John 19 records the events of Jesus’ trial before Pilate: “6 As soon as the chief priests and their officials saw him, they shouted, “Crucify! Crucify!” But Pilate answered, “You take him and crucify him. As for me, I find no basis for a charge against him.” 7 The Jewish leaders insisted, “We have a law, and according to that law he must die, because he claimed to be the Son of God.” 8 When Pilate heard this, he was even more afraid, 9 and he went back inside the palace. “Where do you come from?” he asked Jesus, but Jesus gave him no answer. 10 “Do you refuse to speak to me?” Pilate said. “Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?” 11 Jesus answered, “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above. Therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.” 12 From then on, Pilate tried to set Jesus free, but the Jewish leaders kept shouting, “If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar.”
While some commentators view the governor’s fear to be linked to the possibility of riot or tumult. There argument stems from linking John’s account with that of Matthew 27:23-24 – “. . .But the mob roared even louder, “Crucify him!” Pilate saw that he wasn’t getting anywhere and that a riot was developing.” While such political fears may be part of the issue, it ignores the thrust of John’s point. Pilate became afraid at the idea that Jesus was the Son of God. As a Roman knight, he would be educated enough to have a firm appreciation of his own religion and legends. Hercules and others were said to be sons of gods, and Pilate didn’t want to fall foul of the divine.
Such a view is supported by Benson’s commentary: “For it is very well known, that the religion which the governor professed directed him to acknowledge the existence of demi-gods and heroes, or men descended from the gods. Nay, the heathen believed that their gods themselves sometimes appeared on earth, in the form of men . . . (Benson).”
Cyril of Alexandria mirrors this: “The malicious design of the Jews had a result they little expected. They wanted to build up an indictment against Christ by saying that he had ventured to sin against the person of God himself. But the weighty character of the accusation itself increased Pilate’s caution, and he was more alarmed and more careful concerning Christ than before. He became more particular in his questions: what Jesus was and where he came from. I think he believed that, though Jesus was a man, he might also be the Son of God. This idea and belief of his was not derived from holy Scripture but the mistaken notions of the Greeks. Greek fables call many men demi-gods and sons of gods. The Romans, too, who in such matters were still more superstitious, gave the name of god to the more distinguished of their own monarchs, and set up altars to them, and allotted them shrines and put them on pedestals. Therefore Pilate was more earnest and anxious than before in his inquiry of who Christ was and where he came from (Commentary on the Gospel of John, XII).”
Here is a challenge for us today. We face a world skeptical of the vary name of God. Oh, “powers, forces, and the supernatural” all seem well and good, but the idea of God is seen as a fable. Yet on Mars’ Hill, Paul started with these”supernatural” notions to lead his audience to God. It is for us (as I have written before) to meet people where they are. To build on the starting points they possess. Even a Roman governor, who was known to ignore Jewish and Samaritan cultural scruples and beliefs was influenced by having his own beliefs being pricked.
Remember, everyone believes something. If we live our beliefs and demonstrate that they are true in our lives; and if we appeal to and sympathetically challenge the beliefs of others, we can stir hearts and consciences.