Pp Mark 15:15, Luke 23:24-25, John 19:1,12-16
Unlike most commentators, I ended the section on the previous web page at Mtw 27:23 at the point when the Jewish crowds have both demanded that Barabbas be released to them and condemned Jesus to death by crucifixion. By continuing straight the way through until the end of Mtw 27:26, however, the significant gap in the proceedings tends to be ignored and the reader is left thinking that the trial before Pilate was represented just by the one attempt by the Roman Governor to have Jesus released to the people.
But the Gospel of John records more events which took place and which need to be inserted into the overall flow of the trial, culminating in the final washing of the hands before the crowds (see my chronological chart for a full listing of the sequence of events).
John seems to be at variance with both Matthew and Mark by his placement of the scourging immediately after the previous event (John 19:1) where Luke fails to record the event at all. Where the first two writers mention it, one naturally thinks of it occurring immediately after the sentencing (Mtw 27:26, Mark 15:15) and in preparation for crucifixion.
This seems to have been normal Roman practice and Josephus bears witness to the procedure twice in War 2.14.9 and once in 5.11.1. Livy also has the reader infer this (33.36) but all three references stop short of stating with any precision that scourging was always a precursor to crucifixion and the cited War 7.6.4 to prove such a procedure actually does nothing of the sort for the punishment of scourging stands on its own and, only afterwards, is crucifixion thought of when a reaction is received from those who’ve witnessed it.
That scourging accompanied crucifixion is certain but that it was compulsory as part of the procedure is only true by conjecture and by the association of both practices together in certain texts - scourging could also stand alone as a punishment when crucifixion wasn’t being considered and it’s this that seems to have been the case here for John’s order is to be preferred to either Matthew or Mark, the latter arranging their material to make it look as it followed the condemnation rather than as occurring some time previous. The scourging could only have taken place once due to the severity of the punishment and, although I’m not going to go into the physiological effects of such an event (as previously noted on web pages), it’s sufficient to say simply that a second whipping could have killed the recipient - indeed, even once might even have caused a fatality.
The placing of the incident, then, has to be done just once and only Matthew and Mark’s record of the event seems to be moveable in the text, John’s record being fairly closely held in the overall framework of the passage.
Johncar, however, sees all three accounts as being chronologically accurate and makes a distinction between the fustigatio, flagellatio and the verberatio, the latter of which was the punishment associated with scourging. It’s the first of these three which the commentator sees as being inflicted upon Jesus in John 19:1 which he defines as
‘...a less severe beating meted out for relatively light offences such as hooliganism and often accompanied by a severe warning...’
and so was
‘...intended partly to appease the Jews and partly to teach Jesus a lesson [what lesson?!]...’
Certainly three different words are employed in the four Gospels for the punishment inflicted. In Mtw 27:26 and Mark 15:15, a word is used (Strongs Greek number 5417) which is one which would be transliterated as the equivalent of Johncar’s ‘flagellatio’ (and not, therefore, the most severe verberatio as he suggests, the punishment which was associated with crucifixion). John 18:1 has a more ‘generic description’ according to Johncar (Strongs Greek number 3146) which could hint at any of the three punishments but, when paralleled with the word used in Luke 23:16,22 of Pilate’s intention (Strongs Greek number 3811) which indicates a less severe punishment, the indication would be that there were two, very different, beatings.
Kittels, however, knows no meaning for John’s word that doesn’t indicate either the verberatio or the flagellatio (my interpretation into the words of Johncar) and, for this reason, I feel it’s better to accept just the one scourging and that it took place in the midst of the trial. If Johncar’s descriptions of the three types of whipping are accurate then the use of the word by Matthew and Mark would indicate that Jesus received not the scourging normally associated with crucifixion but a lesser one, and that it would appear that, when crucifixion was finally decided upon, Pilate considered that to submit the prisoner to a further punishment would be unnecessary and, even, impossible to carry out if Jesus was to be alive for the execution. The weakness in which the punishment had left Him appears to be clearly visible in the compulsion of Simon to carry the cross as they travelled to Golgotha (Mtw 27:32, Mark 15:21, Luke 23:26).
There’s more to the event of John 19:1, therefore, than immediately meets the eye and it must be thought of not as a preparation for crucifixion but as a method that Pilate employed in order to try and withhold any need for it to occur. Johnmor, quoting Lenski, notes that
‘...Jesus was not scourged in order to be crucified but in order to escape crucifixion’
because Jesus is once more brought out to the crowds for their verdict after the soldiers have mocked Him and arrayed Him in a makeshift royal outfit (John 19:2ff). Luke 23:16 and 23:22 both hint at this in Pilate’s words spoken to the crowds before the scourging when the RSV renders both places identically with the words (my italics)
‘I will therefore chastise Him and release Him’
His open confrontation of the religious leaders had failed (Mtw 27:15-23, Mark 15:6-14, Luke 23:18-23, John 18:38-40) and he attempts to summon up some pity in the hearts of the Jewish crowds present before him so that they’ll choose Jesus to be released and accept that Jesus has been punished for those things which the religious leaders have been offended by (Mtw 27:18). It seems like a macabre way of attempting to secure the release of a prisoner but, as it took place before the sentencing, there seems little other explanation for it.
