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The Trial Before Pontius Pilate

As in the episode of Jesus trial before the Sanhedrin, we find difficulties and inconsistencies in almost every detail of the account of the trial before Pilate. All these considerations point us to the conclusion that the trial before Pilate, as depicted in the gospels, is unhistorical.

Pilates Character: The Gospels vs. History

According to all four gospels, Jesus was handed over to Pontius Pilate after his Jewish trial. We will look first at Mark's account of the trial by Pontius Pilate:

Mark 15:1-15
Very early in the morning, the chief priests, with the elders, the teachers of the law and the whole Sanhedrin reached a decision. They bound Jesus, led him away and turned him over to PIlate. "are you the king of the Jews?" asked Pilate. "yes, it is as you say," Jesus replied. The chief priests accused him of many things. So again Pilate asked him, "Aren't you going to answer? See how many things they are accusing you of. But Jesus made no reply, and Pilate was amazed. Now it was the custom of the feast to release a prisoner whom the people requested. A man called Barabbas was in prison with the insurrectionists who had committed murder in the uprising. The crown came up and asked Pilate to do for them what he usually did. "Do you want me to release to you the king of the Jews?" asked Pilate, knowing it was out of envy that the chief priests had handed Jesus over to him. But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have Pilate released Barabbas instead. "What shall I do, then, with the one you call king of the Jews?" Pilate asked. "Crucify him!" they shouted. "Why? What crime had he committed?" asked Pilate. But they shouted all the louder, "crucify him!" Wanting to satisfy the crowd, Pilate released Barabbas to them. He had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified.

The first thing the reader will note is that Pilate in the passage above seems like a man forced against his will to execute Jesus. He appears to be a nice, albeit weak-willed, man, who tried his best to convince the crowd to allow him to release Jesus. Pilate truly look like the good guy in Mark. In fact, if we look into the other gospels in the order that they were written (i.e. Mark, Matthew, Luke & John), Pilate became more and more like an innocent man who was forced by the Jews to convict Jesus. [1] Matthew for instance apart from repeating all of Mark's account, made Pilate wash his hands in a symbolic gesture to assert his innocence:

Matthew 27:24-25
When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. "I am innocent of this man's blood," he said. "It is your responsibility." All the people answered, "Let his blood be on us and on our children!"

In the gospel of Luke this process of exonerating Pilate (and indirectly the Romans) of the crime of executing Jesus was carried another step further. In Mark and Matthew, Pilate was made to ask the Jews what crime Jesus had committed which deserved crucifixion (Mark 15:14; Matthew 27:23). This was a rather weak and indirect allusion to Pilate's belief in Jesus' innocence. Luke had Pilate make a positive assertion to the prophet's innocence:

Luke 23:13-16 Pilate called together the chief priests, the rulers and the people, and said to them, "You brought me this man as the one who was inciting the people to rebellion. I have examined him in your presence and have found no basis for your charges against you can see, he has done nothing to deserve death. Therefore I will punish him and then release him."

In the same gospel, Pilate is also made to argue more for Jesus and, in fact, does not formally condemn him but abandons him to the Jews:

Luke 23:20-25
Wanting to release Jesus, Pilate appealed to them again. But they kept shouting, "Crucify him! Crucify him!" For the third time he spoke to them: "Why? What crime has this man committed? I have found in him no grounds for the death penalty. Therefore, I will have him punished and then release him." But with loud shouts they insistently demanded that he be crucified, and their shouts prevailed. So Pilate decided to grant their demand. He released the man who had been thrown into prison for the insurrection and for murder, the one they asked for, and surrendered Jesus to their will.

There is another episode, found only in Luke that seems to further absolve Pilate in his role in the crucifixion. While in the gospels of Mark (15:16-20) and Matthew (27:27-31) it was Pilate's soldiers who mocked Jesus, Luke's gospel absolves the Romans even of this affront to Jesus. For in this gospel it is no longer the Roman soldiers which mocked Jesus but Jewish troops:

Luke 23:7-11
When he [Pilate] learned that Jesus was under Herod's jurisdiction, he sent him to Herod who was also in Jerusalem at that time. When Herod saw Jesus...He plied him with many questions, but Jesus gave him no answer...Then Herod and his soldiers ridiculed and mocked him. Dressing him in an elegant robe, they sent him back to Pilate.

