Updated: Jun 19
Season 3 of The Chosen has introduced several important characters, but none of them is as well-known and significant as Pontius Pilate. After setting up Atticus' connection to Pilate in Episode 2 of Season 3, The Chosen finally introduced us to the infamous procurator of Judea in Episode 6. Although he only appeared in a handful of scenes, there's already a lot to unpack about how The Chosen is adapting what Scripture and the historical record tell us about Pilate.
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The Importance of Pontius Pilate
It's hard to overestimate the importance of Pilate in the narrative of Jesus' life. Along with Jesus, Mary, Peter, and Judas, he's probably one of the most well-known figures from the Gospels. In fact, he's one of only three humans named in the Apostle's Creed, one of the most well-known extra-biblical summaries of the Gospel:
I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended to hell. The third day he rose again from the dead. He ascended to heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty. From there he will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.
At first glance, the inclusion of Pilate in the Apostle's Creed (and also later in the Nicene Creed) is a bit surprising. A creed typically is meant to summarize the big picture essentials of a faith, not to recount all the specific historical details. While Pilate does play a significant role in the Gospels, he is never demonized or treated as Jesus' arch-nemesis. Indeed, Pilate often comes across as impotent - a man caught up in events shaped by the will of God and the will of the people he was trying to rule.
Perhaps the inclusion of Pilate in the early creeds has more to do with the nature of the Christian faith than with his own actions. While many other religions are centered around a-historical myths and universal principles, Christianity from the beginning has insisted on grounding itself in history. The mention of Pilate in the creeds is a reminder that the events of the Gospel really did happen in specific places, at specific times, and in the presence of specific, historical people. Pilate was, after all, one of the few figures in the Gospels that would have been well-known outside of the original Jewish context. Indeed, even to this day Pilate is one of the few figures in the Gospels whose existence we can still corroborate using archaeological and non-Christian textual evidence. That's why Christians continue to hold onto Pilate's name - because it reinforces the connection between history and the events we believe.
Pontius Pilate in the Bible: Cruel Ruler or Impotent Pawn?
As I've already suggested, the Gospels portray Pilate not as as a formidable foe but rather as a man caught up in events and forces far greater than himself. His response to Jesus is completely passive and reactive. Up until the moment when the Jewish leaders drag Jesus to to the governor's headquarter's, there's no hint that Pilate knew about Jesus or had any plans concerning him. Moreover, after being confronted with the Jewish leaders' accusations against Jesus, Pilate repeatedly tries to pass off the matter to others.
First, Pilate tries to get the Jewish leaders to do their own dirty work:
So Pilate went outside to them and said, “What accusation do you bring against this man?” They answered him, “If this man were not doing evil, we would not have delivered him over to you.” Pilate said to them, “Take him yourselves and judge him by your own law.” The Jews said to him, “It is not lawful for us to put anyone to death.” (John 18:29-31, ESV)
When that doesn't work, Pilate tries to pass Jesus off to Herod:
Then Pilate said to the chief priests and the crowds, “I find no guilt in this man.” But they were urgent, saying, “He stirs up the people, teaching throughout all Judea, from Galilee even to this place.” When Pilate heard this, he asked whether the man was a Galilean. And when he learned that he belonged to Herod's jurisdiction, he sent him over to Herod, who was himself in Jerusalem at that time. (Luke 23:4-7, ESV)
When Herod passes Jesus back, Pilate tries to use a custom of Passover clemency to let Jesus go:
Pilate then called together the chief priests and the rulers and the people, and said to them, “You brought me this man as one who was misleading the people. And after examining him before you, behold, I did not find this man guilty of any of your charges against him. Neither did Herod, for he sent him back to us. Look, nothing deserving death has been done by him. I will therefore punish and release him.” But they all cried out together, “Away with this man, and release to us Barabbas”— a man who had been thrown into prison for an insurrection started in the city and for murder. Pilate addressed them once more, desiring to release Jesus, but they kept shouting, “Crucify, crucify him!” A third time he said to them, “Why? What evil has he done? I have found in him no guilt deserving death. I will therefore punish and release him.” But they were urgent, demanding with loud cries that he should be crucified. And their voices prevailed. (Luke 23:13-23)
