The Corner

Pilate and Us

I’ve had a tough time explaining to others why,

contrary to much public commentary, I found Pontius Pilate more contemptible

figure in the Gibson film than Caiaphas, the Jewish high priest. A colleague

sent me this comment from a Christian friend, which nails it:

I have to say, I found Caiaphas entirely sympathetic: he dismisses

charges that cannot be substantiated, asks Christ a direct question, hears

an answer that he must take to be blasphemy, and then sets himself

irrevocably upon the blasphemer’s destruction. Pilate, by contrast, is a

contemptible bureaucrat, agonizing over the possible

consequences for himself of either executing or releasing Christ, and

finally condemning a man he believes innocent to death as the most prudent

course. It says something about our age. Of course we cannot understand

Caiaphas: he is a religious “extremist,” he acts on principle, he seeks to

preserve the purity of his faith and his people from a heretic, he is

uncompromising. But Pilate is much to our taste: he is indecisive and

relativist, we feel the profundity of his “quid est veritas?”, he has

“issues” to work out, he is moved by emotion, and we can see that he feels

bad about what he is doing (and what you feel, after all, is what is

important). Feckless and contemptible and relativistic is what we are, and

our very image of the ethical person; we know that resolute religious

conviction is intolerant and wicked and evil. And thus the irony of it all:

it is because the people that make such complaints are the sort who

understand Pilate but hate Caiaphas that they are also disposed to despise

Mel Gibson so passionately.

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