Pontius Pilate Mihaly MunkacsyPoor Pilate. If ever a man was caught unwittingly in the net of historical circumstance, it was Pilate. A simple Roman governor just doing his job, he could see that Jesus wasn’t the villain the Jewish crowd thought him to be. In the end, he washed his hands of the affair—tormented, it seems, by the injustice of the whole thing. But he didn’t come out of it too badly. Constantine liked him and took him as a forerunner of his own imperial embrace of Christianity in the fourth century. In the Coptic and Ethiopic churches, Pilate soon came to be celebrated as a saint. And perhaps more importantly for our time, Hollywood has done him no harm—cinema doesn’t get any better than a dramatic handwashing scene, with the Jewish crowd in the background chanting wildly, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” It all comes right out of the Gospels, of course, so it must have happened just that way. For filmmakers such as Mel Gibson, “gospel truth” is just as good as “historical truth” (see “Mel Gibson’s Passion Play” in this issue).
But is it? Is “gospel truth” really “historical truth?” Most scholars don’t think so. The Pilate we know from history doesn’t fit very well with this flattering gospel depiction of Pilate, the lover of truth and justice. The details associated with Pilate in our gospel texts have much more to do with the agenda of the evangelists who wrote those texts than they do with history.

What does history actually tell us of Pilate? To be honest, not all that much. We know nothing of his career before he became the prefect of Judea, and the accounts of his life after Judea (in Eusebius, or the Acts of Pilate, for example) are filled with legend. But perhaps we know enough.

Our oldest information about him comes from the Jewish philosopher and diplomat Philo of Alexandria, who, in the mid-first century C.E., included in his indictment of the Roman emperor Gaius Caligula a story about Pilate’s rule over Judea.1 According to Philo, Pilate had arranged for two gold-plated shields bearing inscriptions offensive to Jewish religious sensibilities to be set up in Herod’s palace. The Jews asked that the shields be removed, threatening that if they weren’t, a delegation would be sent to Rome to complain to Tiberius. Pilate shouldn’t have worried about such a small thing, but he did. It seems he wanted to keep his Roman superiors at a distance. Philo explains:

He [Pilate] feared that if they actually sent a delegation they would also expose the rest of his conduct as governor by telling all about the briberies, the insults, the robberies, the outrages and senseless injuries, the repeated executions without trial, the constant and extraordinarily severe cruelty.2

In the end they did send a delegation, and Tiberius did reprimand Pilate for his extreme ineptitude. But Pilate somehow survived and retained his prefecture.

The Jewish historian Josephus, writing half a century later, recounts a similar story—perhaps a variant of the same—involving the placement of imperial images in the Jerusalem Temple.3 The protest thus aroused was most dramatic in Josephus’s telling, with thousands of Jews lying prostrate on the ground, baring their necks for slaughter rather than dispersing as Pilate had ordered. In this instance Pilate relented rather than cause an ugly scene.

On still another occasion, also recounted by Josephus, Pilate’s crowd control is probably more characteristic of his temperament and style, if Josephus and Philo are to be believed. This time, Pilate had taken funds from the “sacred treasury” (monies set aside for the purchase of sacrificial animals, most likely) to pay for the construction of an aqueduct into the city of Jerusalem.4 When a protest broke out, Pilate sent in troops to club down the protesters. Many were killed.

All in all, the picture we get of Pilate is that of a ruthless and mean-spirited schemer, which was probably not all that uncommon for small-time Roman prefects. The whole point of becoming a provincial governor, after all, was to take advantage of the position to enrich oneself. Pilate managed to do this in Judea longer than anyone else—about ten years.5 The length of his tenure is sometimes taken as a sign that he had cultivated relatively amicable relations with his Jewish subjects. But none of the stories we have about his reign bear this out. Rather, it is more likely that he had a stronger stomach than most for the kind of ruthless violence and intimidation necessary for maintaining law and order under the Roman imperial system of extracting wealth and tribute from its provinces. Thus, when Luke mentions in passing “the Galileans whose blood Pilate mingled with their sacrifices” (Luke 13:1), it is just another example of the sort of random violence that can happen to a person, the same as a tower tumbling over on you on an otherwise normal afternoon (Luke 13:4).

When Pilate was finally removed from office, it was for using excessive force to put down another minor, religiously inspired uprising, this one among the Samaritans.6 According to Josephus, a self-styled messianic leader had planned to lead a group of followers up Mt. Gerizim where he promised they would discover the sacred vessels, which, according to Samaritan lore, Moses had buried there. The whole thing, which apparently unfolded close to Passover,7 seemed threatening to Pilate, so he ambushed them, slaughtering some on the spot and taking others prisoner, only to execute them later. This was apparently too much—perhaps the last straw—for the Roman Legate of Syria, Vitellius, who, by virtue of his consular rank, could depose Pilate. He did just this and sent Pilate off to Rome. That is the last we hear of Pilate. He probably lived out his life in senatorial privilege, enjoying the spoils from his days in Judea.

