Pilate Mythicism

Pilate Mythicism May 24, 2016

Pilate Mythicism

This meme was drawn to my attention in a comment on an earlier post. It focuses too broadly on atheists in general, and it is simply incorrect about what the coins say. But its main point retains some validity nevertheless. While it may be appropriate to withhold judgment about a matter if the evidence seems insufficient, the attempt to argue that because someone is only mentioned in the New Testament, therefore they are not historical, simply does not work. History shows this, in the case of Pontius Pilate (among others).

To be clear, the reverse stance is also problematic. I have read the claim on numerous occasions that, since historians eventually found evidence for Pilate, then you can trust everything the Bible says. That isn't how historical study works, and it is a deceptive tactic that ignores those instances when counter-evidence to Biblical accounts have been found.

Most historians recognize that the compilation we call the Bible contains not only a range of kinds of literature, but even within individual works, a range of kinds of material, ranging from largely historical to pure literary creation.

Mythicist dogmatists and Christian fundamentalists are not at polar opposite ends of the spectrum, except on the trite matter of what they insist they know. Their approach is an all-or-nothing one that are mirror images of one another, two sides of the same coin.

Historians, on the other hand, are supposed to deal in a nuanced manner with evidence, and to recognize that each piece of evidence must be assessed separately and on its own terms.

The fact that there was a historical Pontius Pilate, for instance, does not mean that he actually had the conversations depicted in the Passion narratives in the canonical or any other Gospels. From the perspective of historians, the fact that none of the followers of Jesus would have had access to the events or the participants in them, coupled with the character of Pilate as we know of it from other sources, leads historians to be skeptical of many of the details in the Gospel accounts.

And so the heart of the matter is this: mythicism – the complete dismissal of the historicity not just of accounts but of the individual portrayed in them – is as illogical and indefensible as claims of Biblical inerrancy – the complete acceptance of the historicity of everything in the Bible because the existence of individuals mentioned in it has been confirmed.

Neither mythicism nor Christian fundamentalism is engaged in the practice of history. But both share a willingness to appeal to historians' conclusions when it suits them in an attempt to bolster their ideologically-driven all-or-nothing stance.

And when historians and scholars object to this misuse of their work, mythicists and inerrantists typically respond in the same way: by insisting that the academy is in fact conspiring to cover up the truth or infested with an ideology that blinds us to the truth.

And the irony is that the one side will claim that academics are mostly atheists, and the other will claim that academics are mostly Christians, and neither will see the irony that their opponents are mirror images of themselves, making absolute claims that are not merely implausible, but also simply not the kind of thing that historical study provides.


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  • Phil Ledgerwood

    I also see this at work in evangelicalism as a trust in evidence that hasn’t been found yet.

    The fact that there are instances where something was not thought to be historical, and then later evidence overturned that, consequently provides a basis for believing anything unsubstantiated. The idea is that, if we wait long enough, eventually we’ll find a selfie of Adam or a huge wooden box in the Near East littered with animal skeletons and a shipping manifest.

    Therefore, it is justifiable (in this way of thinking) to have a level of certitude about these things as if the evidence were found, because it is surely out there and we haven’t yet found it.

  • John MacDonald

    I find it fascinating that conservative Christian scholars and liberal mythicists look to the same texts to make their respective cases. Conservative scholars want to argue the Old Testament is a prophetic prefiguring of Christ, while mythicists argue that the New Testament Narratives were in part created by haggadic midrash out of the Old Testament. This is nowhere more evident than in conservative writer David Limbaugh’s new book “The Emmaus Code: Finding Jesus In The Old Testament (2015).”

  • arcseconds

    I know I go on about Plato and his dialogues a bit (some might say a bit much) but this sort of thing is clearly evidenced in his work. Most of the figures in his dialogues are either clearly historical or strongly suspected to be historical, but no scholar thinks the dialogues are anything like verbatim recordings of actual conversations, or even generally speaking some kind of an attempt at reconstructing or dramatizing actual conversation.

