterized by corruption, bribery, “wanton injustices” and executions without trial.
Jewish religious leaders believed in the Jehovah of the Old Testament and followed the law of Moses. They viewed themselves as God’s authorized servants who were entitled to interpret religious law and establish rules for proper behavior, ritual and observances.
Not surprisingly, the Jewish leaders saw themselves as righteous and observant but viewed the pagan Pilate as a serious sinner. At crunch time, however, it was the “righteous,” authorized religious leaders who actively sought to murder the Son of God whereas Pilate actively sought to set him free.
(Perhaps that’s something we need to ponder in determining how best to relate to religious authority. We would do well to remember that history is replete with examples of those who thought they were acting in harmony with God’s will when they did terrible things to other people.)
Pilate’s lesser sin
Jesus assured Pilate that the chief priests and officers of the Jews had “the greater sin” in his crucifixion. (John 19: 6, 11) The Lord also did not look at Roman soldiers as responsible for his death: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34) Jesus’ strong and frequent words of condemnation of the Pharisees, scribes and chief priests who sought to kill him stand in sharp contrast to his words to Pilate, which seem empathetic toward a troubled man.
The following chronological passages show the extent to which Pilate strived to avoid condemning Jesus.
1. After Jesus is led into the hall of judgment, Pilate goes outside to inquire of Jewish leaders what Jesus has done wrong and, based on their response, tells them it is their responsibility, not his, to pass judgment. (John 18:29-31)
2. After questioning Jesus, Pilate again goes outside, where he tells Jewish leaders, “I find in him no fault at all.” (John 18:38)
3. Sends him to Herod Antipas to be judged. (Luke 23:6,7)
4. Tells Jews that both he and Antipas “have found no fault in this man touching those things whereof ye accuse him . . . I will therefore chastise him, and release him.” (Luke 23:14-16) [Note: Herod Antipas is the tetrarch of Galilee and killer of John the Baptist. A dreadful character, to be sure, but apparently much less murderous toward Jesus than the religiously observant Jewish leaders.]
5. Tries to persuade the Jews to support the release of Jesus by offering them the choice of freeing either Jesus or Barabbas, who is guilty of murder and insurrection, whereas Jesus has been accused of lesser crimes.
6. Instead of complying with the demand of Jewish leaders to free Barabbas and crucify Jesus, he hesitates, asking, “Why, what evil hath he done?” Luke records that this is the third time that Pilate states he has found no evil or fault in Jesus. (Mark 15:14; Luke 23:22)
7. Displays a scourged Jesus in hopes of eliciting compassion toward him. (John 19:1-5)
8. Authorizes the crucifixion of Jesus, but after questioning Jesus again, he immediately changes his mind. (John 19: 6-12)
9. Washes his hands, thereby disclaiming responsibility.
10. After he washes his hands, Pilate in the King James version says, “I am innocent of the blood of this just person: see ye to it.” (Matt 27:24) These words create the impression that immediately after he washed his hands, he again authorized the execution of Jesus. However, the Joseph Smith translation contradicts this view and has Pilate saying: “I am innocent of the blood of this just person: see that ye do nothing unto him.” (JST Matt 27:26, italics added)
11. After the chief priests and officers still insist that Jesus be crucified, Pilate goes to the judgment seat, says “Behold your King!” and asks, “Shall I crucify your King?” apparently hoping that the title “king” will cause them to reconsider. (John 19:14,15)
12. Authorizes that Jesus be executed (John 19:16), but “he arose from the judgment seat before issuing his decree, which was a Gentile symbol of innocence.” [From In the Footsteps of Jesus, 1999]
We also read in Acts 3:13 of Peter reminding the Jews that they “delivered up” Christ “and denied him in the presence of Pilate, when he was determined to let him go.” (italics added) Even at this late date, we often find that the greatest desire to condemn and kill comes from those who claim the religious high ground and feel they are doing God's will.
A few early Christian writers say that Pilate converted to Christianity not long before his death.