BLOG — Living Pilate, Living Christ
- Published: September 28, 2017
I was bouncing on my older sister’s bed when I first heard it. Probably ’82 or ’83. Barry Dennen’s voice counting out the thirty-nine lashes in Jesus Christ Superstar‘s “Trial before Pilate.” I’d later learn that the gospels do not give a particular number, but we know from the testimony of Paul that threats to the empire were met with the forty lashes minus one.
Because, you know, forty will kill ya’.
I have a memory of asking Melissa why and she replied, “Because he loved too much.” I don’t know if that’s what she really said. As someone living with bipolar disorder, I’ve come to learn that I have both repressed and manufactured memories. This might be fabricated in terms of a literal telling of the what happened, but it is most accurate in describing how Barry Dennen’s Pilate and Ted Neeley’s Jesus provide foundational bricks in the house that God built in Aaron.
Who is this broken man cluttering up my hallway?
Historically, Pontious Pilate (Πόντιος Πιλάτος) came from the Ponti family. They were equestrians who, after the colossal failure of Herod Archelaus in managing Judea (the southernmost territory that included Jerusalem), were placed in charge. Their titles varied: governor, prefect, procurator. They were military commanders, but only of armies numbering approximately 3,000 soldiers. If they needed more, they’d have to call upon the legate of Syria. Pilate was the fifth such Ponti prefect, and he reigned from 26-36 C.E.
The ancient historians Philo Judaeus andFlavius Josephus, both Hellenized Jews, write of Pilate. He was quite the peach. Philo describes Pilate as having δικαιοσύνη και έξαρση, vindictiveness and a divo-like temper. Of his rule, Philo writes that Pilate is great, except for his corruption, his cruelty, his incessant need to insult people, and his propensity for murder. You take that away, and you have yourself an inflexible ideologue. And who doesn’t love that? 
Josephus tells a number of chilling tales. Like how when Pilate, coming into Jerusalem the night before his first day on the job, flew the Roman standards and banners. This was a problem for the Jews, given that whole graven images thing. The Romans knew this, which is why they did not fly said standards (instead they just taxed the people to death without providing them the protections that come with citizenship). When morning had broken, the people discovered them and began a nonviolent protest. John Dominic Crossan calls it the first documented sit-in. Pilate responded by threatening to kill the people, who in response bared their necks as if to say, “Go for it.” I imagine Pilate thought, I probably don’t want to slaughter 2,000 Jews right before Passover. I imagine Caesar would not be happy. The standards were removed, but Pilate’s anger had just begun.
Next, he raided the Temple treasury to build the aqueducts. Aqueducts, good. Stealing from God? Not good. Imagine that you’re at First Presbyterian and the collection has been gathered. I have placed the monies on the altar and dedicated them to God. At that point, that money does not belong to those who offered it, nor does it belong to me. If I want a Diet Pepsi, I’m gonna have to use my own money. I can’t swipe a couple bucks and tell God I’m good for it. Nope, God ain’t footing the bill.
Now imagine if Village Manager Patti Bates (a good friend who would never do this but just think of her as the image of our immediate governmental power) walked down the aisle, bounced up the steps, and took the contents of the offering plates. I believe flummoxed is the best word to describe how I might feel.
Pilate stole God’s money with nary a regret to be found.
Finally, think about this: Pilate was recalled to Rome for unusual cruelty. From Rome, just about the most brutal empire in history. And as someone with a formidable education regarding the ancient world, I do not write this as a throw-away line. Pilate was so brutal even the Romans were like, Dude. Seriously. Switch to decaf.
There is no historical consensus about what happened to Pilate. He was recalled to face Tiberius, who had died by the time old Ponty landed in Rome. There are accounts that he committed suicide, others that he was deposed to Gaul. The former would have been better than the latter, something that is difficult to understand in our modern context.
Suicide was a way to restore family honor. Being deposed meant you were away from your gods, and away from the protection of Rome.
We both have truths. Are mine the same as yours?
So why do the gospels pain Pilate so differently than how he was in reality? For survival.
The earliest gospel, Mark , was written around 70 C.E. That was four decades after Jesus’ crucifixion, and right during the First Roman-Jewish War (c. 66-72) . The destruction of the First Jerusalem Temple, better known as Solomon’s Temple, in 586 B.C.E. had changed the religion greatly. It had come to be defined by the presence of a Davidic king on the throne, possession of the land promised to Abraham’s descendants, and by continuous sacrifices in the Temple. That was all lost.
