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Fact or fiction: Pontius Pilate as Jesus’ defense attorney

February 13, 2014

Pontius PilateThe New Testament presents the Jewish leaders and the Jewish people as a bloodthirsty mob out to get Jesus, mercilessly calling for his blood, without any regard for justice. This is the lens through which Christendom would come to view the whole of Jewish people for the next two thousand years. At the same time, the ruthless murderer Roman procurator of Judea Pontius Pilate, a man who would often slaughter people indiscriminately and without trial, a foreign ruler who crucified hundreds if not thousands of Jews and Samaritans under his charge, is portrayed as going out of his way to spare Jesus’ life. He is even shown as almost pleading and trying to reason with Jews in Jesus’ defense, acting not as a vicious executioner who hated Jews with every fiber of his being, but as a defense attorney for a Jewish messianic candidate. (Note: it was the Roman policy to execute all messianic pretenders to the Davidic throne in order to prevent a Jewish rebellion. In the light of the fact that Jesus’ own followers proclaimed him as the Messiah and NT records Jesus as not only not denying it but even acknowledging it on occasion, it is hard to fathom that Pilate would seek to let a would-be messiah go, to save the “King of the Jews” from his own countrymen). To show his disapproval of the injustice that Jews were committing, the New Testament authors even have Pilate, the murderer who had no regard for human life, especially a Jewish one, actually wash his hands, a Jewish custom (Psalms 26:6), in a show of innocence. Billions of Christians have been led to believe in this fictional “good” Pilate to such a degree, he and his wife are to this day venerated as saints in Ethiopian (Pilate and wife, with a feast day on June 25) and Greek / Eastern Orthodox (wife, honored on October 27) churches. Augustine saw Pilate as a prophet of the Kingdom of God (cf. sermon 201), and Tertullian thought that he was a Christian at heart (Apologeticum). His image, along that of his wife, was displayed in Christian art for generations of Christians to admire. However, this is not the man of history.

Pontius Pilate was a ruthless killer whose career was prematurely cut short not because he’s gone soft, “saw the light” and repented of his murders, but because the Roman government, itself far from being averse to merciless bloodshed of its foreign subjects, actually recalled and fired Pilate from his post – specifically for his brutality.

Joseph Telushkin, in his book Jewish Literacy, presents us with the Pilate of history:

Concerning Jesus’ executioner, Pontius Pilate, we have a considerable body of data that contradicts the largely sympathetic portrayal of him in the New Testament. Even among the long line of cruel procurators who ruled Judea, Pilate stood out as a notoriously vicious man. He eventually was replaced after murdering a group of Samaritans: The Romans realized that keeping him in power would only provoke continual rebellions. The gentle, kindhearted Pilate of the New Testament—who in his “heart of hearts” really did not want to harm Jesus is fictional. Like most fictions, the story was created with a purpose. When the New Testament was written, Christianity was banned by Roman law. The Romans, well aware that they had executed Christianity’s founder—indeed the reference to Jesus’ crucifixion by the Roman historian Tacitus is among the earliest allusions to him outside the New Testament—had no reason to rescind their anti-Christian legislation. Christianity’s only hope for gaining legitimacy was to “prove” to Rome that its crucifixion of Jesus had been a terrible error, and had only come about because the Jews forced Pilate to do it. Thus, the New Testament depicts Pilate as wishing to spare Jesus from punishment, only to be stymied by a large Jewish mob yelling, “Crucify him.” The account ignores one simple fact. Pilate’s power in Judea was absolute. Had he wanted to absolve Jesus, he would have done so: He certainly would not have allowed a mob of Jews, whom he detested, to force him into killing someone whom he admired. (Joseph Telushkin. Jewish Literacy.)

17 Comments leave one →
  1. February 12, 2015 1:06 pm

    Reblogged this on Daily Minyan and commented:

    This post that I published yearly last year is worth revisiting. Is there any third party evidence for the “Jews persecuted Christians” blood libel, that is something outside of the information we have in the New Testament and post-first century Christian works (where Jews are sometimes described as crucifying Christian saints)? In the NT we have Pharisees alternate between being best of friends and protectors of “Christians” and their worst enemies, while Romans are portrayed as either just bystanders (or rescuers, in Paul’s case) or, unlike the brutal Pilate of actual history, helpless protectors of Jewish messianic leaders against relentless Jewish viciousness. This post is about the fictional portrayal in the New Testament of Roman governor of Judea Pilate trying save Jesus from the hands of the Jewish mob.

