‘He is not here.”
With these words, the angel meeting the seekers at Jesus’s tomb announced the Resurrection. If these words are true, then they are, as Father Richard John Neuhaus put it in Death on a Friday Afternoon, “quite simply the truth about everything.”
The question of truth is at the center of the great drama that begins to unfold on Good Friday and reaches its climax on Easter. But by Sunday, we have all forgotten about the man whose interest in the truth is central to this story, the character who leaves the stage at the end of the first act and is never heard from again.
Spare a kind thought for Pontius Pilate.
Pilate, as the representative of the Roman Empire in Judea, is in secular terms the most important man we encounter in the Passion. But he was a minor figure, the real Roman power in that part of the world being his superior, the legate of Syria. The Romans were great record-keepers and commemorators, but there was no known contemporaneous physical evidence of Pilate’s career — or even of his existence — until the discovery of an inscription at Caesarea Maritima in 1961. He was strictly middle management.
Pilate’s dilemma is captured in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, a brilliant and bizarre film that is at once a genuine work of piety and one degree shy of being a genuine work of pornography. Hristo Shopov’s beleaguered Pilate invokes that most 21st-century of phrases: “my truth.” He explains to his wife that he is in an impossible position: The Jewish authorities will cause trouble if he does not condemn Jesus, while Jesus’s followers may revolt if he does. Either way there will be bloodshed, and the emperor has warned him that if Judea isn’t kept pacified, the blood shed will be Pilate’s own. “Ecce est mea veritas!” he says. “That is my truth!”
The Pilate of the Gospels maintains a higher degree of equanimity. When Jesus speaks to him of truth, he famously asks, “What is truth?” And then he immediately goes to the rabble and tells them: “I find no fault in the man.” Perhaps he had answered his own question but did not find the answer convincing enough to act upon.
The question of truth is at the center of the great drama that begins to unfold on Good Friday and reaches its climax on Easter.
In the Ethiopian church, Pilate is revered as a saint, as is his wife, who also is canonized in the Eastern Orthodox Church. The Western tradition thinks a bit less of him. He is considered if not a moral monster then a coward, ceremoniously washing his hands of Jesus’s blood — a difference-splitter, lukewarm. Dante does not even find a place for him in the Inferno. Caiaphas, the Jewish leader who advised Pilate to have Jesus crucified, is himself crucified on the floor of the circle of hypocrites, so that he must bear the weight of all the world’s hypocrisy as the sinners march around eternally in their gilded leaden robes.
But Pilate? He is not here.
Pilate’s position must be familiar to anyone who works in or around politics. He was a mostly apolitical administrator, a man who believed in good government, which meant keeping the peace in Jerusalem during Passover. But there was trouble, a street preacher who must surely have seemed like a crackpot to Pilate: Jesus was not the first resurrection deity worshiped in the spring by the ceremonial eating of bread (think of the pagan goddess Ceres the next time you are offered a slice of wedding cake), nor were his followers the first Dionysian mystery cult organized around the ceremonial drinking of wine. Pilate was used to this sort of thing, which he must have seen a thousand times before: Josephus tells us his career came to an ignominious end when he overreacted to a subsequent holy man who, presaging Geraldo Rivera and Al Capone’s vault, drew a large crowd together with a promise to unearth certain artifacts related to Moses.
On the one hand was the street preacher, on the other hand were the local political and religious powers and the howling mob, the mass that follows “because it follows anything that moves.” Above them all was Tiberius with his high expectations. Pilate found no fault in Jesus so far as Roman law was concerned, but there is always prosecutorial discretion. All Pilate wanted was a little peace and quiet, efficient public administration, and order. And what was he willing to offer in trade to get those? The small gesture of letting nature take its course in accord with local conditions. Perhaps my fellow conservatives can consider the case of Pontius Pilate and see that he was, after all, one of us.
But there remains the pressing matter of truth.
Pilate, after all, was not so bad. And neither are we, for the most part. Our sins are not grand: Even Judas, the great betrayer whom Dante places at the bottom of the pit, in the mouth of Satan himself, was only after 30 pieces of silver, and maybe some obscure score-settling with the other disciples. The other two men consigned to Satan’s mouth for the death of another famous J.C. at least had in mind the fate of a mighty empire. That which was done under cover of darkness will be shouted from the rooftops, Scripture tells us — you only thought your browser history was private! And when it is shouted from the rooftops and the last of our crimes has been exposed, we will all turn to one another and ask: “That’s it? Was that all?” Sin, like so much else in life, is disappointing. Our appetites and our weaknesses are mostly predictable, banal, ordinary — expected.
“He is not here.” But we are, here, in the real world with Pontius Pilate.
When the Marquis de Sade attempted to raise moral transgression to an art form, the results were repulsive, but they were also sad and more than a little ridiculous, a minor man of letters shaking his fist at Heaven and demanding: “Notice me!” (Perhaps he was only shaking his fist at polite society — it is not clear he knew the difference.) In the end, the man turned out to be something of a milquetoast: Freed from the Bastille and put in charge of a revolutionary court, he found himself on the bad side of the revolutionaries, because he declined to hand down death sentences. If you sometimes find yourselves wondering at the viciousness of our modern progressives, consider that their spiritual forebears were executioners for whom the man literally synonymous with sadism was too soft and too liberal. He was the beast only in his imagination, the Walter Mitty of moral turpitude.
“He is not here.” But we are, here, in the real world with Pontius Pilate. It is a world of little things — tradeoffs, compromises, and accommodations. There is a mortgage to be paid — “the yuppie Nuremberg defense,” Christopher Buckley calls that — and debts to be serviced, work to be done, doctors to be visited, lawyers to be paid, IRS agents to be satisfied, and, overseeing it all, the American God, the one who helps those who help themselves. That is our truth. We would be the Good Samaritan, but we know that guy will just use the money to buy a bottle of wine. (Maybe MD 20/20, from Mogen David.) Everyone knows no good can come of that.
The story was supposed to end the way it began: that same body, swaddled once again, laid in a place that is low and obscure, the scent of myrrh masking the stench of decay. The soldier goes back to his garrison, Peter returns to his nets, Caiaphas continues his plotting and politicking. The mass that follows because it follows anything that moves goes on to the next excitement. Pontius Pilate buys his political tranquility at a bargain price — the life of one man of no particular importance.
“He is not here.”
The tomb is empty, and the world is full of something that we had not known of before. And everything we thought we knew — “my truth” — is, in the face of that empty tomb, not so much wrong as insignificant: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. He was in the world, and though the world was made through Him, the world did not recognize Him. We have seen His glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
— Kevin D. Williamson is National Review’s roving correspondent.