The record of Pontius Pilate

Is the record of Pontius Pilate properly understood and appreciated?

The common story of Pilate that most people know is that he was the Roman governor of Judea during the time of Jesus's ministry and crucifixion, and according to the bible was a disinterested civil servant disinclined towards involvement in local religious affairs, yet relents to the mob and has Jesus executed rather than face a first century version of the LA Riots ('No Barabbas, No Peace!'). So he washes his hands and blames the mob and then sends the servants of the state to brutalize and execute Jesus, and thenceforth Pilate is never to be heard from again.

Kieran Healy gives a different view of the Roman governor with the bad luck to be involved in the founding event of a great world religion:

I?m surprised that commentators have yet to discuss the foreign policy lessons to be learned from Pilate and his occupying Roman legions. As I?ve said before, for all his failings Pilate was at least attempting to bring a tradition of republicanism in politics, pluralistic tolerance of religion in civic life, and heavy investment in public infrastructure to a priest-ridden, monotheistic, intolerant Middle-Eastern troublespot. History might remember him better had he not had the massive bad luck to run up against a blowback problem the size of the Son of God during his governorship.

Being somewhat of an armchair classical historian (even that may be saying too much), my initial reaction was "hear, hear" to Kieran- lets get the rest of the history out. So I looked through the Wikipedia entry and searched Google for other sources, and I was surprised to find that not much is known about Pilate.

The historical brief is that Pilate was probably from the Equestrian class (a low rank of nobility in the Roman system, one could say) who had some connections with the military government in Rome (Sejanus acting in Tiberius' stead) and so wrangled the Judean governorship. He is described by Philo as being "inflexible, merciless, and obstinate", and while there he lived up to that description by continuously tweaking the sensibilities of the 1st Century Jews, who were notorious for taking hysterical offense at often the slightest provocation (at least, from a Roman point of view. I'm sure the Jews at the time had a different opinion...)

However merciless and obstinate Pilate was, though, he seemed to be particularly concerned with his PR back in Rome- so much so that his record includes a number of climbdowns from his positions when the Jews whom he was baiting called his bluff and said "go ahead and kill us"- since such a mass killing would definitely be noted with disdain back in Rome, which hated unrest and disorder of any kind in its provinces.

The record is unclear on precisely when Jesus was crucified in relation to Pilate's term as governor; whether it happened in the beginning or middle. But the political context of the crucifixion for Pilate would seem to be clearer- he'd already had a number of brushes with the excitable Jews, which didn't look good on his record. He didn't like them and probably enjoyed doing what he could to annoy them, and so I find it believable that in the case of Jesus he'd like to annoy the Jews by turning down their request, which would be a reason for why he bounced the matter back to Herod and the Sanhedrin as much as possible. When threatened with Yet Another Riot, however, his political calculation told him to go along with it, lest yet another black mark be put on his record.

He must have been a relatively competent governor, despite his hobby of annoying the Jews and occasionally beating large groups of them senseless, as his term lasted 10 years, apparently a long time for a Roman provincial governor. On the other hand, it could have been that the governorship of Judea was a hardship post that nobody wanted (who could blame them) and so nobody else wanted Pilate's job.

His reign ended in a public relations disaster, by overreacting to news of a Samaritan uprising:

An imposter had given out that it was in his power to discover the sacred vessels which, as he alleged, had been hidden by Moses on Mount Gerizim, whither armed Samaritans came in large numbers. Pilate seems to have thought the whole affair was a blind, covering some other more important design, for he hurried forces to attack them, and many were slain. They appealed to Vitellius, who was at that time legate in Syria, saying that nothing political had been intended, and complaining of Pilate's whole administration. He was summoned to Rome to answer their charges, but before he could reach the city the Emperor Tiberius had died.

A modern day equivalent would be if Donald Rumsfeld, upon hearing that thousands of armed men were massing in the Virginia countryside, sent an Army battalion to wipe out civil war re-enactors.

In any case, what I was able to find doesn't seem to jive with Kieran's description of Pilate's record:

  • Pilate wasn't installing republican forms of government. When Pilate was installed as Governor, Rome was at its 2nd Emperor (Tiberius), with the Republic having fallen decades before with the First Triumvirate, the rise & fall of Julius Caesar, the Second Triumvirate, and the ensuing civil war between Octavian (Augustus) and Marcus Antonius. Pilate was there with the New Order- "Do as the Emperor says or Die."
  • Pilate didn't tolerate or respect Judaism in public life, nor did he try to convince the Jews to 'tolerate' paganism; he simply brought in pagan banners and shields and essentially flipped off the Jews until they threatened mass suicide to get him to back off.
  • The only instance listed of Pilate and public infrastructure was when he expropriated funds from the Temple to pay for an aqueduct bringing water into Jerusalem. Whether he built the aqueduct or someone else did is not noted, although Romans were compulsive road builders and civil engineers, so that bit can probably slide.

So I'm not sure that he can be seen as much of a positive example of nation-building, or even as a sensitive or enlightened ruler of a conquered people. Perhaps, though, he can be used as an example of what not to do by Bremer et al. who are similarly tasked with rebuilding a conquered foe...

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Philo and Josephus were

Philo and Josephus were probably pretty much on the mark about Pilate. Luke Christianized him (or stoicized, maybe?) a great deal, for literary purposes.