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Pontius Pilate


Heimdall

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It was not my intention to make this posting this long. I hope it isn’t too boring and that it gives you a feel for Pilate the man and Pilate the legend - Heimdall

 

 

I would like to explore the questions of who Pontius Pilate was, what importance can be attached to his name and why, and what myths have grown up around the man over the 20 centuries since his death. In order to do so, we will have to first look at how the Empire was governed and how the various provincial offices were filled.

 

ADMINISTRATION OF THE EMPIRE

 

In the Roman Empire, outlying provinces were basically run by the army and came under the direct authority of the Emperor. Each managerial level of the provincial administration was directly appointed by the Emperor, starting with the “Legate”. This individual was usually of Senatorial rank, usually rich, usually surrounded with considerable pomp, and usually the patron of a considerable number of clients. As was the subordinate rank of “Prefect”, the rank of Legate was a primarily military rank. The Legate had control of the main military forces (usually of Legion size or more) in the province. The subordinate rank to the Legate was the “Prefect”. The duties of the Prefect numbered four:

To start with, he was responsible for the taxes. As the emperor's personal financial agent, he had to supervise the local authorities and the private tax collectors (the notorious publicans). To facilitate things, a governor could mint coins and negotiate with wealthy institutions (like the Temple in Jerusalem) that could advance the money.

 

His second task was that of accountant: he inspected the books and supervised large scale building projects (could cause trouble, see the Aqueduct Riots below)

 

Next to these financial tasks, the governor was the province's supreme judge. Appeal was not impossible, but the voyage to Rome was expensive. The Judean governor was supposed to travel through the three main districts -Samaria, Judea and Idumea- to administer justice in the assize towns

 

Finally, he commanded an army. In the more important provinces, this could consist of legions; but the Judean governor commanded only auxiliary troops. Two cohorts had their barracks in Jerusalem (at the old palace and at the fortress Antonia); a third cohort guarded the Judean capital, Caesarea; and two cohorts of infantry and one cavalry regiment were on duty throughout the province. Taken together, the prefect commanded 6×500 men: a force to be reckoned with, but not enough when things went seriously wrong. In that case, his superior, the governor of Syria, would have to send a legion, a heavy infantry unit of 5300 men.

(These were the governor's normal tasks, but Pilate's tenure of office was not typical. He had to struggle along with an “absentee” Legate, meaning that he could not fall back on the Legate’s troops and had only his auxiliaries at his disposal. To even be considered for Prefect, one must have a strong patron (patronage was the modus of Roman life) and in the case of Pontius Pilate, it has been suggested that was the powerful commander of the guard of the emperor Tiberius, a man named Seianus. It may be true and is perhaps even plausible, but we simply cannot know.

 

PONTIUS PILATE’S BACKGROUND

 

Judea was so relatively unimportant a province that no senator would have deigned to become its governor. Consequently, its governors belonged to the second class of the Roman elite, the order of the knights or equestrians. These men were not entitled to the position of 'legate' or 'proconsul', but had to content themselves with the military title 'prefect'. Pilate was a member of the Pontius family, a prominent Samnite family. The Pontii could boast the victory of the Claudine Forks over the Romans in 321 BCE. That this and most Equestrian families upheld their military traditions is evidenced by Augustus’ stress of the military character of the order of the knights. That Pilate began his career as a soldier can be pretty much accepted as fact, the Romans rightly demanded military experience for their Prefects, the position was after all partially a military position. Standards of efficiency for Prefects were high and the very success of the Empire rested largely on such men. They were allowed absolute power of life and death over all save Roman citizens. The gospels imply that Pilate was a “friend of Caesar”, and honorific conferred by the Emperor on favored officers (and one that could be withdrawn), so it can be assumed that Pilate was and effective officer, trusted by Tiberius.

 

ARRIVING IN JUDEA

 

In many ways, Judea was an important post. It’s capital city, Jerusalem, was the religious capital of all the Jews, scattered all over the Empire and making up (according to some computations) around 10 percent of the Imperial population. Dissenters against the Roman religious system, they gathered in their synagogues, worshipping a single god and teaching their ancestral, god-given law. Their temple at Jerusalem, the destination of their pilgrimages, was staffed by 20,000 priests serving in rotation. Consequently, as the Prefect of Judea, Pilate would be responsible to the Emperor for the good order of the most troublesome religious cult in the Empire. Making things more difficult, the Jewish faith had political implications. The Jews were expecting the arrival of an “Anointed One”, the Messiah. He would free their land from alien rule, lead them to independence and enable them to conquer the world. Because of these beliefs, Judea and the Jews seethed with rebellion, twice resulting in armed insurrection ( 66 and 132 CE). For a Roman official to govern such a territory effectively required a superhuman combination of energy and tact. Pilate was strong on energy, weak on tact. His trust, in a crisis, lay in his troops as would any soldier.

