Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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The Historical Jesus
Pontius Pilate

Pontius Pilate is probably one of the best-known characters in the gospels. And yet the portrait the gospel authors present is very far from the truth.

The gospels portray a Pilate who tended towards mercy, who attempted to prevent the crucifixion of Jesus, and who was driven to do what he did by vociferous crowds of Jews. The impression is given that if Pilate had had his way, Jesus would have been released and the robber Barabbas crucified in his place.

History tells a different story.

Our main source of information about Pilate is the Jewish Wars of Flavius Josephus, written just before the end of the first century - that is, at much the same time as the gospels. Josephus was involved in an uprising against Rome which began in the year 66. After his capture, he was spared by the authorities in return for his co-operation. He was given a pension and lived the rest of his life out in Rome.

As a Jew, Josephus was intent upon improving the image of his nation in the eyes of the Roman authorities. When the Jerusalem temple was broken down and burned by the Roman army in 70, many Jewish people emigrated to other parts of the Empire. It seems that they were often viewed with some suspicion by more established elements of the communities of which they became part.

Bad government by Roman governors of Palestine was advanced by Josephus as one reason why otherwise peace-loving Jews were provoked into rebellion. One of the governors at fault was, according to Josephus, Pontius Pilate, Prefect of Judea from 26-36.

Pilate seems to have been capricious, cruel and devious. He began his period of rule badly. Perhaps to curry favour with his masters in Rome he sneaked standards of the Emperor Tiberius (which had images attached to them) into Jerusalem at night. 

We might wonder today why this should have done Pilate any good. The modern image of the Roman administration is one of ruthless efficiency, of a strong legal system, and of considerable technical skill. 

Seldom mentioned, however, is the all-pervasive insistence of the authorities on maintaining proper religious observances. Religious beliefs were, despite appearances to our technological culture, deep and sincere. Failure to respect and publicly honour religious symbols was regarded with great suspicion. Roman religion was thought of as the spiritual glue which bound the Empire together and which guaranteed God's favour in its various enterprises.

The Jewish nation's refusal to tolerate images of any sort had long been condoned by Rome. Pilate appears to have thought that he would succeed where others had failed and introduce Roman symbols into the holy city. He miscalculated. Josephus tells how

This excited a very great tumult among the Jews when it was day ... for laws do not permit any sort of image to be brought into the city ... [1]

Pilate had to back down when the crowds 

... fell down in vast numbers together, exposed their necks, and cried out that they were sooner ready to be killed than that their law should be transgressed.

Pilate's next clash with the Jews ended better for him. He had appropriated money from Temple funds to build a much-needed aqueduct to bring water to Jerusalem. He seems to have anticipated trouble about using this money. When a protesting crowd assembled, he infiltrated his troops amongst them. At Pilate's signal they set upon the crowd with sticks and clubs and gave them a sound thrashing. That action stopped the protest in its tracks.

Pilate's cruel and inept governance eventually came to the notice of the Roman authorities. He was removed from his post by Lucius Vitellius, Governor of Syria (under which Judea fell as far as Rome was concerned).

A reading of the New Testament does not convey a negative picture of Roman governors in general and of Pilate in particular. On the contrary, they are portrayed as worthy rulers who deserve praise for their beneficence towards the Jews.

The author of Luke's Gospel and of the Acts of the Apostles presents the governors in a favourable light. In Acts chapters 24 and 25, for example, the Procurator Felix is honoured as a reformer who has brought peace and who is deeply concerned for the welfare of the Jewish nation. Only a hint of anything more sinister is admitted, as in his reference to a number of Galileans "whose blood Pilate mingled with their sacrifices" (Luke 13.1).

The other gospels are considerably more sycophantic with regard to Pilate. In Mark's Gospel, Pilate marvels at Jesus while the Jewish leaders don't hesitate to have him convicted on false charges. Pilate is a good judge of character and knows that the Jews oppose Jesus for the basest of motives. He even risks trying to release Jesus by offering the Jews a choice between their innocent victim and a convicted killer.

Matthew's Gospel goes even further in suggesting that Pilate was basically sensitive and just. In response to his wife's dream, Pilate pronounces Jesus innocent of any offence. He is driven by pressure from the Jewish authorities to do what he would rather not do.

The build-up of Pilate is even greater in John's Gospel. Pilate takes on the role of Jesus' representative (19.12) before the Jews and it is to them that he is handed over to be crucified (19.16). We know that this could not have happened since only the Romans were allowed to carry out a death sentence.

The question arises as to why the gospel authors went to such pains to portray Pilate in a favourable light, when Josephus (and any other well-informed person) knew that Pilate was a poor example of Roman justice and administrative equity.

A determined focus on the timescale of the gospels is important in attempting an answer. They were written after the destruction of Jerusalem when anything Jewish was regarded with suspicion not only by the Roman authorities, but also by the average Roman who sought to preserve and build the Empire. Palestine was not finally subdued until 74. Only some 50 years later yet another uprising brought yet more turmoil and death to the region.

In this context, the early Christian communities were at first thought of by the Roman authorities as a "tribe" or offshoot of the Jewish nation. As such they were tarred with the same brush.

As Steve Mason points out, one response of Christians at the time was what we today call anti-Semitism [2]. It did not suit the gospel writers to approve of their Jewish roots. One way to temper, if not improve, their public image was to portray Jews as Christ-killers. Another was to whitewash Pontius Pilate. 

Their predicament in the context of the Roman Empire of the time, says Mason, 

... stemmed from the novelty of Christianity. In a culture that respected what was old and established, Christianity seemed a new religion - a contradiction in terms for Roman thinking! - for it worshiped as Lord someone who had quite recently been executed by the Roman authorities, in the humiliating way reserved for trouble-making provincials (crucifixion), and in a backwater province no less.

All sorts of rumours tended to float around about early Christians. One such was passed on in Pliny's letter to the Emperor Trajan about the year 111. He assumes, for example, that Christians eat human flesh at their secret night-feasts. Perhaps he had heard about the words "body and blood" at Christian ceremonial meals and thought the worst.

Christians thought of themselves as the "true Israel". It served their purposes to vilify Jews as the old Israel now superceded by God's new fellowship.

The Pilate of history, it turns out, was not the person portrayed by Christians. It is much more probable that he and the Jewish authorities colluded to put Jesus to death for the sake of good public order in Jerusalem. At the same time, it's wrong to blame the gospel authors for having been biased. After all, who can claim absolute impartiality in the face of a need to survive and prosper as a viable, if not controlling, social force?
[1] The Wars of the Jews, 2.169-174
[2] Josephus and the New Testament, Hendrickson, 2003

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