Pontius Pilate was fed up. This was nothing new for the prefect of the Roman province of Judaea. His posting, far from the hub of the empire, amongst a quarrelsome and contumacious people, was a daily annoyance. Pilate had neither the appetite nor the aptitude for diplomacy, and the Jews, whose distinctive religious scruples seemed to Pilate to be indulged far too readily by his bosses in Rome, were constantly seeking – and often finding – occasions for offence and career-sapping complaint.
That it was Passover time did nothing to improve Pilate’s mood. Passover meant that he had to leave the relative sophistication of Caesarea and decamp to Jerusalem. For all its storied past, the city held little charm for Pilate at the best of times, and Passover, when the streets would be thronged with pilgrims and echoing with who knew what seditious talk, was not the best of times. The influx of outsiders, combined with all the memories of slavery and liberation evoked by the Passover ritual, made for a stressful time for the representative of the foreign occupier.
But even the exigencies and inconveniences of Passover were insufficient to account for Pilate’s current mood. Above all things, he hated being drawn into internecine Jewish disputes. These usually involved fine nuances of religion to which Pilate was tone-deaf, heightened tempers with potentially explosive repercussions, and offered no upside for an administrator whose main aim was to keep his nose clean, earn promotion, and leave Judaea far behind.
The present dispute certainly seemed to have gotten the Jewish leaders remarkably worked up. Early in the morning they had been clamoring for an audience with Pilate – though, he noted with irritation, their impatience was insufficient to overcome their scrupulousness about contracting defilement. Rather than risk pollution that would have prevented them from eating the Passover, they congregated outside Pilate’s judgment hall. This show of fastidiousness, with its less-than-flattering implications and the inconvenience it occasioned, further deepened Pilate’s sense of irritation.
It didn’t help, he reflected, that this nit-picking concern for proprieties accorded so ill with the blatant injustice of their current mission. Pilate was no novice when it came to trials and, as he listened to the accusations being brought against Jesus of Nazareth, he had no difficulty in recognizing them for what they were – trumped-up charges designed to move a religious dispute into the realm of Roman jurisdiction, and thus circumvent the fact that the Jews no longer had the right to impose capital sentences. Pilate had often seen this game played – and generally much better than it was now. It was with some difficulty that he maintained the appearance of judicial impartiality as witness contradicted witness in a palpably desperate bid for a conviction.
It was not that Pilate was opposed to judicial murder in principle. But at least the pretense of justice had to be maintained, and on the face of this evidence, even the most perfunctory of defenses must surely result in an acquittal. Pilate was wearily aware of the trouble such an acquittal was likely to cause, but he was also relieved. He had been perturbed by the message that his wife had sent to him as he prepared to hear the case: “Have thou nothing to do with that just man: for I have suffered many things this day in a dream because of him” (Mat 27:19 KJV). Like most Romans, Pilate believed that dreams were not to be taken lightly, and he had been unable to dismiss her message from his mind. Indeed, the demeanor of the accused served only to reinforce it; a far less experienced judge than Pilate would have recognized how fitting her epithet was – here, quite clearly, was a just Man.
He had been impressed, too, by the sole statement the prisoner had so far made. Pilate had asked Him if He acknowledged the title “King of the Jews,” and if His reply was rather hard for Pilate to understand, it sounded remarkably unlike the manifesto of a political troublemaker: “My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence” (Joh 18:36 KJV). The anger of the Jews, the warning from his wife, and the evidence of his own eyes and ears made it very clear that this was no ordinary prisoner, and certainly not the seditious rabble-rouser that the Jews would have him believe.
As the prosecution’s evidence finally petered out in a messy pile of contradictions, Pilate motioned for the prisoner to speak, confident that he would soon be able to dismiss all charges and set Him free. A silence settled over the crowd. Pilate waited. The chief priests and the crowd of onlookers waited. And waited. And Jesus stood silent. No protestation of innocence, no refutation of false testimony, no defense, just silence. Pilate willed Him to speak, to say something that would demolish the case against Him, but still He stood silent. Hoping to jolt Him into speech, Pilate broke the silence: “‘Hearest thou not how many things they witness against thee?’ And he answered him to never a word; insomuch that the governor marvelled greatly” (Mat 27:13-14 KJV).
The governor marveled greatly, for this was something unprecedented in his experience. Not even the guiltiest criminals failed to deny their guilt or, at the very least, to defend their actions. And that was true even when the stakes were a great deal lower than they were today, when a guilty verdict meant an inevitable sentence of death by crucifixion. But the Savior stood silent, and Pilate marveled.
Would his wonder have grown if he had realized that this surprising silence had been foretold centuries before by the prophet Isaiah: “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth” (Isa 53:7 KJV)? Pilate had never seen a man stand silent in these circumstances. In the awful hours that followed he would see many other unprecedented sights. He watched this Man give “[His] back to the smiters, and [His] cheeks to them that plucked off the hair” (Isa 50:6 KJV). And he watched as Jesus stood unflinching while the soldiers spat in His face.
As he saw all this, he became more and more convinced that this was no ordinary man. Three times he declared Him faultless (Joh 18:38; 19:4,6), yet as the Jews tightened the screws of political pressure, Pilate gave way and delivered the King of the Jews to death by crucifixion. In an attempt to distance himself from the decision that was truly his, he washed his hands and declared himself “innocent of the blood of this just person” (Mat 27:24). He was only half right – Christ was just, but Pilate was not innocent.
Hands are easily washed – consciences and memories less so. We can only speculate how Pilate told his wife that he had ignored her warning, even while agreeing with its premise. We cannot know how often, in the days to come, he would see in his mind’s eye the silent suffering form of the Son of God, how often he would marvel again at the unique Man “who, when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not; but committed himself to him that judgeth righteously” (1Pe 2:23 KJV).
And how often do we marvel at it? We know what Pilate did not – that a word from the Son of God was sufficient to create a cosmos. We have seen what he did not – an armed guard, bellicose and belligerent, brought to the ground by a few syllables from His lips. We understand far better than Pilate did what the Savior meant when He said, “Thou couldest have no power at all against me, except it were given thee from above” (Joh 19:11 KJV). As we see Him stand silent, what can we do but marvel, greatly?