 

How much Pilate knew about Judaism is not really clear. It is very likely that he studied it prior to arriving in Palestine, the action of a good officer, in order to better understand the land and peoples that he would interact with. As was most Romans, he was probably intrigued by its apparent age, its philosophical depth (by this period of time Judaism had absorbed much of the content of Greek philosophy), its resistance to much of the Roman culture and its barbaric custom of circumcision. He had probably read of the policy of the Syrian King Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who prosecuted those who continued the practice of circumcision. It appears that Pilate did not consider such an action and seems to have embarked on a policy of cooperation. Since there was no Syrian governor to mint coins, Pilate had to do it himself. These coins show the staff of an Italian seer on the obverse and on the reverse, one could have seen a bunch of grapes, which is the usual picture on any Jewish coin. Pilate thus combined an inoffensive pagan and an inoffensive Jewish symbol, which probably reflects a policy of equal rights to Jews and pagans. He would not force the Jews to lay down their ancestral ways; he invited them to be Rome's equals. One thing most important when dealing with an alien culture and religion is good advice. Pilate inherited a valuable advisor from his predecessor (Valerius Gratus 15-26 CE) in the form of the High Priest Caiaphas. Valerius Gratus had dismissed three High Priests before appointing Caiaphas. Since neither Valerius Gratus nor Pilate dismissed him, he was surely an able and trustworthy advisor.

The Iconic Standards incident

In 26 CE, Pilate and his wife (according to one tradition named Claudia and to another Procla) arrived at Caesarea. Almost immediately there was trouble. Roman soldiers brought in what Josephus described as “bust of the emperor that were attached to the military standards”. It has been suggested that this might very well have been inadvertent, by Josephus sequence of events, this seems to have happened very shortly after Pilate’s arrival. It is entirely possible and highly probable that he brought fresh troops with him and immediately dispatched them to quarters in Jerusalem. Being new to the land and not knowing the customs and beliefs of the native population (still a problem with military service in other lands), they might not have known that they couldn’t take their standards into the holy city. If they covered the distance between the two cities -90 km- in three days, it is not strange to read that the blasphemous objects were introduced into the city during the night. This incident aroused most of the city and a good portion of the population of Jerusalem marched to Caesarea (Pilates capital), imploring the new governor to remove the effigies. We have three reports of the incident. The oldest was written by Philo in the 40’s and is extremely hostile to Pilate. The existing discrepancies in the report (embassy to Caligula) could very well be because Philo was in Alexandria and receiving his information “second-hand”. Josephus mentions this incident in both his “Jewish Antiquities” and “Jewish Wars” which are based at least partially on oral sources.

Philo of Alexandria, The Embassy to Caligula

Pilate was an official who had been appointed prefect of Judea. With the intention of annoying the Jews rather than of honoring Tiberius, he set up gilded shields in Herod's palace in the Holy City. They bore no figure and nothing else that was forbidden, but only the briefest possible inscription, which stated two things - the name of the dedicator and that of the person in whose honor the dedication was made.

But when the Jews at large learnt of this action, which was indeed already widely known, they chose as their spokesmen the king's [Herod the Great] four sons, who enjoyed prestige and rank equal to that of kings, his other descendants, and their own officials, and besought Pilate to undo his innovation in the shape of the shields, and not to violate their native customs, which had hitherto been invariably preserved inviolate by kings and emperors alike. When Pilate, who was a man of inflexible, stubborn and cruel disposition, obstinately refused, they shouted: 'Do not cause a revolt! Do not cause a war! Do not break the peace! Disrespect done to our ancient laws brings no honor to the emperor. Do not make Tiberius an excuse for insulting our nation. He does not want any of our traditions done away with. If you say that he does, show us some decree or letter or something of the sort, so that we may cease troubling you and appeal to our master by means of an embassy.'

This last remark exasperated Pilate most of all, for he was afraid that if they really sent an embassy, they would bring accusations against the rest of his administration as well, specifying in detail his venality, his violence, his thefts, his assaults, his abusive behavior, his frequent executions of untried prisoners, and his endless savage ferocity.

So, as he was a spiteful and angry person, he was in a serious dilemma; for he had neither the courage to remove what he had once set up, nor the desire to do anything which would please his subjects, but at the same time he was well aware of Tiberius' firmness on these matters. When the Jewish officials saw this, and realized that Pilate was regretting what he had done, although he did not wish to show it, they wrote a letter to Tiberius, pleading their case as forcibly as they could.

