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Did Pilate “Learn His Lesson”?

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 humilities 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 holy 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.

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Pilate the Intransigent
Did Pontius Pilate Respect Jewish Sensitivities?

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    doug  July 18, 2014

    To suggest that Pilate allowed Jesus’ body to be taken down early was done to appease the Jews assumes that many Jews even knew who Jesus was or cared what happened to him. If the Sanhedrin turned Jesus over to Pilate, this suggests that some of the leading Jews did not like Jesus and, perhaps, wanted Pilate to make an example of him. Although Jesus is famous today, there may not have been many Jews who knew who he was during his lifetime or who would have recognized him if they saw him on a cross.

  2. Avatar
    Joseph  July 18, 2014

    Dr. Ehrman
    I’m a big fan and recently joined CIA. I’m currently reading your book “Peter, Paul, and Mary” and I’m curious what you think in regards to the “independent attestation” (a method of gathering historical evidence) of Mary Magdalene going to Jesus’ “tomb” in Mark, John, and the non-canonical gospel of Peter, if other historical evidence leads us to think it more probable that Jesus was left on the cross for scavengers?

    I realize I’m not a professional, but it seems in this case the abundance of evidence in support of Jesus being left on the cross outweighs the independent attestation of Mary going to the tomb.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 19, 2014

      Yes, good point. Independent attestation shows that a tradition is earlier than the earliest source that attests it — in this case Mark, from around 70 CE. I don’t think that trumps the problems with the burial tradition in this case.

  3. Avatar
    fishician  July 18, 2014

    Even if Pilate was sensitive to concerns of the Jews – isn’t that all the more reason for him to leave this heretic Jesus on the cross?! If we wanted to maintain order among the Jews and show some respect to their leaders, wouldn’t he want to make an example of this heretic Jesus? Why would he release the body to someone, as if this heretic deserved some respect? I don’t see Craig’s point at all. It’s not like Jesus was a respected member of the Jewish community!

  4. Avatar
    John123  July 18, 2014

    Two questions:

    1) You said that Josephus “doesn’t tell us” why Pilate realized that he could not possibly slaughter so many people. I am confused. It looks like Josephus DOES tell us. Josephus says Pilate backed down because he was “surprised at their prodigious superstition” (other translations render it as, “astonished at the strength of their devotion to the laws” or “deeply affected with their firm resolution to keep their laws inviolable”). Why do say that Josephus “doesn’t tell us” why Pilate realized that he could not possibly slaughter so many people when he does tell us?

    2) Assuming there was more to Pilate’s reaction than just being affected on a personal level by the Jews devotion to their traditions, you speculate that Pilate backed down because he thought if he slaughtered all the Jewish leaders, his bosses in Rome would end his governorship. However, if we are just going to speculate, isn’t it just as likely that Pilate backed down because he thought he might have a full scale riot on his hands by the rest of the Jewish population after he slaughtered the Jewish leaders?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 19, 2014

      1. Josephus tells us why he was surprised, not why he backed down.
      2. I don’t think your speculation is as plausible. If all the leaders were slaughtered, who is going to lead this rebellion?

      • gmatthews
        gmatthews  July 19, 2014

        I think John123’s speculation is actually plausible re: the population rioting if all the leaders are killed. There are leaders and then there are leaders. If America were taken over by some foreign power and they rounded up all the “leaders” (local politicians, religious leaders, large benevolent employers or land owners, etc.) and slaughtered them I’m willing to bet there would be people willing to lead an uprising. This theme plays out in movies and popular fiction quite a bit.

  5. Avatar
    Scott F  July 18, 2014

    Your treatment of this is quite extraordinary. Every time a question arises in my mind, you address in the next post. Well done and thank you

  6. Avatar
    Hana1080  July 18, 2014

    What do you have to say about Matthew 27:23-24 of Pilate washing his hands? Some Biblical text describe him as proclaiming the innocence of Christ. IF this passage is true, then wouldn’t Pilate be shown to have sensitivity?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 19, 2014

      Yes, Matthew wants to portray Pilate as innocent, and the Jews as guilty (not just the Jewish leaders: the “entire crowd” calls out for Jesus’ blood in Matthew). But I think this is a later legendary accretion, that it’s not a historical event. (That’s a very common view among critical scholars.)

      • Avatar
        Hana1080  July 19, 2014

        Thank you. This is a lot to take in Dr. Ehrman but I’m game.

  7. Avatar
    whicks1  July 18, 2014

    Do you see any parallels between Pilate’s actions and Antiochus IV bringing in the “forbidden” things into the temple? It strikes me that Rome and other previous rulers were constantly pushing for “modernization” (see temple architecture) and pushing the locales to see how much they would accept innovation/change (just like we do in America today with other countries) and many locales just wouldn’t have it. Thus we overturn tables, or offer to be nixed.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 19, 2014

      Interesting point! I guess I would say that Pilate was no where near as aggressive about it as Antiochus was.

