Top 10 Ways that Mel's Passion Isn't As It Was, Number 3...

3. Pilate was not the sensitive, thoughtful ruler portrayed in the film.

Note: one of my main source articles has been pulled. The MSNBC article Who Killed Jesus? is no longer available, and all my links to it are no longer working. Whoops. I'll fix that later on.

In Mr. Gibson's Passion, Pilate will be a sensible, fair-minded ruler who becomes flummoxed by the Jewish reaction to Jesus. Mystified by the intense reaction to this peaceful man, Gibson's Pilate will attempt to placate the Jewish mob by scourging him, but will then provide towels for Jesus' mother Mary to wipe the blood from her son's body. This is a Pilate afraid of his subjects, whose good nature is exploited by the machinations of Caiaphas.

This view of Pilate is an entirely modern idea. The Gospels do present him as a clueless vacillator, manipulated at every turn by Caiaphas and the chief priests. Both ideas, however, don't measure up to the evidence we have of Pilate outside these accounts, written decades after the events in Jerusalem. Pilate's record has been preserved for us by two other historians of the time: Josephus and Philo.

They present several episodes in which Pilate antagonized the Jewish people under his rule. Sometimes he would relent without violence, but an merciless attack wasn't beyond him. One episode, in which he attacked protestors of his building an aqueduct with Temple money, suggests that he was using the aqueduct project to loot the treasury.

There are two different incidents where images of Caesar were erected in Jerusalem, but both could be misunderstandings. Some people point to the coins he minted (Jewish and Roman symbols) as evidence that he was antagonistic, others point to the benign nature of the imagery (no heads of Caesar, for example) and say he was accomodating.

The best verdict on Pilate's leadership? He did take measures to avoid offending the Jews needlessly, but when things got out of hand, he had no problem in rolling out the soldiers. Rome's strength was allowing local provinces to maintain local rule as much as possible, but with difficult provinces like Judea, Rome liked to see a strong ruler with a ready hand to put down rebellion close at hand. This is what Pilate was - the muscle for Rome's authority.

Was he successful? He held onto his position for ten years (when the standard term was twelve), but after another violent attack on a Messianic mob in Samaria, Pilate was recalled to Rome in 36 CE. We don't know anything more about him - it's suggested that he was forced into suicide by Caligula.

So Pilate, at best, can be seen as a tough leader willing to accomodate his people to a point, but standing ready to lash out with maximum prejudice if he saw a threat to Roman order in Judea. He would not have been someone to push around.

(Why do the Gospels present Pilate the way they do? The main reason for the skew is that Christians involved in squabbles with Jewish communities around Rome needed to placate the Roman leaders who might try to intervene. Their scriptures, therefore, showed a weak Roman leader who couldn't stand up to the Jews. This would encourage other Roman leaders to show some backbone and decide things in a way more favorable to Christians. As you can see, Pilate was nobody's milquetoast.)