There then follows other events recorded solely by John in his account - the first mocking by the Roman soldiers (John 19:2-3 - the one recorded immediately before the crucifixion must be taken, in my opinion, to be distinct) who dress Jesus in mock apparel and have Him returned to Pilate who goes out to the crowd once more before the Jews to try and secure Jesus’ release (John 19:4-7), before the clever statement by the religious leaders causes Pilate to once more withdraw into the praetorium to speak to Jesus privately (John 19:8-11) - perhaps ‘trial’ in my chronology is the incorrect descriptive word but it seemed better to use it than ‘conversation’ which implied some sort of chat between friends.
Pilate once more returns to the crowds but, this time, he knows he can do nothing and follows the will of the people. He washes his hands before them, declaring his own innocence (Mtw 27:24), while the crowds announce their responsibility in the matter (Mtw 27:25) and, finally, Barabbas is released and Jesus delivered over to be crucified (Mtw 27:26, Mark 15:15, Luke 23:24-25, John 19:12-16).
It’s these last three verses in Matthew that are the subject of this web page.
John 19:13 informs the reader that the final pronouncement of Jesus’ fate occurred at the place transliterated into Greek from Hebrew as Gabbatha but which meant ‘The Pavement’. I’ve noted on a previous web page that the site which lies under the Church of the Sisters of Mercy is almost certainly not the place being referred to in the Gospels as it lay within the Fortress of Antonia and had Roman gaming marks on some of the slabs (see the cited web page for why this points away from a positive identification).
That the area must have been a place that could hold large numbers of Jews is certain but it’s probable that it wasn’t the regular place in which Pilate normally gave legal decisions when required to do so.
Johnmor comments concerning the ‘judgment seat’ (Strongs Greek number 968 - the ‘bema’) of John’s passage (John 19:13) that
‘This is the only place in the NT where Bema is used of the judgment seat without having the article prefixed - that is, it is “a” judgment seat not “the” judgment seat. It may well signify that a temporary judgment seat was set up on the Pavement. One would have expected that the normal bema would have been inside the praetorium’
If Johnmor is right, the significance of John 18:28 is to move the trial into some outer courtyard which wasn’t regarded to be specifically Roman (and, therefore, unclean) so that the required judgment seat would have to be temporarily erected there when the decision was about to be pronounced. Against this, however, is Mtw 27:19 where the record notes that Pilate sat on the judgment seat at the very beginning of his attempts to have Jesus released.
Perhaps John’s omission of the definite article is the more significant, though, and we should take it to indicate the temporary nature of the structure. This may be significant in more ways than one for Josephus in War 2.14.8 (my italics) notes that the procurator Florus (64-66AD)
‘...took up his quarters at the palace; and on the next day he had his tribunal set before it, and sat upon it, when the high priests, and the men of power, and those of the greatest eminence in the city, came all before that tribunal...’
What it does show positively is that the tribunal was able to be ‘set up’ in places where the Roman official had decided to hold court and wasn’t a fixed area that had to be used without variation. John’s inference that the place was temporary and not the usual place that was used for such judgments is entirely in order with the procedure which we know to have taken place some twenty-five years after the event. Unfortunately, his residency at ‘the palace’ on the west side of the city doesn’t tell us either that this was the place that was the residency of Pilate at the Passover in question or that the regular place of judgment was the palace - that is, we’re still groping for a solution to the problem of whether the event took place at Antonia Fortress or the Palace.
Mathen’s description, then, that the bema was
‘...his official chair on the platform, reached by steps, in front of the praetorium’
may be more assumed than true for it could simply have been a movable seat placed on part of Gabbatha which was higher than the surrounding pavement on which the crowds stood. Apart from this vague description, reference to archaeological reports of bemas in the world of the first century may be somewhat misleading for they probably bear no relation to the scene in Jerusalem on that morning of the crucifixion. NIDBA describes the bema in Corinth where Gallio sat to hear the Jews’ case against Paul (Acts 18:12) as being
‘...a structure near the middle of the agora, a high broad platform, raised on two steps with a considerable superstructure...Constructed of white and blue marble, the bema must have been a remarkable feature of the agora and...was visible to a large audience’
Zondervan has a picture of this excavated seat but, unfortunately, it looks simply like a wall! Corinth, however, was a Greek city, not a Roman one and the setting may have differed from that which the Romans employed. In Philippi - a Roman city - the bema lay at one edge of the agora in the middle in front of the main road in and out of the city and was only slightly raised above the pavement area, with chiselled holes around three sides where the curator of the site told us that metal rods would have been inserted to support a canopy above to protect either from sun or rain. It was flanked on either side by a monument and a water feature. But even this would be incorrect to assume was the set up in Jerusalem, not only because it may have been a temporary structure but because the site would have probably have been constructed by Herod the Great and his tastes and designs may have been altogether different from those found at either Corinth or Philippi.
I noticed as I proofed these last few paragraphs that the word ‘may’ and ‘probably’ occur with unerring regularity - unfortunately, most of our theories about what the scene looked like are incredibly unstable in their foundation.
As such, then, little can be said about the bema on which Pilate sat except to note that it was the place from which a decision would have been expected to have been announced by someone invested with judicial authority.
The act of washing one’s hands is often misunderstood by readers as being an act whereby guilt is removed from the individual concerned but, rather, the act was something which declared one’s innocence. The washing of the hands is not a common occurrence in the OT and the reader should be careful to single out those places which speak about the washing of the hands only as being parallel passages to the incident recorded in Matthew’s Gospel.
