Does the historical Pilate raise doubts about the gospel accounts

Just saw a Jesus documentary on Sky with the usual re-enactments of Jesus life and differing views on the historical Jesus. A view that was made by two skeptics about the gospel accounts of the trial of Jesus was that history shows Pilate shows to be a brute who ruled by fear and would not have given a moment doubt to crucifying Jesus, not they say the fairly reasonable Pilate of the gospels who afterwards washed his hands of the whole affair. Their view was that Christians portrayed the reasonable Pilate deliberately to place the emphasis of blame on Jews and not Romans as their were many roman citizens converting to Christianity at the time. Have not heard this before. Anyone have any comments on this?

Well, they’re partly right. First, yes, records of Pilate outside the gospels - from Jewish writers like Philo and Josephus - do depict him as being a cruel person. And second, yes, there was a general trend in early Christianity to lay more emphasis on the Jewish responsibility for the death of Jesus than the Roman one.

This early Christian anti-Judaism - not to be confused with anti-Semitism - arose from a Jewish context, note. The early Christians emphasized the Jewish responsibility for the death of Jesus more than Roman culpability:

  • First, because they were taking a page from the common Jewish trope of calling Israel for its disobedience and/or the rejection of its prophets (e.g. Nehemiah 9:26; 2 Chronicles 36:14-16). To reject the nation’s alleged messiah, or to be involved in any manner in the events leading to His death, is to invite a demand of repentance from the followers of that messiah. In other words: “Why have you rejected and sent Jesus to death, Israel? He was the messiah!”

  • Second, because of course being already a persecuted/discriminated sect they felt that they didn’t have to anger the Romans more by blaming them for Jesus’ death. It is not just that Christians needed an ally in the form of a Roman official, but it was also significant for them to not have an enemy in the form of a Roman official. I mean, Christians are a paradoxical bunch: they believe in things that are plain offensive for that time - seditious even (Jesus is the Lord of the world, not Caesar), but they also want people to accept Christianity. You wouldn’t want to offend your target audience too much. And since many Jews have already written Jesus off as another failed messiah …

Here’s an interesting thing: in the 2nd-3rd centuries less guilt is placed on Pilate than the Jewish leaders (Taken to an extreme, some Christians whitewashed Pilate of all blame, so that the Jews literally do crucify Jesus rather than Roman soldiers!) In fact, it’s not uncommon to portray Pilate as sympathetic to Jesus, maybe even an eventual convert to Christianity. The idea is that the more the state persecuted Christians, the more generous becomes the description of Pilate as a witness to Jesus’ innocence. (This trend also has a precedent in Jewish apologetics: Philo appealed to the Roman emperor Caligula and reminded him of the many privileges that previous emperors had granted to Jews, in response to measures the emperor was about to enforce that were offensive to Jewish sensibilities.) But by the 4th century - coincidentally by the time Christianity was emancipated - Christians became less hesitant in portraying Pilate in a more negative light. (Which resulted in the story of Pilate the coward who committed suicide and whose corpse becomes inhabited by demons.) Because, after all, they no longer need him to make Christianity more palatable. Constantine and his successors were living, breathing emperors whose stature overshadowed that of a long-dead governor.

That being said, the problem with their - and admittedly, many current scholars’ - view is that they’re taking Philo and Josephus too literally. They never stop to think, maybe there’s a reason or motive for these two authors to depict Pilate as being more cruel than he probably was?

I recommend this page:

If you want a short answer to your question: no. :slight_smile:

What is the source of these so called “historical” facts about Pilate. There is hardly any extant reliable information about him, certainly not enough to ascertain the subject referenced question.

Generally, all that’s known about Pilate outside the Gospels is (a) he really was the Prefect of Judea at the time when Jesus was crucified, (b) he was eventually removed from his post - apparently for excessive cruelty, and © made his palace at Caesarea Maritima.

Maybe even an excessively cruel tyrant would be stunned into indecision when face to face with the Living Christ.

Maybe this says more about Jesus than it does about Pilate.

The evidence they gave for the cruelty and fear driven by Pilate was accounts that he used to randomly order soldiers to dress as citizens among the general population and when someone gave the word they would indiscriminately slaughter those standing by. They didn’t state their sources for this info though.

So! if they did not state their sources for this information it is NOT evidence, is it?

Don’t listen to these history revisionists who want to destroy your faith. They are always wrong. From what I’ve read from the Jewish accounts of Pilate, he seems to be a typical Roman governor. Egotistical, and ready to put down any dissent quickly. You can’t be a governor over foreign peoples without those traits.

Pilate shows to be a brute who ruled by fear and would not have given a moment doubt to crucifying Jesus

Not true. He would have second thoughts about Jesus if he were a superstitious type who believed that dreams foretold the future. His wife told him not to persecute Jesus, as she had a disturbing dream about Him. He could have very well been afraid to condemn Him based on his wife’s dream, no matter how cruel a ruler he was.

I have to laugh at these sorry documentaries that try their darndest to discredit the New Testament accounts of Jesus. They are nothing more than pathetic attempts to “discover” something that no one else had the brains to figure out these past 2000 years. What an insult to all us “religious idiots” ruled by our “blind faith!”


The Romans generally did not take any nonsense from the general populace
I can hardly imagine Pilate was any more or less cruel than most Roman administrators.

It’s from Josephus. Pilate tried to appropriate money from the temple treasury to fund his aqueduct project, Jews protested, Pilate quelled down the disturbance by sending in plain-clothes soldiers among the crowd. To be fair, he didn’t order to kill the protesters, just beat them.

On a later occasion he provoked a fresh uproar by expending upon the construction of an aqueduct the sacred treasure known as Corbonas; the water was brought from a distance of seventy kilometers. Indignant at this proceeding, the populace formed a ring round the tribunal of Pilate, then on a visit to Jerusalem, and besieged him with angry clamor.

He, foreseeing the tumult, had interspersed among the crowd a troop of his soldiers, armed but disguised in civilian dress, with orders not to use their swords, but to beat any rioters with cudgels. He now from his tribunal gave the agreed signal.

Large numbers of the Jews perished, some from the blows which they received, others trodden to death by their companions in the ensuing flight. Cowed by the fate of the victims, the multitude was reduced to silence. (Jewish War 2.175-177)


[Pilate] spent money from the sacred treasury in the construction of an aqueduct to bring water into Jerusalem, intercepting the source of the stream at a distance of thirty-five kilometers. The Jews did not acquiesce in the operations that this involved; and tens of thousands of men assembled and cried out against him, bidding him relinquish his promotion of such designs. Some too even hurled insults and abuse of the sort that a throng will commonly engage in.

He thereupon ordered a large number of soldiers to be dressed in Jewish garments, under which they carried clubs, and he sent them off this way and that, thus surrounding the Jews, whom he ordered to withdraw. When the Jews were in full torrent of abuse he gave his soldiers the prearranged signal.

They, however, inflicted much harder blows than Pilate had ordered, punishing alike both those who were rioting and those who were not. But the Jews showed no faint-heartedness; and so, caught unarmed, as they were, by men delivering a prepared attack, many of them actually were slain on the spot, while some withdrew disabled by blows. Thus ended the uprising. (Jewish Antiquities 18.60-62)

You all might be interested in this article which reviews a new article by Paul Hopper on Pilate and Josephus’s Testimonium.


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