  2. ברוס permalink
    February 12, 2015 8:44 pm

    Gene where did you find the data on Pilate? I’ve been looking everywhere via Internet and it’s all biased catholic sources painting him as nice.

    Any links or books you can help share?

    You can email me if you want too. Keep up the great blogging man :-)

    Much love

  3. Concerned Reader permalink
    February 12, 2015 9:53 pm

    Talk to your local ancient history dept at a local university. They can answer your questions and give sources. I think Tacitus mentions pilate’s cruelty.

  4. Keith permalink
    February 13, 2015 1:47 am

    This is very interesting information. Thanks for the post, Gene. I’ve never considered this side of the story rooted in actual historical data.

  5. Concerned Reader permalink
    February 13, 2015 3:03 am

    If one is to be honest with any source, historical data not affiliated with a religion should be consulted. The Christian literature has different strains of thought (that can be very contradictory depending on the source.) For instance, the Synoptics seem pro Pilate, while revelation is strongly anti Roman. Scholars suggest that Nero is the “anti Christ” of that book based on numerous factors like Date, location, themes, etc.

  6. ברוס permalink
    February 13, 2015 4:18 am

    Thanks CR will do.

  7. February 13, 2015 12:55 pm

    CR, thanks for the helpful and objective feedback!

  8. Concerned Reader permalink
    February 13, 2015 3:36 pm

    I can be objective Gene lol it’s not a problem for me.

  9. KAVI permalink
    September 10, 2015 8:50 am

    Telushkin strays from the truth–

    Did Telushkin not read that Herod, like Pilate, found Yeshua innocent– the two becoming friends thereafter?

    Is Pilate “kindhearted” for executing an innocent man?

    Is Pilate “gentle” for ordering Yeshua to be scourged and crucified?

  10. September 10, 2015 8:58 am

    Kavi, once again you are assuming the historical veracity of the NT’s account (actually, NT’s conflicting accounts), while Telushkin specifically points out its fictitious nature. Pilate was famously vicious (even the NT attests to that) , which is why the description of his supposed defense of a Jewish messianic claimant (an automatic rebel in Roman books) is so ridiculous to those who know history.

  11. KAVI permalink
    September 10, 2015 8:49 pm

    That’s what confuses me– Telushkin confirms the Gospel records that Pilate was ruthless. Why so? Well,

    [a] The Gospel records say that Pilate was not kindhearted–> Pilate crucified the innocent Yeshua;

    [b] The Gospel records say that Pilate was not gentle–> He scourged and crucified Yeshua.

    Therefore, the Gospel records confirm historical fact that:
    ** Pilate was not innocent [despite his claim to the contrary], and
    ** Pilate was ruthless.

  12. September 10, 2015 10:09 pm

    Kavi, nothing to be confused about – like all propaganda, religious or not, the Gospels mix well-known facts (cruelly of Pilate) with a heavy dose of fiction (that Jews were even worse than the bloodthirsty Gentile dictator who ruled over them with wonton brutality and that this same Pilate had to act as Jesus’ defender from “the Jews”, and yet powerless against “the Jews” (when we know that he stopped at nothing)!

    Because it mixed religious piety with anti-Judaism (especially the later books), the New Testament is no doubt the most influential and most murderous anti-Jewish work ever created. It directly and indirectly influenced most later antisemitic works (including the Koran, which drew heavily on it), both religious and secular, and produced and inspired many generations of Jew haters, leading to the Holocaust in Europe.

  13. KAVI permalink
    September 11, 2015 8:22 pm

    Well, yes, some certainly hold that the NT is a mixture of piety and anti-Judaism– however, without accusation, perhaps such claims are made in an attempt to gloss over the mysticism and mythology embedded within the Talmud?

    No, there are more than enough Jewish writers who do not find such a dichotomy in the New Testament [e.g., Dr. Michael Brown, Dr. Alfred Edersheim, and hosts and hosts of others].


    So, back to topic– the NT writers definitely have nothing good to say about Pilate.

    And since the best evidence indicates the entire NT was written by Jews, is anyone going to risk saying that these 1st century Jewish writers were antisemitic?

    BTW> There is no irrefutable proof that Luke the physician was a Gentile– many Jews at this time had more than one name [Paul/Saul, Peter/Simon, etc]. There are also a number of approachable articles which can be researched at one’s own leisure if desired.