When the crowd demands that he offer clemency to Barabbas instead of Jesus, Pilate once again tries to pass the responsibility back to the Jewish leaders:
When the chief priests and the officers saw him, they cried out, “Crucify him, crucify him!” Pilate said to them, “Take him yourselves and crucify him, for I find no guilt in him.” The Jews answered him, “We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die because he has made himself the Son of God.” When Pilate heard this statement, he was even more afraid. (John 19:6-8, ESV)
By this point, the Jewish leaders recognize that Pilate is trying to squirm out of executing Jesus and so they apply even more pressure, threatening to slander him before Caesar, and so Pilate finally gives in:
From then on Pilate sought to release him, but the Jews cried out, “If you release this man, you are not Caesar's friend. Everyone who makes himself a king opposes Caesar.” So when Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus out and sat down on the judgment seat at a place called The Stone Pavement, and in Aramaic Gabbatha. Now it was the day of Preparation of the Passover. It was about the sixth hour. He said to the Jews, “Behold your King!" They cried out, “Away with him, away with him, crucify him!” Pilate said to them, “Shall I crucify your King?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but Caesar.” So he delivered him over to them to be crucified. (John 19:6-16, ESV)
Some have claimed that the Gospels portray Pilate as hesitant about executing Jesus as a way of defaming Jews and/or currying favor with the Romans. And, unfortunately, Christians often have justified their antisemitism based on biblical passages involving Pilate, like this:
So when Pilate saw that he was gaining nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man's blood; see to it yourselves.” And all the people answered, “His blood be on us and on our children!” (Matthew 27:24-25, ESV)
Even so, it's important to remember the original context of such passages. The disciples who wrote the Gospels still saw themselves as faithful Jews and were appealing primarily to their Jewish kinsmen. Hints of God's judgment like this were never meant to be universalized; they were directed specifically at the religious elites of Jerusalem who had orchestrated Jesus' death. Moreover, the judgment that the Gospels hint at was considered to have been fulfilled by the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD (e.g., Matthew 24). Thus, while the writers of the Gospel may have been trying to condemn the Jewish leaders in Jesus' day, they never intended to justify violence against all Jews for the rest of history.
Nor are the Gospels presenting Pilate or Rome in a glowing light. The Gospels may not portray Pilate as a cruel and oppressive tyrant, but the way they do portray him - as a passive reed, blown about by the demands of fate and of the crowds - would have been even more embarrassing from a Roman perspective. Whereas Roman rulers would have typically fancied themselves to be powerful and in control, the Gospels subversively depict Pilate as an impotent victim, ruled by fear. That's why, when Pilate begins questioning him, Jesus turns the tables on him:
So Pilate entered his headquarters again and called Jesus and said to him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?” (John 18:33-34, ESV)
Pilate is supposed to be the one in charge; instead, Jesus points out that he's become nothing more than a mouthpiece for the accusations and concerns of the mob. More importantly, Jesus reminds Pilate that he is ultimately just a tool in the hands of God:
[Pilate] entered his headquarters again and said to Jesus, “Where are you from?” But Jesus gave him no answer. So Pilate said to him, “You will not speak to me? Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?” Jesus answered him, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above. Therefore he who delivered me over to you has the greater sin.” (John 19:9-11, ESV)
Though Pilate may believe that he is in charge and that he has the authority to make decisions about Jesus' fate, the Gospels suggest that he is merely a flunkie, under the ultimate rule and authority of God. For a man like Pilate, being depicted as passive and impotent would be far more insulting than being depicted as cruel and oppressive. Those who worship power don't mind being hated if it means that they will be feared and respected. And so the Gospels refuse to elevate Pilate by portraying him as cruel or oppressive. Instead, they make a mockery of his supposed power by highlighting Pilate's complete lack of control over the events leading to Jesus' death.
