Focus on Jesus Series
Pilate: A Friend to Caesar or Not?
by Ed Vasicek
The year was 33 AD. Jesus had been arrested and illegally tried. From a human perspective, His life was hanging in the balance before Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor who desired to release Christ. To complicate matters, the governor's wife had experienced a troubling dream and encouraged him to treat Jesus well. Yet when the incited mob bellowed out, "If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar," Pilate submitted to the whim of the mob. Why? Merely the fear of a riot alone?
Was Pilate enslaved by the opinion polls of the day? No, far from being gullible, Pilate had a track record of disregarding those under his authority. He had even gone so far as to mingle the blood of Galilean Jews with the animal sacrifices they offered at the Temple (Luke 17:1). Pilate had provoked riots and enjoyed agitating hostility among the Jews. He was cruel, oppressive, and clearly in control. That is, up until 33 AD. What changed him? To grasp the answer, consider the Roman political situation of the day.
The Roman Emperor was called "Caesar" as a title (that's where the Russian word "Czar" originated). The "Caesar" was Tiberius, who decided to take life easy and vacation for years on end on the beautiful island of Capri. In charge of all his responsibilities was his trusted friend, Sejanus. Sejanus was so trusted, that when the Emperor's son and heir was poisoned in 23 AD, treachery by Sejanus was not even considered!
Sejanus hated the Jews. He had previously incited Tiberius against them, and in 26 AD, he appointed Pilate to govern Judea. Pilate was only too eager to please Sejanus and institute anti-Semitic policies. But Sejanus was not content with being second in command. He plotted to overthrow Tiberius; the emperor got wind of it and had Sejanus killed in late 32 AD.
Without Sejanus around to poison his disposition toward the Jews, Tiberius reversed the anti-Jewish policies of Sejanus and sent orders throughout the Empire to treat the Jews kindly. Tiberius also evaluated anyone appointed to office by Sejanus. He was naturally suspicious of their loyalty, and Pilate was no exception. His loyalty to the Emperor was suspect, to say the least. Tiberius must have asked, “If it came to a showdown between myself and Sejanus, who would Pilate have supported?” Was he truly loyal to "Caesar?"
When the crowd roared, "If you let this man go, you are no friend to Caesar," one can imagine what went through Pilate's mind. He may have thought, "If I let Jesus go, the crowd will report me and I’ll get in trouble with Tiberius. Since He claims to be a King, they will twist His words and claim I allowed the leader of a rebellion against Rome to go free." Thus Pilate had a choice, to do right or maintain his political position. When they added, "We have no king but Caesar," the crowd, was, in essence, questioning Pilate’s loyalty to Tiberius. They were loyal—was he? Pilate's position was precarious.
Pilate made his choice. So we too must choose between pleasing the crowd, or taking our stand with Jesus, even if it means loss of prestige, position, or career. Which choice will you make?
(Much of the documentation for this material, as well as a good case for the 33 AD date, can be found in the book, Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ, by Harold W. Hoehner, Zondervan, 1977. Many Bible scholars favor an AD 30 date instead; I side with Hoehner because of Pilate’s behavior).
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