The Gospels give accounts of the sayings and doings of Pontius Pilate, the Governor of Judea, who condemned Jesus of Nazareth to death. His reason for doing so would have been swiftly to nip in the bud, the potential for a rebellious riot, in the powder-keg of a jam-packed Jerusalem at Passover Time. The Gospels, however, paint a picture of a weak man, initially indecisive but finally pressurised into condemning Jesus. He tells the Jews to “try him according to your own laws”, but their problem was that only he could order executions, so they insist that he does. We’re then told he said he saw no cause for such a sentence, and sought an escape route via a custom (historically unheard of) of freeing a prisoner. Pilate pleads with the crowd to choose Jesus but the screaming mob demands Jesus be crucified, and Pilate gives way, publicly washing his hands, while the Jews yell, “Let his blood be on us, and on our children!” This colourful and dramatic elaboration, however, of a quickly dealt with item on the Governor’s busy agenda for the day, is simply not believable, and has had appalling consequences.
What can we learn about Pilate from other sources? The 1st century Jewish historian Josephus tells how Pilate provoked the Jews by setting up, in Jerusalem, Roman standards bearing the Emperor’s image, and 6 days of rioting and violent suppression ensued. Later, he looted money from their Temple treasury, to fund the building of an aqueduct. When the inevitable riot began, Pilate ordered disguised soldiers with hidden weapons to infiltrate the crowd, ready for indiscriminate slaughter at his signal. Finally he massacred a gathering of Samaritans for the veneration of religious relics. He was ordered to give an account of himself to the Emperor in Rome, and that’s the last we here of him. He wasn’t a man to debate with anyone, nor to give in to any mob. He was an arrogant, contemptuous and brutal tyrant. Luke’s Gospel is believable, when it talks about “the Galileans whom Pilate killed while they were offering sacrifices to God”.
The 1st century Jewish philosopher, Philo, paints a similar picture. He describes Pilate as “by nature rigid and stubbornly harsh” and “of spiteful disposition and exceedingly wrathful“. He mentions “acts of violence, outrages, constant murders without trial, ceaseless and most grievous brutality.” And yet this is the man who supposedly entered into debate with, and gave way to, the Jewish leaders, and placated a yelling crowd! As the years passed, however, Pilate was increasingly portrayed as the pressurised ‘innocent’. By the 3rd century, the ‘church father’ Tertullian had more or less turned him into a Christian believer and, by the 6th century, the Egyptian Coptic church had made him a saint and martyr!
If then Pilate was ‘innocent’ of the death of Jesus, where did guilt lie? Here we leave behind harmless elaborations of stories, and encounter what is entirely harmful, and downright shameful.
The first Christians were a sub-set of the Jewish religion, until increasing numbers of non-Jews converted, and were not required to be circumcised or to observe the Jewish Law, apart from its ethical requirements. Christians increasingly became a distinct group, with the inevitable rise of antagonism, and eventual expulsion from Jewish synagogues. At the same time, Christians faced the threat of persecution from the Romans. Their refusal to worship the Emperor, and the state gods, brought the charge of atheism and sedition. They could survive opposition from the Jews, but opposition from the Empire was a different matter. It became vitally important that the Romans should understand that the Christians posed no threat.
This is why, as Christian writings progressively appeared, Pilate increasingly became the unwilling victim of malign pressure. Already by the time of Matthew’s Gospel around 80-85 CE, Pilate’s wife was half-way to becoming a believer, describing Jesus as, “that innocent man”, and we’ve seen how Pilate himself eventually was declared a Christian saint. If Christians and Romans were really on the same side, and innocent of the death of Jesus, where did responsibility lie? This is what was made clear in that terrible statement put into the mouths of the Jewish crowd, “Let his blood be on us, and on our children!”
This has been a major contribution to the shameful history of anti-semitism. The Jews were held to be solely responsible for the death of Jesus and, since Christians declared him to be God in the flesh, they were killers of God. This was said to be the reason why Jerusalem and its Temple were razed to the ground in 70 CE. It was supposedly God’s punishment, and it provided a convenient excuse for the centuries of ongoing persecution that culminated in the holocaust.
Religious belief can be a source of great good in individuals and great benefits in the world, but can also be a source of great harm in individuals and great evil in the world. ‘Sacred books’ must finally stop being regarded as unquestionably historical and authoritatively determinative. They must be continually and open-mindedly reassessed, and all dubious and harmful content needs to be both acknowledged and repudiated, and the sooner the better.