Pontius Pilate: A Sensitive Guy…..

Pontius Pilate: A Sensitive Guy….. February 22, 2018

Editor’s Note: In the last post, we got a cynical perspective of John the Apostle. In this one, we get further insight into Pontius Pilate. Gotta hand it to these guys for staying in the news – at least the academic news – for centuries. I guess it’s understandable for us to be curious about characters and stories that, real or not, have had such an impact on the beliefs of so many people. Thanks to Clergy Project member and biblical scholar Bart Ehrman for making this blog post available to us. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity.  /Linda LaScola, Editor


By Bart Ehrman

…[People have asked if Pontius Pilot might have made an exception to the rule by allowing Jesus to be buried immediately following his crucifixion.] I tried to show that if so, this would have been in clear violation of policy and precedent.  Part of the entire punishment for capital offenses — especially crimes against the state (e.g., claiming to be a ruler of a people ruled instead by Rome) — was to be left *on* the cross for days, as a public display, and a humiliation and denigration: bodies were left subject to the elements, the scavengers, and natural decay.  The Romans wanted everyone to know that THIS is what happens to those who cross the power of Rome.

A number of readers suggested that Pilate was possibly sensitive to Jewish law and views of the matter, and would have allowed for decent burial because that’s what the Law of Moses requires.  My view is that Pilate flat out didn’t give a damn.

This is a debate that I had with conservative evangelical New Testament scholar Craig Evans some years ago.  He too claimed Pilate would have been well-disposed to Jewish sensitivities about the matter.  I answered this claim in a couple of posts, that I’ll repost now.

Here is the first one:

I think there is almost no historical figure that Craig and I disagree on more than the Roman governor of Judea at the time of Jesus’ death, Pontius Pilate.   I see him as a cruel, vicious, hard-headed, insensitive, and brutal ruler; Craig portrays him as an efficient but wise and rather sensitive aristocrat who could learn from his lessons and who would go out of his way not to offend Jewish sensibilities.  A lot hangs on which view (if either) is right, since it was Pilate – we agree on this! – who ordered Jesus’ crucifixion.  Moreover, if Jesus was given a decent burial (Craig’s view) or was left to hang on the cross for some time in accordance with standard Roman practice (my view), it was, in either case, Pilate’s decision.

Craig’s view is that Pilate’s sensitive decision not to allow crucified victims to hang on their crosses after their deaths is what allowed him to keep “the nation at peace” (the phrase comes from the Jewish historian Josephus, whom I will be dealing with in later posts).  My view is that the reason the nation was kept “at peace” was precisely because governors like Pilate showed with graphic brutality what would happen to anyone who revolted or threatened to revolt; crucifixion and the humilities suffered post mortem were an effective deterrent for revolt, for most of the Roman period.

But what kind of person was Pilate?  Craig refers to a passage in Josephus, Book 18 of the Antiquities, where Pilate, on assuming rule of Judea, brought Roman standards bearing an image of the emperor into Jerusalem, thereby offending the Jews who were resident there, who maintained that since holy city was holy to God, there were to be no “images” there.  According to Craig’s discussion, the Jews protested, Pilate realized he had made a mistake and backed down, and that was the end of the story.  Craig emphasizes that this account shows that previous governors had not brought standards into town – showing their basic sensitivities to Jewish customs and laws – and that once Pilate saw that he had made an error he “quickly” (his word) gave way.

As Craig summarizes the event:

“Pilate either did not understand Jewish law and custom and so acted in ignorance, or he did, thinking he could force on his Jewish subjects his allegiance to the emperor.  In either case, he quickly learned how loyal the Jews were to their law and wisely backed down.”

For Craig, this “wise” decision affected the rest of Pilate’s rule in Judea.  Jewish customs were not to be breached.  And so, Craig “find[s] it hard to believe,” that once Pilate learned his lesson about Jewish determination to follow their customs, that he would later allow crucified criminals to remain on their crosses in violation of Jewish sensibilities.

I have a very different read of Pilate in general, of this incident of the standards in particular, and of its effect on Pilate’s behavior subsequently.   First I’ll talk about this incident.

Craig speaks of it as if Pilate acted in ignorance.  But that flies in the face of what our one source of information about the incident actually says.  Here is how the historian Josephus introduces his account:  “But now Pilate, the procurator of Judea, removed the army from Caesarea to Jerusalem, to take their winter quarters there, in order to abolish the Jewish laws.”   That doesn’t sound very promising.  Josephus goes on to say that Pilate did not introduce the standards as one who was “ignorant” of Jewish customs or of the possible effect such a brazen act would have.  On the contrary, he knew exactly what he was doing.  He brought the standards in, Josephus emphasizes, “at night” when no one would know what was happening.  Only on awakening did the Jews in town realize what he had done.