Pontius Pilate & His Wife in the Bible: What is Truth?
The portrayal of Pilate in the Gospels is not completely negative. The reason that Pilate comes across as impotent is because he allows himself to be pressured into executing Jesus. Pilate himself doesn't seem to want to crucify Jesus. While some of his attempts to pass Jesus off to others may have more to do with apathy or indecisiveness, there are clearly moments when he seems to be motivated by something more.
Pilate's internal struggle comes out most clearly in his private conversations with Jesus. Because the two are alone and Pilate doesn't have to worry about the intruding presence of the Jewish religious elites, he can honestly express some of his own thoughts and questions.
So Pilate entered his headquarters again and called Jesus and said to him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?” Pilate answered, “Am I a Jew? Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered you over to me. What have you done?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” Then Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate said to him, “What is truth?” After he had said this, he went back outside to the Jews and told them, “I find no guilt in him. (John 18:33-38, ESV)
Pilate's initial approach to Jesus is very practical. In order to determine whether Jesus is worthy of death, Pilate needs to figure out if he has committed the capital offense of treason by claiming to be a king in rivalry with Caesar. Jesus clarifies that, while he does claim a kingdom, it is not the same type of kingdom as Caesar. Jesus rules not through violence like Caesar but rather by witnessing to the truth, because the members of his kingdom recognize the truth and respond to his voice.
Pilate's response to Jesus, "What is truth?" is ambiguous and open to interpretation. Some have taken it as dismissive ("Bah, what is truth?"). Others have taken it as philosophizing, ("Ah, but what is truth?"). The fact that Jesus doesn't answer suggests that Pilate isn't asking an honest question in good faith. He's most likely labeled Jesus as a sage/philosopher and dismissed him as harmless, which is why he immediately goes out and declares that Jesus is not guilty.
Pilate is not spiritually astute enough to recognize that the Truth is actually standing right in front of him. Even so, he comes across as more astute than the religious elites, since he's at least able to recognize that Jesus is not guilty and does not pose a political threat.
We get even more insight into Pilate's mind in his second interview with Jesus:
The Jews answered him, “We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die because he has made himself the Son of God.” When Pilate heard this statement, he was even more afraid. He entered his headquarters again and said to Jesus, “Where are you from?” But Jesus gave him no answer. So Pilate said to him, “You will not speak to me? Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?” Jesus answered him, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above. Therefore he who delivered me over to you has the greater sin.” From then on Pilate sought to release him, but the Jews cried out, “If you release this man, you are not Caesar's friend. Everyone who makes himself a king opposes Caesar.” (John 19:7-12, ESV)
We're told that Pilate initiates this exchange because of fear induced by the claim that Jesus has made himself out to be the Son of God. In some cases, "Son of God" can be used as a synonym for "King" but in this context, Pilate clearly takes it as some kind of divine claim. Of course, in the context of Greco-Roman religion, there wasn't a single "Son of God." The Greek and Roman gods had numerous demigod children. Pilate has a clearer precedent for a human being a "son of God" than the Jewish leaders and that makes him much more open to Jesus' claim. In fact, Pilate takes the claim so seriously that he's afraid that by killing Jesus, he might end up angering the gods. When he asks Jesus, "Where are you from?", he clearly seems to be asking if Jesus is from earth or from heaven. When Jesus refuses to answer the question, Pilate become increasingly desperate, first in his questioning of Jesus and then in his attempts to get Jesus released.
