September 23, 2020

The Final Deposition: Pilate and the Cynicism of Contemporary Truth Seeking

pilate.jpg(Some of the material in this essay was inspired by reading John’s Wisdom by Ben Witherington III, Westminster John Knox Press , 1995.)

For the past two years, I’ve been leading a weekly adult Bible study on the Gospel of John for my fellow OBI staff members. For the past three weeks, we’ve been in the trial of Jesus before Pontius Pilate.

Pilate is, in many ways, one of the most interesting persons in all of the Gospels, even in all of scripture. His encounter with Jesus is at the most critical juncture in human history, and unlike those who bring Jesus to him for judgment, he is not motivated by a previous hatred of Jesus and his Kingdom message. As one of my students observed, Pilate’s encounter is very much a legal deposition and his questions are the questions of a contemporary lawyer and a judge.

All the Gospels present Pilate as a major character in the passion story, but John lingers over his conversation with Jesus and makes us see and feel Pilate’s desperate, frenzied inability to solve his “Jesus problem.” Many scholars are surprised at the positive way in which all the gospel writers present Pilate in a positive light when compared to what we know about Pilate from history and about Roman provincial governors in general.

While our knowledge isn’t as comprehensive as we’d like it to be, we know that Pilate was the essence of the patronized and paranoid middle-manager put into a bad situation where the best he could do was survive without disaster. We know he was impulsive and temperamental, lacking the ability to build trust by consistency and preferring fear and violence to restraint.

Pilate eventually was removed- a certainty in the job of Judean governor- for cruelty, corruption and mismanagement. He provoked Jews and plundered the Samaritans. He seemed to lack any desire for tactical understanding of the culture he governed. He did not hesitate to be ruthless, and it does seem somewhat out of character for him to be the most reasonable person Jesus encountered on the night of his three trials.

The Gospels show us a man who is afraid of what the emperor will hear about him, a man walking a line between placating the Roman-endorsed stooges on the Sanhedrin and the violence-demanding zealots in the streets. He is uninterested in religious questions except as they yield realpolitik results. In the end, he wants to dispose of Jesus, but mostly he wants to escape blame from those over, under and around him.

Matthew tells us that Pilate’s wife told him to have nothing to do with Jesus, and another Gospel gives us the memorable image of Pilate washing his hands of the blood the mob called down on their own heads. John says that Pilate told the Jews to crucify Jesus, even though they had no right or legal means to do so. History tells us that Pilate would have rather been at his house on the beach, but he’s forced to deal with the possibilities of a Passover uprising, and in his mind, Jesus must be evaluated as the possible spark that could ignite a bloodbath.

A close look at John’s Gospel will show Pilate walking in or out of his palace seven times, bouncing back and forth between Jesus, the mob and his Jewish accusers. He scourges Jesus in hopes of releasing him, and offers the Barabbas option as a way to set Jesus free by the choice of the crowd. None of it works, and eventually Pilate must be the one to condemn an innocent, sinless lamb.

The reader feels Pilate being squeezed between realities and the unknown. At the same time, there are 18 chapters of gospel before this encounter, all tuned to the certainty of Jesus’ timing and Jesus’ knowledge of the fulfillment of his ministry. We know, as we hear this story from the beginning, that Pilate will, like the other men who sent Jesus to his death, be playing a part in the grand drama that has been laid out from all of eternity. John constantly reminds us that the Passover is occurring at the same time; the drama of redemptive sacrifice is unfolding in the story God alone can write.

This is why Jesus’ conversations with Pilate are without urgency or pleading. As will be true throughout the passion from the moment of his arrest until his “It is accomplished!” on the cross, Jesus is surrendered to the will of his Father and is in confident control of his mission and destiny.

I believe John wants us to hear Pilate’s questions more than to observe his actions. Pilate, for John, is a representative voice from the world that curiously considers and cynically rejects Jesus. His voice is a recognizable voice to those of us in the contemporary world. It is the voice of one confronted with Jesus, one asking questions about Jesus, but it is not the voice of one who ever considers a surrender to Jesus as Lord and God.

Pilate is a type of contemporary seeker because he is a thorough pragmatist. The key question for him is the most cynical one: “What is truth?” It is important that this question not be the sum of its grammar. It is a question steeped in cynical pragmatism: The truth is whatever empowers me, excuses me, and leaves me without judgment or demands.

Yet it is a question that fills our world. It is the question of the postmodern age, with all the correct grammar, and all the invisible attitude and psuedo-intellectual pretense of objectivity about the non-existence of objectivity.

Truth, for Pilate and his contemporary heirs, can be a hundred different things because, ultimately it will be whatever works to benefit each person. Truth is a tool, a movable concept that appears and disappears at the choice of the questioner. No one has any right to assert a solid, immovable truth in the presence of a person with power. Pilate hears the words of Jesus, but in his worldview, these are words and nothing more. because there is no power behind them. The claim that they are something more is the absurd dream of the martyr or the delusional idealist.