What emerged was the original “religion of the book.” Social justice prophets warned that God had grown tired of empty sacrifices and mindless rituals. God cared more about a circumcised heart than he did a circumcised penis. Externals are meaningless if they are not born of an internal change. The Torah—Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy—started to be centered. No matter what the physical destruction, a Torah held in the heart cannot be destroyed.
With the destruction of the Second Temple, the priestly class was eliminated. The Pharisees, the experts on Torah and of Midrash (interpretation) were the forerunners to rabbinical Judaism. We see throughout the scriptures that Jesus had continual conflict with them, which seems unlikely because they didn’t really exist outside of Jerusalem during Jesus’ lifetime. Certainly, Jesus’ immediate followers and subsequent generations clashed with the religious authorities.
And they were the ones who wrote the stories. Remember, Paul never knew the historical Jesus.
Think about it, then. Are you really going to write a story about your God that ends with, and then the Romans killed him. But don’t worry, we’re not bitter or anything. We’re no threat to you, Rome. Seriously? Not likely.
The onus is shifted to the Jewish authorities and then, unfortunately to the whole Jewish people in perpetuity. But the main point of the authors was to get the focus off of them. You don’t have to worry, Rome. This is just an internecine fight between a bunch of Jews.
I dreamed I met a Galilean, a most amazing man…
When Marcia Nowik directed YSHS’s production of Jesus Christ Superstar, I was cast as Pilate. Before I knew all the historical information above, I knew Pilate as Barry Dennen. Barry, who along with others, was responsible for Barbara Streisand’s cabaret career. Barry who was a mainstay on Broadway. Barry who gave voice to the tortured Pilate of JCS.
There’s a song, “Pilate’s Dream,”  that has the most beautiful fingerpicking guitar part. My dear friend and professional cellist, Matt Agnew, played it in our production. Each night, it was this intimate moment. Me and him. Matt and his wife Vanessa named their eldest son after me. It is one of our most treasured memories, those four minutes for six performance in 1994.
During rehearsals, Marcia would yell at me, “Aaron, you’re trying to sound like Barry Dennen, and I want you to sound like Pilate!” All I could think was, you think I really sound like Barry Dennen?!?! Score!!
Think about it this way: both David Bowie and Barry Dennen portrayed Pilate, the former in The Last Temptation of Christ. How often does David Bowie play second fiddle to anyone else?
I met Ted Neeley, better known as Jesus, and Barry when the Little Art brought them to the village. Gilah Pomeranz and Shep Anderson bought me a VIP pass. But the night before, I was able to see them at Sunrise Cafe. Within minutes, I was stripped to my shirtsleeves showing them my JCS tattoo. It is in honor of the rock opera, but also of my brother, Stephen. His battle with paranoid schizophrenia ended in suicide. When I got the call that his body had been found, I was watching JCS.
Stephen’s death sparked my career in biblical studies with my master’s thesis cum book, The Many Deaths of Judas Iscariot: A Meditation on Suicide.
In the tattoo, masterfully done by Tony Siemer of Totem Tattoo and Gallery, the angels are overseeing a fire. The flames of Stephen’s memory that my angels keep burning inside of me.
I live for two people. Have since October 12, 2002.
I gave Ted and Barry each a copy of the book, inscribed with personalized messages. They both showed genuine interest in the lives of those they were meeting. I told Barry how important a role he had played in my life. He accepted the words with grace and appreciation. I never felt like he was anything other than a genuinely kind, humorous, and insanely talented person.
Then, he and Ted then said the most remarkable thing.
“We think the love story in Superstar is between Pilate and Jesus.”
At the time, I had to bite back my biblical scholar retort, not historically! Instead, I listened.
Barry said something to the effect of, “Pilate sees who Jesus is; he understands the gravity of what is happening, but he also believes in Rome. He knows what his duty entails, and he has to make the most painful choice of his life.”
Don’t let me stop your great self-destruction
The Christian hope is rooted in the idea that the empire can be loving, compassionate, just, and reliable. To paraphrase Crossan once more, when Jesus is talking about God’s kin-dom, he is asking us to imagine what it might look like if God sat on the throne of Caesar.