What words, what threats Tiberius uttered against Pilate when he read it! It would be superfluous to describe his anger, although he was not easily moved to anger, since his reaction speaks for itself.

For immediately, without even waiting until the next day, he wrote to Pilate, reproaching and rebuking him a thousand times for his new-fangled audacity and telling him to remove the shields at once and have them taken from the capital to the coastal city of Caesarea [...], to be dedicated in the temple of Augustus. This was duly done. In this way both the honor of the emperor and the traditional policy regarding Jerusalem were alike preserved.

 

Flavius Josephus, The Jewish War 2.169-174

Pilate, being sent by Tiberius as prefect to Judea, introduced into Jerusalem by night and under cover the effigies of Caesar which are called standards.

This proceeding, when day broke, aroused immense excitement among the Jews; those on the spot were in consternation, considering their laws to have been trampled under foot, as those laws permit no image to be erected in the city; while the indignation of the townspeople stirred the country folk, who flocked together in crowds.

Hastening after Pilate to Caesarea, the Jews implored him to remove the standards from Jerusalem and to uphold the laws of their ancestors. When Pilate refused, they fell prostrate around his palace and for five whole days and nights remained motionless in that position.

On the ensuing day Pilate took his seat on his tribunal in the great stadium and summoning the multitude, with the apparent intention of answering them, gave the arranged signal to his armed soldiers to surround the Jews.

Finding themselves in a ring of troops, three deep, the Jews were struck dumb at this unexpected sight. Pilate, after threatening to cut them down, if they refused to admit Caesar's images, signaled to the soldiers to draw their swords.

Thereupon the Jews, as by concerted action, flung themselves in a body on the ground, extended their necks, and exclaimed that they were ready rather to die than to transgress the law. Overcome with astonishment at such intense religious zeal, Pilate gave orders for the immediate removal of the standards from Jerusalem.

Flavius Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 18.55-59

 

Now Pilate, the prefect of Judea, when he brought his army from Caesarea and removed it to winter quarters in Jerusalem, took a bold step in subversion of the Jewish practices, by introducing into the city the busts of the emperor that were attached to the military standards, for our law forbids the making of images.

It was for this reason that the previous prefects, when they entered the city, used standards that had no such ornaments. Pilate was the first to bring the images into Jerusalem and set them up, doing it without the knowledge of the people, for he entered at night.

But when the people discovered it, they went in a throng to Caesarea and for many days entreated him to take away the images. He refused to yield, since to do so would be an outrage to the emperor; however, since they did not cease entreating him, on the sixth day he secretly armed and placed his troops in position, while he himself came to the speaker's stand. This had been constructed in the stadium, which provided concealment for the army that lay in wait.

When the Jews again engaged in supplication, at a pre-arranged signal he surrounded them with his soldiers and threatened to punish them at once with death if they did not put an end to their tumult and return to their own places.

But they, casting themselves prostrate and baring their throats, declared that they had gladly welcomed death rather than make bold to transgress the wise provisions of the laws. Pilate, astonished at the strength of their devotion to the laws, straightway removed the images from Jerusalem and brought them back to Caesarea.

 

Interpretation

 

There are striking differences between the reports of the two authors. Philo seems to base his report on a petition by four sons of King Herod and never mentions the sit down action of the Jews that Josephus made center of the aftermath. Josephus reports that the objects of dissention were army standards while Philo seems to think they were gilded shields with an inscription. This could very well be because Philo received his information from one of the Herodian princes (he was related to them) while Josephus had to rely on the memory of eyewitnesses nearly half a century later. Either way, both author’s report share one common trait, neither tell the story from Pilate’s point of view, only from the Jewish point of view, which was extremely hostile to Pilate. But it is unlikely that Pilate deliberately provoked the Jews. Only an anti-Semite would have done so, and the emperor Tiberius was far too clever to send an anti-Semite to Judea. The Romans could be harsh masters, but they were not stupid. Besides, we have already seen that Pilate accepted Judaism and paganism as equals. It must have been an accident. It is interesting that the two Jewish authors infer that Pilate was forced to remove the standards by willingness of the crowd to die rather than have God’s laws broken or by order of the Emperor. Actually a very likely scenario would be that after the Jerusalem population discovered what had happened and decided to implore the new governor to remove these effigies. The first to arrive in Caesarea will have reached it on the evening of the third day, and it is unlikely that the governor allowed an audience to these few people. When the crowd grew, he ordered his soldiers to guard it. He had no reliable (i.e., Roman) report of what had happened and would have sent a messenger to Jerusalem. Meanwhile, the Herodian princes had discovered that their subjects were almost revolting, and hurried to Pilate to advise him on this matter. Flavius Josephus tells us that the strikers had to wait until the sixth day; probably this is the time Pilate needed to hear the answer of his messengers, and to send a new messenger to order the removal of the statues (or gilded shields). It is doubtful that Pilate was reprimanded or punished in anyway, he did remain Prefect of Judea for a total of 10 years where the standard was much shorter.