And so then, did the Jews of Jerusalem raise their voices in protest and Pilate then realize the error of his ways?  Well, not exactly.  Josephus indicates that Pilate had gone back to Caesarea and a mass of Jews marched on his palace, demanding the removal of the standards.  He flat-out refused.  (Why?  Hint: he didn’t give a damn about Jewish customs or sensitivities.)   The Jews then staged a massive sit-in demonstration for six full days.  (Craig says that Pilate “quickly” learned his lesson; well, it was not exactly quickly).  Did Pilate back down *then*?  No, he got fed up.  He had his armed soldiers surround the crowd, and ordered the Jews to return home to Jerusalem with the Roman standards still in place, or he would have each and every one of them executed on the spot.  Nice guy.

It’s true, he did in the end back down, but not because of sensitivity.  The Jews responded to the death threat by throwing themselves on the ground, baring their necks, and telling the soldiers to lop off their heads.  They would rather suffer a massive slaughter than put up with having images of the emperor in the holy city.   Pilate at that point realized that he could not possibly slaughter so many people.   Josephus doesn’t tell us why, but its not hard to understand.   Presumably all the leaders of the Jews were among the crowd.  If Pilate ordered the mass murder of all the leaders of the people he was supposed to be governing, he would be held responsible back in Rome – not for violating Jewish customs, but for killing off all the local aristocracy.  Not exactly a smart move.   Such a move would almost certainly put an end to his governorship (as it was later put to an end by another act of brutal repression – ten years later).

So, did Pilate “learn his lesson” as Craig suggests?  Actually, quite the contrary…. Pilate continued to show his brutality and insensitivity long after this event.


Bart Ehrman, Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Bio: Bart D. Ehrman is the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He came to UNC in 1988, after four years of teaching at Rutgers University. At UNC he has served as both the Director of Graduate Studies and the Chair of the Department of Religious Studies.

A graduate of Wheaton College (Illinois), Bart received both his Masters of Divinity and Ph.D. from Princeton Theological Seminary, where his 1985 doctoral dissertation was awarded magna cum laude. Since then he has published extensively in the fields of New Testament and Early Christianity, having written or edited twenty-six books, numerous scholarly articles, and dozens of book reviews. For more detail, read here. Bart is also an original member of The Clergy Project. He has given The Rational Doubt Blog permission to repost public blogs from The Bart Ehrman Blog

>>>Photo Credits: By Dan Sears – Dan Sears UNC-Chapel Hill, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41276400 ; By Mihály Munkácsy, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=230979


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  • mhelbert

    I agree that no one really knows what went through Pilate’s mind. One thing to consider was how Herod the Great had somehow managed to get Rome to allow the Jews to worship their own God and not Roma or Caesar exclusively. Perhaps Pilate was aware that Rome didn’t want to stir things up too much. After all, wars are costly. Maybe, as you say, Pilate didn’t really give a damn and allowed Jesus’ body to be removed. There’s nothing to indicate that the other 2 crucified were removed. I’ve often wondered, though, about your point. Why would Pilate allow Jesus’ removal when the whole point of crucifixion appeared to be for the benefit of those who saw it, not those who were the victims.

    • Kevin K

      FWIW: The two “thieves” are MacGuffins. Plot devices meant to further the narrative. Nothing more. Thieves were not executed by crucifixion.

      Crucifixion was reserved for enemies of the state, including slaves that killed their masters (in which case, the entire household of slaves would be crucified). Most capital criminals were simply run through with a sword, or sent to the gladitorial arenas to be killed for sport as part of a spectacle.

      • Michael Neville

        After the Spartacus Revolt, aka Third Servile War, some 2000 slaves were crucified.

        • Kevin K

          Right. Slaves in revolution…not common thieves. Thieves would have been run through simply (no muss, no fuss), or saved for the gladiators. Or had their hands chopped off, to die of starvation.

      • There is some indication the word was not “thieves” but “rebels”, who were crucified. Of course, they were still probably plot devices.

        • Kevin K

          Since when? FFS: that scene has been the basis for countless sermons from countless pulpits for the past 2000 years … and NOW it’s suddenly a “rebel” and not a “thief”?

          • I’m not sure since when, but it would hardly be the first time they were wrong. A good question for Ehrman, perhaps.

          • ElizabetB.

            Good idea! When Ehrman was discussing Aslan’s “Zealot,” he mentioned
            “a band of ‘lestai’ – armed resisters – ”
            “not thought to be a band of ‘lestai’ – armed resisters.” [blog 1/8/14]

            (I wasn’t successful searching for Luke’s term “wrongdoer”)

      • ElizabetB.

        In “Luke’s” gospel, the Greek word is in English literally “wrongdoer” — “and other wrongdoers two with him”
        “James Donnegan – 1846 – ‎English language
        Κακουργέω, ώ, .fut. ήσω, to do evil, Αrist. Νμό. 1157. to act treacherously, … 37. the character, or conduct of one who is κακούργος : the ss. as subst. of κακουργος, Κάκούργος, ου, αdi. doing evil, wicked, vicious, Εur. Ιon. 831. malignant, inflicting injury … of the bodily frame, Polyύ. iii. 64. 8. sickness ; weakness-mean apparel.”
        [“A New Greek and English Lexicon: The Words Alphabetically Arranged” google-snip]

        “Mark” and “Matthew” use a different Greek word, as described in “Jesus Crucified Between Revolutionaries or Thieves?”
        [sorry I’m not seeing a lexicon definition] —
        “The original Greek is λῃσταί, or lestai. It comes from a root meaning ‘booty.’ The Greek word in the original Gospel manuscript simply meant ‘robber.’ It is probably closer to our word ‘brigand,’ as in one of a band of robbers, not a lone mugger. ‘Thief,’ is not the best translation, however, because a thief can be a shoplifter or embezzler. Brigands often killed people. It is quite possible that the criminals crucified next to Jesus were murderers. (In St. Luke’s Gospel, one of them — described as ‘criminals’ — even admits that they were being justly punished for their crimes, hardly the words of a martyred freedom fighter.)