For instance, the command for Aaron and his sons to be washed is definitely a removal of ceremonial uncleanness (Ex 29:4, 30:20, 40:12,32, Lev 8:6) which was probably the washing of their hands and feet (Ex 30:19,21, 40:31) in the laver which had been made specifically for that purpose (Ex 30:18, 40:30). Later in Israel’s history, the immersion of the entire body was used for the total cleansing of the body (II Kings 5:10,12,13).
The washing of the garments is also an action enjoined upon men and women that they might be made clean (Ex 19:10,14, Lev 13:6,34,58, 14:8,9.47, 15:13, 16:26,28, Num 8:7,21, 19:21, 31:24) and sometimes of the entire body (Ezek 16:4,9) or in preparation for them to be considered so at the time of the evening (Lev 11:25,28,40, 15:5,6,7,8,10,11,17,21,22,27, 17:15, Num 19:7,8,10,19). Washing the feet was an act necessary after a journey and given by a host as a mark of kindness (Gen 18:4, 19:2, 24:32, 43:24, Judges 19:21, I Sam 25:41, II Sam 11:8).
So, although we might point to the OT and consider numerous passages which detail what washing accomplishes, it’s only the three specific passages which speak solely of the act of the washing of the hands that we should consider here as pointers towards an interpretation of what Pilate is doing before the Jewish crowds (and presuming that the action retained its Jewish context even though Pilate was a Roman).
All three passages (Deut 21:1-9 esp v.6, Ps 26:6, 73:13) show that the washing of the hands was to be done not by people who wanted to wash some stain of sin from themselves or to remove the guilt of some action, but as a declaration that they were innocent - that is, that they didn’t consider themselves to be guilty of the charges brought against them or that might be levelled at their actions.
This is clearest in Deut 21:1-9 when a slain man was found in the open country when there were no witnesses and no suspicion of guilt. The elders of the city nearest to the corpse were to (Deut 21:6)
‘...wash their hands over the heifer [an atoning sacrifice for the sin of murder] whose neck was broken in the valley’
and they were then to announce their innocence by proclaiming (Deut 21:7-8 - my italics) that
‘...Our hands did not shed this blood, neither did our eyes see it shed. Forgive, O Lord, Thy people Israel, whom Thou hast redeemed, and set not the guilt of innocent blood in the midst of Thy people Israel; but let the guilt of blood be forgiven them’
That is, they petitioned God that, because of their innocence, the guilt of the crime might be washed away because they neither knew who’d perpetrated such a deed nor had done the thing themselves - the phrase ‘innocent blood’ is also present in the Matthean passage (27:24) and it bears very great similarities to this OT situation which could arise. The two passages in the psalms also bear witness to the washer’s innocence, Ps 26:6-7 recording his words as
‘I wash my hands in innocence and go about Thy altar, O Lord, singing aloud a song of thanksgiving, and telling all Thy wondrous deeds’
and Ps 73:13 similarly speaks of one who’s
‘...washed my hands in innocence’
Pilate, then, by his action is inferring that whatever consequences arise concerning Jesus’ death, it was the crowd standing before him who would have to deal with them. He isn’t trying to wash away his perceived guilt in the matter that’s attached itself to him but is making a proclamation that he considers himself to be already innocent in the matter and probably using his attempts at having Jesus released as the evidence - and this in a Jewish figure rather than a Roman one, it would appear. Matcar is probably right when he comments that
‘After living several years among the Jews he detested, Pilate picked up one of their own customs...and contemptuously used it against them’
though Mathag notes that there’s some justification for seeing the event also rooted in the Graeco-Roman culture of the day though the only one of his references available to me (Herodotus 1.35) says nothing about water and speaks about purification from blood guilt - hardly the context of our present passage as previously shown above.
Although he’s specifically referring to what may come to the attention of those in authority over him (for example, the governor of Syria who held authority over Pilate - or even the Emperor himself), Matthew is no doubt intending his readers to infer that this generation of Jews were responsible to God Himself, the ultimate authority, for condemning to death God’s anointed King, having cornered the Governor into the unenviable corner of having to give an account of himself to Caesar if he had the Prisoner released (John 19:12).
Pilate’s pronouncement (Mtw 27:24) that they were to
‘...see to it [them]selves...’
‘go ahead and do it’
‘this death will be your responsibility’
or, more simply
‘this man’s blood is your problem’
It’s the same phrase used by the chief priests when Judas returns the money to them (Mtw 27:4) and the RSV translates there
‘See to it yourself’
Here on Pilate’s lips, however, the tense appears to project the consequences of their actions into the future whereas the chief priests announce that Judas’ actions are now a present reality from which there’s no escape. I may be wrong about the tenses here but the implication is the same that the responsibility is being pushed from one to another and so confirms the action of the Governor in washing his hands before them.
