Friday, May 22, 2009

The Historical Pontius Pilate

One of the reasons why some scholars reject the gospel trial narratives as historical is to be found in their conclusion that the portrayal of Pontius Pilate in the gospels is not that of history but rather that of a literary figure through whom early Christians expressed their pro-Roman attitude. They are of the opinion that in the gospels Pilate is exonerated and full responsibility is placed upon the Jewish authorities for the condemnation and execution of Jesus. With this, Pilate became a friend of the early Christians, whereas the Jews became the Christians’ foes. They see the picture in the gospels of a vacillating Pilate, trying to set Jesus free, as being in sharp contradiction with that found in extrabiblical sources, such as the writings of Philo and Josephus. But, in judging those extrabiblical pictures as history, they do not consider the theological, apologetic, and rhetorical interests of each of the extrabiblical writers.

In Philo’s Legatio ad Gaium

In the recent study of Pontius Pilate by Helen K. Bond,[1] it has been convincingly shown that the portraits of Pilate in both Philo and Josephus, while doubtlessly containing a core of historical fact, were shaped significantly by each of those writers’ general theological and rhetorical aims. In his Embassy to Gaius (or Legatio ad Gaium), Philo describes how Pilate offended against the Jewish Law by setting up iconic shields in Jerusalem; by means of an embassy, the Jewish leaders appealed to the emperor Tiberius and the emperor ordered Pilate to remove the shields (§§ 299-305). Concerning the personality of Pilate, Philo wrote that Pilate “...was a man of inflexible, stubborn, and cruel disposition...” (301); and about Pilate’s deeds, Philo noted “... his venality, his violence, his thefts, his assaults, his abusive behaviour, his frequent executions of untried prisoners, and his endless savage ferocity” (302). Bond points out that this depiction of Pilate employs stereotypical language that was commonly used of those who acted against the Jewish Law, and she concludes that “the description of Pilate’s character and motivation stems largely from Philo’s political rhetoric, in which he tries to persuade Claudius not to adopt Gaius’ attitude to the Jews, and from his theology, in which the enemies of Judaism are the enemies of God and are thus portrayed extremely negatively. This ‘theologically interpreted history’ is found in other Jewish writings of the period, particularly 2 Maccabees, Esther and Judith.”[2] Bond maintains that “behind theological gloss, the historical Pilate is just visible; though Philo allowed his imagination to play a part in describing Pilate’s character, his description of the facts seems trustworthy. Pilate appears as a governor intent on showing his loyalty to the Emperor.”[3]

In Josephus’ Jewish War and Antiquities of the Jews

In the Jewish War (written ca. 75-79 CE) Josephus relates two incidents involving Pilate: one describing his introduction of iconic standards into Jerusalem (2.169-174), the other his appropriation of Temple funds to build an aqueduct in the city (2.175-177). These two events in Pilate’s governorship are used by Josephus to strengthen the foremost rhetorical aim of the Jewish War, namely, to stress that resistance against Rome is futile and that only passive acceptance of Roman rule can produce harmony amongst subject peoples. These two accounts of Josephus do display certain characteristics of Pilate: he can be insensitive towards the people, expecting them to act as do other nations and accept the symbols of Rome; yet he can be moved by a religious demonstration and show himself as averse to excessive bloodshed. Within the bureaucracy of the Roman Empire, Pilate is a governor intent on preserving Roman law and order in Judaea; in the Jewish War, therefore, Pilate is placed alongside the other relatively able governors in the early period of that area’s status as a province of the Roman Empire.[4]

In another work by Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews (written ca. 93/94 CE), there are four narratives involving Pilate. The first two of these (concerning the military standards in 18.55-59 and concerning the aqueduct in 18.60-62) are paralleled in the Jewish War (see the previous paragraph). These are followed by the execution of Jesus, “a wise man”, in 18.63-64, and an incident involving Samaritans which culminated in Pilate’s removal to Rome on the orders of Vitellius, the governor of Syria in 18.85-89. In the episode concerning the military standards, Pilate consciously and deliberately breaks the Jewish Law by introducing military standards containing an effigy of Caesar into Jerusalem, something which no previous governor had dared to do. This gave rise to a relatively quiet protest which lasted for six days by the Jewish people in Caesarea, the place of the governor’s residence. When Pilate threatened the protesters with death if they did not end their protest and leave, the people prostrated themselves, bared their throats, and declared that they would gladly welcome death rather than transgress the wise provisions of the Law. Pilate, astonished at the strength of their allegiance to the Law, immediately had the standards removed from Jerusalem and returned to Caesarea. In Josephus’ relating of this incident, the Jews are shown as demonstrating the supremacy of their ancestral religion and Pilate is shown to have had enough flexibility to rescind his orders, remove the standards and replace the troops.