Aqueduct Riot

Several years later, there was a second incident that caused a temporary breach of public peace. Prior to his death, King Herod (the Great) had ordered the construction of an aqueduct from a stream source 25 miles from Jerusalem. Pilate evidentially took money from the Temple treasury (Corbonas) for this construction. The Jews considered this action to be robbery and bands of resistance fighters, supported by normally peaceful citizens sabotaged the work, by getting in the way of the workers. Josephus tells us that “Tens of Thousands” Jews assembled, loudly protesting this. After being told to disperse by Pilate and refusing, they were attacked by Roman soldiers among them, dressed as Jews and wielding truncheons. Josephus reported that large numbers of Jews perished.

Flavius Josephus, The Jewish War 2.175-177

 

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.

 

Flavius Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 18.60-62

He 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.

 

Interpretation

 

By Jewish law, it is permissible to take money from the Corbonas (Oorban) for public works and social welfare. This could only be accomplished with the cooperation of the Temple authorities administering the money. Josephus implies this consent in his reports and if they had refused Pilate’s request, Josephus would have told us that Pilate did indeed steal the money. Actually, what Pilate did wrong is unclear, his actions would have improved the living standards of the city by a large measure. Mayhap he should have let the High Priest Caiaphas take the credit. This could also be insurgents taking advantage of a situation and through rabble rousing and propaganda inciting a riot over what would have normally been just another public works. Since Pilate was in residence in Jerusalem at the time of the riot, it must have been a feast time, also a notorious time for agitators to be able to whip the mob to a frenzy, giving even more evidence to this being an insurgency action.

 

Trial, Condemnation and Crucifixion – The Jesus Incident

 

At some time during his 10 years in office, according to the Christian gospels, there came before him on trial the Galilean, Jesus the Nazarene. This trial is the best attested incident in Pilate’s career. We have four sources of information for this incident, all questionable and/or biased: The Testimonium Flavianum from Josephus’ “Jewish Antiquities”, Mark’s gospel, John’s gospel and the “Annals” of the Roman historian Tacitus. I do not include the narratives from Matthew and Luke as they are derived from that of Mark’s and contain little additional information. Each gospel has a differing version of what happened, but there is a common outline. The Sanhedrin, the Jewish governing authority, had arrested Jesus and convicted him of blasphemy, a conviction that carried the death penalty. Unfortunately, the Sanhedrin lacked the authority to execute a death sentence and took the prisoner to Pilate, who, by dictates of the Emperor, had to be in Jerusalem for any feast day. By what is reported in the gospels, Jesus would only have been guilty of a serious misdemeanor, he had openly predicted the destruction of the Temple, had in a fit of rage, overturned the tables of the money changers and those selling doves. This was a far cry from blasphemy; the Sanhedrin had to take his reference to himself as the “Son of Man” sitting on the right hand side of God, in order to find any way to charge him with blasphemy. The Romans did not execute a person for blasphemy; they thought that the Gods would punish a blasphemer and for mankind to do so would be a waste of time. Of course, Pilate was not interested in a blasphemer, and therefore Caiaphas presented him a different case: Jesus had claimed to be the 'King of the Jews'. In other words, he was charged with high treason (one of my more naïve sources believes that we must consider this a historical fact, because it is too embarrassing to be invented). Charging Jesus with high treason was relatively easy since some of his disciples considered him the Jewish Messiah, although Jesus himself seems to have responded ambiguously to this. Pilate sensed that Caiaphas’ interpretation of the claim that Jesus was the Messiah was biased, but under pressure from the Jews, agreed to pass the death sentence. According to Matthew, at this point he disclaimed responsibility by washing his hands in front of a Jewish crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood, It is your concern.” What Pilate must have seen before him was a Jewish holy man, supposedly from Galilee, a troublesome territory outside his jurisdiction, but more probably seen as a member of the insurgent band called the Galileans after Judas of Galilee, its founder. Such independent or semi-independent leaders, with their own groups of followers, were characteristic of the Jewish scene. Religion and politics were so intertwined that any religious teaching was potentially treasonable, especially such as that of Jesus, which referred to a new “kingdom” and apparently stirred up the people.