Barry Dennen brought that to life in ways that no one else could. Watch the film. Every gesture, every sneer, every plaintive look is perfect. His voice was singular in its tone, and in the way he could vacillate between delicateness (where are you from Jesus? what do you want, Jesus? tell me) and enraged power (how can you stay quiet? I don’t believe you understand!). Any recording of Barry sweeps the listener along, forcing them on an emotional journey. It becomes impossible to not feel sympathy for Pilate.
The historical Pilate deserves no sympathy, and I frankly don’t think that he had a moment’s hesitation in executing Jesus.
But Dennen’s Pilate? He brought to life the foundational faith confession in Christianity: that when we’re confronted with the reality of God, we see the brutality of systems that allow corrupted, wholly unsuitable leaders to destroy lives. And we change.
When Barry’s Pilate screams, “Don’t let me stop your great self-destruction,” he’s not talking to just Jesus. He’s talking to all of us. Let us destroy these selves that keep us aligned with an empire, a kin-dom, that does not comport with God’s requirements. We die to ourselves so that we may live in Christ.
When we are confronted with the reality of God, we understand that saying Black Lives Matter is not synonymous with saying other lives don’t matter. Of course, they do but it is the oppressed and the subjugated whom Jesus calls us to see as beloved. If Pilate’s heart can be melted, imagine what God can do for you?
I was scheduled to Skype with Ted earlier this week for an interview about his return to the Little Art. A bad cold caused me to push it to a later date, and then we found out about Barry’s passing. Gilah called me, tearfully, and told me the news. She then added that Barry was planning on coming back to YS. He loved it here and he wanted to see everyone he met once again. Ted didn’t know. It was going to be a surprise. That pushed me over the edge into ugly crying.
I had a magical moment with Ted a couple years back. We found ourselves alone, and I asked him how he had the energy to greet people hour after hour, all the while making each person feel like the rest of the world had dropped away. Ted shows such intense interest in people, not as an affectation but because that is who he is.
Ted responded something to the effect of, “when I realized this thing was going to be really big, I made a promise to God. I said, ‘God if you let me do this in my life, I will give it my all, each and every day.'”
Right?! Like, if a guy is going to play the European-looking Jesus for five decades, you want it to be Ted Neeley. He is Christ’s ishta-deva for this age.
I think Ted’s ability to have such a deep emotional well is owed in no small part to Carl Anderson, of blessed memory, who for me defined Judas. Nothing against Murray Head, but I’m on Team Carl. Yvonne Elman, who, like Barry, sang her role of Mary Magdalene on he concept album, the Broadway recording, and the film. The pictures from the largest cast reunion in decades, held on the same tour that brought the lads to us here, show Ted radiating, energized by the love they all still have for one another.
I sense though that Ted’s biggest love story was with Barry. I cannot begin to fathom the breadth and depth of Ted’s loss and sorrow. I’m not claiming intimate knowledge of these incredible performers, but I am a pastor and I work a lot with people, and I have to imagine that Ted refilled his well countless times by being with Barry. They’ve told the same stories, talked about and performed the same rock opera, for five decades.
And they still loved it because they did it together.
In the biblical narrative, we are left with the impression that Pilate won’t know what to do with a Jesus-less world. Right now, I think Ted, our cultural Jesus, is wondering how he is going to live without Pilate.
Thich Nhat Hahn wrote a wonderful book, Living Buddha, Living Christ. The title works on multiple levels, but right now I’m understanding it as living like Buddha or Christ. Or in our case, like Pilate and Christ. Living Barry, living Ted.
Ted is scheduled to return to the Little Art November 10-12. First Presbyterian Church is partnering with the Little Art to do a sing-a-long during Holy Week. Let us praise Barry’s incredible life through song. Because if we don’t the rocks and stones themselves will start to sing!
* Am I the only one reading this description and thinking, “Wait a minute! Are you sure Pilate’s dead? Because there’s this guy in the Oval Office…”? Asking for a friend.
 🎶 Like the first moooorning 🎶 Did I earworm ya’?!
 Stay tuned for my upcoming book, Mark as Manifesto: The Autobiography of a Gospel, to be published in 2018.
 I prefer the later dating of 72 C.E. because it takes into account the two years the Romans had to spend building a giant ramp to take Masada. Generally, historians consider the destruction of the Second Jerusalem Temple–located where the Dome of the Rock is presently located–and the razing of the entire city as the end of the war.
 According to scripture, it was actually his wife’s dream.