Do You Think You Know Why Pilate Condemned Christ?
Lacking the authority to execute Christ themselves, the Jewish leaders dragged Christ before Pontius Pilate, the Roman Procurator of Judah. Pilate judged Christ innocent of any civil crime, so he intended to release him. Why, then, did he condemn Jesus to an ignominious death?
John the Evangelist tells us the reason, but it is not obvious what he means.
Jesus’ Jewish enemies, in their hatred of Christ, played hardball politics with Pilate. Their words were a serious threat to Pilate’s livelihood and even his life:
“If you release him, you are not a Friend of Caesar. Everyone who makes himself a king opposes Caesar.” (Jn 19:12)
In Agape in the New Testament, the great scholar of charity Ceslaus Spicq explains the meaning for Pilate of “Friend of Caesar.” Friend of Caesar was an official title pregnant with significance. It goes far beyond the obvious sense of ‘you would be acting contrary to Caesar’s preferences.’
A Friendship Ring
After the reign of Caesar Augustus, Roman senators, legates, and prefects who had shown loyal service were given the rank and title of “friend” of the Emperor. These friends received the prestigious symbol of imperial favor in the form of a golden ring. After Emperor Tiberius retired, Sejanus, the prefect of the Pretorian Guard, rewarded Pilate with the governorship of the province of Judea. He was very likely elevated to the equestrian order and received the highly desirable title “friend of Caesar.”
During Pilate’s first ten years in office, he had been able to prevent any rebellions from getting out of hand in Judea, but “the Jews were working to destroy his reputation and . . . they sent many denunciations of him to Rome.” Sejanus, Pilate’s patron, and protector was removed in the year 31. Then, in AD 37, due to a complaint brought by the Samaritans, Pilate was removed from office and ordered to report to Rome. There, the Emperor Caligula sent Pilate into exile in disgrace.
Thus, the Chief Priest Caiaphas’ maneuver constituted a real threat; he was playing ‘hardball’ politics with Pilate. “The thought of the emperor’s disfavor alone was able to overcome [Pilate’s] conviction of Christ’s innocence and make him yield [to the Jews’ demand] out of cowardice.”
Spicq surmises that the Sanhedrin might have been staring straight at Pilate’s golden ring when they exclaimed, “You will no longer be a friend of Caesar if you release this man.” At that moment, Pilate had the choice between being the friend of Christ or of Caesar. He chose to be “friend of the world or of the powerful.”
The Mentality of Power Seekers
St. Thomas Aquinas explains that because Jesus’ enemies’ accusation of a crime against the Jewish law had no effect on Pilate, “they now accuse Christ of a crime against the Roman Law, hoping this would press Pilate into taking his life.” Thomas says that these men assumed Pilate would think the way they thought—and in this case they were correct.
It frequently happens that we estimate others based on the way that we ourselves are. And since it was written about these Jews that “For they preferred human praise to the glory of God.” ([Jn]12:43), they thought that Pilate would prefer the friendship of Caesar to the friendship of justice – even though the opposite is commanded: “It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to put confidence in princes” (Ps 118:9).
Thus, the danger that Pilate faced was losing the friendship of Caesar, and with it, everything Pilate had gained by it. Thomas goes on to explain a detail about political power. He says, “it is the nature of earthly power that one power cannot endure the presence of another power. And so Caesar did not allow another to rule.”
This explains why Sirach advises: “Do not seek from God authority or from the king a place of honor.” (Sir 7:4). The reason is that if the king sees your ambition, he might see you as his rival and eliminate you.
A Defective friendship
Friend of the King, then, had a secular meaning. It meant to be a favored subordinate to Caesar so as to be rewarded with authority, honor, and wealth. This favor and reward was for Pilate the highest good, certainly higher than the good of justice. He condemned Christ to death out of cowardly injustice, folding to the blackmail of the Jewish authorities to keep his place and privileges. Ironically, his catering to the world only helped him for so long, until the Jews’ and Samaritan’s constant complaints brought Pilate down.
Pilate’s idea of friendship, then, is defective: he attaches himself to Caesar to benefit himself and so becomes a friend of injustice.
Both reason and revelation remind us that the good of friendship can be defective. Someone can appear to be a friend but actually be an enemy, attempting to use us or otherwise harm us. The Jewish authorities were essentially saying to Pilate, do what we want and we will be friendly to you and not report you to your emperor; do not do what we want and we will make your emperor your enemy.
The great pagan philosopher Aristotle identified one of the forms of human friendship as friends of utility. This means we befriend another because he can help us in some way. Many of our professional friendships are of this kind. This is why we are friendly to our coworkers, show kind deference to our boss, send cookies to our children’s teachers, and so on. We do good to them in the hope that they will do good to us.
Back in the days of the Roman Empire, to be a friend of the king was probably the highest degree to which Aristotle’s friendship of utility could be practiced by a person aspiring to power and all its benefits. Pilate enjoyed considerable worldly benefits by being a friend of Caesar. But this sharing in the emperor’s favor was incompatible with friendship with God and with justice so Pilate condemned Christ to death to preserve his own good for a short time.
Is It Okay To Be a Friend of Caesar?
I think the answer is, decidedly yes. To serve a legitimately powerful person as a trusted advisor and to have a delegated share in that person’s authority have real value. The reason is due to the service we can provide both the one over us and the many under us. Think of Joseph’s service to Pharaoh that saved the world, including his family back in Canaan, from famine.
However, one illegitimate stratagem to gain such a position would be to present yourself as a friend, but only so as to win his trust. Another dishonest ploy would be to flatter the more powerful person just to win his favor.
As a powerful man in Judea, Pilate would have had his own what’s-in-it-for-me friends and an array of flatterers. He would certainly be tempted to flatter anyone over him who could help or hurt him. But in the hierarchy of right values, God’s law, or the natural law, or at least justice provide the correct criteria for regulating the relations between ruler and the one to whom some power is delegated.
The right relationship between the friend of the king and the king—or any underlying and his boss—can be epitomized in St. Thomas More’s declaration upon his execution that he was the king’s true servant but God’s first. In other words, the subject renders to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. One can only properly serve the king to the degree that the king’s orders are compatible with God’s. When the two are in conflict, it takes heroic charity to choose what is right over the world and power.
One wonders whether Pilate had any friends at all when he was stripped of office and exiled.
All of us have some authority over others and we all are under another’s authority. Another way of saying this is that we can both help many people and be helped by them.
As Christians, we want to be real friends with everyone and offer them the good we have, from the humblest services to the greatest good of the Gospel.
To conclude, the right relationship that should exist between friends, whether equal or radically unequal, is to be God’s servant before being any man’s.
Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Gospel of St. John.
Ceslaus Spicq, Agape in the New Testament.