The Warrant of Arrest, a forgery

One document, almost certainly a medieval forgery, gives a description of Jesus supposedly based upon that given in the warrant for his arrest.

He is, in stature, a man of middle height and well proportioned. He has a venerable face, of a sort to arouse both fear and love in those who see him. His hair is of the color of ripe chestnuts, smooth almost to the ears but above them waving and curling, with a slight bluish radiance, and it flows over his shoulders. It is parted in the middle on the top of his head, after the fashion of the Nazarenes. His brow is smooth and very calm, with a face without wrinkle or blemish, lightly tinged with red. His nose and mouth are faultless. His heard is luxuriant and unclipped of the same color as his hair, not long, but parted at the chin.

I included this little snippet for the simple reason that I found it interesting that people have to beautify that (by strong textual evidence) which was not beautiful. The earliest Christian traditions were that Jesus was ugly, of small statue, and deformed, this was probably based as much on OT prophecies as real memories. Even the prisoner’s age was uncertain, It could have been anywhere between 30 and 50, the gospels aren’t very clear on the matter.

 

Politics of the trial

 

We are assured by the gospels that Pilate was not convinced Jesus was guilty of treason. Both Mark and John show us how Pilate forced the Jewish crowd to accept at least some of the responsibility. We are told that Pilate declared he could find no fault with Jesus, and repeatedly referring to him as “your king”, thereby pushing the crowd into declaring that they wanted Jesus executed. Matthew reports that Pilate washed his hands (a customs of the Pharisees for washing away impurities, such as convicting an innocent man) This, of course, is total nonsense. To use an old American phrase, “the buck stops here”, Pilate was the supreme magistrate of Judea (remember his superior was an “absentee Legate” and would have had to carry the full responsibility of the matter. It is not, however, implausible that he used the occasion to obtain pledges of loyalty from the Jews. John states that the Jews even declared to have “no king but Caesar” Pilate, ever the practical military man, may have considered the life on one man (albeit innocent) a fair price for the smooth cooperation of the Jewish authorities and peoples. It is hardly likely that Pilate wanted conflict with the Jews, there was enough of that going on with the insurrectionists and there machinations. Several mentions of Pilate showing respect for Jewish customs are mentioned in the gospels: he washed his hands at the trial according to Matthew, he allowed Sanhedrin members to speak from without the Praetorium (entering a pagan building would defile Jewish priests), according to John and according to both Mark and John, he allowed Joseph of Arimathea to bury the dead man before the beginning of the Sabbath (my naïve source thinks that since they both state this independently, this has to be authentic). This latter item is very remarkable, Caesar Augustus’ directive that the executed were to be allowed a decent burial did not pertain to those executed for treason; it was common for the crucified to provide meals for the dogs and birds. I would see this as a weakness in the Christian story, but my naïve sources thinks this is the act of a Prefect anxious to respect the religious feelings of the Jews.

 

Flavius Josephus, the “Testimonium Flavianum”, Jewish Antiquities 18.63-64:

 

At this time there appeared Jesus, a wise man. For he was a doer of startling deeds, a teacher of the people who receive the truth with pleasure. And he gained a following both among many Jews and among many of Greek origin. And when Pilate, because of an accusation made by the leading men among us, condemned him to the cross, those who had loved him previously did not cease to do so. And up until this very day the tribe of Christians, named after him, has not died out.

 

This is the pathetic straw that most Apologists grasp in their futile effort to prove the existence of their Messiah. There are many reasons to deny its authenticity and very few to accept this quotation as actually being from the pen of Josephus. Strangely, this very Christian (from the pen of a very orthodox Pharisee) proof of the existence of Jesus was never mentioned by any of the early church fathers, even though many of them could have used such a quotation from a prominent history in their debates with the pagan philosophers of their period. Only in the 4th century CE, did the Bishop Eusebius make mention of it. Eusebius was an avowed “Liar for God” and known for his ability to “write with an antique hand” (forge antique manuscripts). Therefore we have motive, we have a likely suspect and we have means that even though circumstantial would be enough to indict in a modern court. I think that eventually evidence will appear to totally destroy this obvious insertion.

 

Cornelius Tacitus, the “Annals” book 15, chptr 44

 

"Nero looked around for a scapegoat, and inflicted the most fiendish tortures on a group of persons already hated for their crimes. This was the sect known as Christians. Their founder, one Christus, had been put to death by the procurator, Pontius Pilate in the reign of Tiberius. This checked the abominable superstition for a while, but it broke out again and spread, not merely through Judea, where it originated, but even to Rome itself, the great reservoir and collecting ground for every kind of depravity and filth. Those who confessed to being Christians were at once arrested, but on their testimony a great crowd of people were convicted, not so much on the charge of arson, but of hatred of the entire human race."