Of course, Pilate is best known for his role in the crucifixion of Jesus. In a passage fraught with technical difficulties, Josephus mentions this small event in Pilate’s career. At least this much of what Josephus says is reliable: “When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by those of highest standing among us, had condemned him to be crucified, those who had first come to love him did not give up.”8

The statement is probably as accurate as any. Many high-ranking Jews worked closely with their Roman governor to ensure an effective imperial presence—empires can’t work without collaborators. The Jerusalem high priest, for example, was always appointed by the Roman governor. Both he and Pilate would have regarded Jesus as seditious, as our Gospels record, and so would have wished him gone. As governor, Pilate alone could authorize an execution. And so Jesus was put to death on his orders by crucifixion, Rome’s signature form of punishment for rebellious peasants and upstarts.

But the Christian Gospels say a good deal more than this. Little of it is historically defensible. Jesus’ death was for his followers an event of tremendous moment and meaning, and they recalled it making use of the cultural resources at their disposal for understanding the death of a righteous person. If Mark (our earliest gospel account of Jesus’ Passion) had a source, it was already a highly stylized narrative presenting Jesus as the quintessential Jewish martyr. The story of the betrayal, death and vindication of God’s righteous one was a story well known to Jews, and whoever created the first narrative of Jesus’ Passion made use of this popular genre to create the scenes and to fill them with detail. This is how we come to have scenes like Jesus’ midnight struggle in the Garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14:32–42, and parallels), where all the witnesses to the most important parts are fast asleep. Or consider the trial scene with Pilate (Mark 15:1–5). Who is present to recall the details? Only certain anonymous “chief priests.” And whom might we imagine recording Pilate’s private thoughts: “He perceived that it was out of envy that the chief priests had betrayed him” (Mark 15:10)? These thoughts of the omniscient narrator give voice to the faith of early Jesus followers; they are not history.

When we pay close attention to the details of Pilate’s supposed thoughts, we can often connect them to the lives of those early believers. Take, for example, that thought of Pilate in Mark 15:10. Of course, Pilate could have thought that the chief priests were acting out of envy, but that is not the point. The omniscience needed to extract it from Pilate’s mind shows that it doesn’t come from a real historical report. Then where does it come from? Why, in the story of Jesus’ death, does Mark wish the reader to hear Pilate’s private thoughts? Why should he wish us to think that the chief priests were the real culprits here, not Pilate?

Mark was written near the end of the Jewish War against Rome, when the city of Jerusalem had been (or would soon be) sacked, thousands slaughtered, and thousands more sold off into slavery. Josephus’s firsthand accounts of the Roman siege of Jerusalem are as grisly as military history gets. Mark, it turns out, had an opinion about these events. If we back up in this gospel to near the beginning of the passion narrative, we find a parable—the Parable of the Evil Tenants (Mark 12:1–11)—in which a man rents his vineyard to tenants who beat and/or kill his agents, and then his son, when he comes to collect the rent. Scholars agree that Mark has added references to Isaiah at the beginning of the parable (Mark 12:1; cf. Isaiah 5) to suggest that this vineyard, like Isaiah’s, is not just any vineyard, but God’s vineyard—in this reading, Jerusalem. He has also added the words in 12:6 that speak of the owner’s son as “beloved,” which, in Markan parlance, makes him a stand-in for Jesus. In the story, the tenants in God’s vineyard, Jerusalem, resolve to murder God’s son, Jesus. And so they do. And what will God do in response to this outrage? “He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others” (Mark 12:9). This is Mark’s take on the siege of Jerusalem. It was to Jerusalem that Jesus had come in his final days, and it was there that he died. For this Mark does not blame Rome’s agent, Pilate. With Jerusalem on the brink of collapse, he could only see Rome as God’s agent, punishing the city and its leaders for their rejection of Jesus 35 years earlier. That is why, in Mark, Pilate is reticent while the chief priests and the Jerusalem crowd press on, demanding Jesus’ death.
In other, later accounts of Jesus’ trial before Pilate, more details are added, among them some of the most cinematically compelling scenes that one will likely see in most Jesus movies. Two of them are in Matthew 27:1–26, Matthew’s version of the trial. Matthew is not an independent witness to this “event.” It is based, rather, on the Gospel of Mark, which its author used as a source. Matthew’s hand can often easily be seen simply by laying Matthew’s text alongside that of Mark (see the sidebar to this article). When one lays Matthew 27:1–26 next to Mark 15:1–15, one can see that the two trials are substantially the same. But two details stand out. The first occurs in v. 19. Here Pilate’s wife appears in the narrative, sending word to Pilate right in the middle of the trial, saying: “Have nothing to do with that righteous man, for I have suffered much over him today in a dream” (Matthew 27:19b). In Matthew, Jesus is above all “righteous.” Pilate’s wife is among the first to see it.

