4 min read

Pilate: a lord of misrule

Agents of chaos still inhabit our world today.

George is a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics and an Anglican priest.

A balcony scene viewed behind shows a Roman ruler leaning over a balcony to the crowd while gesturing to a semi-naked Christ.
Ecce homo – behold the man.
Antonio Ciseri, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

I’ve had a lot of Pontius Pilate in my life lately. And this week he’s set to play arguably the second-biggest role in human history, as the Passion of the Christ reaches its climax on Good Friday. 

The reason I’ve been spending a lot of time with Pilate is that I’ve done a podcast about him for Things Unseen, which sounds like a sister operation for this platform, but isn’t. Its title was Pontius Pilate: A man like us and addressed the question “Was the man who sent Jesus to the cross evil or merely weak?” 

I’m accustomed to Pilate being a paradigm for flawed human leadership – vain, indecisive, distracted, cowardly. A former archdeacon of London, the Ven. Lyle Dennen, had a very good stock sermon entitled “Pontius Pilate’s Brother”, in which he recalled that his elder sibling had played Pilate in a school play. 

Consequently, the headmaster had made a habit of greeting little Lyle in the corridor with the words: “Ah, if it isn’t Pontius Pilate’s brother.” It was an engaging way to develop the thought that we’re all Pilate’s brothers and sisters, collectively executing the Christ on a daily basis. 

My fellow podcast panellist, the novelist and musician Chibundu Onuzo, was having none of this “Pilate inside us” stuff, making the case for his particular circumstantial weakness. It’s a good listen. But it’s set me thinking, since we recorded it a fortnight ago, a whole lot more about the local Roman procurator, the man who has history’s worst morning at the office.

I’ve come to consider that there is a third way, a via media, between this being a verbatim transcript and a metaphor for his judgment by worldly authorities.

The veracity of Pilate’s gospel role is hotly disputed. He’s undoubtedly a real historical figure, as is Jesus of Nazareth, and his jurisdiction presided over the crucifixion of the latter. Beyond that, the interpretation of his scriptural role varies.  

Perhaps it was written back, particularly in John’s gospel, as a means of exculpating the repressive Romans of Jesus’s death and putting the blame firmly on the Jews (with very terrible historical consequences). 

If that is even partly so, we’re invited to view Pilate’s interrogation of Jesus in his palace allegorically; especially around Pilate’s rhetorical question of Jesus, “What is truth?”, when the answer is literally standing right in front of him and from which he doesn’t even bother to await an answer. 

So if this gospel section contains the kind of truth that the Nazarene’s parables held, what is it meant to tell us? I’ve come to consider that there is a third way, a via media, between this being a verbatim transcript and a metaphor for his judgment by worldly authorities.

Pilate, as he faces the mob bent of insurrection and baying for blood outside the praetorium, is an agent of worldly chaos too, a lord of misrule 

Before I left for a holiday in the Balkans early this month, I decided on a book to take with me. Should I re-read Ann Wroe’s excellent Pilate: The biography of an invented man, in preparation for the podcast? No, I thought, there’s plenty of time for that. So I took a novel I’ve been meaning to read for decades, Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita

Alarmingly, it turns out that Bulgakov’s novel has a recurrent deconstructive sub-plot of the fate of Pilate running throughout it. This was the sort of coincidence of which we’re taught to be suspicious at theological college. So I paid attention. 

The book’s main narrative is a satire of Stalin’s post-revolutionary Russia. Satan, in the character of Woland, visits Moscow to see how things are going. Death and destruction ensue, as Woland and his weird retinue cause havoc. Yet, along the way (spoiler alert), he reconciles a crazed and failed author (the Master) to the love of his life (Margarita), which is not a bad thing to do. 

A lot of it is in the rather annoying style of magic realism. But annoyance is a point. The work of a devil in human affairs is annoying, but it doesn’t have the last word, just as Pilate doesn’t. 

What I took from this novel was the darkness of chaos before the divine order that is brought in the act of creation, from which humanity constantly falls back into chaos.  

Woland isn’t really evil (he’s quite kind to Margarita and may even be in love with her), he’s just the agent of chaos, like Pilate. A lord of misrule, if you will. 

We have many such agents of chaos in the world, from US and European politics, to Russia (again) and Ukraine, from Israel and Gaza to the famine of Sudan and the global technological interference of China.  

Pilate, as he faces the mob bent of insurrection and baying for blood outside the praetorium, is an agent of worldly chaos too, a lord of misrule. But as Bulgakov’s novel tells us, he can be redeemed. 

The difference between him and us is that we have the benefit of hindsight. When we ask despairingly, like him, on all the Good Fridays that afflict the world, “What is truth?”, we may not (also like him) recognise it. 

But, unlike him, we have the chance finally to recognise that truth, as it stands right in front of us on Easter morning.  

6 min read

The rest is Luther

Can popular podcasts really do justice? The expert’s verdict is in.

Graham is the Director of the Centre for Cultural Witness and a former Bishop of Kensington.

Two podcast hosts in different rooms appear on a split screen talking to each other
Tom Holland and Dominic Sandbrook rank Luther's influence.

I’m not one of those who listens to every episode of The Rest is History - does anyone do that with the sheer volume of material they produce? Yet when I see something that interests me – 1970s Britain, the Lost Library of Alexandria, the Easter Rising of 1916, I’m in. So, when I saw they were doing a series on Martin Luther, I just had to listen.  