 

Christianity has no part in Tacitus’ history of the Caesars, except for the questionable reference about, written after 117 CE, he recorded nothing of a cult marginal even in his own day. In the time of Nero’s reign, the term “Christian” was not in use, and there could have not been a “great crowd” unless we are speaking of Jews, not Christians. Christians would have been perceived by Roman authorities and general public as simply Jews, with any early Christians in Rome also caught up in the general attacks upon Jews. .

 

As we have seen, the term 'Christian' was not in use during the reign of Nero and there would not have been 'a great crowd' unless we are speaking of Jews, not Christians. 'Jewish/Christians' – being perceived by Roman authorities (and the populace at large) simply as Jews meant that early Christ-followers also got caught up in general attacks upon the Jews. This would not be the first or last time that Christian scribes expropriated the real suffers of a whole people to create a heroic “origins” fable. No Christian apologist for centuries ever quoted the passage of Tacitus – not in fact, until it had appeared almost word-for-word in the writings of Sulpicius Severus, in the early fifth century, where it is mixed in with other myths. Sulpicius's contemporaries credited him with a skill in the 'antique' hand. He put it to good use and fantasy was his forte: his Life of St. Martin is replete with numerous “miracles”, including raising the dead and personal appearances by Jesus and Satan. His dastardly story of Nero was embellished during the Renaissance into a fantastic fable with Nero “fiddling while Rome burned”. Nero did take advantage of the destruction to build his “Golden House”, though no serious scholar believes anymore that he started the fire (we now know Nero was in his hometown of Antium – Anzio – when the blaze started.) Indeed, Nero opened his palace garden for temporary shelter to those made homeless. In short, the passage in Tacitus is a fraud and adds no evidence for a historic Jesus.

Why Crucify Him?

 