The response of the Jewish crowds is to announce (Mtw 27:25)
‘His blood on us and on our children’
where I’ve removed the RSV’s ‘be’ from the sentence which has the effect of making it more like a wish or desire. Rather, it’s a statement, responding to Pilate’s words that they’re accepting full responsibility for Jesus’ death by crucifixion. The phrase
‘His blood on us’
isn’t an uncommon phrase or concept in the OT (for example, Joshua 2:19, Deut 19:10, Ezek 18:13, 33:4-6, Acts 18:8) and means that a person’s death has become the responsibility of the one who has that person’s blood on him - whether it be, as in the case of Joshua 2:19, that by refusing to listen to a clear instruction a person’s own life is terminated or, as in Ezek 18:13, actions committed against the clearly discernible will of God are disregarded.
There’s no doubt here that Matthew intends his readers to recognise the guilt of the Jewish crowds in the rejection of God’s Messiah and the self-proclaimed innocence of the Roman Governor - although many would shrink away from such a conclusion, it’s difficult to see any other meaning intended here by the writer.
The Jews’ responsibility for rejecting their Messiah has led to much unwarranted and unjustified anti-Semitism down through the centuries to the extent that today we may play down that generation’s guilt before YHWH and overemphasise the sin of Pilate. Indeed, let me say this clearly now - anyone who takes the label of ‘christian’ upon themselves and who persecutes the Jew is living against God’s will for his life in Jesus Christ and is certainly no friend of the Father, Son or Holy Spirit - and it’s certainly not a light thing to be considered by God as His personal enemy. Matfran is correct when he notes concerning this that
‘To read this declaration [Mtw 27:25] as an eternal curse on the Jewish race is to press the language beyond its Biblical context’
for it’s not the subsequent nation or generation who are cursed with Jesus’ blood but those present in the crowd who turned against the Son of God to choose what their own nature saw as echoed in the life of Barabbas. Seeing the destruction of the city of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70AD as being the outworking of God’s wrath upon that generation and the logical conclusion of their action here may be considered to be a little harsh, but Luke 19:41-44 spoken by Jesus certainly seems to hint at such a possibility and conclusion of judgment.
The crowds addition of the responsibility as being also their children’s would thereby include all those who’d been born in the intervening years and I take it to be limited in it’s scope rather than to be interpreted to mean ‘and all successive generations’. After all, were the disciples Peter and John really under the curse of rejection?! And the OT passages of Jer 31:29-30 and Ezek 18:19-20 would clearly argue against the phrase being applied by YHWH to each and every Jew who was descended from that generation present before Pilate that Friday morning.
If this was to be accepted, therefore, as fulfilled in 70AD - even though it might be unpalatable to many - it would see the conclusion of judgment because of Christ’s rejection and would have made the way for the Jew to have been treated throughout the centuries as a cultural group who needed reaching with the Gospel rather than to be annihilated out of all existence!
And Pilate was responsible in part for Jesus’ execution even though his open declaration was a self-proclamation of impunity - all who are in positions of authority are under an obligation from God to punish the guilty and acquit the innocent (Ex 23:6-8, Rom 13:1-4) but the early Church, it has to be said, laid the blame for Jesus’ crucifixion with their own generation of Jews and not with Pilate. Therefore Peter announces to the Jewish crowds in Acts 2:23 that
‘...you crucified and killed [Jesus] by the hands of lawless men...’
and, in Acts 3:13-17, that
‘...you delivered up and denied [Jesus] in the presence of Pilate when he had decided to release Him...’
The high priest also questioned the apostles and accused them that, by their preaching they were intending
‘...to bring this man’s blood upon us...’
a clear claim to be innocent of the death of Jesus even though the evidence clearly pointed towards their guilt! Just in case it might be reasoned that this is only a true record of what was said but that it wasn’t an accurate assessment of the facts of the matter, Jesus is recorded as saying even before arriving in Jerusalem that last Passover (Mtw 20:18) that
‘...the chief priests and scribes...will condemn [Me] to death...’
Even though the crucifixion of Messiah was predestined to take place (Acts 4:28), it didn’t absolve individuals of their responsibility before God of wrong actions. God certainly foreknew their actions but He didn’t predestine them as unavoidable and irresistible. In the ensuing forty years after the resurrection, He gave the Jewish nation of that day ample opportunity to turn round and to accept their Messiah (Acts 3:17-26) but they would not (Acts 13:46-47, 18:6, 28:25-28). Even so, Rom 11:5 notes that
‘...at the present time there is a remnant chosen by grace...’
and, at the end of the Church age, that final generation of Jews will be saved (Rom 11:26) but, for now, the proclamation of the Good News of Jesus’ victory on the cross is entrusted to the spiritual nation (that is, Israel according to the promise to Abraham and not after natural descent according to the flesh) made up of both Jews and Gentiles that He’s brought into being by His death (I Peter 2:9, Eph 2:14-16).
Concluding Pilate’s involvement in the matter, he orders Barabbas to be released and commits Jesus over to be crucified immediately (Mtw 27:26), the scourging already having taken place in the context of the trial and of Pilate’s attempts to have Jesus released (John 19:1).
The character of Pilate was unknown from archaeological excavations until 1961 when a reused dedicatory stone, 82cm high, 68cm wide and 20cm thick was found by a team of Italian Archaeologists from Milan under the leadership of Professor Antonio Frova in Caesarea, excavating the Theatre built c.300AD. Millard paints the picture of how the stone might have been recovered from the former structure and used in the theatre’s completion and he may not be too far wrong for the stone appears to have had to have been deliberately cut to size to fit into the place that it had been earmarked for.
