Five Interesting Portrayals of Pontius Pilate

I know, I disappear for over a month and then come back with more Jesus films. But since it's Holy Week, this seemed a good time to collect some of my favourite portrayals of Pontius Pilate, an historical figure who often doesn't get much attention because, well, he's not really the focal point of the films and shows he appears in.

One of the things that I think makes Pilate interesting is that the main historical sources for him are all either Christian or Jewish, so we end up with only a very particular perspective on him, generally from outsiders with varying levels of hostility. One thing we can definitely say about him is that, despite being governor of Judaea for ten years according to Josephus, he did not get on well with the Jewish population at all - that much all the sources seem to agree on!

The main Jewish sources are Philo's On the Embassy to Gaius, a record of an embassy Philo joined along with other Jews from Alexandria in Egypt to ask the Emperor Caligula to do something about the Egyptian governor Flaccus, who was mistreating them in various ways, and Josephus' Jewish Antiquities, a history of the Jews written in Greek after Josephus went over to the side of the Romans during the Jewish Wars and got in with the Emperor Vespasian by correctly predicting he would become Emperor before it happened.

Both Philo and Josephus record that Pilate had some kind of Roman shields set up in the Temple at Jerusalem, which was of course completely sacrilegious from the Jewish point of view. (Most cults and religious groups in the Roman empire worshiped multiple gods and worshiping one didn't prevent anyone from worshiping another, but the Jews were much stricter monotheists and refused to worship any other god but theirs, which caused varying levels of tension at different times - though they had no interest in trying to convert anyone else to their religion, so this was less of a problem that it was later with the Christians). Josephus claims Pilate bowed to the pressure while Philo says the Emperor Tiberius had to write to him to tell him to behave, but either way, there seems to have been no love lost between the leading Jews in Jerusalem and Pilate. Josephus also records riots caused by Pilate using sacred money to build an aqueduct, and he was eventually recalled to Rome after a disturbance with the Samaritans.

The four canonical Christian Gospels are much more favourable towards Pilate than Josephus and especially Philo. All four blame the death of Jesus on the Jewish chief priests and elders, and absolve Pilate of guilt to varying degrees, presumably in an attempt to appeal to a pagan Roman readership by shifting the blame entirely on to the Jews and absolving the Romans. One thing that does seem clear from all the sources, though, is that Pilate and Judaea were simply not a good combination - between the incident with the shields and general violence referred to by Philo and Josephus, the reference to his previously bad relationship with the Jewish king Herod Antipas in Luke, the references to Barabbas being in prison for murder and rioting 'in the insurrection' (Luke and Mark; John says he was a robber) and the general implication that he might be persuaded to execute someone for fear of upsetting the crowd, it seems that if we can take one fairly clear fact away from all this, it's that Jerusalem under Pilate's governorship was not a happy place.

Of course, films and TV shows that portray Pilate tend not to be so interested in any of that (and whether any of them have read Philo or Josephus is doubtful - certainly their main sources are the canonical Christian Gospels). Following the Gospels, Pilate is generally portrayed as considerably less to blame for the death of Jesus than the Jewish elders, but the extent to which he is portrayed as a concerned, philosophical type, a disinterested Roman or just a guy having a trying day varies enormously. These are five of the most interesting takes on him.

5. Frank Thring, Ben-Hur

The interesting thing about the characterisation of Pilate in Ben-Hur is that nearly all of it is achieved in a short scene entirely unconnected to the story of Jesus.

We always know, when watching a Jesus film, that Pilate is a Roman. He may be presented to the audience as Self (a figure with whom they can identify, placing us as the practical Romans against the Othered Sanhedrin) or as Other (encouraging the audience to identify with Jesus and the Jews other than the chief priests, and see the Romans as a potentially dangerous enemy). Often he is a combination of the two; drawing on the Gospels' attempt to present Pilate as Self to their Roman readership and the Jews, especially the chief priests who are painted entirely as the bad guys, as Other but also maintaining a more general Othering of the ancient and sometimes barbaric Romans who thought crucifixion was an appropriate way to execute people.

