Are the Gospels’ Portrayals of Pilate Credible as History?

In the four gospels of the New Testament, the Jews are portrayed as unrelenting enemies of Jesus, so determined to get rid of him that they maneuvered the Roman governor of Judaea, Pontius Pilate, into executing him, even though Pilate didn’t want to. The question I want to examine in this brief essay is the credibility of the gospel descriptions of Pilate.

The Character of Pontius Pilate

Pontius Pilate was the prefect (governor) of Judaea from 26 to 37 CE, the highest Roman authority in the province, and his word was law. Roman governors had two main responsibilities: to collect taxes and keep the peace. As long as they accomplished this, Rome didn’t care all that much how they did it.

Pilate had a reputation for being particularly violent, cruel, and capricious. In 40 CE, Philo of Alexandria wrote a long letter to Emperor Caligula in which he included a concise description of the prefect. (Pilate had been recalled four years earlier.) Pilate was once about to install a statue of Tiberius, Caligula’s predecessor, in Jerusalem, where statues were forbidden. The Jews threatened to send an embassy to Rome if he went ahead with his plan. The prefect feared that the Jews would expose “his 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 he agreed to keep the statue at his headquarters in Caesarea instead.[1]

 John Dominic Crossan suggests that Philo’s letter was “probably rhetorical overkill” but adds that Pilate was capable of doing these crimes of Philo’s accusation. Helen Bond, a Pilate scholar, concludes after careful evaluation that Philo’s “concrete allegations [of] venality, robbery and executions of prisoners without trial” are supportable. “It was possible to exaggerate, even to distort, Pilate’s character but the facts of the incident had to be reasonably accurate.”[2]

The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, writing toward the end of the first century, describes what happened when Pilate wanted to take Temple funds to build an aqueduct. “Many ten thousands” of Jews came out to protest. The prefect dressed up “a great number of his soldiers” in civilian clothes and sent them to mingle with the crowd. At his signal, they drew their daggers and slaughtered “a great number of them.”[3] As his biographer, Jean-Pierre Lémonon, describes him, Pilate was “lacking in political sense, clumsy with the Jews . . . insensitive to Jewish complaints, wanting tranquility and ready to resort to force to get it. . . .”[4]

 This portrait of Pilate matches the typical description of Roman governors in the first century.[5] Even so, Pilate’s cruelty finally became too much for Rome to tolerate. In 36/37 CE, Governor Vitellus of Syria, Pilate’s superior, ordered him recalled to Rome to face accusations that he had attacked and murdered a large group of Samaritans. It seems Pilate had claimed they were revolting against Rome, but the Samaritan senate insisted they were just trying to escape Pilate’s violence.[6]

The “Testimonium Flavianum” of Josephus

There is another passage in Josephus’s Antiquities of the Jews where he mentions Pilate, this time in connection with Jesus. So famous has this passage become that it is known as the Testimonium Flavianum (Testimony of Flavius) with no further need of identification. For at least four hundred years now, scholars have questioned whether this is passage is authentic or an interpolation–whether part or all of it was inserted by later copyists. The consensus now is that Josephus did write some of it, intending it to be one more example of how terrible a governor Pilate was.[7] Lémonon observes that Pilate’s actions must have been memorable indeed for Josephus to describe them in more detail than he does for any other governor.[8]

The Gospel Portrayals of Pilate

The Pilate of the four gospels is a very different character than the contemporary reports and Josephus. Even in Mark, the oldest of the gospels, Pilate is portrayed as a weak figure, easily manipulated by the priests, trying to save Jesus because “he realized it was out of jealousy that the chief priests had handed him over.”[9] But the crowd demands his death, so Pilate gives in. Matthew has Pilate wash his hands to show he is innocent of Jesus’s death, and then “the people as a whole answered, ‘His blood be on us and on our children!'”[10] Luke describes an elaborate maneuver in which Pilate tries to escape responsibility by sending Jesus to Herod Antipas, who sends him back. Pilate then tries again to save Jesus from the cross, but “the chief priests, the leaders, and the people” insist that Jesus had to die, and Pilate gives in to them. John takes it yet another step further: his Pilate tells the Jews to deal with Jesus themselves, but they tell Pilate they don’t have the authority to put anyone to death. After some further attempts to dissuade the Jews, John’s Pilate also gives in.