The second is in verses 24–25. Here Matthew inserts into the Markan story a scene that no one who has ever seen a Passion play or attended Good Friday services can ever forget: “So when Pilate saw that he was gaining nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.’ And all the people answered, ‘His blood be upon us and our children!’”

These words do not record history. They are clearly an editorial addition to Mark’s earlier story. Why does Matthew insert them? Why does Matthew strain so hard with this episode, and the prior episode with Pilate’s wife, to exonerate Pilate? It is not so much for love of Pilate that he adds these details, but for hatred of the Jews. One should say “fellow” Jews, for the author of Matthew was himself Jewish. But he lived and wrote at a time when Jews and Christians (most of them still Jewish, like Matthew) were parting company. The split was not amicable; there was plenty of cursing and recrimination on both sides. In Matthew the heat of conflict blazes bright in places like chapter 23, where Jesus (à la Matthew) spews out one vile curse after another upon the “scribes and Pharisees,” finally claiming that they are to be punished for the deaths of Christian “prophets, sages, and scribes” who have been sent to them (Matthew 23:34–35). Matthew holds responsible everyone who rejects him and his, not only for the deaths of his fellow missionaries, but for the death of Jesus himself. In Matthew 27 it is not just the chief priests who prevail upon Pilate, it is “all the people” who announce as though rehearsing for the Passion play itself: “His blood be upon us and our children.”

Luke and John have their own reasons for adding to the anti-Jewish cast of the trial scene. John was in a situation not unlike Matthew’s, an unwilling exile from synagogue life. He portrays his fellow Jews as abandoning Jesus while selling out to the Roman Empire, even while Pilate resists (John 18:28–19:16). Luke, a gentile, was anxious to demonstrate to other gentiles that Jesus was not the dangerous peasant rebel his manner of death would suggest. And so his Pilate flatly declares to “the chief priests and the rulers of the people”: “I did not find this man guilty of any of your charges against him; neither did Herod, for he sent him back to us. Behold, nothing deserving death has been done by him” (Luke 23:14b–15).

But the Jews cry out “away with this man” (Luke 23:18). In a sense, this summarizes one major theme running throughout Luke’s entire two-volume epic: The Jews rejected Jesus while we gentiles accepted him.

And so Pilate emerges fair and just, if a little weak-kneed, but more or less a qualified good-guy in each of our stories. As noted in the previous article in this issue, later lore would do more. The second-century church father Tertullian relates how Pilate became a follower of Jesus and even tried to convert his emperor.9 Tertullian was a gentile and a Roman of some rank and education who likely shared an intensified version of Luke’s apologetic concern. Pilate the convert serves this need. If Tertullian continued the sanctification of Pilate, he also carried forward the vilification of the Jews, insisting that all of Israel is responsible for the death of Jesus, citing Matthew 27:25 as evidence.10 In Tertullian’s account of Jesus’ Passion, Pilate virtually disappears; the entire episode of his crucifixion is dominated by the Jews:

The Jews were so exasperated by his [Jesus’] teaching, by which their rulers and chiefs were convicted of the truth, chiefly because so many turned aside to him, that at last they brought him before Pontius Pilate, at that time Roman governor of Syria; and, by the violence of their outcries against him, extorted a sentence giving him up to them to be crucified.11

The Christian rehabilitation of Pilate perhaps would have been a fairly harmless thing if it had not been so linked to the growing anti-Semitism of the increasingly gentile church, which crystallized above all else around the charge that the Jews killed Jesus. And so emerged one of the great and soon to become tragic ironies of all history. After Constantine legitimized Christianity, and his successors fully embraced it, the empire that had once executed Jesus, along with many other innocent Jews, could now sanctify itself with the myth that Pilate had been innocent; it was the Jews who really crucified him. And that supposed fact would be the pretext for wave after wave of new imperial violence directed against the Jewish people. This way of thinking, and the pattern of anti-Semitic violence that accompanied it, persisted for centuries, culminating in the horrors of the Shoah. This way of thinking continues on today, even if the intense anti-Semitism of the Nazi era seems an impossibility now.

But what seems an impossibility probably isn’t. So long as Christians harbor these myths of our past, treating them as history, the risk that history will repeat itself, as it has so many times before, is still with us. And so the historian must not be timid. These old ideas, biblical though they may be, have to go. Whatever their creators might have meant by them, they have worked great evil in Western civilization. They are not true. The Jews did not kill Jesus, and Pilate was not a saint.