Ben-Hur stands out, however, for introducing Pilate not as the authority figure who holds the hero's life and death in his hands, but as a fairly normal and somewhat snobby Roman we meet at a party in Rome itself. Since Jesus is not the protagonist of Ben-Hur, we are able to meet Pilate in very different circumstances, enjoying himself at a friend's party for his newly adopted son. We learn that he is not happy about being sent to Judaea, and he complains about the climate. This is something Roman characters usually do when they are sent to Britain because they hate the cold and the rain - in this case, Pilate wanted Alexandria and apparently feels that the deserts of Judaea will be substantially more unpleasant than the Nile delta. He is condescending and disdainful concerning the 'prophets and Jehovah' he expects to find in Judaea and generally unhappy about the whole thing.

Pilate appears again in the chariot race scene, over-seeing proceedings and forcibly reminding everyone present that they all belong to Rome. He greets Ben-Hur as a fellow Roman and calls him 'the people's one true god, for the time being', representing the low point of Ben-Hur's journey away from his roots and into a dangerous obsession with vengeance.

All of this serves to ensure we have a full sense of Pilate's character before his crucial scene, which is even shorter than the version in Pasolini's Gospel of Matthew discussed below. Ben-Hur and his family return from a leper colony to find the streets deserted and are told everyone is at the trial - Pilate himself has no dialogue but merely washes his hands with a supercilious expression on his face, the audience presumed to understand what's going on and know the context. The earlier scene sets up enough of his character for us to understand what's going through his head at that moment. But it also presents us with an unusually human view of Pilate as neither wannabe philosopher nor cold Roman authority, but simply a rather snobby member of the elite who doesn't understand the first thing about the people he's governing and isn't really interested. It's probably one of the more historically accurate portrayals around.

4. Alessandro Clerici, The Gospel According to Matthew

The most fascinating thing about the portrayal of Pilate in Pasolini's film is that, like Thring in Ben-Hur, he's hardly in it.

For most of the film, Pasolini follows the Gospel of Matthew pretty closely - one of the things that makes his take on the story stand out is the way he presents one particular source's version of the story rather than the amalgam of the most memorable bits you get in most Jesus films. But when we come to the crucial scene of the trial of Jesus, suddenly Pasolini departs from Matthew almost all together, while at the same time distancing the viewer from Pilate in a way no other Jesus films that I can think of do (even Ben-Hur features a shot from behind Pilate, placing us briefly with him in the scene).

Pasolini shows Jesus' trial through the eyes of John, who according to his own Gospel was there because he knew someone - none of the other Gospels mention this. Perhaps Pasolini wanted to follow the eyewitness account, but I don't think this was the primary reason. Not only does he leave out the details specific to Matthew's Gospel (Pilate's wife's dream, Pilate literally washing his hands of the case) but he also leaves out Pilate's question in all four Gospels, 'Are you a king?' The scene is extremely brief and to the point, with Pilate offering the choice of Jesus or Barrabas only to the Jewish elders and then dismissing everyone saying 'I am innocent of this man's blood'. We only see him at a distance, barely in focus, looking past the backs of people's heads as John is, having come into a trial clearly already in progress.

The effect is primarily to completely Other Pilate. We are an outsider, looking in with John. We see close-ups of Jesus' eyes, bringing us back briefly to his point of view, and we are with John and Mary, but at no point do we see any of this scene from a Roman point of view. Later we will see more of some of the soldiers at the cross, but this process of the Roman trial (following the chief priests' earlier one) is perfunctory and alienating. Presumably this is part of Pasolini's realism and his desire to show Jesus as a man of the people. Pilate, the representation of Imperial Rome, is impersonal, barely characterised, uninterested. It's a fascinating approach to a character who usually holds much more weight in other versions of the story.

3. Michael Palin, Monty Python's Life of Brian

Michael Palin's Pontius Pilate is, of course, somewhat different to the others listed here. He's primarily a simple figure of fun, with a terrible lisp and good friends called Biggus Dickus and Nauteus Maximus. He is, though, noticeably a Roman figure of fun, with nude paintings from Pompeii on the walls of his palace. Romans are often presented as Self in Life of Brian, rolling their eyes at the stoning of a man for saying 'Jehovah' and generally just trying to get on with their jobs (like another of Palin's characters, who so pleasantly tells people to line up for their crucifixion). Pilate, however, is one of the more Othered and exoticised Romans, representing the Rome of film and television in a way most of the soldiers don't through the art on his walls and his costuming.