As a step in the exoneration of Pilate and the Romans, this passage fulfils it aims amiably but it cannot be historical. Roman law requires that the case can only be tried by an official in whose jurisdiction the crime was committed. As Craveri concludes:

The statement [that Pilate handed Jesus over to Herod when he found out that Jesus was a Galilean-PT] is not only debatable but undoubtedly false. Juridically, the was no need to extradite the accused from the forum delicti commissi to the forum originis, because the sole competent judge was the Roman procurator; nor was it in Pilate's character, if for no other reason than the dignity of his office, to show such deference to the petty Jewish tetrarch. [2]

It is no wonder that the professor for History of Christianity, Charles Guignebert called the passage in Luke absurd. [3] In the gospel of John, Pilate is made to repeat, on three separate occasions, the sentence: "I find no basis for a charge against him." (John 18:38;19:4,6) Pilate is made to hand over Jesus over for crucifixion only after the Jews threaten Pilate with a denunciation by the emperor:

John 19:12-16
From then on, Pilate tried to set Jesus free, but the Jews kept shouting, "If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar."...they shouted, "Take him away! Take him away! Crucify him!" "Shall I crucify your king?" Pilate asked. "We have no king but Caesar," the chief priest answered. Finally Pilate handed him over to them to be crucified.

This process of exonerating Pilate and the Romans for Jesus crucifixion went beyond the canonical gospels into the apocryphal ones. In the recently discovered Ethiopian Gospel of Gamaliel, the story of Pilate is carried further. In it Pilate regretted having being manipulated by the Jews and actually became a convert to Christianity! In fact the Coptic Church includes Pontius Pilate in its calendar of Christian saints!! [4]

The Pontius Pilate of the Christian gospels and tradition is therefore a just, kind, albeit somewhat weak man who caved in to the Jewish demands. What do we know about this man from other, secular, sources? That he existed, we have no doubt. There were numerous contemporary references to him, including in the works of Jewish writers such as Philo and Josephus. And in 1961 an inscription bearing Pilate's name as the prefect of Judea was found in Ceasarea. [5] Pilate, as we know, was the fifth prefect (i.e. governor) of Judea; holding the post from AD26 to 37.

A summary of Pilate's character can be found in the letter of King Agrippa I to Carigula, which was quoted by Philo in Legatione ad Caium

He [Pilate] feared lest they might in reality go on an embassy to the emperor, and might impeach him with respect to the other particulars of his government, in respect to the his corruption, his acts of insolence, and his rapine and his habit of insulting people, and his continual murder of persons untried and uncondemned, and his never ending, and gratuitous and most grievous inhumanity.[6]59

In Josephus' writings too we find further confirmation of Agrippa I's assessment of Pilate. Unlike his predecessors, Coponius (governor AD6-9), Ambibulos (AD9-12), Annius Rufus (AD12-15) and Valerius Gratus (AD15-26), Pilate had nothing but contempt for Jewish culture, religion and people. Josephus' Antiquities (18:3:1-5) gave a summary of Pilate's experience with the Jews. In three separate incidents, Pilate showed himself to be a man with little respect for the Jews and their religion.

The first incident relates to the image of the emperor on the banners of the Roman soldiers. As the Jews in Jerusalem do not tolerate any graven image in the city, out of abhorrence for idolatry, the previous governors had the soldiers remove this image from their banners before entering the city. Pilate, showing lack of respect for the sensitivities of the Jews, ordered his soldiers to enter the city at night and not remove the image of the emperor. He thought that the Jews would not dare protest once they see that the image was already there. But the Jews did protest, by sending a massive deputation from Jerusalem to Caesarea, the home of the governor.

In the second incident, Pilate set up votive tablets in the palace of Herod on Mount Zion. The Jews again protested this violation of Jerusalem's sanctity and sent an appeal, this time to the emperor, for its removal. In both these cases Pilate was forced to back down. In the first, to avoid a full scale revolt that would look bad on his record and in the second, at the order of the emperor.