The Gospel of Matthew adds an additional detail to the narrative that provides further context:
while [Pilate] was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent word to him, “Have nothing to do with that righteous man, for I have suffered much because of him today in a dream.” (Matthew 27:19, ESV)
Pilate's fear of Jesus appears to be informed by his wife's portentous dreams. In Greco-Roman mythology, the gods could send ominous dreams as a warning. This informs why Pilate becomes so reluctant to execute Jesus. He may not be a true spiritual seeker, but he has enough reverence to want to avoid bringing the wrath of the gods down upon himself. That doesn't make him a positive figure from the perspective of the Gospel writers, but it does put him in a more positive light than the religious elites.
Pontius Pilate in The Chosen: A Shrewd Snake or a Conflicted Lover of Peace?
The Chosen introduces us to Pilate for the first time during Episode 6 of Season 3. Although we only get a handful of scenes with the infamous governor, what the show does give us is enough to establish Pilate as a complex, at times even contradictory figure. On the one hand, we get several signs that Pilate is a shrewd and ruthless politician:
In his introductory scene, we see Pilate crucifying four men in front of his own private.
When his wife complains about it being too early, he flippantly asks what time is a good time to die and says, "I'm a governor, not a philosopher."
His wife warns that the emperor will be angry if he provokes a revolution by being too harsh
When Pilate tells his wife that he's going to meet with a friend, she says that he doesn't have any friends, only valuable contacts.
Later, in his conversation with Atticus, Pilate admits that he has been reprimanded for being too forceful and only takes issue with Quintus' forcefulness because it will give him less room to be forceful himself.
When Atticus suggests that Quintus might be a problem, Pilate flippantly jokes about killing him, and only pulls back after recognizing how effective Quintus is at generating revenue.
Perhaps most significantly, the show lingers on a shot of Pilate donning a snake-shaped armlet. This comes just after his wife's premonition in which Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane while a snake slithers menacingly toward him. This suggests that Pilate is a dangerous serpent on a collision course with the Messiah. Of course, in Scripture the serpent is also associated with the temptation of Adam and Eve to eat the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 3) and with the Satanic dragon that seeks to destroy God's people (Revelation 12).
But The Chosen doesn't paint Pilate as simple villain. In fact, the show goes out of its way to give us several reasons to root for him:
Pilate and his wife are both young, attractive, and affable
Contrary to what his wife says, Pilate's friendship with Atticus does seem to be genuine. While they may be talking business, Pilate shows genuine respect and affection for Atticus almost as a mentor or father figure.
Pilate has the humility to defer to Atticus' judgment concerning Jesus - and given the wisdom that we've seen Atticus show, that suggests good judgment on his part.
Pilate also seems to have genuine affection for Judea and seems quite content in his role (in contrast to the type of grasping ambition we might normally expect from someone in his role).
The only person Pilate speaks ill of is the High Priest Caiphas, a figure that the Gospels also portray in a negative light.
Pilate expresses a desire to keep the peace and protect his subjects by satisfying Rome.
We still have quite some time until Jesus' crucifixion and Pilate's big moment (my guess is that won't come until Season 6 or 7), and so the character has space to grow and change in significant ways. At this point, though, what's clear is that The Chosen does not intend to paint him in a completely negative light. Yes, Pilate is a calculating politician, who has no qualms with engaging in brutal violence. But he's not a monster. If we take his words as face value, it seems like he has good ends in mind (peace). The problem is that he's willing to do whatever it takes to get there.
Pilate's Wife in The Chosen: A Herald of Danger & a Voice of Conscience
We only got a brief scene with Pilate's wife, but what we did get is suggestive of the role that she will play going forward:
Her dream of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane will almost certainly not be the last. Although the Bible only suggests that she had one dream involving Jesus, giving her multiple dreams is a useful plot device. Assuming the crucifixion is still several seasons away, the show needs a way to make the threat to Jesus still feel imminent in order to maintain tension. These premonitions will allow The Chosen to periodically remind us of the coming danger.
After her dream, Pilate's wife scolds him for being too brutal and warns that Tiberius may come down upon him. In the biblical account, we know that her message warns him to not crucify Jesus, not only because she received a dream but also because he is a righteous man. It seems likely that the show is going to establish her as a voice of conscience and mercy hovering on his shoulder, combating against less wholesome voices.
