Roman governors had enormous power as representatives of Rome. They enforced Roman interests and defended the hierarchical social order. They exercised military, political, social, judicial, and economic control, often in exploitative and harsh ways, for the benefit of the elite.
Pilate’s enormous "life and death" power should shape how we read the gospel narratives of Jesus’ crucifixion. Pilate is not a neutral or weak or minor character. He is not forced to crucify Jesus by the Jerusalem leaders against his will. He crucifies Jesus because it is in Rome’s interests to do so, interests he is charged with protecting and furthering.
Jesus dies by a distinctly Roman form of execution. Rome did not usually delegate the right to impose the death penalty to provincial leaders. It was Pilate’s decision.
Crucifixion was reserved for low-status defendants, not for Roman citizens and members of the elite. It made an example of those who threatened the Roman social order: runaway slaves, those who attacked the property of the powerful rich, those who committed treason by claiming power and rule not authorized by Rome. Jesus’ crucifixion indicates that he is perceived by the ruling elite to pose a threat to the status quo.
Jesus proclaimed the "empire of God." The noun translated as "kingdom" or "reign" is used in other writings to refer to various empires including Rome’s. His announcement threatens Rome’s empire with a rival way of restructuring the world. He is understood to claim to be "king of the Jews," a title that only Rome could award to safe and loyal elite allies. Rome killed others who claimed such a role without Rome’s blessing. He attacks the Jerusalem temple, the center of power for the Jerusalem leaders, Rome’s allies, and a key institution in maintaining the vast inequalities of wealth and power. Jesus does not die as a poor, innocent, person mistreated by a weak Pilate. He dies as a subversive threat to Rome’s system. Pilate decides to put him to death for Rome’s sake.5
Pilate and the Jerusalem leaders are allies. Making alliances with local leaders was a common strategy Rome used to rule its empire. Along with taxes and military power, alliances with provincial elites were an effective way of establishing control. Mutual interests of wealth, power, and status held these aristocratic alliances together under Roman control.
The Roman governor appointed the high priests in Judea. The chief priest Caiaphas was a political appointment who held power at the pleasure of his Roman masters. Of course, there were tensions and struggles within these alliances. But together, the Roman governor and the local Jerusalem leaders sought to maintain Rome’s imperial system in which about three percent of the population ruled for their own benefit at the expense of the rest.6
Maintaining this alliance required good political skills. If the Jerusalem leaders view Jesus as a threat to their power, Pilate knows to take their concern very seriously. Their interests are Pilate’s interests.
But there are other political games to play. On one hand, Pilate needs to keep them happy by granting their request to remove Jesus. In Matthew and Mark, he and the Jerusalem leaders cooperate in manipulating the crowd into calling for Jesus’ death, thereby expressing and accomplishing the elite’s will. Pilate can execute a kingly claimant as the people’s will without fearing unrest and reprisals. On the other hand, he needs to show the provincial leaders that as the Roman governor he is their superior and that they are dependent on him. John’s account especially highlights this dimension where Pilate seems to taunt them about their dependent status and skillfully solicits from them an amazing declaration of loyalty to the emperor (John 19:15). In Luke’s account, he makes them beg him to execute Jesus while ensuring that no rift develops in the alliance.
Roman justice often operated on the basis that the punishment would fit the person. A bias toward the elite and against low status people existed in the administration of Roman "justice."7 As governor, Pilate administers justice to protect the elite’s interests against a low status, provincial peasant/artisan like Jesus.
A scene in Matthew, for example, provides commentary on this legal bias. When Jesus is handed over to Pilate in 27:1-2, the narrative switches to Judas. Verse 3 of chapter 27 begins, "When Judas his betrayer saw that he (Jesus) was condemned…". The choice of verb is telling. There has been no "trial" yet, no announcement of condemnation. But Judas concludes from the handing over of Jesus to Pilate that Jesus is as good as dead. Like any low status person, Judas knows that the system will make sure of it.
The biggest challenge for Pilate in crucifying Jesus comes from the risk of unrest from Jesus’ supporters. In executing a "wannabe" king, Pilate runs the risk of provoking social unrest and dreams of freedom, especially at Passover. In several gospel accounts, Pilate questions the crowds about what to do with Jesus. He does so not because he is unsure about Jesus the king or unwilling to put him to death. Rather, he is testing levels of support for Jesus. He polls the crowd. He questions the crowd to find out how extensive and how solid is their support for Jesus.
Manipulated by the Jerusalem leaders at work among the crowd and intimidated by Pilate’s power, the crowd expresses support for Pilate’s action. The gospel narratives show Pilate to be an astute governor in administering Roman justice.
Pilate, then, has a central role in the crucifixion of Jesus. Jesus’ death comes about in ways typical of Roman imperial control. An astute and powerful Roman governor, Pilate works with his allies, the Jerusalem leaders, to remove a threat to their power and to their vision of society.