The inscription was missing its left hand side and the fourth line has survived so badly that not even one letter is certain. These lines represent the Latin words (put into lower case letters with spaces added inbetween known breaks)
line 1 - ...s Tiberium
line 2 - ...tius Pilatus
line 3 - ...ectusius...e
This inscription recording Pilate is the only one of its kind. NIDBA writes that
‘...Pilate for some reason set up an inscription...This slab of stone bears Pilate’s name [line 2], fragmented and half-obliterated but obviously his and without accompanying titles [but what about line 3?!] or explanation. With the remnant of Pilate’s name there are the letters IBERIEVM [line 1]. Was the theatre near a temple to Tiberius (a Tiberium) built by Pilate so eager to be, as the Jews sneered, “friend of Caesar’ (John 19:12)?’
In an otherwise excellent short article, Millard incorrectly writes (my italics) that
‘No other inscription or document written in the first century AD actually mentions him. This is the only contemporary evidence for the existence of Pontius Pilate’
This is wrong because Josephus’ War, normally accepted as having been written c.75AD, his Antiquities completed c.90AD and Philo’s Legatio ad Gaium written about prior to 50AD (or at the same time as Antiquities according to some commentators) are all records of the existence of this Governor of Judea.
Pilate’s position in Israel was as prefect, procurator or governor (depending entirely how you like to think of him for there’s justification for all three titles) though the one archaeological piece of evidence we have seems to certainly put his own considered title as ‘prefect’ (line 3). He served Rome in one of the most despised and disregarded areas of the Empire, under the authority of the Syrian Governor who he could call on for military reinforcements if he found himself under serious threat - but this never seems to have been the case and his control of Palestine for around ten years is a testimony to the fact that he must have been fairly successful at running the province, for procurators were only expected to continue in their post for a period which didn’t exceed three years - even though the testimony of the Jewish historians Josephus and Philo would indicate his success otherwise.
Zondervan defines his area of control as
‘Samaria, Judea (the former kingdom of Archelaus) and the area south as far as Gaza and the Dead Sea...His immediate superior was the Roman Governor of Syria but the actual nature of the relationship is unknown’
but, as procurator, he had absolute authority over all his subjects except Roman citizens, even to the point of deciding matters of life and death.
Nothing is known about Pontius Pilate before he arrived in Judea and even less after he’d left! Even though many traditions sprung up and are attested to late on, Pilate is a character on the stage of world’s history who appears for ten years and then disappears again forever.
However, he must have held some sort of military post within the army before being posted to the procuratorship and may even have served the Empire in several civil posts as training. When he arrived in 26AD, he’d been appointed by the then Emperor Tiberius and replaced the previous procurator Valerius Gratus (Antiquities 18.2.2, 18.6.5). Pilate was the fifth procurator of Judea and we can be fairly certain that he brought his wife with him rather than have married one while in the land. There’s also the probability that he would have needed some wealth to have been able to have received the posting in the first place.
We’ll look at what Josephus and Philo can tell us about the man in a moment but, in 36AD, he appears to have left for Rome to give an account of himself to the Emperor Tiberius - but Caligula had already taken the throne by the time he arrived in 37AD following his predecessor’s death. The events surrounding his return are clearly stated in Josephus but there’s some doubt as to why he should be ‘sent’ to Rome rather than to go either voluntarily or to have left the land as a retirement from Public Office.
A couple of years back, I read an interesting book about Pilate written by Ann Wroe in which she traced the traditional events and character of Pilate down through the ages, subtitling her book ‘the biography of an invented man’. As a record of what has been attributed to the man, the book is a decent attempt - but it lacks the authority of adequately dealing with the ancient sources and forming an opinion of the character of the man solely from them.
Neither does a work I found on the web by Jona Lendering give an adequate outline of the man even though some attempt has been made to assess the statements of both Josephus and Philo with regard to the reason for the writing and the problems with a literal acceptance. But when one starts from the premise that the Gospels are inaccurate and that they present a picture of Pilate as one who’s
‘...well-meaning, kind and sometimes even weak’
one has to wonder which records the author is reading. As I’ve written frequently in these past few web pages, to undermine the position of the Jewish religious leaders by using the crowd to choose One that they’d delivered for execution could have been a tactical ploy which was incredibly clever if it had been carried off. But the real problem with this work is that not only are the Gospels stated as failing to
‘...represent the historical truth...’
‘...the two Jewish sources have secret agendas that make them unreliable...’
so that anything which might be gleaned from any of the three primary documents is purely subjective (and, if the agendas are ‘secret’, how might a reader determine what’s been hidden?!). One of those points which I feel the author should have been careful to note is that, whereas the testimonies of Philo and Josephus were never meant to have been composed by eye-witnesses (Josephus was born c.37AD, a year after Pilate left Judea and, though Philo headed a delegation to Caligula in Rome in 40AD, he was based in Alexandria in Egypt and seems to be quoting Herod Agrippa in his record), the Gospel of John most certainly claims itself to be (John 21:24) even if Matthew, Mark and Luke are taken as being collections of incidents from the life of Jesus and brought together by three christian scribes who may not have been present (I don’t believe this position is correct but I can concede that some may believe it from the silence of direct internal evidence).
The most weight, therefore, should have been given to the Gospel of John as an indication of the character of Pontius Pilate rather than to start from the premise that all the Gospels are historically inaccurate.