  8. Avatar
    shakespeare66  July 18, 2014

    Don’t you think that the mere insignificance of his death is another strong indication of the reality of being left on the cross? How significant was the death of Jesus historically? Not much so according to Josephus, so why would any privilege be afforded Christ?

  9. Avatar
    zadojla  July 18, 2014

    The accounts of Pilate mention not only his brutality, but also his corruption. Joseph of Arimathea was apparently successful. Although there is no textual support for it, those who prefer Jesus received a decent burial could imagine that Joseph simply paid a bribe for Jesus’ body.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 19, 2014

      I don’t recall evidence of Pilate’s corruption/taking of bribes. What are you thinking of?

  10. Avatar
    Wilusa  July 19, 2014

    First of all…I don’t seriously doubt all the bad things said about Pilate. I assume he was a brutal Prefect. But I’m wondering…is Josephus the only source for this? If so, it’s *possible* that he had some reason for distorting the facts. Just as the early Christians had biases that make them less than fully reliable in chronicling the life of Jesus.

    But, as I said, I personally assume Pilate *was* as brutal as you say. I still think he might have paid very little attention to what was going on with Jesus. Because Jesus was so *unimportant* (he may have had a following in Galilee, but it’s unlikely anyone in Jerusalem had ever heard of him). *And* because it was an unusual situation, with Pilate presumably thinking about “wrapping up loose ends” in Jerusalem and heading back to Caesarea.

    BTW, what’s with that quote about Pilate’s having the military’s “winter quarters” in Jerusalem? I’m sure you’ve told us Roman soldiers were only there during Passover Weeks. Was Josephus wrong, or did Piiate change his mind after one early shot at stationing them in Jerusalem?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 19, 2014

      See today’s post. The three sources are the Christian Gospels (as a group), Josephus, and Philo.

  11. Avatar
    Wilusa  July 19, 2014

    A further thought…I keep seeing mentions of a heel bone with a crucifixion nail in it – or something like that – having been found in an ossuary. Supposedly proving that at least on one occasion, a crucified person’s remains had been dealt with in a dignified way. Did Craig Evans mention that? Are you going to discuss it?

  12. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  July 19, 2014

    I have read that Josephus was not a reliable historian. As you discuss Josephus in future posts, could you deal with the issue of his historical reliability?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 19, 2014

      I should do that! Like all historians, he had his biases, and these affected his presentations….

  13. Avatar
    Wilusa  July 19, 2014

    And as I’ve said before, I’m not imagining Pilate having to make an exception at all. I’m thinking what would have happened is that an underling at the execution site would have accepted a modest bribe, knowing Pilate had ceased paying attention and had, in effect, “one foot out the door.”

    BTW, i’ve bookmarked the Members Landing Page. But the last I checked, someone’s entering your website via its obvious “front page” still couldn’t wind up there.

  14. Avatar
    John123  July 19, 2014

    Two questions:

    1) How do you conclude from the Antiquities 18.3.1 passage that Josephus is only telling us why Pilate was surprised, not why he backed down? Here is the applicable part of the passage (from earlyjewishwritings website):

    “But they threw themselves upon the ground, and laid their necks bare, and said they would take their death very willingly, rather than the wisdom of their laws should be transgressed; upon which Pilate was deeply affected with their firm resolution to keep their laws inviolable, and presently commanded the images to be carried back from Jerusalem to Cesarea.”

    The passage seems pretty clear to me. Pilate backed down because he was “deeply affected with their firm resolution to keep their laws inviolable.” How do you conclude from this passage that Josephus is only telling us why Pilate was surprised, not why he backed down?

    2) Assuming there was more to Pilate’s reaction than just being affected on a personal level by the Jews devotion to their traditions, you speculate that Pilate backed down because he thought if he slaughtered all the Jewish leaders, his bosses in Rome would end his governorship. You see this as more plausible than Pilate backing down due to concern of a possible riot by the rest of the Jewish population because in your mind there would be nobody “to lead this rebellion”. This seems a very strange objection. Since when are leaders of a spontaneous riot necessary?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 21, 2014

      I may answer your first question on the blog itself. As to the second, the *reason* he wouldn’t want a spontaneous riot is that it would show that he could not keep the peace. Once again it’s an issue of job security.

      • Avatar
        John123  July 21, 2014

        Okay, let’s do this your way. As you say, the primary motivation for Pilate backing down in the shields incident was fear of a spontaneous riot, which would show that Pilate could not keep the peace, which would threaten his job security. In short, it was all about job security.