        • Kevin K

          Yeah no. Robbers/thieves, and even murderers were not punished with crucifixion under Roman rule. They would have gone to the arena as well.

          The exception is for a slave who killed his master. That person would be crucified. Along with every slave in that master’s household (this is how order was upheld at a time when slaves outnumbered masters). And most definitely, none of those slaves would have been taken down from the cross, regardless of the oncoming of Passover.

          • ElizabetB.

            I think that’s part of the argument that the Jesus character was a threat to the state — as the accusation was said to read, “King of the Jews.” Crossan argues that Rome would not have wasted a contingent of soldiers or nails if Jesus weren’t a challenge to its authority — a nonviolent revolutionary.

          • Kevin K

            Yes, that’s the “Jesus” character…although Pilate was supposed to have exonerated him — and if you can find an instance in history where a person was exonerated of a crime but still executed, I would like to hear about it.

            But the “thieves” were not revolutionaries. They were common criminals. Who would not have been executed in that manner at that time in that place. They’re fictional characters, meant to propel a certain narrative forward. Nothing more.

            Of course, my opinion is that the “Jesus” character himself is largely if not wholly fictional.

          • Raging Bee

            I thought the story was that Pilate WANTED to let Jesus go, but caved to mob anger (as in, “THE JOOS clamored for his execution!!!”) and “washed his hands” of the atrocity.

          • Kevin K

            I’ll take Things That Never Happened for $1200, Alex.

            Pilate 1) would not have ordered the execution of someone who he declared innocent of crimes — it’s not the Roman way, and certainly not in keeping with Pilate’s known actions; 2) there was never-ever-ever a recorded instance of Pilate or any other Roman governor/ruler/whatever giving the Jewish mob a Passover “gift” of this nature.

            “Barabbas” is translated as “son of man”…it’s a MacGuffin. As fictional as Jesus.

          • Raging Bee

            FWIW, the narrative I remember is not that Pilate thought Jesus was innocent; it’s that he just didn’t see Jesus as that big a threat, and may have been caught by surprise by the Jewish mob’s anger at him.

            Of course, that may be the “blame the Joos” narrative, which apparently not all Gospels agree on.

          • Kevin K

            gJohn is the gospel of the Joos did it. The others, not so much.

    • Raging Bee

      Actually, the Romans generally allowed their subject peoples to worship whatever gods they wished, as long as they participated in certain big civic-religious-rituals. They also went out of their way to “merge” or “equate” certain local gods with certain similar Roman gods (thus, for example, “Sulis Minerva” of the hot springs at Bath). The only big exceptions that I know of were the Jews in Judea and the Druids in Britain and Gaul, both of whose religions tended to be caught up in anti-Roman POLITICAL activity, and thus had to be suppressed along with the civil unrest they kinda-sorta-maybe helped to cause.

      • Kevin K

        Have you been to Bath? It’s really interesting.

        • Raging Bee

          Yes, several times. It’s lovely. (It’s also more Victorian-homage-to-Rome than actually Roman, but still nice.)

          • Kevin K

            The exhibit at the baths themselves are really neat. I was fascinated; wished I could have spent much more time there — but bus tour, limited time, blah-blah-blah.

          • Raging Bee

            It’s very well organized and had up-to-date self-guided-tour media, which made it very easy to learn as much as one wants about the place, politics, culture, etc. (I think that site got a bit of Euro-Zone economic-cultural-development funding, like Newgrange and possibly Stonehenge.)

          • Kevin K

            Yes, we went there and Stonehenge in the same tour. My one day of leisure following a week of convention-going.

          • Raging Bee

            I’ve been there at a couple of Midsummer mornings (didn’t see the Sun though, ’cause Britain), when they open the place up early. I even morris-danced at the time of (alleged) sunrise one year. That was pretty cool.

    • tatortotcassie

      My guess is that more than a few coins exchanged hands in order to get Jesus buried in a timely manner.

  • Far from being merciful, the actual Pilate was recalled for being too harsh.

  • Mark Rutledge

    Bart, I’m glad that you agree with John Crossan, at least on the matters of Jesus execution and of the disposition of his body. Way to go!

  • Keulan

    While I disagree with Ehrman on whether a historical Jesus existed, I agree with his view of Pilate being insensitive to Jewish customs in Roman Judea. The historical accounts we have from Philo and Josephus back up this view of Pilate.