Pontius Pilate?


#1

What exactly is Pilate’s role in the crucifixtion of Jesus?

Unlike Judas, he traditionally never has been made out to be an enemy or a villain. At worst he is perceived as a somewhat just and righteous administrator who gives into weakness and wanting to keep the peace.

Could the depiction of him in the gospels, (as being hesitant to crucify Jesus) be somewhat innaccurate? I only ask because in that era most Roman governors were quite cold and ruthless and thought little to nothing of executing someone if they thought it would keep the peace.

Yet on the other hand, even in the Roman Empire crucifixtion was a relatively rare punishment, only reserved for bandits and insurrectionists. I don’t think it was given out regularly.

At this point, my conclusion is that Pilate sort of knew about Jesus before he was brought before him, but never thought of him much and did not consider him a threat to Roman rule in Judea. Maybe he was puzzled by the High Priests’ insistence on his crucifixtion, but ultimately did not have a problem ordering the sentence, since it would mean peace.

I don’t belive he bore Jesus any ill will, but maybe more indifference? I guess I am not sure why he would have had much remorse at executing him, as many passion plays and adaptions seem to imply he did?


#2

Historically, the reason for that was really because the early Christians focused more on the Jewish responsibility for the death of Jesus than the Roman one. The early Christians portrayed Jesus’ death as being essentially the last of a long line of prophets who were rejected and killed by ‘Israel’ and adopted the OT rhetoric of calling ‘Israel’ out for its sins. As a result, as part of their message towards (fellow) Jews, they emphasized the Jewish responsibility for the death of Jesus, coupled with a plea for Israel to repent and accept Jesus as the Messiah.

The Christians who made use of this rhetoric were originally Jews working in a Jewish context and talking to fellow Jews; it’s not surprising then that the two most Jewish gospels of the four, Matthew and John, are at the same time, quite ironically, the most ‘anti-Jewish’. (Of course, when Christianity started becoming less ‘Jewish’, the original Jewish context of this rhetoric was really forgotten, but the ‘you killed Jesus’ rhetoric remained - and Christian anti-Semitism arose.)

Plus, you have to remember that early Christians were also trying to curry favor from Rome. By the 2nd century, when Christianity and Judaism became officially separate, Christianity could no longer invoke the tolerated status that Judaism had: Christianity was, at this point, an illegal superstitio. In oher words, they don’t really want to antagonize the government further than they already did. When you’re practicing an illegal ‘superstition’ that could get you discriminated or worse, arrested, the last thing you’d probably want to do is to portray a Roman official complicit in the death of your movement’s Founder.

It was 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. This is part of the reason why Christians were kinder to Pilate than they were with, say, Caiaphas or Judas; if Pilate had any faults, at best it’d be the lack of a backbone. Some Christians even started fantasizing about Pilate as a sympathetic figure, maybe even a secret Christian who gets to be martyred for his faith - in other words, a saint.

In fact, it’s rather telling tha the positive portrayal of Pilate begins to be less popular by the 4th century, coincidentally with the arrival of Constantine and the recognition of Christianity as a legal religion. At that point, Christians no longer needed Pilate to get recognition from Rome - hence many Christians (Western Christians in particular) became more free to imagine a more shameful end for Pilate. Pilate was no longer a secret Christian-slash-martyr; he became portrayed as a tortured man cursed by his role in the death of Jesus. In later legends, not only does Pilate get disgraced, he also commits suicide - and worse, evil spirits infest his dead body and cause havoc wherever the body is brought, which is why it had to be thrown into a lake.

Could the depiction of him in the gospels, (as being hesitant to crucify Jesus) be somewhat innaccurate? I only ask because in that era most Roman governors were quite cold and ruthless and thought little to nothing of executing someone if they thought it would keep the peace.

Here’s the problem. While obviously it’s unlikely that the historical Pilate was the very wishy-washy sort of guy many people infer from the gospels, he’s also unlikely to have been the sadistic butcher many people infer from Philo and Josephus either. (And that’s one problem: for some reason, there are people - scholars in particular - who are hesitant to think the gospels are historical, but are willing to take Philo and Josephus uncritically. That’s not scholarship. There should be no preferential treatment; either you critically assess all of them or no.)

It’s all about context. If you’re doing historical work, you must never take the descriptions at face value. Because, who knows? Maybe the authors - the evangelists, Philo, Josephus - have had their own reasons why they chose to portray Pilate the way they did. In both cases, we’re really only getting half the picture: the early Christians were generally more focused on ‘Israel’s’ fault in rejecting Jesus, to the point that they didn’t really give major attention to the Roman culpability in Jesus’ death (later, even to the point of whitewashing the Romans entirely). Philo and Josephus, as Jews, were by association connected to those who have had to bore the brunt of Pilate’s occasional heavy-handedness. Of course their portrayal of him would not be positive.