In the matter of the aqueduct (Antiquities 18.60-62), according to Josephus, it was not its construction which caused offence but rather Pilate’s misuse of Temple funds, the fact that he had completely drained the available financial resources. While the aqueduct is being built -or perhaps after it was finished-the people waited for Pilate’s visit and then expressed their grievances in a riot. The governor sent some of the Roman soldiers, dressed as the Jewish people were but armed with clubs under their garments, to circulate among the crowd. When the Jews were in full torrent of abuse, the governor gave the pre-arranged signal. His soldiers, however, used excessive force indiscriminately against the people in the crowd, punishing alike both those who were rioting and those who were not, causing panic among the people. In Josephus’ picture, Pilate thus shows some reluctance to use excessive force.

Josephus’ account in Antiquities 18.85-89 relates an incident involving Pilate and the Samaritans that occurred at the end of the prefecture of Pontius Pilate (ca. 36 CE). A false prophet announced to the Samaritans that if they would go to Mount Gerizim with him, he would show them the site in which Moses had deposited the sacred vessels. In response to this announcement which they regarded as probable, a great multitude of Samaritans gathered at Tirathana with arms. When they began climbing Mount Gerizim, Pilate, perhaps apprehensive of eschatological fanaticism, had their projected route blocked by a detachment of cavalry and heavily armed infantry. There was an encounter; some Samaritans were slain, the leaders executed, and many imprisoned. According to Bond, in this incident, Pilate acted well within his rights and responsibilities as the guardian of Roman law and order in the province; this Samaritans’ religious activity would inevitably lead to an escalation of political tensions, and this a Roman governor must avert at all costs.[5]

In the Gospel of Mark

In Bond’s analysis of Pilate’s role in the trial and execution of Jesus, there is an important contribution to the character of the historical Pilate. Most commentators regard the picture of Pilate in Mark’s Gospel-that of a weak figure who is convinced of Jesus’ innocence-as central to Mark’s attempt to exculpate the Romans and make the Jews responsible for Jesus’ death; but, according to Bond, Pilate was not a tool in the hands of the chief priests and the crowd; rather it was Pilate who was in control of the whole development. Pilate recognizes the self-interest in the actions of the chief priests (“it was out of jealousy that the chief priests had handed him over”, Mark 15:10); but Pilate also recognizes that Jesus as a messianic claimant (Note his question in Mark 15:2: “Are you the king of the Jews?”) is a potential threat to stability and the social order. Nevertheless, Pilate realizes that, to try Jesus during the time of the Passover celebration could very well provoke rioting, because Jesus was popular with many of the people. Pilate himself came up with an ingenious solution: he would exchange roles with the people, asking them what should be done with Jesus, and thereby putting them into the role of judge. For the Roman government, the voice of a local population, while not sufficient to decide a trial’s verdict, was valued in determining the political feasibility of a verdict. In the current case (the trial of Jesus) if the crowd itself were to call for Jesus’ execution, then there would be much less of a likelihood that later displays of discontent against Roman harshness would occur. So, Pilate puts the people on the spot, issuing a direct challenge to their political allegiance: “Then what do you wish me to do with the man you call the King of the Jews?” (Mark 15:12).[6] This question, writes Bond, is not a sign of weakness on Pilate’s part; rather it is his testing of the allegiance of the Jewish people, his pushing them to become part of the decision, thereby implicating themselves also. It shows, therefore, the shrewdness of Pilate and his cautious judgment.

