The bright light of Easter casts some very long shadows—because the horror of crucifixion began at midday on Friday and lingered until dawn on Sunday. That is the story of the Christian Gospels. Jesus of Nazareth dies on Friday as a result of a Roman decree issued by the governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate.
When Sunday finally came and the women made their way to Jesus’ tomb, the darkness of Friday’s grief and the literal darkness of two nights had deepened. No wonder the surprising light of that first Easter casts such long shadows. Light is always brighter after extended darkness, and shadows are always longer in the presence of bright light.
Pontius Pilate lurks in Easter’s shadows. And this actor in the drama of Jesus’ death can still surprise those who have already formed some opinions about him.
The oldest and most common Christian confession, the Apostles’ Creed, includes the phrase, “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried.” It is a hard judgment upon a Roman governor who issued the death decree that sent Jesus to the cross. Those familiar and unfamiliar with the creed have, through the centuries, reviled Pilate as the one who sealed Jesus’ death.
Pilate appears differently, however, in Easter’s shadows. A careful reading of the Gospels, especially those of Matthew and John, introduces Pilate as a man of principle and shrewd political insight, even when the politics recoil and bruise him.
In Matthew, Pilate quizzes Jesus on his political intentions and, finding nothing to condemn him, seeks to placate the crowds by releasing him. Matthew also introduces Pilate’s wife, who tells her husband of a haunting dream she had about Jesus. She urges her husband not to become involved in the death of an innocent man.
Pilate is undone, however, when the crowd chooses Barabbas—a known revolutionary—for release, and demands the death of Jesus. In a well-known scene, Pilate literally washes his hands of the debacle that sent an innocent man to his death (see Matthew 27).
In the Gospel of John, Pilate is even more of a figure caught in a web of politics. Despite his certainty that Jesus is innocent, Pilate bows to public pressure and turns Jesus over to his accusers. The governor declares Jesus innocent, but gives him to the crowd (see John 19).
The bright light of Easter casts some very long shadows. Stretching well beyond the New Testament and into the early history of the church, Pilate and his wife, Claudia, find a warm embrace. Convinced that Pilate and Claudia did all that they could to prevent the death of an innocent man, Justin Martyr, Origen and Tertullian—important leaders in the early church—all declared that one or both defended Christ.
In his Apology, Tertullian even declares Pilate to be “a Christian in his heart.” Both Pilate and Claudia are regarded as saints in the Abyssinian Church.
Searching Easter’s shadows may turn up redemption in some unlikely places. But is that not the point of Easter?
Rick Wilson is the Columbus Roberts Professor of Theology and chair of the Roberts Department of Christianity in Mercer University’s College of Liberal Arts in Macon, Ga.
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Mercer Commentary on the Bible
Rhythms: Sermons for a Community of Faith and Learning
Columbus Roberts professor of theology and chair of the Columbus Roberts Department of Religion in the college of liberal arts at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia.