The Steep Price of Pilate’s Fame

Billions know the Roman governor’s name. But he didn’t know the very son of God standing before him.

I’m in the apparently small category of men unconcerned with the Roman Empire. I could probably describe key events in the reigns of three to five of its rulers, but not much more. And when it comes to recalling this kind of detail, I suspect I’m not alone. All but a handful of these ancient leaders have vanished from the public imagination. They struggled, fought, murdered, and schemed their way to supremacy only to be forgotten.

The same is true of American presidents, despite their greater proximity. I know the exceptionally good and bad, but others who held the highest office in the land do not register. Such are the vicissitudes of history. In our vanity, we humans want to etch our names in the record—only for the next generation to arrive well stocked with erasers.

But Pontius Pilate, the first-century governor of the Roman province of Judea, did succeed in being memorable. At Easter, unruly young boys will bound into churches decked in homemade Roman military garb playing the role of Pilate. He’s a central character in the dramatic reenactments of every Holy Week.

He is mentioned in the Nicene Creed, a central confession of our faith. The name Pontius Pilate has been recited countless times, Sunday after Sunday over the last millennia and half since that creed’s ratification, giving him one of the most recognizable names in the world. The creed refers to his role in the death of Jesus with characteristic brevity: “he was crucified under Pontius Pilate.” The words have been said by billions, but who was this provincial governor, and what does he have to teach us about the perils of significance?

Pilate was from the upper crust of Roman society. He’d …

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