Pontius Pilate: A Sensitive Guy…. 

Pontius Pilate: A Sensitive Guy….  May 16, 2019

Editor’s NoteWelcome to number 4 in the Bart Ehrman series.  /Linda LaScola, Editor


By Bart Ehrman


Could Pilate have conceded over burial rights also? Granted this may not extend to those accused of treason, but as Pilate did permit some local customs, does this not open up sufficient space for Josephus’ claim over burial rights to be taken seriously?


This question arose a couple of weeks ago after I had returned briefly to an older conversation about whether Jesus would have been buried on the afternoon he was crucified.  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..:


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 it’s 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, as is explicitly shown by the one source that Craig himself relies on….  Pilate continued to show his brutality and insensitivity long after this event.


Bio: Bart D. Ehrmanis 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, including this one.

>>>>Photo Credits: By Dan Sears UNC-Chapel Hill, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41276400; By Antonio Ciseri – http://www.most-famous-paintings.org/Ecce-Homo-large.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10356430




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  • Milo C

    It isn’t an equal comparison either, to assume that Pilate let Jews have whatever they wanted. More likely the display of imagery and its removal was a rare exception to an otherwise tight-fisted control.

    AFAIK, crucifixion was common and widespread. If the Jewish leaders had the kind of influence Craig suggests they had on it, why make exception for one barely-known, troublesome preacher? Wouldn’t they have demanded a more agreeable form of execution if they could make such demands?

  • Michael Newsham

    If Pilate backed down because he realised the sensitivities of the Jews and how stubborn they could be, why wouldn’t he decide that going out of his way to offend Jewish religious sensibilities was a bad idea? Poor argument from Ehrman.

  • Michael Newsham

    Pontius Pilate, hung over. Legate enters.
    Legate: The Jews are angry.
    Pilate, head in hands: What is it this time?
    Legate: They’re demanding you take down the bodies of the bandits we just crucified.
    Pilate, waking up a bit: They were traitors to Rome! Especially What’sisname, the guy in the middle. They think I should give him a nice burial?
    Legate: Nah, they don’t care what you do with the bodies- throw them in a shallow grave, feed them to the dogs- just don’t leave them hanging up over their holy festival.
    Pilate, remembering the previous confrontation: Alright, alright. I know I should have taken that appointment to Gaul. Smaller bribes, but a lot less hassle….

  • Geoff Benson

    At least the existence of Pontius Pilate is reasonably well established. He fits neatly into chronicled Roman history of the time, and there’s obviously a need for somebody to have been a prefect in the province of Judaea. However, the Pilate stone, found not so many years ago, makes his existence nigh on certain


    By comparison, the existence of Jesus himself has no such level of certainty. His only ‘need’ to exist is in the minds of his followers, and those with the agenda of creating a messiah. I know that Bart Ehrman is a fine academic and he came down on the side of the historicity of Jesus, but there’s also an increasing number of serious academics who disagree, and it is absolutely not the ‘crank’ theory that apologists (and actually many atheists also) would like us to think.

  • By comparison, the existence of Jesus himself has no such level of certainty. His only ‘need’ to exist is in the minds of his followers, and those with the agenda of creating a messiah. I know that Bart Ehrman is a fine academic and he came down on the side of the historicity of Jesus, but there’s also an increasing number of serious academics who disagree, and it is absolutely not the ‘crank’ theory that apologists (and actually many atheists also) would like us to think.

    You would have to explain why the followers (of … ?) chose to invent that particular Jesus. In The Original Jesus, Otto Borchert documents what the different groups would have considered an excellent person (cf kalos kagathos), and none of the following would have produced the Jesus of the gospels:

         (1) Romans
         (2) Greeks
         (3) Jewish elite
         (4) Jewish peasants
         (5) the disciples


    Unlike every other known instance of Jewish apocalyptic eschatology, the version held by Jesus and much of the early church viewed the hostile forces they struggled against as composed entirely of spiritual beings—not fellow human beings.[30] As N. T. Wright has correctly observed:

    One of the key elements in Jesus’ perception of his task was therefore his redefinition of who the real enemy was. . . . The pagan hordes surrounding Israel [including Rome] were not the actual foe of the people of YHWH. Standing behind the whole problem of Israel’s exile was the dark power known in some Old Testament traditions as the satan, the accuser. The struggle that was coming to a head was therefore cosmic. (Jesus and the Victory of God, 450–51)

    (Understanding Spiritual Warfare, 10–11)

    Sadly, humans keep losing this understanding—or perhaps abandoning it. Humans have to continually re-learn what Solzhenitsyn learned in the gulag:

    If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart? (The Gulag Archipelago)

    When Richard Carrier visited SF, I briefly described Borchert’s thesis and offered to give Carrier my copy of the book, on the spot. Carrier refused. It is, as usual, easier to tear down than build up.

  • Erm, according to the narrative, Pilate didn’t think Jesus deserved to be executed in any fashion. So he wasn’t a traitor to Rome. If anything, Pilate would have been pissed that the Jews were manipulating him via threatening to riot. I suspect many of the Jews would have liked to have Jesus be kept up as long as possible. Which would make it easy for Pilate to give the body to the first person who wanted it.

  • Geoff Benson

    I have to confess that I’ve never heard of Otto Berchert but a little google searching suggests he isn’t well known, certainly not in English speaking countries.

    I’m always sceptical about claims of the way in which Jesus was perceived. I think it’s likely that it’s all part of the legend, regardless of whether there actually was a living person on whom we base the person we refer to as ‘Jesus’. Most, in fact all, of what we now think we know about Jesus is based on the gospels. There are no extant original documents on which the gospels were based, and we know as a matter of fact that they are littered with error and forgery. It’s almost certain that references to the nativity (in the gospels where there’s any reference) were added long after the original gospels were written, and it is highly probable that reference to the burial and resurrection are similarly false. So the myth of Jesus evolved to suit particular agendas; and interested parties had plenty of time to consider them in the decades prior to the writing of the first gospel, during which time it’s likely that almost nobody had heard of Jesus.

  • You haven’t addressed the central point: you have no robust theory as to why the particular Jesus we see in the gospels was fabricated. That particular Jesus is supposedly the most excellent human who could possibly exist, given that he is understood by the text we have as the maximal amount of God which can be enfleshed. Except, I know of no group in human history which had such an understanding of “most excellent human”. Do you?

    A pretty obvious message of the Tanakh is that YHWH is not like how most people want to conceive of him (see: Feuerbach); a pretty obvious message of the NT is that this was still true and Jesus came to set the record straight. Gandhi attested to this when he said “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” How true is this today, given how many Christians attempt to amass political power in the name of Christ? The challenge to see excellence and wisdom in a radically different light than we are predisposed to continues. But how stands to benefit from fabricating such a Jesus?

    The devil is in the details. It is easy to claim that Jesus was fabricated; it is another thing to explain just which [plausible!] agendas would have made the details turn out as they did.