Pilate may not have been the well-meaning, intellectual proto-Christian some Christians seem to imagine him to be, but I don’t think he was necessarily a ruthless killing machine either. Those are two extremes. Maybe the actual fact was somewhere in the middle: Pilate from the Jewish perspective may have been a ‘cruel’ man who did overstep the line in some instances, but that’s not necessarily because he’s an inhuman, insensitive brute who just randomly kills Jews for laughs, as to be fair some scholars nowadays seem to insinuate. Who knows? The fact that Pilate was prefect for ten years (when many other governors before and after him only lasted a year or two at the most) would actually show that he was a capable politician.


#3

Yet on the other hand, even in the Roman Empire crucifixtion was a relatively rare punishment, only reserved for bandits and insurrectionists. I don’t think it was given out regularly.

Not really. Roman funeral contractors performed services like executions available to public authorities and private citizens alike: delinquent slaves could be handed over by their masters to torture and death for a modest sum. In other words, if you were a slave, and you did something bad, your master can have you crucified by undertakers who could be paid to do that sort of thing.

Whoever will want to exact punishment on a male or female slave at private expense, as he [the owner] who wants the [punishment] to be inflicted, he [the contractor] exacts the punishment in in this manner: if he wants [him] to bring the patibulum to the cross, the contractor will have to provide wooden posts, chains and cords for the floggers and the floggers themselves. And anyone who will want to exact punishment will have to give four sesterces for each of the workers who bring the patibulum and for the floggers and also for the executioner.

The regulations go on to describe the preparation of necessary equipment such as “nails, pitch, wax, candles, and everything that is needed” (which were to be provided by the contractor “free of charge”) and the dragging of the executed corpses “to the place where many corpses will be by workers clothed in red, using a signal-bell.”

So yeah. If you’re not a Roman citizen or a free man, chances were you’ll most likely be crucified if you’re going to be put to death.

At this point, my conclusion is that Pilate sort of knew about Jesus before he was brought before him, but never thought of him much and did not consider him a threat to Roman rule in Judea. Maybe he was puzzled by the High Priests’ insistence on his crucifixtion, but ultimately did not have a problem ordering the sentence, since it would mean peace.

I don’t belive he bore Jesus any ill will, but maybe more indifference? I guess I am not sure why he would have had much remorse at executing him, as many passion plays and adaptions seem to imply he did?

That’s a reasonable speculation there. The remorse scene is only there because, hey, we’re Christians. We would want to show Jesus touching everyone He encountered in a dramatic way. :stuck_out_tongue:


#4

A few links.


#5

His wife told him not to get involve because she had a troubling dream. Pilate role is crucial because Jews do not have the authority to impose capital punishment. Only the Roman ruler can. When caught between a crowd that cornered him in choosing Caesar vs Jesus, he didn’t have much choice. The Jewish religious group knows how to, to quote an Eastern proverb, kill with a borrowed sword.

One would wonder why Pilate didn’t seize on the Jewish law inability to prove Jesus guilt and extricate himself out of such a trap.(Jewish law requires 2 witnesses to convict anyone of a capital crime and those witnesses couldn’t get it right to do Jesus in).

Perhaps to him, Jesus was just a nobody and keeping the peace is his main priority. The Jews were a rowdy lot on the verge of an uprising. Barabbas the one freed was one such fellow reputedly.


#6

To know Pilate is to know the history of those times and the various players involved.

For a truer picture, you have to look at the main “characters” as they are profiled in the secular sources like Josephus, Tacitus, Suetonius, Philo- as well as the books of the NT.

I like John Hagan’s work in the field- and his books have plenty of lengthy quotes from the sources to put things into perspective and he developes a very defensible time line- also crucial to understanding those times.

I agree with Hagan that the date of the crucifixion had to be in the Passover of A.D. 36.

Then, only a few months before, Herod Antipas’ army had been defeated soundly by the Arab King Aretas in a battle that took place probably less than 30 miles away from Jerusalem.

Also, the year before saw the acknowledged prophet John the Baptist executed by Antipas in order to keep John from undermining the moral of his troops.

And in fact, in early A.D. 36, Syrian Legate Lucius Vitellius- arguably the second most powerful man in the Empire after Tiberius- was coming to Jerusalem for a Passover visit. This was after Vitellius largely subdued the Parthian forces who had invaded Armenia 100 miles to the north.

So there was a lot going on politically then and Pilate- and the High Priests- didn’t want any trouble. Remember that according to Luke Pilate handed off Jesus to Herod Antipas for disposition- Jesus was a Galilean, after all. When Herod deferred to Pilate, and the High Priests wanted Jesus out of the way, there was little to gain by Pilate putting him in prison. Also, Vitellius was on the way and a quickly disposed of Jesus would make things easier for everyone.

Another dimension to Pilate is that when he was appointed in A.D. 26 he was Sejanus’s man. Sejanus later turned traitor and Tiberius had to execute him and all of the his followers in A.D. 31- this grim episode in Rome lasted for several years.

Sejanus was an anti-semite where Tiberius was very tolerant of the various people and religions within the empire.