With much of what they cover, take the Lost Library of Alexandria for example, I wouldn’t really know whether they were telling the truth or not, having a passing interest and only a vague knowledge of the topic. Yet this one was different, because, without wanting to blow any trumpets, I do know a fair bit about Luther. I’ve written a doctorate, a biography and a couple of other books on him, lectured on Luther at Oxford University for many years, and spent a lot of time in libraries, poring over his commentaries and treatises, wading my way through dense books by German scholars picking apart the most minute aspects of his theology. 

 Very often when you hear something on the TV or radio that you know something about, you realise the journalists are winging it. They get away with it because no-one knows any better. So, I wondered this time, would I see through the boys on the podcast, and realise they were winging it too?  

They made the Reformation sound and feel the dramatic and earth-shaking movement that it was. 

Well, my admiration for Dominic Sandbrook and Tom Holland went up massively. I once asked Tom whether they had an army of researchers doing their work for them and he told me they didn’t - they read most of the stuff themselves.  So, to have them do five episodes on a topic that is not necessarily their specialist subject and get pretty much all of the story not just right, but really interesting, is quite an achievement. They made the Reformation sound and feel the dramatic and earth-shaking movement that it was.  

They normally recount history with a good dose of humour, drama and colour. That is taken for granted. They know how to tell a good story. However, they also really know their stuff. Tom led the way, and I must say, told the story with a level of detail, accuracy and sympathy that was quite remarkable. They clearly enjoyed it too – they loved his earthiness, his preoccupation with the devil and excrement that is so distinctively Luther. 

Martin Luther, as they said at the end, was no saint. He was a man of extremes. He could inspire devoted loyalty from his friends, and fury from his enemies in equal measure. He was never dull. He always said his besetting sin was anger – he claimed to write best when he was cross. That explains the vituperative language, the skill at invective, his genius for insults. He said terrible things about the peasants and even worse things about the Jews. Yet he launched a movement that brought fresh dignity and purpose to countless people across Europe and beyond – he can be said to have touched the lives of the one billion Protestants in the world today. He literally changed the world. And Tom and Dominic helped us understand why. 

Definitely a nine out of ten.  

But why not ten? 

Well, I did have one small quibble. Luther was portrayed as someone who struggled to know that God loved him. So far, so good. His great breakthrough was described by the excellent Holland as “a personal experience of God”, whereby Luther found “a feeling of being washed in the love of God.” Luther’s new discovery was that “If God loves you, you exist in a state of grace… which is a feeling that Christ is present in you, in your secretmost heart, and the certainty of that grace gives you a peace of conscience.”  

Now there is something of that in Luther, and it was close, but it’s not quite the way he would have put it.  

Luther is really not that interested in experiences of God. In fact, he distrusts them. in 1521, a group of prophets arrived in Wittenberg from a small town called Zwickau claiming experiences of God, but Luther was having none of it. He asked about their experience – but not whether they had experienced the love of God, but whether they had experienced his absence. Had they experienced what Luther called Anfechtung – the experience of feeling God is against you, when you struggle with temptation, are driven to despair, when God doesn’t answer your prayers, and when all you know is your own shame, sin, and disgrace? What do you do then?  

And that’s why the Bible was important to him – as an existential anchor when the storms of life hit. 

The reason he asked about this was that such experiences so often are the things that help bring faith to birth, because they press the question of who you trust in such times – your own feelings of inadequacy? Or God’s word that tells you something different? 

Luther found peace of conscience, not in some unmediated experience of the love of God for him, but in hearing afresh the Word which God had spoken to the human race in Jesus Christ. Against all the odds, and despite his frequent experience of God’s absence rather than his presence, God had sent his Son, as a pledge once and for all, that God’s heart was full of love and kindness. In sending Christ, God had given himself (or technical language, his ‘righteousness’) to us in Christ, and the only fitting response, is simply to believe and trust that this is true, whereby that ‘righteousness’ becomes ours. We are therefore, in Luther’s classic and paradoxical phrase, ‘both righteous and sinful’ at the same time 

He once put it like this: “God achieves his purposes through suffering, pain and anxiety. Yet of course these are not the things in which you expect to find God. As a result, most people do not recognise this as God’s work, because they expect God only to be revealed in glory, grandeur and splendour. The way God works confounds human expectations and so, faith is needed to see past the appearance of things to their true reality.” 

This was the doctrine of justification by faith – not trying to be extra religious or having ecstatic experiences of God but simply trusting your life on the notion that Jesus is God’s great gift the the world, a gift that tells us he is, despite everything that may point in the other direction, full of love and goodness – and not just to the human race in general, but to you, to me. And that’s why the Bible was so important to Luther – as an existential anchor when the storms of life hit. 

This is what gave Luther joy. It was not that an experience gave birth to faith, but it was the other way round: trusting God’s promise in Christ gave birth to the joy that comes from faith.  

Tom and Dominic did a fantastic job in their series on Luther. I really recommend you listen to it – you won’t regret it. But just remember Luther was more interested in faith than feeling:

“Faith is a living, bold trust in God’s grace, so certain of God’s favour that it would risk death a thousand times trusting in it. Such confidence and knowledge of God's grace makes you happy, joyful and bold.”  


The Rest is History on YouTube. Martin Luther: The Man Who Changed The World, Part 1.