I think there is almost no historical figure that Craig and I disagree on more than the Roman governor of Judea at the time of Jesus’ death, Pontius Pilate.   I see him as a cruel, vicious, hard-headed, insensitive, and brutal ruler; Craig portrays him as an efficient but wise and rather sensitive aristocrat who could learn from his lessons and who would go out of his way not to offend Jewish sensibilities.  A lot hangs on which view (if either) is right, since it was Pilate – we agree on this! – who ordered Jesus’ crucifixion.  Moreover, if Jesus was given a decent burial (Craig’s view) or was left to hang on the cross for some time in accordance with standard Roman practice (my view), it was, in either case, Pilate’s decision.

Craig’s view is that Pilate’s sensitive decision not to allow crucified victims to hang on their crosses after their deaths is what allowed him to keep “the nation at peace” (the phrase comes from the Jewish historian Josephus, whom I will be dealing with in later posts).  My view is that the reason the nation was kept “at peace” was precisely because governors like Pilate showed with graphic brutality what would happen to anyone who revolted or threatened to revolt; crucifixion and the humiliations suffered post mortem were an effective deterrent for revolt, for most of the Roman period.

But what kind of person was Pilate?  Craig refers to a passage in Josephus, Book 18 of the Antiquities, where Pilate, on assuming rule of Judea, brought Roman standards bearing an image of the emperor into Jerusalem, thereby offending the Jews who were resident there, who maintained that since city was holy to God, there were to be no “images” there.  According to Craig’s discussion, the Jews protested, Pilate realized he had made a mistake and backed down, and that was the end of the story.  Craig emphasizes that this account shows that previous governors had not brought standards into town – showing their basic sensitivities to Jewish customs and laws – and that once Pilate saw that he had made an error he “quickly” (his word) gave way.

As Craig summarizes the event:  “Pilate either did not understand Jewish law and custom and so acted in ignorance, or he did, thinking he could force on his Jewish subjects his allegiance to the emperor.  In either case, he quickly learned how loyal the Jews were to their law and wisely backed down.”

For Craig, this “wise” decision affected the rest of Pilate’s rule in Judea.  Jewish customs were not to be breached.  And so, Craig “find[s] it hard to believe,” that once Pilate learned his lesson about Jewish determination to follow their customs, that he would later allow crucified criminals to remain on their crosses in violation of Jewish sensibilities.

I have a very different read of Pilate in general, of this incident of the standards in particular, and of its effect on Pilate’s behavior subsequently.   First I’ll talk about this incident.

Unlock 4,000+ Articles Like This!

Get access to Dr. Ehrman's library of 4,000+ articles plus five new articles per week about the New Testament and early Christianity. It costs as little as $2.99/mth and every cent goes to charity!

Learn More!