So Pilate started off cruel towards the Jews, but mellowed out considerably after the execution of Sejanus. Pilate knew he was on notice from Tiberius- who was loath to remove Prefects for any reason. In fact, Vitellius could well have been coming to Jerusalem to see if Pilate deserved to remain as Prefect- to observe how Pilate handled things.

No easy answers to Pilate’s character or motive, but most likely his instict to protect and obviously innocent Jesus was over-ridden by his obligations to the High Priesthood to defer to their judgement on what was needed to keep things peaceful. And Antipas didn’t care- why should he?

Do some reading…


#7

I believe the gospel writers’ accuracy in describing him would be guaranteed by biblical inerrancy. How playwrights interpret that is an entirely different animal.


#8

This is an excellent post. I quite agree that Jesus’ crucifixion occurred in 36 AD. The part about Sejanus is particularly relevant. Pilate was in a precarious position. If Pilate freed Jesus and Tiberius was later to think Jesus was a rebel, then Pilate would have been in deep trouble. In addition, I think the key is the purple robe that Jesus wore. The Gospels do not state how it got it. People over the centuries have assumed that it was placed on him by the Romans. This is unlikely; it would have been a grave insult to Tiberius. Jesus was probably wearing it when he was arrested. I think Jesus wore it to proclaim he was the Messiah.


#9

I think the purple robe on Jesus came from Herod Antipas, which gives credence to Luke.
It was Antipas’ way of mocking Jesus, and having sport with him in order to amuse his wife Herodias as well as Pilate. Antipas had Jesus parade about the courtyard of Herod’s walled palace within Jerusalem after he found no reason to protect him.

Purple was the color of royalty, and to wear it or display it would not be taken lightly, and no reason for Pilate or any of the Romans to wear purple or to have purple on hand.

In fact, if a ship in those days carried anyone of royal status, they flew a purple flag.


#10

I have often thought about that man of power who knew that his prisoner was innocent and still had him crucified. Pilate had the power to free Jesus yet was to cowardly or to cynical to do so.

Since 390 A.D. his actions have been noted in the Apostle’s Creed.
“suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried;” For nearly two thousand years his name lives on in shame - as it should. An evil man. A coward washing his hands believing that such a cynical action could exonerate him.

I have often wondered about how present men of power, who because they are cowards and are cynical, allow the innocent to be crucified.


#11

He (Pontius pilate) is the typical sinner/ruler. In that he is unable to do right unto the truth. When he hears it, he says, what is truth? Dismissing Jesus altogether.


#12

To anger the High Priesthood to such a degree, Pilate figured he had to be guilty of something.

When Jesus, the supposed Zealot and the King of the Jews who challenged Caesar, was first brought to him, Pilate probably had a good chuckle at what he saw.


#13

You all are only using the gospels as means of judging Pontius Pilate. Historically it is well established that Pilate was a brutal governor. I believe he had more brutal acts than his predecessors had thus he was summoned to Rome insight intoa few years after the crucifixion of Jesus and relieved of his duties and I believe died on some island in the Mediterranean. This has always made me question him somewhat as to why in the gospels he almost seems like a noble leader who is for justice but gives in to what the people “want”. I think he knew what he was doing however and made it appear to the people Jesus’ blood was not on his hands thus preventing a riot on Rome but instead possibly on the high priests and Herod Antipas etc. As for if he really cared one way or another, probably not. He was probably just aware to an extent not shown in the gospels that Jesus had a very large following and could prove to be disastrous if a revolt occurred. It was probably a God send when the high priests actually asked him to crucify him.
I would recommend doing some deeper reading if your faith is strong. Try some of the New Testament Apocrypha such as “The Gospel of Nicodemus” also known as the Acts of Pilate. Many of the apocryphal gospels and acts give much more insight into who Pilate was.
Also read the writings of Josephus the Jewish historian of the time. He paints a very good picture of Pilate.


#14

You all are only using the gospels as means of judging Pontius Pilate. Historically it is well established that Pilate was a brutal governor. I believe he had more brutal acts than his predecessors had thus he was summoned to Rome insight intoa few years after the crucifixion of Jesus and relieved of his duties and I believe died on some island in the Mediterranean. This has always made me question him somewhat as to why in the gospels he almost seems like a noble leader who is for justice but gives in to what the people “want”. I think he knew what he was doing however and made it appear to the people Jesus’ blood was not on his hands thus preventing a riot on Rome but instead possibly on the high priests and Herod Antipas etc. As for if he really cared one way or another, probably not. He was probably just aware to an extent not shown in the gospels that Jesus had a very large following and could prove to be disastrous if a revolt occurred. It was probably a God send when the high priests actually asked him to crucify him.
I would recommend doing some deeper reading if your faith is strong. Try some of the New Testament Apocrypha such as “The Gospel of Nicodemus” also known as the Acts of Pilate. Many of the apocryphal gospels and acts give much more insight into who Pilate was.
Also read the writings of Josephus the Jewish historian of the time. He paints a very good picture of Pilate.


#15

Reading the NT Apocrypha is useless. Do not waste your time.


#16

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