    I wonder whether a greater familiarity with Plato, whom most people do not have particularly strong feelings about, would allow the point that ancient writings can have aspects of history without everything being historical to be appreciated with respect to the Bible.

  • arcseconds

    Was there in fact significant doubt about the existence of Pilate?

  • John MacDonald

    I think another question we can ask is whether we can conclude from the fact that a known historical personage appears in the New Testament, that we have any reason to believe this person had any historical connection to Jesus. For instance, Quirinius is mentioned in the New Testament, but there is no reason to think his census ever affected Jesus or his family.

  • redhatGizmo

    Don’t spread blatant lies nobody doubted Pilate’s existence since he’s is way better attested than JC we have two lengthy account of his life in Judea by two great historians and one is even a contemporary account which is itself a rare feat and a archeological evidence too but in case JC archeological evidence is nowhere to be found and Extra biblical sources for his life are extremely small and all are heavily disputed.

    • Mark

      The meme is ridiculous as it stands, of course.

      But the Pilate/Jesus situations are pretty much parallel, no? On the one hand, we have plenty of references in the gospels to each. (You go for the groundless idea that the fact that the gospels were later given ecclesiastical credentials as ‘biblical’ has anything to do with historical inference, but never mind.)

      The Tacitus passage is of course the very one about ‘Christus’ that is frequently viewed as ecclesiastical forgery … or are there other passages in Tacitus? (Note also that Tacitus gets Pilate’s title wrong – are these the fingerprints of a clueless ecclesiastic??!!)

      Then there is Josephus, which is just as much capable of including a forged Pilate passage as a forged Jesus passage.

      Then there’s the bit of Philo, which you seem not to be counting (he’s emphatically not a historian), and … what else? Josephus and Philo in particular are only in our possession thanks to ecclesiastical and Byzantine copying. The copyists didn’t ‘canonize’ these works, but they ‘eternalized’ and maintained them, and they had total control over them for centuries. In particular, they were only preserved, in so far as they were preserved, because of their religious interest to the copyists.

      Basically Jesus and Pilate are attested textually in much the same ways; but people freak out over Jesus, as if his existence – which is necessary to explain the preservation of the texts of Philo and Josephus – was some kind of threat to non-Christians.

      • redhatGizmo

        I counted Philo thats why i said we have near contemporary account for Pilate as Philo’s Embassy to Gaius was written in ~40 CE and both of the accounts are quite detailed unlike the Fabricated TF or very brief Tacitus passage, Josephus dedicating whole chapter for describing misdeeds of Pilate and Philo goes on great length to highly criticize his actions like in Philo’s own words…

        “in respect of his(Pilate’s) 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.”

        So chances for fabrication of whole chapter and such lengthy accounts are negligible.

        • Mark

          Yes, it would be quite mad to suggest that there was no Pilate … except on condition that Jesus Mythicism is true, in which case we need a massive system of forgers — and the same perps will be at work in all of these cases since the same church was the custodian of all these documents and preserved them because of their religious interest.

  • Gakusei Don

    I don’t think that meme is true. I looked into this a while ago and AFAIK no-one made the claim that there was no historical Pilate. It seems to be a misreading of a statement by mythicist Arthur Drews a hundred years ago, who wrote in “Witnesses to the Historicity of Jesus” (1912) the following, based on the work of Andrzej Niemojewski:

    According to this, the Pilate of the Christian legend was not originally an historical person ; the whole story of Christ is to be taken in an astral sense, and Pilate represents the constellation of Orion, the javelin-man (pilatus, in Latin), with the arrow or lance- constellation (Sagitta), which is supposed to be very long in the Greek myth, and appears in the Christian legend under the name of Longinus, and is in the Gospel of John the soldier who pierces the side of Jesus with a spear (longche, in Greek).

    But Drews thought there really was a historical Pilate, only that the Pilate in the Gospel was part of a story set in an astral plane.