History versus Religion: The Case of Pontius Pilate

Inscription stone from the ancient city of Caesarea with part of Pontius Pilate's name.
Inscription stone from the ancient city of Caesarea with part of Pontius Pilate’s name.

My posts on religious issues have been popular, relatively speaking. So here’s another. It’s from way back. In the spring of 2000, I wrote a review of two books about Pontius Pilate. It was rejected for publication, so here it is for the first time. I believe the review offers a close look at the roots of Christian anti-Semitism.

“Whence Art Thou?” (April 2000)

Pontius Pilate had an especially high profile this Easter. In a widely publicized move, the directors of the Oberammergau passion play revised the script to emphasize the Roman governor’s guilt in Jesus’ execution, distancing the production from Gospel accounts that blamed the Jewish people. Toward the same purpose, makers of the CBS miniseries Jesus gave Pilate some additional, unflattering scenes, loosely based on the writings of the first-century historian Josephus.

Easter also saw the U.S. release of Ann Wroe’s biography, Pontius Pilate, after a successful run in the U.K., which included a Samuel Johnson Prize nomination. Interest in Pilate appears to be at flood tide, at least among publishers. Helen K. Bond’s Pontius Pilate in History and Interpretation preceded Wroe’s volume, and two novels, one about Pilate himself and one about his wife (assuming he was married), followed soon after.

Ann Wroe starts with an odd declaration: she intends to discover “all our Pilates,” the historical figure and subsequent representations of him. Her use of the possessive is striking, if not alarming, and throughout the book she seems unusually close to her material. She is also diligent, surveying a wide range of art and literature to supplement the sketchy historical record.

Pilate served as governor (his official title was “prefect”) of Judea from 26-36/7 CE. The only hard historical evidence of him—some coins, an inscription, and brief accounts from the Jewish authors Josephus and Philo—reveals an ambitious and sycophantic politician. Josephus and Philo recounted the governor’s conflicts with the Jewish population, but the actions that got Pilate into trouble suggest that he wanted to be noticed in Rome, if not in posterity.

He commissioned an aqueduct for Jerusalem, triggering riots when he used Temple funds for its construction, and his other unpopular initiatives aimed at the greater glory of the emperor Tiberius or smacked of Romanization. In Jerusalem, he set up military standards with Tiberius’ (graven) image on them and, later, votive shields dedicated to him, removing both only after intense pressure. Pilate’s introduction of coins depicting items used in Roman religious ritual seems a more subtle attempt to place the stamp of Roman culture on the province, just as his construction of a “Tiberium”—it is unclear what sort of building it was—at his headquarters in Caesarea offered a less controversial means of celebrating his boss’s greatness.

Guiding the reader through such evidence, Wroe’s impressive command of classical history and literature allows her to place Pilate in his cultural context, and to speculate fruitfully about his upbringing and early career. Wroe is at her best while writing about the pre-Good Friday Pilate, but the closer the story gets to the trial of Jesus, the more she adds melodramatic touches and tenuous links to current issues. Is a police captain at an Operation Rescue protest like Pilate? The ways in which the officer is and is not like the Roman governor receive a full airing, in which no observation comes unexpected. Wroe’s preferred Pilate turns out to be the one who symbolizes humankind in the presence of God—touched by the divine, but drawing back from it:

There had been potential in Pilate at that moment [Jesus’ trial] for darkness or light far beyond the routine experience of a Roman prefect. Even he seemed to sense it. The tiny seed had lodged in his heart or his mind, suggesting infinite possibilities. He could take untraveled roads, open hidden doors, escape the bounds of earth and flesh, exceed himself. Or he could stay as he was: shrug, scratch his ear, write another memorandum.

He stayed as he was. As most of us do.

Of course, that figure is a romanticized version of the Pilate who appears in John’s Gospel, and the portrayal hinges on the belief that he was a reluctant executioner. But scholars such as John Dominic Crossan have asked why we should accept the Christian stories of a conflicted Pilate, harried by a Jewish mob into killing Jesus. They point out that Josephus (a pro-Roman source) depicted the prefect as a hot-tempered ruler, with a penchant for excessive force and capital punishment.

For instance, Tiberius recalled Pilate to Rome to face charges from Samaritan leaders that he had been too harsh in suppressing a potential insurrection. Josephus does not report the outcome of those proceedings, except to note that, by the time Pilate arrived, Tiberius was dead and Caligula was emperor. We do know that the episode marked the end of Pilate’s tenure in Judea. That does not mean he was found guilty. But the fact that he was recalled at all indicates that the charges initially seemed to carry some weight, even by the brutal standards of Roman imperial rule.

Had Jesus staged a one-man riot in the Temple just before Passover, as the New Testament records, would the governor have needed the Jewish authorities to coerce him into crucifying the troublemaker? Could Caiaphas, the high priest, have exerted such pressure on Pilate, considering that the former held his office at the latter’s pleasure?