All four gospels have Pilate ask Jesus: “‘Are you the king of the Jews?’ And he answered him, ‘You say so.'”[11] Then, according to Luke and John, Pilate says he finds no crime in this man. But once General Pompey took over Judaea in 63 BCE on Rome’s behalf, Rome determined who would be in charge. To make a claim on one’s own to be king of the Jews was a challenge to Rome’s authority and Pilate would absolutely have found it a crime. The author of John appears aware of this difficulty, for he has Pilate and Jesus engage in a brief discussion of the meaning of kingship. Jesus in effect reassures Pilate by saying he means a different sort of kingdom.[12] But that too would be out of character for Pilate, who cared nothing for Jewish religious nuances or sensibilities.

Each of the gospels has a story about the crowds calling for Jesus’s death. First, they say that the priests were afraid to arrest Jesus openly because “there may be a riot among the people.”[13] Then they claim that, not twelve hours after Jesus’s arrest in secret, the priests somehow managed to turn the crowd against Jesus literally in the middle of the night. In Paula Fredriksen’s trenchant observation, “the crowd’s wholesale defection between nightfall and morning is completely unexplained in the gospels.”[14] Once again, the author of John seems to have recognized the contradiction. To resolve it, he had Pilate speak to “the Jews” instead, implying that they may be the same Jews who had brought Jesus before Pilate.[15]

According to all four gospels, Pilate then told the crowd that, in accordance with their custom of releasing one prisoner on the holiday, he would offer them a choice. He could release Jesus, or he could release Barabbas. The first problem with this story is that Pilate knew little and cared less about Jewish sensitivities and customs, and he was not one to let a crowd tell him what to do. “Brutal crowd control was [Pilate’s] specialty.”[16] In any case, there is no record of any such custom among the Jews (though Greeks sometimes did so).[17]

Barabbas had been arrested a day or two earlier on a charge of insurrection–rebellion against Rome. Luke  says that Barabbas had been put in prison for an insurrection (stasin) as well as murder. Mark claims Barabbas was among those who “had committed murder during the insurrection.” Matthew calls Barabbas a “notorious prisoner.” John calls Barabbas a lēstēs, which can mean robber or bandit, though here it has to mean insurrectionist.[18] There were two other lēstai crucified with Jesus, and Pilate never offered them to the crowd. In all events, Pilate was no more likely to release an insurrectionist than any other Roman governor would have been. His first priority, after all, was to prevent insurrections.

Conclusion

Historians give more weight to contemporary testimony unless there is some valid reason not to. Testimony also loses credibility to the degree that it is perceived to be biased in some way, or that runs counter to the general understanding of the times.

Neither Philo nor Josephus are without bias, but there was no reason for either of them to want to contradict the gospels’ description of Pilate. Philo died 30 years before the first gospels were written. Josephus wrote later, but he shows no particular awareness of the gospel perspective, nor does he display any animus toward Christians. In addition, the portrait of Pilate each of them paint is consistent with our knowledge of how Roman governors in that era often behaved.

 On the other hand, the evangelists had definite reasons to portray Pilate in the best possible light, given that they had to somehow get around the fact that Pilate had ordered Jesus crucified. They were trying to missionize to the Roman world, which viewed victims of crucifixion as despicable criminals who got what was coming to them. If the evangelists could show that the Jews had manipulated Pilate into doing something that he hadn’t wanted to do and tried to get out of doing, that would make Jesus an innocent victim of Jewish perfidy. Rome would be off the hook, Jews would get the blame, and Jesus would be hailed as the savior of the world. For these reasons, the gospels’ reports of Pilate’s behavior are not credible as history.


[1] Philo, Gaius §302; see generally §§299-305.

[2] Crossan (1995, 148). Bond (1998, 32, 37). See Lémonon (1981, 274).

[3] Josephus Antiquities, 18.61-62.

[4] Lémonon (1981, 274 [my translation]).

[5] See Carter (2003, 49-54).

[6] Josephus, Antiquities 18.85-89.

[7] See in particular Whealey (2003), also Inowlocki (2006); Olsen (2013); Evans (1994, 466-74).

[8] Lémonon (1981, 277).

[9] Mark 15:10.

[10] Matt. 27:24-25.

[11] Matt. 27:11; Mark 15:2; Luke 23:3; John 18:33.

[12] John 18:35-38.

[13] Matt. 26:5; Mark 14:2. These verses say that the priests didn’t want to arrest Jesus during the festival for fear of a riot, but then say he was arrested on the first evening of the Passover festival (Matt. 26:17; Mark 14:12).

[14] Fredriksen (2018, 62).

[15] John 18:31-40.

[16] Crossan (1995, 111).

[17] See Merritt (1985, 66); Bond (1998, 199).

[18] Luke 23:19. Mark 15:7. Matt. 27:16. John 18:40.

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