There are just three extra-biblical sources and, if one realises that these represent the negative observations of a ten year governorship, it doesn’t seem to justify a statement that his reputation amongst the Jews was particularly evil or else a report concerning his ill-running of the province would surely have reached the ears of the Governor of Syria by then or, even, Caesar himself. Josephus, however, sees the appointment of just the two procurators throughout Tiberius’ reign as a clear example of his dilatoriness, however, rather than of Gratus’ and Pilate’s success.
The first incident seems to have taken place at the very start of his reign as Governor on his first despatching of the army to Jerusalem and certainly didn’t get him off to a good start before his subjects. Josephus, however, seems to make out that Pilate’s intention was a deliberate act of provocation on his part (especially in his second record in Antiquities) though it should more likely be seen, firstly, as ignorance in the ways of the people over which he had the charge to rule and, secondly, as the zeal of a young and inexperienced Roman Governor who thought that he could do exactly as he pleased with no recourse to local traditions. Josephus’ first record appears in the Jewish War (2.9.2-3) and I’ve reproduced it in its entirety below:
‘Now Pilate, who was sent as procurator into Judea by Tiberius, sent by night those images of Caesar that are called ensigns into Jerusalem. This excited a very among great tumult among the Jews when it was day; for those that were near them were astonished at the sight of them, as indications that their laws were trodden under foot; for those laws do not permit any sort of image to be brought into the city. Nay, besides the indignation which the citizens had themselves at this procedure, a vast number of people came running out of the country. These came zealously to Pilate to Caesarea, and besought him to carry those ensigns out of Jerusalem, and to preserve them their ancient laws inviolable; but upon Pilate’s denial of their request, they fell down prostrate upon the ground, and continued immovable in that posture for five days and as many nights.
‘On the next day Pilate sat upon his tribunal, in the open market-place, and called to him the multitude, as desirous to give them an answer; and then gave a signal to the soldiers, that they should all by agreement at once encompass the Jews with their weapons; so the band of soldiers stood round about the Jews in three ranks. The Jews were under the utmost consternation at that unexpected sight. Pilate also said to them that they should be cut in pieces, unless they would admit of Caesar’s images, and gave intimation to the soldiers to draw their naked swords. Hereupon the Jews, as it were at one signal, fell down in vast numbers together, and exposed their necks bare, and cried out that they were sooner ready to be slain, than that their law should be transgressed. Hereupon Pilate was greatly surprised at their prodigious superstition, and gave order that the ensigns should be presently carried out of Jerusalem’
At the very least, Pilate seems to have been rubbed up the wrong way by the Jews’ approach which was probably demonstrably angry and potentially violent towards him and, like most normal people, reacted with the attitude ‘How dare they speak to me that way!’. When he realised the depth of feeling amongst the Jews, however, to his credit he withdrew the offending standards to keep the peace - a little bit more tact would have solved the situation but, if this was the first disturbance that had occurred while in the land, he would have been initially careful to try and demonstrate that disobedience to his will wasn’t going to be tolerated. The point at issue, though, was one which didn’t undermine the authority of the Roman Governor as he himself ultimately realised.
Josephus’ second record appears in Antiquities 18.3.1-3 (written between 15-20 years after the Jewish War) and here he notes that Pilate had removed the army from Caesarea to Pilate for the winter but comments that his intention in doing this was
‘...to abolish the Jewish laws’
Pilate’s reason for refusing their request was that
‘...it would tend to the injury of Caesar...’
which, in the circumstances, was an accurate response. He didn’t perceive that it was about to injure his own standing before the people even more! Pilate’s surprise at the Jews’ response in the Jewish War passage is assessed at being directed towards the Jews’ ‘prodigious superstition’ but, in Antiquities, it gets changed into a phrase which imparts more respect by Pilate towards Judaism, Josephus commenting that
‘Pilate was deeply affected with their firm resolution to keep their laws inviolable...’
This incident is also recorded by Philo in Legatio ad Gaium 38 (or 299-305) but here the description of the events are on the lips of Herod Agrippa and appear somewhat different. In this account, the standards become votive shields and his intention becomes an attempt to vex the multitude rather than to abolish the laws of the Jews (299). The delegation sent to him now becomes royal and includes the four sons of the king (300), Philo noting that Pilate’s demeanour (301) was that he was
‘...a man of a very inflexible disposition, and very merciless as well as very obstinate...’
and that the Jews would have gladly withdrawn from him had he been able to show that the command to do such a thing came from the Emperor himself (301). Philo then develops the theme of the evil nature of Pilate and notes that the Governor feared (302) that
‘...they might in reality go on an embassy to the Emperor, and might impeach him with respect to other particulars of his government, in respect of his corruption, and his acts of insolence, and his rapine, and his habit of insulting people, and his cruelty, and his continual murders of people untried and uncondemned, and his never ending and gratuitous, and most grievous inhumanity’
summarising him as being (303)
‘...a man of most ferocious passions...’
It seems a little hard to accept, however, that the great list of Pilate’s faults should have been clearly discernible when he’d just arrived in the province and Philo seems to have been exaggerating somewhat. It may be, however, that the description is a Jewish assessment of his rule after it had ended and that it here has found it’s way into the minds of Jews and into a report of one of his deeds done at the very outset of his procuratorship.
