One of my favourite characters in the Passion story is Pontius Pilate. Perhaps it's because I spent a long rehearsal period studying him for a Passion play in which I took the role. As we were taught, I tried to step into this mysterious man, to understand him and, ultimately, to become a man who would act as he did.
At first, I had the image of Jack Thring, who played Pilate in Ben Hur: the curl of the lip, the perfect hair, the cynical imperial administrator. But, when I read and re-read the Gospel accounts, it seemed to me that there was a different side to the man as he is depicted there. So I turned to the historical Pilate. As ever, I ran into confusion and controversy, the usual tohu-bohu that seems to accompany all the academic and quasi-academic study of biblical history, historicity and historiography.
In the end, Pilate became another element in my hermeneutic: we are invited, as all through the Gospels, to look at him through Jesus' eyes and to look at Jesus with his. Jesus embodies forgiveness and compassion: who did he see when he looked at Pilate? Did he see him with the eyes of a member of an occupied land? with the eyes of the orthodox Jew who is polluted by contact with the goyim? I really doubt it.
Was I going to play Pilate as detached,. bored, annoyed, cowardly,even corrupt or venal? All these images have been peddled as explaining him. In my attempt to get inside the man, I wanted to find something different, something more, something to admire. And then two moments arrested me.
The first is 'my' question about truth. As I said it, learning my lines, my own experiences of asking it rose in memory. Back and back I went, until I came to realise that 'my' Pilate was asking a philosopher's question. Pilate the philosopher? Of course, as an educated Roman on the cursus honorum (thank you, Lindsey Davis), he would speak and read Greek, may have spent time in Athens and was addressing a Galilean. For years I have known that the Galilee was, at that period, at least as hellenised as jewish (cf. Burton L. Mack The Lost Gospel). Was Pilate addressing another educated man with a standard Socratic question? And is this why the evangelist gives us the incident?
And then, today, as I was washing my hands, I found myself reciting Psalm 25, from the Mass, Lavabo inter innocentes manus meas (how often the memories of my days as an altar boy come back to me!) and thought of Pilate again. He washed his hands. Among the innocent? Pilate the innocent, not Pilate the hypocrite. Pilate the beloved of Jesus, not Pilate the weak.
When I did play Pilate, I tried to bring something of that humanity to the role, alongside, too, with the vanity and self-regard which would be the natural attitude of the Emperor's representative. Reactions were good, I'm glad to say, although my silent clowning as Zachary got more laughs in Foxes Have Holes, our later Nativity play.
My thanks and love go out to Lisa Done who directed the passion play at Holy Trinity. She may have disappeared into the Antipodes but she stays in my prayers and the hope that all goes well with her.