Still, there is a little more to the Python version of the trial scene than just mocking those with a speech impediment. In his travel documentary Sahara, when he re-visited the ninth century Islamic fortress that provides the location of the trial both here and in Jesus of Nazareth, Palin talked about how much he liked the way Pilate's authority is brought down by laughter, the crowd defying the might of Rome by laughing at it.

This is also an interesting and refreshing depiction of the mob. Jesus Christ Superstar emphasises the fickleness of the crowd reported in the Gospels, who will glorify a man one week and demand his crucifixion the next (they don't talk much about the fact that in between these two events, he started some kind of riot in the Temple and over-turned all the bankers' tables, which might have had something to do with it). Other depictions, like Jesus of Nazareth, show the people being manipulated by the Jewish elders who persuade them all to vote for Barabbas to be set free. Here, however, the crowd are actually largely apathetic. They are simply looking for entertainment, and their choice of who they want saved is entirely down to which name sounds the funniest when Pilate tries to pronounce it. These are the disenfranchised masses looking for bread and circuses so famously described in Juvenal's satire, and Pilate is no more than a figure of fun to them, a circus. They are almost completely detached from the politics of the situation.

We've got a general election coming up soon - it remains to be seen which version of the mob we'll collectively resemble the most...

2.  Barry Dennen, Jesus Christ Superstar

The thoughtfulness of Pilate in Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Tim Rice's musical is established early on when the dream Matthew says Pilate's wife had the night before Jesus was brought to him is given to Pilate himself instead. This version of the dream includes visions of the future of Christianity, and Barry Dennen infuses the song with a wonderful mix of sadness and a mildly self-interested horror at the idea of millions of people 'leaving me the blame'.

Pilate's re-introduction at Jesus' trial is quite different; approaching from on high accompanied by images of Roman eagles and dressed up like a king himself, in purple and wearing a gold laurel wreath, he embodies earthly power. He manages to be even more supercilious than Thring - Dennen's delivery of 'Who is this broken man / cluttering up my hallway?' is a thing of beauty. He seems very Othered - but the audience have seen the more thoughtful dream sequence, which provides a particular interpretation of his motivation for sending Jesus to Herod as he does in Luke's Gospel. This incident isn't always dramatised, and when it is Pilate is usually trying to avoid being blamed for Jesus' death by the crowd, knowing how popular Jesus is and, as in every version and indeed in history, concerned about the possibility of riots. Here, we understand this as Pilate trying to shift the blame of history, rather than immediate mob, on to Herod rather than himself, making this a slightly more philosophical action more than a practical one (since the crowd in Jerusalem have turned against Jesus here).

Pilate's final appearance combines these traits. He starts out trying to continue to appear superior but clearly unnerved by the growing crowd, slipping into desperation to help Jesus as he cradles his bleeding body after the flogging, and culminating in the powerful image of him literally washing Jesus' blood off his hands in a glass bowl, shot from underneath. His lyrics sum him up - 'We all have truths / Are mine the same as yours?', and 'He's mad / Ought to be locked up / But that is not a reason to destroy him!' This is one of the most three dimensional Pilates around, and Dennen's performance embodies snobbery, disdain, fear, empathy and guilt beautifully.

1. Rod Steiger, Jesus of Nazareth

OK, I confess, Rod Steiger is my number 1 not so much because this is a particularly academically interesting portrayal, but because it's a personal favourite of mine. Steiger's performance is wonderful; subtle, nuanced, weary and strangely charismatic. Reading the extra voices in the Passion reading last Sunday, it was all I could do not to do an impersonation of the way he says, 'Are you a king?' (Though that's nothing compared to the difficulty of resisting the urge to do a John Wayne impression on 'Truly this man was the Son of God').