        If that was Pilate’s primary motivation in this incident, then we should be able to say that, for the exact same motivation, Pilate would have backed down and allowed Jesus to be removed from the cross in deference to Jewish burial laws during the largest Jewish festival of the year due to fear of a spontaneous riot, which would have shown that Pilate could not keep the peace, which would have threatened his job security. In short, it was all about job security.

        How can you give your explanation for the shields incident, but not accept the explanation above in the case of Jesus?

        BTW, even if the aqueduct incident involved Pilate’s men actually setting foot in the Temple, there is a very good explanation why Pilate would be willing to violate a sacred Jewish law and risk a riot in that case — his bosses would not object to a large skirmish if that is what it took to PAY for the aqueduct, so Pilate’s job would not have been at risk at all. The aqueduct incident is an orange, the shields incident and the question of whether Jesus would have been allowed off the cross are apples.

  15. Avatar
    mister.friendly  July 19, 2014

    I seem to remember that one of the points the mythologists put forward is that Jesus is so infrequently mentioned outside of the gospels that is doubtful that he even existed. You made the point in response to that argument that that was not surprising and that even a figure as important as Pontius Pilate is hardly mentioned anywhere. If that is true aren’t you and/or Craig basing your arguments on very little evidence?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 21, 2014

      No, my point is a bit more specific than that. The Mythicists point out that Jesus is not mentioned in any Greek or Roman (i.e. pagan) source of the first century, and my response was that Pilate is not either. He *is* mentioned in two Jewish sources: Philo and Josephus, however. (Jesus too is mentioned in Josephus)

  16. Avatar
    John123  July 20, 2014

    Here’s another way to put my question #1 above:

    If Josephus is not telling us why Pilate backed down (as you say), then why in your mind does Josephus even bother to mention that Pilate was surprised at the strength of the Jews devotion to their laws? Did Josephus just want to color his narrative in with a little emotion even though it did not affect the decision of Pilate that Josephus narrates immediately after? I see no reason for Josephus to mention this affect on Pilate unless it was germane to Pilates decision to back down. Why else would Josephus add this otherwise irrelevant detail?

  17. Avatar
    John123  July 22, 2014

    Bart,

    I think you might have missed my question above.

    As you say, the primary motivation for Pilate backing down in the shields incident was fear of a spontaneous riot, which would show that Pilate could not keep the peace, which would threaten his job security. In short, it was all about job security.

    If that was Pilate’s primary motivation in this incident, then we should be able to say that, for the exact same motivation, Pilate would have backed down and allowed Jesus to be removed from the cross in deference to Jewish burial laws during the largest Jewish festival of the year due to fear of a spontaneous riot, which would have shown that Pilate could not keep the peace, which would have threatened his job security. In short, it was all about job security.

    How can you give your explanation for the shields incident, but not accept the explanation above in the case of Jesus?

    As an aside, there seems a very good explanation for why Pilate would be willing to violate a sacred Jewish law and risk a riot in the case of the aqueduct incident — his bosses would not object to a large skirmish if that is what it took to PAY for the aqueduct (i.e. big money is involved), so Pilate’s job would not seem to be at risk.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 23, 2014

      I think they are two completely different cases. Pilate didn’t make an exception in the case of Jesus, in my view. Leaving Jesus on the cross was what Romans ALWAYS did to enemies of the state (not, possibly robbers and lowlifes). This was not a violation of Jewish law. What would have been a violation of Jewish law would be if Jews executed Jesus and did not allow him burial that day.

      • Avatar
        John123  July 23, 2014

        I haven’t heard that before. Is there wide agreement among scholars that it would NOT have been a violation of Jewish law to leave Jesus on the cross overnight because of the technicality that it was the Romans, not the Jews, who crucified Jesus? If so, then in your mind would the Jews have even cared at all how long Jesus was left on the cross before the Romans buried him?

        And a third question: Do you agree that the shields incident (Antiquities 18.3.1) shows that Pilate sometimes backed down from offending Jewish religious beliefs when he thought there was a risk of a spontaneous riot by the Jews?

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  July 24, 2014

          I’ve never heard scholars talk about it one way or the other, that I recall.

          • Avatar
            John123  July 24, 2014

            Can you please answer my other two questions:

            1) If it would NOT have been a violation of Jewish law to leave Jesus on the cross overnight because of the technicality that it was the Romans, not the Jews, who crucified Jesus (as you say), then in your mind would the Jews have even cared at all how long Jesus was left on the cross before the Romans buried him?

            2) Do you agree that the shields incident (Antiquities 18.3.1) shows that Pilate sometimes backed down from offending Jewish religious beliefs when he thought there was a risk of a spontaneous riot by the Jews?