Philo observes that Pilate wanted not to lose face before the Jews even though he was willing to do so (303 - a trait which is observable in the trial of Jesus and which is probably present in Josephus’ record also) and they petitioned the Emperor Tiberius (303) who wrote back, upbraided the governor and ordered that the shields be withdrawn to Caesarea (304-5).
This would have taken numerous weeks to have accomplished and, from a purely subjective point of view, something more like Josephus’ report seems likely and that a change of heart should be attributed to the Governor Himself.
The Gospels show that, while he was a man who was willing to stand up for his own principles (the innocence of Jesus), there came a point at which he would decide to cut his losses and give in to the strength of Jewish feeling for the sake of maintaining peace within the nation.
With a little interpretation, therefore, Josephus’ record of the incident sits well with the character of the man we know from the Gospels.
The second incident had to do with the building of an aqueduct to bring water into Jerusalem for the benefit of the entire population of the city. Josephus once more records two versions of the event but where in his rule as Governor this occurred is impossible to know for there are no dating sentences which would even cause us to hazard a guess. His record in the Jewish War runs on immediately afterwards from the record of the standards (2.9.4) and reads
‘After this [incident of the standards] he raised another disturbance, by expending that sacred treasure which is called Corban upon aqueducts, whereby he brought water from the distance of four hundred furlongs. At this the multitude had indignation; and when Pilate was come to Jerusalem, they came about his tribunal, and made a clamour at it. Now when he was apprised aforehand of this disturbance, he mixed his own soldiers in their armour with the multitude, and ordered them to conceal themselves under the habits of private men, and not indeed to use their swords, but with their staves to beat those that made the clamour. He then gave the signal from his tribunal [to do as he had bidden them]. Now the Jews were so sadly beaten, that many of them perished by the stripes they received, and many of them perished as trodden to death by themselves; by which means the multitude was astonished at the calamity of those that were slain, and held their peace’
Pilate certainly seems to have had more success at quelling a riot than in the former incident but the cause of the uprising is somewhat surprising simply because it doesn’t seem obvious how he might have been able to acquire Corban money without the express help of some leading Jewish officials - the text certainly never says that he broke into the Temple with an armed guard and extracted the money which was needed for the project - which one would have expected that it would!
There may be an indication of an accomplice in the fact that the high priest Caiaphas had been appointed by the previous Governor in 18AD and went on to hold his office until 36AD when the Governor who followed Pilate, Vitellius, deposed him. If there hadn’t been at least something in Caiaphas which Pilate found useful, then he could have removed him from office as he saw fit - that he remained in authority throughout Pilate’s reign does indicate that the relations between them couldn’t have been too much of a problem (the acquisition of a Roman armed band for the arrest is also significant evidence that Pilate was willing to take Caiaphas’ observation of the danger of the situation with seriousness - John 18:12).
In Antiquities 18.3.2, the distance over which the water was brought into the city is halved to two hundred furlongs but the author notes that the uprising occurred even before the building work had begun (or very shortly after its commencement) for the crowd advise Pilate strongly that he should
‘...leave off that design’
It’s also observed that Pilate had little control over the soldiers once they’d started attacking the multitudes and that they injured both good and bad, but the end result was the same - the Jews desisted from their complaints and seem to have passively accepted the work. It’s hard to imagine, though - as I’ve previously said - the acquisition of the Corban money taking place without some knowledge and assent from the leading Jewish authorities.
Before we look at the third incident in the life of Pilate which is recorded only in Antiquities, a few short words need to be added here about the passage which is sandwiched between it and the third and last incident (and which appears along with a couple of passages which seem to have occurred long before Pilate began to rule over the province). The text of Josephus has come down to us as running (18.3.3)
‘Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man; for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was [the] Christ. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day’
The passage has been the subject of much debate - especially in modern times - simply because it seems to be most un-Josephus like and is attributed on occasions to a christian scribe who was over-zealous in his belief that anyone and everyone must have noticed Jesus and would have wanted to write about Him! France is right in his discussion of the passage to point forward to Antiquities 20.9.1 where Jesus is mentioned for the second time and note that it presupposes the existence of a previous passage which the reader will remember has already been written, for Josephus notes there (my italics) that
‘Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the sanhedrim of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others, [or, some of his companions]’
but - and from here on in my notes become purely subjective - I can’t believe that Josephus would have meant to write ‘He was the Christ’ in the first passage when here he’s careful to note that Jesus was only called it. Neither does it seem right to expect Josephus to have claimed that Jesus had risen from the dead after three days and that He was the fulfilment of many of the prophetic OT writings.
So, are we to think of this passage as being purely an insertion by a christian scribe and that it wasn’t included in Josephus’ original work? I don’t think so. I’ve noted France’s comments that the latter reference presupposes an earlier one and this is the only possible one that it can be pointing back to - neither does it seem correct to think that a christian would refer to ‘the tribe of christians’ and the label ‘wise man’ would, perhaps, be too weak an attribution.
I have to agree with France that it seems certain that Josephus wrote something here but as to the original wording, we can only hazard guesses. His quotation of Bruce’s proposed original is as good as any but also as bad as anyone else’s, for it’s impossible to be objective in the matter.