  14. September 12, 2015 11:47 pm

    Brown and Edersheim are not “Jewish writers”. They are converts to Protestant Christianity, which makes them Protestant Christian writers and their writings and world views fully reflect that. Their Jewish ethnicity doesn’t somehow make them experts on Jewish things, considering they received no Jewish education, especially in case of Brown who became an Evangelical Christian while still a child.

  15. Jim D. permalink
    September 13, 2015 1:14 am

    Oy. You know what? Kavi reminds me in some ways of my wife. No, don’t take that the wrong way. But I’ll share a little something personal. And Remi is going to really appreciate this. :)

    My wife is a born-again Baptist Christian. She believes that the Christian bible, which she reads daily, and her personal experience of revelation are all she needs. Other than her bible, she has read literally fewer than a handful of books in her life. In fact, just two nights ago she commented that she doesn’t trust anyone’s opinion on Jesus and the bible, especially not the opinions of scholars, who are the most spiritually blind (like me). She said all that anyone needs is to read the bible. Do you think she reads history? If she would, do you think she would accept it, especially if it contradicts what the bible says?

    So this is Kavi. He apparently hasn’t cracked a history book since high school, and promptly forgot or ignored what he was supposed to learn there. All he needs is the bible — the ultimate history book of truth.

  16. Jim D. permalink
    September 13, 2015 3:57 am

    “Concerning Jesus’ executioner, Pontius Pilate, we have a considerable body of data…”

    Telushkin wasn’t “straying from the truth”. Again, Kavi thinks the bible is the only reliable history book and everything’s there. But we and many others have already demonstrated quite clearly how the gospels are largely FICTION, not historical works. Telushkin’s comments are just one more example. But of course, everything goes in one ear and out the other because Kavi thinks his book of fiction is non-fiction. He’s not really confused, though — not as far as he’s concerned. As I’ve pointed out before, he’s not trying to figure out anything. He’s here to debate mindlessly, and he accepts nothing. As usual.

    So why do I waste my breath too? I don’t know. Anyway, Telushkin is a scholar, and so he draws upon research that others have done or the research that other scholars reference in their works. He’s not giving a personal opinion. He states that there is a “considerable body of data” and summarizes the findings.

    On the other hand, Telushkin does note at the end of the chapter that he drew most of his information from “Revolution in Judea” by Hyam Maccoby, himself a gifted and accomplished scholar. I don’t have that particular book so I don’t know what sources were used, and therefore I can’t evaluate its reliability. Hopefully it had more citations than his book on Paul, “The Mythmaker”, which, disappointingly, had very few citations — and that was quite unfortunate for its credibility because I thought much of it was extremely insightful.

  17. September 15, 2015 6:05 pm

    Hi Jim, that’s why I don’t try to prove anything from the non-testament. In the end, they believe it is inspired, and could just say, “well Pilate was just tired and didn’t want to kill anybody that day.” and that could be their explanation. “The Sanhedrin made an exception and did not follow any of the rules that they usually follow, and try to prove me I am wrong!” But for the sake of that website, the information that you provided was really useful for me.

    I remember when I was a “believer” and I found something that did not make sense in the non-testament. How many times the crow sang? How many people were at the thumb? If I could not find an explanation, I would go to seek “wisdom” from the expert, study bible, or whatever. There is always an explanation, “some will no die before they come and see the son of man in his glory”. That does not mean that some will still be alive, it means that some will see his transfiguration. There is no point to argue about those new testament historical inconsistencies, because in the head of a Christian, “There must be an explanation”.

    Sometime you can’t argue with someone who decided to remove his brain “Blessed are those who believe without seeing” (Believe even if it makes no sense, don’t look, don’t see, don’t try to find the truth, you have already found it, but don’t look further to see if it is true, because SATAN could tempt you, and you could blaspheme the holy spirit and be without mean of salvation, Sweet baby Jesus in his manger.)

    Mormons do the same, you can see it through, there is non-sense in the book of mormons, it does not fit with the bible, but whatever you say will not work, because they pray and god/jesus revealed it to them, the book of morons is true! Even christian try to show them that the bible and their book are clearly unmistakably contradictory, but they won’t dodge, Why? Because they are ask not to doubt and to believe (if not you will burn in hell). And for a strange reason, christian wont see what is so obvious either, even if they can easily see the contradiction of other religions.

    P.S. If Jesus is god, and G-d is all knowing, how could he have say “The hour I do not know, but my Father in heaven”. And if he is not G-d, then how could he have say “I am the alpha and the omega?”

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