The Gospel writers would have found it tempting to have Pilate affirm Jesus’ innocence, thus giving early Christians a defense against the charge that they worshipped a rebel against Rome. Shouldn’t we read the trial narratives in that light? Wroe offers reasons to doubt the Christian accounts, but, when she speculates about Pilate’s feelings during the trial, she assumes that the Gospels are accurate reports. By that point, the first-century Roman of the book’s early pages is long gone, and Wroe’s use of Roman literature and philosophy to explore Pilate’s view of Jesus merely underscores that fact.

Wroe’s desire to humanize Pilate causes her to miss the fact that in recent retellings of the story he actually appears less human and more a part of the background. It is true that Sergei Bulgakov made Pilate the centerpiece of his take on Easter in Master and Margarita. But then Bulgakov was offering a critique of Stalinism, and the Roman governor fit easily into the role of an apparatchik haunted by his actions.

Late-twentieth-century writers have often focused on Jesus’ humanity, and, conversely, reduced Pilate to a stereotype of Rome or corrupt authority. Pilate became more than ever a one-dimensional figure, thereby highlighting Jesus’ emotional depth and the novelty of authors’ explorations of the Son of Man. In The Last Temptation of Christ, Nikos Kazantzakis portrayed the prefect as a hissing fop whose desire to release Jesus stems solely from spite for Jewish leaders.

When he wrote The Gospel According to the Son, Norman Mailer left Pilate with roughly the words assigned him by the New Testament. But he described Pilate’s actions as an attempt to secure the largest possible bribe from Caiaphas. In his play Corpus Christi, Terrence McNally likewise preferred Gospel accounts of Pilate’s words, but assigned him only two lines. He did make one significant change, however. He substituted the word “queer” for “King of the Jews”—a move that hardly makes the speaker more sympathetic. Far from being a spiritual Everyman, “our Pilate” is an inhuman man faced with a human god.

Helen K. Bond disavows any hope of finding either our Pilate or the historical one, and concentrates instead on the motivations behind the various first-century depictions of him. In a series of self-contained set pieces on Josephus, Philo, and each Gospel, she shows how Pilate served writers’ agendas. Josephus’ viewpoint was colored by his support for Roman rule and his desire for concord between Jews and Romans.

In his historical works (Antiquities of the Jews and The Jewish War), he tried to show that violent uprisings were futile and peaceful lobbying was effective. His description of Pilate’s actions fit that goal: the governor crushes the riot caused by his appropriation of Temple funds for the aqueduct, but removes the imperial standards from Jerusalem after the populace engaged in passive resistance. Josephus’ other reports of Jewish conflicts with Roman authority followed a similar plot.

Bond also finds argumentative goals paramount in the case of Philo, who claimed that Pilate’s actions in the dispute over the votive shields were deliberately provocative. Philo viewed Romans from a theological perspective, idealizing those he regarded as respectful toward Jews and their religion (even Tiberius received a positive gloss), while describing less understanding Romans as uniformly evil. It is therefore uncertain whether Pilate sought confrontation as aggressively as Philo indicates.

Bond explains the Gospels in terms of polemical objectives as well. The crux of her interpretation is that she regards Pilate’s pronouncements of Jesus’ innocence as ironic, except in Luke’s version. Roman practice for dealing with messianic and kingly claimants was well established, and Roman law mandated conviction if the accused declined to offer a defense, as the Jesus of the New Testament did. Bond argues that the Gospels’ contemporary readers probably would have known such facts, and that Pilate’s apparent reluctance is best explained as an effort to avert reprisals against Rome by implicating the Jewish people in Jesus’ death.

In her view, “What shall I do with the man you call the King of the Jews?” was a loaded question designed to elicit exactly the response it received. (Since Pilate was accusing the people of regarding Jesus as their king, anyone who spoke up for Jesus risked sharing his fate.) Likewise, “What evil has he done?” was a coy question aimed at getting the crowd’s assent to the prisoner’s sentence on record. Bond reinforces her point by demonstrating that such tests of loyalty and displays of false reluctance were standard tactics of first-century rulers—especially, she might have added, Tiberius.

Following Mark’s Gospel, the oldest, Matthew and John placed the Jews in a harsher light, reflecting the increasing rivalry between Christianity and Judaism. Their characterizations of Pilate, however, differed little from Mark’s. Luke is the odd one out: his Pilate did want to release Jesus. Bond credits the friendly portrayal of the prefect to sharp conflicts between Christians and Jews in Luke’s social context (probably the 80s CE, possibly Antioch). But would that Gospel’s author(s) have been so much more anti-Jewish than the creators of the other, roughly contemporary, New Testament books? If not, then Luke’s sympathetic account of Pilate strengthens the case for a literal reading of the governor’s lines in the other Gospels.

Either way, Bond demonstrates the absence of solid facts behind the different authors’ portrayals. Her work implicitly endorses the script changes at Oberammergau. There is little chance that we today could be more biased about Pilate than writers from the governor’s own era.