The third and final ‘derogatory’ incident in the life of Pilate appears in Antiquities 18.4.1-2 alone and gives the reader an explanation for the end of Pilate’s rule. Josephus writes that
‘...the nation of the Samaritans did not escape without tumults. The man who excited them to it was one who thought lying a thing of little consequence, and who contrived every thing so that the multitude might be pleased; so he bid them to get together upon Mount Gerizzim, which is by them looked upon as the most holy of all mountains, and assured them that, when they were come thither, he would show them those sacred vessels which were laid under that place, because Moses put them there. So they came thither armed, and thought the discourse of the man probable; and as they abode at a certain village, which was called Tirathaba, they got the rest together to them, and desired to go up the mountain in a great multitude together; but Pilate prevented their going up, by seizing upon file roads with a great band of horsemen and foot-men, who fell upon those that were gotten together in the village; and when it came to an action, some of them they slew, and others of them they put to flight, and took a great many alive, the principal of which, and also the most potent of those that fled away, Pilate ordered to be slain.
‘But when this tumult was appeased, the Samaritan senate sent an embassy to Vitellius, a man that had been consul, and who was now president of Syria, and accused Pilate of the murder of those that were killed; for that they did not go to Tirathaba in order to revolt from the Romans, but to escape the violence of Pilate. So Vitellius sent Marcellus, a friend of his, to take care of the affairs of Judea, and ordered Pilate to go to Rome, to answer before the emperor to the accusations of the Jews. So Pilate, when he had tarried ten years in Judea, made haste to Rome, and this in obedience to the orders of Vitellius, which he durst not contradict; but before he could get to Rome, Tiberius was dead’
Little needs to be said about this incident except that, had Pilate feared that the coming together of a multitude was significant and that it represented the beginnings of an uprising, he was in his full rights as protector of the interests of Rome to march on the place and stem any chance of it happening. This appears to have been just what he did, even though the Samaritan authorities didn’t view it in a very favourable light.
Whether Vitellius had the authority to dismiss Pilate and force him to return to Rome to stand trial is difficult to be certain about - some argue that the Governor of Syria had no such authority over him and that, while he may have suggested that Pilate retire or go to Rome for advice, he couldn’t have ordered it.
It’s impossible to be sure - but the incident isn’t a damning indictment of a bad leadership as Josephus intended it to be and the fact that he chooses to record just three incidents in the life of Pilate is a testimony more to the Governor’s success than to his failure to be a good leader. If the first incident took place in the first year of his rule and the third certainly in its last, that means that there was just one other incident in a minimum eight year period which Josephus considered worthy of special attention. It has to be said, therefore, that Pilate’s rule over Judea was successful. Eusebius’ observation (Book 2.7), then, that Pilate
‘...was involved in such calamities that he was forced to become his own executioner and to punish himself with his own hand’
appears to be an incorrect assessment of the man, but it does show that Church tradition by this time was attributing suicide to the Governor as the way he came to face up to the reality of his rule. Whether this is true or not, the evidence would seem to indicate that he wasn’t as bad a procurator as many and must certainly have had something about him that caused him to survive for ten years in one of the most volatile provinces in the Roman Empire.
One final incident needs to be noted here which occurs in the NT in Luke 13:1 in which the author notes that
‘There were some present at that very time who told [Jesus] of the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices’
We shouldn’t think of this incident that the writer is trying to maintain that Pilate deliberately extracted some blood and had them splatter it on the animals which had been brought within the court of Israel to be slain before God. But neither is it possible to see for certain that the usual interpretation that Pilate apprehended these Jews while they were in the act of sacrificing before God in the Temple for the Romans had restricted themselves to police the outer courts where the limits of a Gentile advance towards YHWH were set.
Jesus certainly responds to the charge and, instead of agreeing that the incident is true and dealing with it as a literal and truthful event, goes on to answer the problem which is raising its head in the questioners who are supposing that the offerers were worse sinners than others because such a fate had come upon them - that, in some way, God must have been judging their sin through the incident. Whether it actually happened is not important to Jesus - but answering the problem that the incident has raised needs to be corrected.
Though the incident is taken to have some basis of truth in it, the actual event may be hidden somewhere beneath the assertion, but it does show that Pilate’s apparent haste to apprehend these Galileans was premature and that it would have been better in the eyes of the Jews had they waited until they were outside the holiness of the courts and then saw to the arrest. With a little more tact, then, the incident could have been completed more successfully and, even though the Jews would have objected to the Roman action (as they appear to have objected to everything they did!), there would have been less grounds for such a story to circulate. Perhaps the best we can say is that Pilate showed himself seriously lacking in his perception of certain situations and that it undermined the respect in which he was held amongst the people.
What we ultimately make of Pilate’s character will be largely dependent upon what we read in the situations which are ascribed to him in both the Gospels and extra-Biblical sources. But, to have survived in office for ten years seems to indicate that he wasn’t as bad as the Jewish records would like to make out and that his main weakness was the misreading of or ignorance in situations which confronted him.
This certainly seems to have been the case when Jesus was presented to him to be sentenced to death. But, like the first incident in which the standards had to be removed from the city of Jerusalem, when he knew that he was losing the fight, he very quickly recapitulated to maintain the status quo.
He was a good (not morally good) man to have in the position of power, therefore, when the Father was moving Jesus on to the crucifixion to complete His work on behalf of mankind for, no matter what the personal feeling, he was certain to give in to the strength of Jewish feeling if push came to shove.
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