Our response to the Pilate’s of this generation must be the same response as Jesus. The Kingdom is not of this world, but this can be an easily mistaken statement. The Kingdom and the King are all that will remain when the empires of this world rusted, rotted and been forgotten. There is nothing that the Kingdom and the King do not comprehend, judge, and hold accountable. Even Pilate’s “power,” his tool for laughing at the truth in front of him, is granted him only from this eternal Kingdom. and at the decree of the King Pilate ridicules.

Jesus proclaims and offers himself as King, the Kingdom of God as the embodiment of truth and the cross as the necessary interaction of this Kingdom and the kingdoms of the world. In that interaction, Pilate will fail to see what is happening, because only those who have been born again can see the Kingdom.

Human curiosity is one of two things: It is the work of the Spirit, or it is the work of the flesh. The most foolish choice we could make would be responding to Pilate’s curiosity with anything other than the simple Gospel of Christ, the proclamation and presence of his Kingdom and the way of discipleship, i.e. the way of the cross and resurrection.

Early Christian communities were drawn to the possibility that Pilate’s questions may have been the prelude to eventual conversion. The Roman world was tired of its many religions and the Christian community drew in all kinds of persons, some as curious and as notorious as Pilate. But Pilate is not presented to us in the Gospels as one who was on the way to faith in another King, Jesus. Ultimately, despite his problems with Tiberius, he would have said he “had no king but Caesar.”

No, Pilate is the voice of the faux Jesus scholars, the t-shirts,the television specials and magazine covers asking curious questions about Jesus; questions meant, in the final analysis, to bring Jesus down to our level, not to reveal truth we will embrace. These are questions, investigations, fascinations and presentations not meant to bring anyone into submission to the crucified one and his eternal empire of the Son, but meant to bring him down to a level where we can understand , manage and categorize Jesus in our own world.

Pilate is the voice of the person intelligent enough to know that Jesus must be considered, but not spiritually hungry and thirsty for the bread and water this world cannot give; the bread that comes from heaven. Pilate is the one who will not drive the nails, but who is willing for the nails to be driven as long as he can return to the imagined sovereignty of his own existence.

One can only imagine what the final deposition will be like. Not the deposition of Jesus by Pilate, but the opposite: the moment when Pilate stands before Jesus, as we all must. Here is the proud, the curious, the one who laughed at truth and presumed that Jesus needed to know a few things about how the world really works. Now he stands in the light of that one whose wounds and humiliation are still recognizable.

What is truth now, Pilate? Where are the kingdoms of this world? Where is the power to crucify or to pardon? Where does judgment finally lie?

In the moment when the world places God on trial, asks its questions that have no hunger for truth behind them and sends Jesus away, in that moment one can see “clear through,” if one only knows where to look. We can see clear through to what Paul called “the judgment seat of Christ.”

In the Gospel, we discover that the accused has become the judge,the judge has become the accused and the only worthy advocate is the very one we sent to the cross. The Good news demands that we confess to being Pilate and everyone else in the story who betrayed, denied, lied, mocked and crucified Jesus. In that role, we discover that it was our sins crucified, our rejection rejected, our unworthiness made worthy. He who knew no sin became sin for us…no questions asked.

This is not the courtroom of the world, or the backrooms of worldly power brokers. No, this is the judgment of the world in the condemnation of the Son of God by that same world. This is the salvation of the world by means of the one it condemns and crucifies. This is the hope of insincere Pilates, despairing Judases, weak Peters and complicit Caiaphises.


  1. The symbolic act of Pilate washing his hands is typical of the purely human/political response to Jesus. Jesus is messy and causes messes, so we generally remove him from the equation if he doesn’t support and endorse our agendas.

  2. Thank you for this essay. It is excellent and very thought provoking.

    I had a friend once who said, when pressed about Christ, “That’s fine for you, but it’s not for me.” I returned that there could not be multiple realities, which countered what she said but also made her angry. If I could do it over again now, I would say something more like – “Do you remember the trial of Jesus by Pilate? He also wished for truth to me flexible; he asked, ‘What is truth?’ and washed his hands of Truth. Will you do the same thing?”

  3. Thanks for your thoughts on truth. I’ve been going through a time where I examine postmodernism and Jesus. THe two subjects have some interesting things to say about the other.

  4. I’m preparing a sermon on Jesus’ trial before Pilate and came across this post from last year through a Yahoo! search. You had some great insights, inspired by Witherington. (It’s only original if you can’t remember who you got it from.) I’ll have a look at your other posts, though I can’t promise to be a regular. My Bloglines already has quite a backlog.