I recently was asked in a comment what kind of independent information do we have, outside the Gospels, for Pontius Pilate? Answer: not much. I told the commenter that I thought I had once written about the matter, and lo and behold, I was right. It was in my book Did Jesus Exist?
The book was written to show why — contrary to what you sometimes hear these days — there doesn’t seem to be any reason to doubt that, whatever else you might think of him, there was a man Jesus of Nazareth (a Jewish teacher from Galilee who was crucified on orders of Pontius Pilate — and about whom we can say a good deal more.
This is not an issue I want to re-address here again on the blog. But I do want to show why it’s not weird that Jesus isn’t talked about much in ancient sources. Here’s what I said about it in my book (slightly edited for the sake of the blog):
I have often pointed out that there is no Greek or Roman author from the first century who mentions Jesus. It would be very convenient for us if they did, but alas, they do not. At the same time, the fact is, again, a bit irrelevant, since these same sources do not mention many millions of people who actually did, in fact, live. Jesus stands here with the vast majority of living, breathing human beings of earlier ages.
Moreover, it is an error to argue, as it sometimes is, that anyone as spectacular as Jesus allegedly was, who did so many miracles and fantastic deeds, would have certainly been discussed, or at least mentioned, in pagan sources if he really did exist. Surely anyone who could heal the sick, cast out demons, walk on the water, feed the multitudes with only a few loaves, and raise the dead would be talked about!
The reason this line of reasoning is in error is that we are not asking whether Jesus really did miracles and if so, why they (and he) are not mentioned by pagan sources. We are asking whether Jesus of Nazareth actually existed. Only after establishing that he did exist can we go on then to ask if he did miracles. If we decide that he did, only then can we revisit the question of why no one, in that case, mentions him. But we may also decide that the historical Jesus was not a miraculous being but a purely human being. In that case there would be no more surprise that Roman sources never mention him than that these same sources never mention any of his uncles, aunts, cousins, nieces or nephews – or in fact nearly any other Jew of his day.
In that connection, I should reiterate that it is a complete “myth” that Romans kept detailed records of everything and that as a result we are inordinately well informed about the world of Roman Palestine and should expect then to hear about Jesus if he really lived. If Romans kept such records, where are they? We certainly don’t have any. Think of everything we do not know about the reign of Pontius Pilate as governor of Judea. We know from the Jewish historian Josephus that Pilate ruled for ten years, between 26 and 36 CE. It would be easy to argue that he was the single most important figure for Roman Palestine for the entire length of his rule. And what records from that decade do we have from his reign, what Roman records of his major accomplishments, his daily itinerary, the decrees he passed, the laws he issued, the prisoners he put on trial, the death warrants he signed, his scandals, his interviews, his judicial proceedings? We have none. Nothing at all.
I might press the issue further. What archaeological evidence do we have about Pilate’s rule in Palestine? We have some coins that were issued during his reign (one would not expect coins about Jesus, since he didn’t issue any), and one – only one — single fragmentary inscription discovered Caesarea Maritima in 1961 that indicates that he was the Roman prefect. Nothing else. And what writings do we have from him? Not a single word. Does that mean he didn’t exist? No, he is mentioned in several passages in Josephus, and in the writings of the Alexandrian Jewish philosopher Philo, and in the Gospels. He certainly existed, even though, like Jesus, we have no records from his day or writings from his hand. And what is striking is that we have far more information about Pilate than about any other governor of Judea in Roman times. And so, it is a modern “myth” to say that we have extensive Roman records from antiquity that surely would have mentioned someone like Jesus, had he existed.
It is also worth pointing out that Pilate is mentioned only in passing in the writing of the one Roman historian who mentions him, Tacitus. Moreover, that happens to be in a passage that also refers to Jesus (Annals 15). If a highly important Roman aristocratic ruler of a major province is not mentioned any more than that in the writings of any Greek or Roman, what would be the chances that a lower-class Jewish teacher (which Jesus must have been, as everyone who thinks he lived agrees) would ever be mentioned in them? Almost none.
I might add that our principal source of knowledge about Jewish Palestine in the days of Jesus comes from this historian I have mentioned, Josephus, who was a prominent, highly placed aristocratic Jew who was quite influential in the social and political affairs of his day. And how often is Josephus mentioned in Greek and Roman sources of his own day, the first century CE? Never.
Think of an analogy. If a historian sixty years from now were to write up a history of the American South in, say, the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, is he likely to mention Zlatko Plese? (Zlatko is my brilliant colleague who teaches courses in ancient philosophy, Gnosticism, varieties of early Christianity, and sundry other subjects.) Almost certainly not. What does that prove? Technically speaking, it proves nothing. But it does suggest either that Zlatko never existed or that he did not make a huge impact on the political, social, or cultural life of the South. As it turns out, Zlatko does exist (I bought him dinner last night.). So if he is not mentioned in a future history of the South, it would no doubt be because he did not make a big impact on the South. To show he existed, one would have to look at other evidence (for example, library copies of the two books he has written. Unlike Jesus, Zlatko can write. And unlike the first century, we have the mass production and distribution of books, and libraries to house them in.)
So too with Jesus. If he is not mentioned much, it has little relevance to the question of his existence. It could just as well be because his impact was not significant enough, just as was true of the overwhelming mass of people who lived in the Roman empire of the first century. Many Christians do not want to hear that Jesus did not make an enormous splash on the world of his day, but it appears to be true. Does that mean he did not exist? No, it means that to establish his existence, we need to look to other kinds of evidence.