Reaching their present form many decades (if not centuries) after the event, the gospels are not concerned with legal detail. At the time they were being written and edited (very late 1st century to the first quarter of the 2nd century, with the editing continuing on until sometime in the 4th century), Christianity was separating from Judaism and in constant controversy with orthodox Judaism. It was not Christianity springing from the gospels, but the gospels springing from the politics of the early church. Their eagerness to stress the Jewish role in the condemnation and execution of Jesus, and to downplay that of Pilate, is all too plain. The gospels and the Jewish accounts are at odds with each other, the gospels imply Pilate acted unwillingly and under Jewish pressure, while the Jewish accounts minimize the role of the Jews and insist that the crucifixion was a Roman punishment meted out for an offense against Rome. If the accuracy as well as the completeness of the gospels is challenged, interesting questions can be asked. An example would be the question of whether or not the Sanhedrin had the power to inflict the death sentence. Apart from the gospels (which can only be considered biased) the evidence is certainly ambiguous. Stoning as the penalty was prescribed by Jewish law for a variety of offenses, including blasphemy. Acts of the Apostles reports that shortly after the crucifixion, Stephen was condemned to death by stoning by the Jewish authorities – without calling for action by the Roman law. The Sanhedrin had the notional power to execute people, even Romans, who polluted the temple. If this is so, why then did the Sanhedrin not condemn Jesus in such a manner? The obvious answer is that he either did not appear before them or he did and was found innocent. The question is, was the procedure actually a trial? Nighttime is an extraordinary time even today to hold a formal trial (in all but the largest cities) and would have been even more so in a period that depended on flickering lamps for illumination and required torches and armed guards for the well-to-do to venture out at night. Was this an emergency session to inquire into the matter because the prisoner was due to appear before Pilate the next morning? Although official Jewish leaders may have found aspects of Jesus’ teaching to be uncongenial, they would not normally have wanted him to be executed by the occupying Romans. The crucifixion, by the occupying force, of any Jewish preacher was bad for Jewish prestige. It is even possible that the Sanhedrin might have been actually trying to rescue Jesus! Knowing that he was about to be tried for treason, the Jewish authorities seized him and held a special night-time Sanhedrin session to probe his case. Jesus irritated the Sanhedrin by claiming to be the Messiah. This was, under Jewish law, at most a minor blasphemy which should have been dealt with either by a flogging or by being left to the judgment of God. The point about the claim to be the Messiah was that, at least potentially, it was a capital offense against Roman law. By sticking to the claim, Jesus was risking his own execution and so discredit Judaism. This was why the Sanhedrin became so heated and the High Priest tore his clothes, a Jewish sign of mourning which still continues. This theory put forth by Dr Maghee of Britain, stands up at least to the extent that nothing Jesus said, according to the gospels, constituted grave blasphemy. At most he claimed to be the Messiah and the Son of God, a Jewish term at that time applied to holy men. “Son of God” was used roughly as Christians now use the world “Saint” and in no way implied divinity. To execute Jesus for the use of such words was not in accord with Jewish practice of the time and the suggestion in the gospels that the Sanhedrin wanted to execute him because he had used such words, is at best far fetched. It was, however, not impossible that Jews of that period be prepared to kill for religious reasons, no more that it is today for Christian or Moslems extremists. This seems to have always been a part of the Jewish-Christian-Islamic tradition. In Jesus’ own day, members of the Zealots were happy to kill fellow Jews who did not adopt their religious-political ideas. Some Jews were collaborators with Rome and unpopular enough to be targets for religious murder, and might themselves have “betrayed” a Jewish rebel for Pilate to execute. In all circumstances, it falls back to Pilate, the execution order was his responsibility. His justification would be that he was acting against the background of Judea being a troublesome province, passing death sentences was a common occurrence for him. Executions of rebels were so common place that no precise legal framework was needed. Jesus appeared before him as a troublemaker. It was the difficult season of the Passover when Jerusalem was overcrowded and liable to break out in disorder. The prisoner made little attempt, according to the gospels, to deny the charges made or to plead for mercy. He talked of theological matters which to Pilate were abstruse and provoked from him the impatient question: “Truth, what is that?” The gospel story is that evidence for his guilt was weak, and Pilate, for a moment, could not decide what to do. Then, although he liked the look of the prisoner (an extremely doubtful notion), he decided to give the benefit of the doubt to the accusers rather than the accused. Politically it was the safest thing to do—it was better to carry out a doubtful execution than risk the idea getting around that he was tolerating an enemy of Rome. One last thing on this subject and we will return to the subject of Pontius Pilate. Mark and John both attest that it was the custom of Pilate to release a prisoner at Passover. This can hardly be taken at face value, the very idea goes against Roman Jurisprudence and custom. The prisoner released, Barabbas, was evidentially a Jewish Freedom Fighter (an insurrectionist) and probably a murderer also. For Pilate to release such a man in the place of man whose only “sin” was to claim to be the Son of God boggles the mind. Not only is unbelievable, it isn’t logical. To release a man that was a dangerous rebel and to condemn an almost innocent man to a brutal, slow and extremely painful death would not be something that could be easily explained to the Emperor! Once again, my naïve source assumes that because the story is twice attested, it must be a historical fact. His criteria for a historical fact must be much less stringent that mine or the majority of historians.

End of a Nobel Career

Around 36 CE, Pontius Pilate’s career as the Prefect of Judea came to a rather abrupt end! A Samaritan man claiming to be the reincarnated Moses gathered an armed following. Pilate intervened with troops, dispersed the crowd and had the ringleaders executed. A very restrained response to a potentially dangerous situation. When the Samaritans complained to the Legate of Syrian (the “absentee” Legate Lucius Aelius had died in 33 CE and was given a state funeral by Tiberius), Lucius Vitellius, that Pilate had used excessive force (even back then they cried “Police Brutality”). Pilate was pensioned off. Josephus gave a very even-handed (for him) account of this incident:

Flavius Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 18.85-89

The Samaritan nation too was not exempt from disturbance. For a man who made light of mendacity and in all his designs catered to the mob, rallied them, bidding them go in a body with him to Mount Gerizim, which in their belief is the most sacred of mountains. He assured them that on their arrival he would show them the sacred vessels which were buried there, where Moses had deposited them.

His hearers, viewing this tale as plausible, appeared in arms. They posted themselves in a certain village named Tirathana, and, as they planned to climb the mountain in a great multitude, they welcomed to their ranks the new arrivals who kept coming.

But before they could ascend, Pilate blocked their projected route up the mountain with a detachment of cavalry and heavily armed infantry, who in an encounter with the first comers in the village slew some in a pitched battle and put the others to flight. Many prisoners were taken, of whom Pilate put to death the principal leaders and those who were most influential among the fugitives.

When the uprising had been quelled, the council of the Samaritans went to Vitellius, a man of consular rank who was governor of Syria, and charged Pilate with the slaughter of the victims. For, they said, it was not as rebels against the Romans but as refugees from the persecution of Pilate that they had met in Tirathana.

