Pilate is by far the greater villain


Critics miss the point in Gibson's portrayal of Pontius Pilate. That's because he is the patron saint of doubt and thus attractive to an age that regards doubt itself as a virtue.

When Senator Howard Baker was a candidate in the 1980 presidential election, he ran across strong criticism of his support for Jimmy Carter's return of the Panama Canal to Panama from a Republican woman in Vermont. "Well, madam," replied the senator with sweet reasonableness, "I must have cast thousands of votes during my time in the Senate. You probably agree with almost all of them. Why focus on the one issue where we disagree?"

"Pontius Pilate probably made lots of good decisions too," responded the lady. "But we only remember one."

She had grasped an important point that seems to have eluded many of the film critics who have recently reviewed Mel Gibson's movie, The Passion of the Christ: namely, that Pilate was not a decent fellow but a contemptible villain. These reviewers have seized on the different portrayals of Pilate and the Jewish high priest, Caiaphas as evidence that Gibson's film is anti-Semitic.

Pilate is portrayed as a sympathetic character, they argue, who wants to spare the innocent Christ but who yields to the demands of Caiaphas and the mob that He should be crucified. Caiaphas, however, harbors no such reluctance. He agitates clearly for Christ's death. And this is undoubtedly what Gibson's film shows — just as it is also undoubtedly the account in the Gospels.

But is it anti-Semitic? For what the critics miss is that this account makes Pilate a far worse villain than Caiaphas. After all, Caiaphas believed that Christ had committed the ultimate sin of blasphemy by claiming to be the Son of God. As a leading representative of religious laws that condemned adulterers to death by stoning, he was almost bound to call for His execution. Caiaphas is making a terrible mistake. He may also have corrupt political motives for his actions. But he is plainly sincere in believing that, however conveniently, he has the law of God on his side.

Pilate is on much weaker ground. He condemns to death a man he believes to be innocent — and he does so, moreover, in a shifty manner that seeks to fix all guilt for the murder on Caiaphas and the mob and to exculpate himself.

From the standpoint of the New Testament, according to the traditional teaching of the Christian church, and in Mel Gibson's movie, Pilate is by far the greater villain. And if any charge of bigotry can be sustained against Gibson, it is that of anti-Romanism since in addition to Pilate's murderous cowardice, the Roman soldiers are shown gleefully enjoying their torture of Christ.

All that said, thereis something sympathetic about Pilate. Almost anyone who reads the gospel account recognizes that the Roman procurator is in a fix — caught between his belief in Christ's innocence and the danger of provoking revolutionary unrest by the Jews that would destroy his own career with his imperial masters in Rome. We all put ourselves in his shoes. We find ourselves hoping against hope that Pilate will make the right decision for his own sake as well as for the sake of Christ.

But as Gibson's film makes horribly clear, he makes the wrong one. And in doing so, he establishes that courage is the handmaiden of the virtues. If we lack courage, we will find it very much harder to be virtuous against the crowd.

Yet there is also a less admirable reason why the modern world finds Pilate sympathetic. He is the patron saint of doubt and thus attractive to an age that regards doubt itself as a virtue — or at least as a mark of sophistication in the face of certainties with which we happen to disagree, whether they are the certainties of the religious right, or of fundamentalist Moslems, or of political ideologies. Many intellectuals, academics and (generally liberal) politicians have come to see doubt in these modestly heroic terms.

Among the intellectuals who have fallen into Pilate's error, of course, are the Catholic bishops in the scandal over priestly sexual abuse. Instead of protecting their flock and sternly compelling the sinner to repentance, they washed their hands of the matter and handed it over to psychologists and lawyers. In doing so, they also washed their hands of Christian teaching about sin and embraced the therapeutic gospels of Freud.

Nor have they yet overcome such doubt and evasion — they have merely turned them upside down. Any priest who is accused of sexual abuse is now treated as guilty — even though we know from the sexual abuse hysteria of the 1980s that some such accusations are false. Having once turned a blind eye to guilt, the bishops now turn it to innocence. Having once turned over the problem to psychiatrists and lawyers, they now turn it over to accusers and the media. That may be an improvement, but it is not justice.

Now, considered seriously (which almost never happens), the idea that doubt is either a virtue or a sign of intellectual superiority is nonsense. Chronic doubt is a symptom of depression in clinical psychology. Everyday difficulty in choosing between finely balanced alternatives is simply a sign that we have not investigated the problem sufficiently. And the proper reaction to unjustified certainty is not doubt but the firm analytical refutation of dogmatic error.

But that too requires courage. In the case of the Catholic bishops, courage would mean two things: giving accused priests a fair hearing despite the cries of the mob, and insisting that seminaries enforce the strict obligation of chastity on both heterosexuals and homosexuals despite the cries of the mob

We have no absolutely clear historical knowledge of what happened to Pilate. He may have committed suicide, or been executed, or as the Coptic Christians believe, converted to Christianity and become a martyr. We can be reasonably sure, however, of the falsity of Anatole France's cynical little story in which Pilate in retirement is asked if he recalls a crucified Jewish carpenter called Christ and has no memory of Him. Like the lady in Vermont, Pilate knew he had done something wrong and significant. For better or worse it almost certainly changed his life and death.


John O'Sullivan, "Pilate is by far the greater villain." Chicago Sun-Times, March, 2004.

Reprinted with permission of the author, John O'Sullivan.


John O'Sullivan is editor-in-chief of The National Interest.

Copyright © 2004 John O'Sullivan

Subscribe to CERC's Weekly E-Letter



Not all articles published on CERC are the objects of official Church teaching, but these are supplied to provide supplementary information.