According to Bond, there are two other accounts in Josephus’ Antiquities which illustrate how Mark’s first century readers might have understood Pilate’s action in the trial and execution of Jesus. The first of these is found in Antiquities 13.288-296. The envy of the Jews, especially the Pharisees, had been aroused against the Jewish King Hyrcanus because of his successes and those of his sons. A Pharisee named Eleazar, during a feast, said that, if the king wished to be adjudged righteous, he should give up the office of highpriest and be content with governing the people. This remark provoked the other Pharisees to indignation and Hyrcanus to fury. A Sadducee, named Jonathan, persuaded Hyrcanus that all the Pharisees were of the same opinion, and advised the king that this would become clear if he were to ask them what punishment Eleazar deserved. Hyrcanus followed this advice, telling the Pharisees that “he would be convinced that the slanderous statement had not been made with their approval if they fixed a penalty commensurate with the crime” (294). The Pharisees, feeling that death was too harsh a penalty, suggested stripes and chains, and this leniency convinced Hyrcanus that the slander had been done with the Pharisees’ approval; from that time on, the king sided with the Sadducees.

The second account, Antiquities 17.149-67, concerns the famous “eagle affair” that occured in the end of the reign of Herod I (4 BCE). The king had erected over the great gate of the Temple a large golden eagle (probably a low relief stone sculpture covered with gold leaf), the “symbol of Roman control and Jewish submission”,[7] and had dedicated it to the Temple. But it was pulled down and destroyed by a number of young men, followers of Judas and Matthias, the most celebrated interpreters of the Jewish laws. No fewer than forty young men, together with their masters, were arrested. Herod summoned the Jewish officials to the amphitheatre, reminding them of how much he had done for the nation and that, furthermore, pulling down the eagle was in effect a sacrilege. “Because of his savage state and out of fear that in his fury he might avenge himself upon them, those present said that the things had been done without their consent, and it seemed to them that the perpetrators should not be exempted from punishment” (164). Since the Jewish officials had been quick to condemn those responsible for the deed, Herod dealt mildly with the officials themselves. In the parallel account in Jewish War (1.648-655), the people are summoned and ask Herod to deal only with the perpetrators of the deed.

In both these accounts, a group of people is called to pass judgement on a crime, and this is then used by the Jewish ruler to assess their complicity in the affair. Furthermore, in the second account, the Jewish officials under Herod could hardly have later complained of the king’s harshness toward those who pulled down the golden eagle since they themselves had sanctioned such treatment and were only too pleased to be able to escape their own complicity and resulting punishment. In neither of these examples is the behavior of the ruler a sign of weakness; it is rather a deliberate challenge to the allegiance of their subjects, an attempt to make them part of the decision which they then have no alternative but to accept.


[1] Helen K. Bond, Pontius Pilate in History and Interpretation. SNTSMS 100 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998). See also: Brian C. McGing, “Pontius Pilate and the Sources” in Catholic Biblical Quarterly 53 (1991) 416-38; Harold W. Hoehner, Herod Antipas: A Contemporary of Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1980 [reprint of SNTSMS 17. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1972]) 172-181; cf. idem, “Why Did Pilate Hand Jesus over to Antipas?” in The Trial of Jesus. Cambridge Studies in Honour of C.F.D. Moule, ed. Ernst Bammel (SBT Second Series 13; London: SCM Press, 1970) 84-90; Peter Richardson, Herod: King of the Jews and Friend of the Romans (Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina, 1996) 305ff.; Gerd Theissen, The Gospels in Context. Social and Political History in the Synoptic Tradition. ET by Linda M. Maloney (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991) 174 n.21 (“Still, Agrippa I’s petition primarily represents Philo’s point of vew”), 183 n.38; Raymond E. Brown, The Death of the Messiah. From Gethsemane to the Grave. A Commentary on the Passion Narratives in the Four Gospels. AB. 2 vols (New York, etc.: Doubleday, 1994) 859, states that instead of exonerating Pilate, the gospel portrayal of Pilate intends to “show the transparent falsehood of the pretense that Jesus had threatening royal ambitions.”

[2] Helen K. Bond, Pontius Pilate, 47.

[3] Bond, Pontius Pilate, 47.

[4] Bond, Pontius Pilate, 62.

[5] Bond, Pontius Pilate, 91.

[6] Bond, Pontius Pilate, 113.

[7] Peter Richardson, Herod: King of the Jews, 15-18; John D. Crossan and Jonathan L. Reed, Excavating Jesus: Beneath the Stones, Behind the Texts (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001) 199-200.