Vitellius thereupon dispatched Marcellus, one of his friends, to take charge of the administration of Judea, and ordered Pilate to return to Rome to give the emperor his account of the matters with which he was charged by the Samaritans. And so Pilate, after having spent ten years in Judea, hurried to Rome in obedience to the orders of Vitellius, since he could not refuse. But before he reached Rome Tiberius had already passed away.

Interpretation

I, personally, cannot see what Pilate did wrong. He confronted an armed crowd, ordered them to disperse and when they didn’t; he took military action that resulted in the dispersal of the crowd and the execution of the leaders of the crowd. This would be very similar to the British authorities calling for the dispersal of an Irish Catholic crowd in Belfast (I am not taking sides here) and then using British troops to disperse the crowd when they refused. Josephus’ remark that the Legate of Syria ordered Pilate to return to Rome and give an account of his actions to Caesar is either a misunderstanding on his part, or a lie. Only the Emperor could dismiss an Imperial appointee, the Legate did not have the authority to dismiss his colleague in Judea. It has been suggested that Vitellius persuaded Pilate to retire and this was explained to the Jews as a dismissal. It is unlikely that Pilate had much to fear. If he only had three incidents in 10 years, he was doing better that most Prefects. The fact that Caligula did not reappoint the Prefect was not a sign that Pilate had fallen from favor. When the average tenure of a Prefect was only twelve to thirty six months the fact Pilate served 10 years as the Prefect of Judea would be indicative of a excellent record of service. It is more probable that he was allowed to retire. Possibly he may have died soon after, since he did not oppose the slanders of the Jewish embassy to Caligula in 41 CE.

 

Myths of Pilate

 

It is ironic that quite probably Pilate never thought of the incident with Jesus again and if he heard any other the strange stories circulating by his followers that the Rabbi had been seen alive, he probably would have laughed himself sick! Although we will never know when or how he died, having disappeared from the stage of history, Pilate probably died a proud, prosperous self-made man. He probably never realized that one execution out of hundreds would give his name immortality. Many strange and many possible myths have been attached to his name. Tertulian intimated in the 3rd century CE that Pilate was a closet Christian. One legend said that he was the son of a Germanic Chieftain, who sent him to Rome as a hostage. A very recent myth is that he is from Glen Lyon in Scotland. This is based on a misreading of the “Pilate Stone” found in the ruins of Caesarea. The fragment is actually read;

. . . . . . S TIBERIEVM

. . [PO]NTIVS PILATVS

[PRA]ECTVS IVDA[EA]E

But the folks supporting the myth contend that it reads “ S HIBERIEVM . . [PO]NTIVS PILATVS”. Hiberieum being the Latin name for Scotland. Its told that Pilate was exiled to Vienne in Gaul where he committed suicide in poverty. There is the myth that Pilate was the son-in-law of Tiberius, which explains how he kept his job for 10 years. There is a tradition that Pilate was beheaded by Tiberius, a possibility, though there was little time between Pilate’s recall and Tiberius’s death for a trial. Beheading was, though, the proper punishment for Roman citizens given a capital sentence. In Christian tradition, as his head fell off, it was caught up by angels and a voice declared: “All generations will call thee blessed… for under thee all these things were fulfilled.” My favorite is told by Dr. Maghee: Of course later legends do not let the story end so simply. In their most elaborate form, they tell of the Emperor Tiberius falling ill and being told of a miraculous healer, Jesus, who could make him better. Tiberius wrote to Pilate to send Jesus to Rome. Pilate replied that he had just been crucified and sent a picture of him instead. The picture cured Tiberius who, furious about the crucifixion, recalled Pilate to Rome. Pilate appeared before him wearing Jesus’ seamless coat and the Emperor found it impossible to be angry with him. As soon as Pilate had gone, the Emperor’s wrath boiled up again. He sent for Pilate, who again appeared in Jesus’ coat and again the Emperor found it impossible to be angry. Then the Emperor realized it was the coat which was abating his anger and he had Pilate stripped of it and thrown into prison. Pilate killed himself in prison and his body was thrown into the River Tiber. But it was so evil that it caused storms in the water. It was pulled out, taken to Vienne and dumped into the River Rhone. Again, evil spirits disturbed the water. Eventually it was taken to Switzerland and put into Lake Lucerne, where he remains, though still not at rest. Every Good Friday demons pull him out and put him on a throne, where he sits washing his hands. Somehow, I prefer the vision of the man that I arrived at through my research, a noble man, one who saw his duty and performed it. A man that was willing to abide with the beliefs of others as long as they didn’t interfere with his duties. A man of Honor, a military man loyal to his King and his people. Across the centuries this man shows what make Rome the power that it was! - Heimdall

 

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