Pilate Error

Originally published in the 27 March 2017 issue of the Weekly Standard.

Pontius Pilate: Deciphering a Memory
by Aldo Schiavone
Liveright/Norton, 224 pp., $24.95

Dante puts Pontius Pilate in the outermost circle of Hell, among the indolent—scant punishment, you might think, for the man who executed Jesus Christ. By letting Pilate off easy, Dante was situating himself firmly on one side of a centuries-old debate: who was more responsible for killing Christ, the Roman government or the Sanhedrin? It should be obvious, then, why any author trying to write a sympathetic biography of Pilate needs to tread carefully. Every particle of guilt taken off Pilate inevitably winds up added in the scales against the Jews.

Italian classicist Aldo Schiavone does his best to avoid this fraught dilemma by confining himself to the facts that we know about Pilate the historical figure. And we do know a great deal about him, compared to other figures mentioned in the Gospels. His name was added to the creed—not at the Council of Nicaea but at Constantinople, fifty years later—precisely in order to emphasize that the crucifixion was a matter not of legend but of historical fact. Tacitus, Josephus, and Philo all mention him by name, and in 1961 archaeologists uncovered a fragmentary stone inscription in Caesarea reading in part, unmistakably, “[PO]NTIUS PILATUS / [PRAEF]ECTUS IUDA[EA]E.”

He would have been about forty years old when he arrived in Judaea in 26 ce, after a career that probably included a military command, as was typical for one of the equestrian order. He held office there for ten years, an unusually long time, suggesting that emperor Tiberius was pleased with his service. What happened to Pilate after he was recalled to Rome is not known, but Schiavone concludes that he must have been dead or retired by the year 40, given the contemptuous way Philo and Herod Agrippa write of him in their letters to Caligula. If Pilate had been in any position to fight back at the time, men so “extremely sensitive to shifting balances” at the imperial court “would have been more guarded.”

In addition to the things we know about Pilate, there are the things we know that just ain’t so. He never washed his hands while proclaiming “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” according to Schiavone, who calls this fabulation “the zero point in the genealogy of Christian anti-Semitism.” Handwashing was a specifically Jewish gesture, foreign to Roman culture, and in any case Pilate would hardly have wanted emphasize his powerlessness before his own subjects with six years of ruling them left to go. The incident appears only in the gospel of Matthew, the same gospel that features such embellishments as Pilate’s wife warning him not to have anything to do with Jesus because she had seen him the previous night in a dream. Wives rarely accompanied prefects on their postings, so it is unlikely that she was even in Jerusalem.

More controversially, Schiavone argues that there was never any crowd baying for the prisoner’s execution. The shouts of “Crucify him!” came, not from a multitude, but from the same small delegation that had escorted Jesus to the palace. This is a claim with theological implications, since Christian political theorists have long rested their case against democracy on the fickleness of the crowd that cheered Jesus into the city one day and called for his death the next. Schiavone gives three reasons for doubting that version. First, there was no square big enough for an assembly outside the Praetorium, only a small courtyard. Second, the gospel he considers most reliable, John, assigns the cry to “the chief priests and the guards”—no mention of the crowd described in Matthew, whose embroidery of the Passion tale has already been noted. Third, the Temple guard had arrested Jesus in the middle of the night in order to avoid popular outcry in his favor. Why would the high priests reverse themselves and mobilize a crowd just a few hours later?

Roman law is Schiavone’s specialty, so he is able to demonstrate that the procedure that led to Jesus’s execution could in no sense be described as a trial. The interrogation, the presentation of witnesses, and the final judgment conform to no legal framework we know of, Roman or Judaic. This means that Pilate’s decision was a political act, which is to say that it could have gone either way. Schiavone mentions two precedents that would have been on Pilate’s mind, both known to us from Josephus. In the first, from the very first days of his tenure, Pilate backed down and removed offensive imperial banners from Jerusalem after civil disobedience threatened to corner him into ordering a massacre. In the second, he commanded Roman soldiers to use lethal force to quickly put down a riot over misuse of Temple funds. Together the two stories reveal a politician skilled in navigating Jewish public opinion, sometimes giving way to it and other times standing firm.

In the case of Jesus, his preference would have been to let the prisoner go. This explains his ploy with Barabbas, and also his most famous line: “What is truth?” It is a question that bears multiple interpretations. Nietzsche read it as “the noble scorn of a Roman before whom an impudent misuse of the word ‘truth’ was carried on.” But Schiavone makes a convincing case that Pilate was genuinely baffled and amazed by his curious prisoner. He had been led by the Sanhedrin to expect a political rabble-rouser, but Jesus did not fit that type at all. The long interrogation shows Pilate testing the limits of his pagan imagination, and his questions indicate his dawning realization that Jesus represents something beyond his comprehension. Which, if anything, makes Pilate’s guilt the greater. He knew that Jesus was something more than an inconvenient agitator who had threatened the local elite, and he crucified him anyway.