Poor Pilate. If ever a man was caught unwittingly in the net of historical circumstance, it was Pilate. A simple Roman governor just doing his job, he could see that Jesus wasn’t the villain the Jewish crowd thought him to be. In the end, he washed his hands of the affair—tormented, it seems, by the injustice of the whole thing. But he didn’t come out of it too badly. Constantine liked him and took him as a forerunner of his own imperial embrace of Christianity in the fourth century. In the Coptic and Ethiopic churches, Pilate soon came to be celebrated as a saint. And perhaps more importantly for our time, Hollywood has done him no harm—cinema doesn’t get any better than a dramatic handwashing scene, with the Jewish crowd in the background chanting wildly, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” It all comes right out of the Gospels, of course, so it must have happened just that way. For filmmakers such as Mel Gibson, “gospel truth” is just as good as “historical truth” (see “Mel Gibson’s Passion Play” in this issue).
But is it? Is “gospel truth” really “historical truth?” Most scholars don’t think so. The Pilate we know from history doesn’t fit very well with this flatteringgospel depiction of Pilate, the lover of truth and justice. The details associated with Pilate in our gospel texts have much more to do with the agenda of the evangelists who wrote those texts than they do with history.