Steiger and Zeffirelli's Pilate is a man on the edge. As he rides into shot, he is already being hounded by a mob wanting Barabbas released, and he repeatedly says how tired he is, Zeffirelli carefully setting him up as a weary man with a difficult job whose options are limited. This is for the most part very much a representation of Pilate as Self - we the audience are encouraged to see ourselves in a hard-working man who doesn't understand the Jewish priests and their customs, or the desires of the mob.

This is a very thoughtful Pilate. He questions Jesus with a mixture of disdain and sincerity, and appears to be genuinely reluctant to crucify him. It's implied that the custom of releasing one prisoner at the Passover is not one he feels especially bound to obey, but he does it in the hopes of having Jesus released without angering the chief priests. He seems almost hurt by the reminder that the Jews will be 'defiled' if they enter a Roman building during Passover. It's a Pilate we as the audience are very much encouraged to identify with, someone who comes across as sensible  and practical. We are only really reminded of his Other status as a Roman when his second in command says Barabbas is an enemy of Rome and he looks thoughtfully at Jesus and wonders who the real enemy is (presumably a reference to the Gibbon-led idea that Christianity was ultimately responsible for the fall of Rome).

I doubt Steiger's Pilate is much like the real Pilate, who seems to have been more inclined to stir up trouble than desperately try to avoid it if Philo and Josephus are right, and more likely to ignore religious customs than take a philosophical interest in them. But as a representation of the Pilate we see in the Gospels, Steiger's downtrodden governor is hard to beat.


  1. For me it's Michael Palin all the way, but then I am a Python fan.

    The character turns up, as I recall, in a novel, Unholy Night, by Seth Grahame-Smith, which turns the story of the Wise Men on its ear, though it's been several years since I read it.

    1. Souinds interesting, I'll to seek that one out!

  2. Excellent post. And a fairly diverse collection of interpretations!

    1. Thanks :) I think it's fascinating how many different ways it's possible to interpret this character!

  3. You missed one of my favorites -- David Bowie in Scorsese's Last Temptation of Christ. Bowie steals the show, as he often does!

    1. I haven't seen that one yet, though it's been on my list of things to see for ages, I must get hold of a copy!

    2. Oh he's terrible - one of the worst in a long line of dreadful Bowie cameos, though he's not as bad here as in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me.

      Hristow Shopov in Gibson's Passion of the Christ, not a movie I have a lot of time for, gives a thoughtful performance, not unlike how you describe Steiger (it's too long since I've seen Jesus of Nazareth).

    3. I thought about mentioning Shopov - he reminds me very much of Steiger and I feel like his performance may be influenced by Steiger. But it was a long enough post already!

  4. Actually, Pilate would have understood some of the things the Hebrew priests were livid about. The snit-fit Jesus had in the temenos area of the temple for one would have brought with it major miasma which would have to have been cleansed before anyone could have been allowed entry again. I do not know how long this would have been; however, since this was the time of Passover this deed was highly blasphemic. The same thing would have been true with the priests and worshippers at the temples of the others Gods of the Roman Empire.
    There is also a question about the character Barabbas. When I studied Bib Lit way-back-when at Muhlenberg, there was an opinion floating among the scholars that there might have been no extra person at all and that Barabbas referred to Jesus himself (the man, which is the translation).
    Anyway, the writers of the synoptics got the differences among the Pharisees (Rabbinate) and the Saducees (Temple priesthood) very wrong and confused. The religious practice of Judaism was beginning to change, starting in the 1st century BCE. IMO, Rabbi Jesus was influenced by both eschatological Essenic thought as well as the philosophy of Rabbi Hillel. There is nothing in the synoptics that would contradict this.

  5. Dennis Potter's televised play Son of Man - highly controversial in its time (1969).
    An amazing piece of work.
    Robert Hardy played Pontius Pilate

  6. You made reference to John Wayne's brief cameo in "The Greatest Story Ever Told," which makes me curious as to what you thought of Telly Savalas in the roll of Pilate, and the portrayal of Romans in general in that film...

    1. I haven't seen it in so long I'd have to watch it again - which I do want to do as soon as I get a chance!

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  8. You gotta love the great Steiger! But the guy who played Pilate in Gibson's "Passion of the Christ," and David Bowie as the prefect in "Last Temptation of Christ" shoukdn't be overlooked....


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