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  July 26, 2014

            1. Yes, Jews would have been offended by someone being left on a cross. Just as they would have been offended by someone other than themselves ruling the promised land. Romans, on the other hand, didn’t give a damn.

            2.. No, Pilate did not back down because of the risk of a spontanious riot. The account is quite explicit and unambiguous. He backed down only when the emperor told him to do so.

  18. Avatar
    John123  July 26, 2014

    How do you conclude that the emperor told Pilate to back down in the shields incident? Antiquities 18.3.1 says nothing about that that I can tell. It says, “Pilate was deeply affected with their firm resolution to keep their laws inviolable, and presently commanded the images to be carried back from Jerusalem to Cesarea.” One can read behind this that Pilate was concerned about a riot, but I do not see how you can read behind this that the emperor told Pilate to back down. How do you reach this conclusion?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 27, 2014

      Are we reading the same text? The shields passage comes from Philo. Here is what he says: (303) Therefore, being exceedingly angry, and being at all times a man of most ferocious passions, he was in great perplexity, neither venturing to take down what he had once set up, nor wishing to do anything which could be acceptable to his subjects, and at the same time being sufficiently acquainted with the firmness of Tiberius on these points. And those who were in power in our nation, seeing this, and perceiving that he was inclined to change his mind as to what he had done, but that he was not willing to be thought to do so, wrote a most supplicatory letter to Tiberius. (304) And he, when he had read it, what did he say of Pilate, and what threats did he utter against him! But it is beside our purpose at present to relate to you how very angry he was, although he was not very liable to sudden anger; since the facts speak for themselves; (305) for immediately, without putting any thing off till the next day, he wrote a letter, reproaching and reviling him in the most bitter manner for his act of unprecedented audacity and wickedness, and commanding him immediately to take down the shields and to convey them away from the metropolis of Judaea to Caesarea.

      • Avatar
        John123  July 27, 2014

        No, we are not on the same pasage. Sorry, I thought you had referred to the Antiquities 18.3.1. passage as the “shields” incident at one point. To be clear, I am referring to the Antiquities 18.3.1. passage, the one where Pilate brought blasphemous images into Jerusalem at night.

        You suggested that the primary motivation for Pilate backing down in this case was fear of a spontaneous riot, which would show that Pilate could not keep the peace, which would threaten his job security. In short, it was all about job security. I agree that this could lie behind the phrase ‘Pilate was deeply affected with their firm resolution to keep their laws inviolable, and presently commanded the images to be carried back from Jerusalem to Cesarea” (although as written, it seems to suggest that Pilate had a soft side).

        The questions I had for you are as follows:

        1) Do you agree that this passage is good evidence that Pilate sometimes backed down from offending Jewish religious laws when he thought there was a risk of a spontaneous riot by the Jews?

        2) I know you do not thnk any Jewish burial laws were at stake in the case of Jesus (because of the technicality that it was the Romans, not the Jews, who crucified Jesus), but if you were to find out you were wrong on this point and that in fact Jewish burial laws were at stake in the case of Jesus, whould that change your mind about the possiblity that Pilate let Jesus off the cross to be buried before sunset on Friday?

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  July 28, 2014

          No, I think our wires are crossed again. There *was* an uprising about the standards. And Pilate was not impressed or moved. He ordered his soliders to slaughter the protesters, rather than back down himself. When he say they were willing to be slaughtered in cold blood, only *then* did he back off. My argument was that he did so because if he had slaughtered the aristocrats and elite of the locality over which he was to be ruling, he would have in effected committed professional suicide.

  19. Avatar
    Casey  September 25, 2014

    New reader/poster here, but I have several of your books, Dr. Ehrrman.

    Interesting thoughts. And I agree Pilate was most likely quite brutal. But was not Pilate a very intelligent man, too? Would not killing a significant number of taxpayers over a triviality of banners be viewed negatively by Rome?
    I’ve always thought Rome far more interested in peaceful taxpayers than in citizens in turmoil over local customs.

    • Bart
      Bart  September 25, 2014

      Yes, that’s probably why he chose not to have them all killed.

  20. Avatar
    Kazibwe Edris  January 13, 2016

    respected doctor ehrman

    we read in one of the synoptics that jesus gave the disciples permission to purchase swords (knives?)
    if angry pontius pilate had found out that on jesus’ command disciples purchased swords ,would that have lead to immediate execution due to the fact that jesus would have been seen as danger to safety of others? we know that luke tries to say “prophecy” but pilate would surely have not seen “prophecy” right?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 13, 2016

      Yes, I talk about that in my new book, due out in March. I agree: it seems like a non-historical detail.

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