The third incident however, did not end without bloodshed. Pilate used the money from the temple tax to build an aqueduct. This was for the public good of Jerusalem, for it would have meant an increase in water supply to the city. The Jews again protested, as it was sacrilegious for the sacred money of the temple to be used for secular purposes. This time Pilate stood his ground. And when the Jews staged a demonstration, he had his soldiers mix with the mob, wearing civilian clothing with clubs hidden underneath. The clubs are then used on the noisy ones first. The resulting confusion caused many deaths; some from the clubbing and some from being trampled by the panicking crowd as they fled from the scene. [7]

Pilate's tenure as governor ended the same way it started, with an act which marked his total lack of compassion for the inhabitants of Palestine. The event that led to his downfall was the appearance of a Samaritan prophet. The prophet gained a large following. Pilate's method of dispelling the crowd around the prophet was typical of his character: he slaughtered them on their holy mountain. About four thousand Samaritans died in that massacre. When this brutal act was reported to the emperor, Pilate was recalled to Rome in 37 CE. We know no more of him from history. [8]

The character of Pilate as given to us by secular historical sources is completely at variance with that given by the gospels. The Pilate in the gospel was amiable, politically naive and easily intimidated by the Jewish crowd. The historical Pilate, as we have seen, was cruel, headstrong and self-seeking. That this Pilate would have allowed a Jewish mob to given his action is unthinkable. It is obvious that the actual role, if any, Pilate played in the condemnation of Jesus was extensively rewritten to exonerate him and to pin the blame on the Jews. We will discuss, later in this chapter, why this became necessary for the early Christians.

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Other Difficulties

The Passover Privilege

The narrative in the synoptics (Mark 15:6; Matthew 27:15; Luke 23:17) also tell of how Pilate anxious to have Jesus freed, tried to make use of a custom in which one prisoner, of the crowd's choice, is released during the passover. As many scholars have shown, Roman and Jewish sources say nothing about such a custom ever having existed among the Romans either in Palestine or anywhere else. [9] Furthermore, it is unlikely that the Jews, of all people, would have been granted that unique privilege of freeing a prisoner accused of sedition as Palestine was one of the most unruly of the Roman provinces. The revolt against the census in AD6 would easily have convinced the Roman of that! The quote below by B.H. Branscomd summarizes scholarly opinion about the existence of this custom:

nothing is known of any such custom as is here described that at the feast of the passover the Roman procurators regularly released one prisoner, and that the crowd named the individual no matter what his offence had been, is not only without any attestation , but also contrary to what we know of the spirit and manner of Roman rule over Palestine. [10]

Not being a scholar I am not confined to couch my conclusions in long involved sentences; the basic fact is that the "passover privilege" as described in the synoptics is undoubtedly fictional.

The Release of Jesus

Another problem with the account of the trial before Pilate is this: even after the crowd has chosen Barabbas as the prisoner to be released, there is nothing to prevent Pilate from releasing Jesus, if the Roman governor was convinced of his innocence. Remember that in the Markan account (Mark 15:1-15) Jesus was not condemned until after Barabbas was released. There is nothing to prevent Pilate from releasing Jesus anytime before that, for he would not be releasing a condemned prisoner. [11]

The Shift in Attitude of the Crowd

Furthermore, the hostile attitude of the crowd is, to say the least, puzzling. According to all four gospels only five days before the trial, during Jesus' entry in Jerusalem, large crowds welcomed him (Mark 11:8; Matthew 21:8; Luke 19:37; John 12:12). And later we are told that the chief priests wanted to arrest Jesus but were afraid of the people:

Mark 11:18
The chief priests and the teachers of the law heard this and began looking for a way to kill him, for they feared him, because the whole crowd was amazed at his teaching.

Matthew 26:3-4
Then the chief priests and the elders of the people assembled in the palace of the high priest, whose name was Caiaphas, and they plotted to arrest Jesus in some sly way and kill him. "But not during the feast," they said, "or there may be a riot among the people."

Luke 22:2
and the chief priests and the teachers of the law were looking for some way to get rid of Jesus, for they were afraid of the people.

How this crowd, which had remained favorable to Jesus up to the time of the trial could have suddenly taken a diametrically opposite position and asked for Jesus execution is not explained in any of the gospels, and, indeed, is inexplicable. [12]

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1.Guignebert, Jesus: p465
2.Craveri, Life of Jesus: p386
3.Guignebert, Jesus: p467
4.Craveri, Life of Jesus: p392-393
5.Wilson, Jesus:The Evidence: p104
6.Maccoby, Revolution in Judea: p57-58
7.Craveri, Life of Jesus: p82
Maccoby, Revolution in Judea: p58
Martin, New Testament Foundations I: p66
8.Ibid: p67
9.Craveri, Life of Jesus: p389
Guignebert, Jesus: p469
Maccoby, Revolution in Judea: p212
10.Nineham, Saint Mark: p413
11.Guignebert, Jesus: p469
Maccoby, Revolution in Judea: p213
Nineham, Saint Mark: p416
12.Maccoby, Revolution in Judea: p213

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