My guess is that Pilate and his wife won't be appearing as regularly as other Roman characters like Atticus, Gaius, and Quintus. I'm interested to see how the show continues to develop their characters and how they will continue to grow over the next few seasons.
Did you notice anything else about Pilate or his wife that I didn't mention? Please share your thoughts, questions, and opinions in the comments below!
An adaptation like The Chosen isn't meant to replace the Bible; it's meant to drive us deeper into the Bible and spiritual reflection. The creators of The Chosen have published interactive Bible Studies that are meant to explore some of the Scripture and biblical themes that inspired the show and help viewers apply them to everyday life.
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If you liked this post, you might want to check out some of my other posts on The Chosen and Bible adaptation. I have Bible studies/discussion guides for each episode of The Chosen Seasons 1-3, blogs exploring how The Chosen adapts key biblical figures, and articles exploring the controversial nature of adaptation. I hope you enjoy them!
Artist Interviews (The Bible Artist Podcast)
The Chosen Season 4
The Chosen Season 3
Adapting Biblical Characters Series
Thomas & Ramah in The Chosen & Scripture ***Season 3***
Yussif, Jairus, & Shmuel in The Chosen ***Season 3***
Quintus, Gaius, Atticus, and the Romans in The Chosen ***Season 3 Update***
Little James in The Chosen & Scripture ***Season 3***
Pontius Pilate & his Wife in The Chosen ***Season 3***
Judas in The Chosen ***Season 3 Update***
Matthew in The Chosen ***Season 3 Update***
Simon and Andrew in The Chosen ***Season 3 Update***
Exploring The Chosen with Youth or Small Group [Discussion Guides]
How to Discuss The Chosen - and Why
Episode 1 Guide: Homecoming
Episode 2 Guide: Two by Two
Episode 3 Guide: Physician, Heal Thyself
Episode 4 Guide: Clean Part 1
Episode 5 Guide: Clean Part 2
Episode 6 Guide: Intensity in Tent City
Episode 7 Guide: Ears to Hear
Episode 8 Guide: The Feeding of the 5,000
Season 2 Reflection P1: What is The Chosen Season 2 about?
Season 2 Reflection P2: What was The Chosen Season 2 about? (Plots & Theme)
Episode 1 Guide: The Beloved Disciple
Episode 2 Guide: Philip, Nathanael, & Matthew
Episode 3 Guide: Life Among the Disciples of Jesus
Episode 4 Guide: Simon the Zealot & the Man at the Bethesda Pool
Episode 5 Guide: Mary's Demons & the Destiny of John the Baptist
Episode 6 Guide: Mercy and Not Sacrifice
Episode 7 Guide: Quintus Returns
Episode 8 Guide: Judas, Matthew, & the Sermon on the Mount
Episode 1 Guide: Mary Magdalene, Lilith, and the Redeemer
Episode 2 Guide: Mary Magdalene, Nicodemus, and Shabbat
Episode 3 Guide: Depicting Jesus in Art, Film, and TV
Episode 4 Guide: When Jesus Met Simon (Peter)
Episode 5 Guide: Mary, Mother of Jesus
Episode 6 Guide: Jesus, Shmuel, & the Pharisees
Episode 7 Guide: Did Nicodemus Follow Jesus?
Episode 8 Guide: The Woman at the Well, Eden, & Zohara
The Chosen Controversies Series
Themes & Theology of The Chosen [Exclusive for BMC Members]
Episode 1: What do we do when we are scared?
Episode 2: What is Shabbat for?
Episode 3: Who is Jesus?
Episode 4: What kind of man are you?
Beyond The Chosen
The Chosen: 9 Good Friday & Easter Episodes ***Season 3 Update***
Other Bible Adaptations
Recap & Review: His Only Son