If left to our own devices, Mom and I would have ad-libbed the entire way through Ben-Hur. One can’t help it. The former style of film-making, the grandiose melodrama that pervades each and every frame, and the absolute stupidity (at least to logical females) of Judah setting eyes on Esther and falling madly, desperately, violently, passionately in love with her. Just because she’s beautiful. Because we all know beauty lasts, right? But we restrained ourselves, mostly because now and again our snickering got us The Look from my dad. My dad does not give The Look often, so when it happens, we take notice.

But at one point, we could not resist. It came to our minds at the same moment, a simultaneous thought, and had to be expressed. Without even looking at one another, together we said with open horror, “… is Pilate gay??”

Each year around Easter it is the same question: what to watch? or watch anything at all? Each of our family members has seen The Passion at least once and for most of us, that was enough. This year I remembered giving my dad Ben-Hur at some point in time, so I suggested it. You may think given the nature of the first paragraph and our behavior that we do not like it, but that’s untrue — we do like it, very much, which enables us to poke some good-natured fun at it now and again. I had not actually watched it in five or six years, so it was a bit of a surprise to me how it unfolded and… yes, in its depiction of Pontius Pilate. Because you must admit, from the moment he enters the screen, there is something… uh… effeminate about him.

Ten years ago, this “wimpy” version of Pilate would not have made me look twice; I would merely have accepted it and thought nothing of it, but that was before I spent months researching the historical figure. I learned all that secular, religious, and theological history have to say about him. I plundered old text books, Catholic symbolism, historical references, recorded mentions, and horror of horrors, the internet. What I learned cast a different light on the man who has been “wussified” throughout history.

The real Pilate was no wimp. He was not even much of a politician. He was a military man — a brutal, ruthless, tyrannical governor who was hated and feared. Prior to his arrival in Judea, his heavy-handed actions as the governor of Crete raised brows in Rome. They sent him to Judea because he was one of the few military officials they believed could force the unstable region into submission. Judea was a thorn in their side and Pilate their last hope to halt rebellion. He did his best. In fact, shortly before Jesus’ trial, word came from the Emperor, Tiberius, that Pilate was to lessen his brutal tactics; his nemesis, Herod, had launched an official complaint that he was being too severe.

The presence of his wife is significant. Judea was an unstable region and certainly no place for a woman. Most governors left their wives and children in Rome, often not seeing them for years at a time. But Pilate took his wife, whom most scholars agree was named Claudia, with him. This implies two things: that he could not bear to be parted from her, and she was invaluable to him. Based on the evidence, it is logical to theorize his hesitation in condemning Jesus comes not only from his own reservations but the warning from his wife. His willingness to heed her advice implies this is not the first time she has advised him. (Could it have been that she was known for her prophetic dreams?) Her very existence shows us a different side of Pilate, one willing to some extent to be guided, and one who refused to enter Judea without her at his side.

Whenever I remark on my fondness for Pilate in public, I get a series of curious and almost accusing stares. I can read it in their eyes: how could you like the man who sent our Lord to his death?

Because I see more in him than just that; I see that he was caught in an impossible situation, and if left to his own devices, he would have let Jesus go — but Rome had warned him of punishment if there were further uprisings and there was the makings of a riot in his courtyard. Pilate clearly did not want to condemn Jesus — he attempted to convince them in every way possible of the man’s innocence. He offered them a choice between their Messiah and Barabbas, a notorious murderer and troublemaker who had brought no end of punishment and misery on the Jews. He had him beaten hoping that would satisfy them. But in the end, other than to risk political upheaval and repercussions from Rome,  going against his own conscience and his wife’s warning, Pilate washed his hands of the affair and played a significant role in the death of the Messiah.

History is certain of his existence, and many facts of his governorship both in Crete and Judea, but it loses him once he eventually returns to Rome. The explanations for his ultimate end are varied: some say he went mad with guilt, others that he retired to a distant island and lived out the remainder of his life apart from public officer, and a few believe he was so profoundly impacted by Christ’s death that he became a Christian martyr. I do not know what happened to Pilate. But standing in the presence of God’s Son changed everyone who came into contact with him, for no one went away untouched. Some, like the Sanhedrin, increased their hatred while others relinquished it and became followers. So whatever happened to Pilate, I know he was not the same man before he questioned the Messiah as he was after it.

And suffice to say, he bore little resemblance to the smarmy governor in Ben-Hur.