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Pilate, Who Never “Learned His Lesson”

This is the second of my two posts  from over three years ago that try to show that Pilate almost certainly would not have removed Jesus’ body from the cross on the afternoon of his death simply because not to do so would have been in violation of Jewish sensitivities.   (NOTE: Pilate is not said to have done so for the other two who were crucified with Jesus. Are we to think he made an exception in Jesus’ case, since, after all, he was far more important?)

To make the best sense of this post it is important to keep in mind what I said in the previous one.

In his response to my views of in How Jesus Became God – that Jesus most likely was not given a decent burial on the day of his crucifixion by Joseph of Arimathea – Craig Evans has maintained, among other things, that Pilate was not the kind of governor who would ignore Jewish sensitivities.   For Craig, Pilate started his rule by making a big mistake of bringing into Jerusalem the Roman standards that bore on them the image of the emperor.  But once he realized that the Jewish populace was offended, he backed down and from then on he showed that he had learned his lesson.  For that reason, Craig finds it “hard to believe” that at a later time Pilate would do something so opposed to Jewish custom as allow a body unburied on the day of a person’s death.

This view strikes me as extremely problematic, for several reasons.   To start with, it flies in the face of…

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Was Jesus Given Special Treatment?
Pontius Pilate: A Sensitive Guy….



  1. Avatar
    anthonygale  January 22, 2018

    If Josephus is correct in that Jews were allowed to take down crucified victims, I think Pilate’s character becomes much less of an issue regarding the matter. He was the fifth prefect of Judea, meaning that if there was a tradition of allowing Jews to remove bodies, it most likely would have began before Pilate’s time. If there had been no precedent and someone asked Pilate to make an exception, I agree he almost certainly would have said no. But if his four predecessors allowed it to occur, is it likely he would have gone out of his way to change it?

    There still lies the issue of whether any Roman official would have allowed the exception. Jews were granted other exceptions. Josephus said it happened. All four gospels say Jesus was buried. So does Paul. And if it was common knowledge that crucified victims weren’t allowed to be removed, how could Josephus (or Paul and the evangelists) write that it occurred and expect to have been seen as credible? Why create a story about an empty tomb if people would have known there wouldn’t be one?

    It seems like the story of Jesus’ burial has problems with historical context but does well with multiple attestation and perhaps with dissimilarity.

    • Avatar
      Wilusa  January 23, 2018

      Just want to point out that the Gospel authors, and Paul, were writing for early Christians outside of Palestine. I doubt their readers would have been familiar with Jewish burial customs.

  2. Avatar
    Wilusa  January 22, 2018

    I certainly don’t think Pilate was concerned about “not offending” local Jews.

    But I can’t help thinking it’s possible that he just didn’t give a hoot about what happened to a “nobody” like Jesus! As I imagine it, he’d never *heard of* Jesus until that day. Maybe he was legally required to interview him. But then it’s possible he just signed a crucifixion order, and immediately forgot about the whole thing. *Assuming* Jesus’s body was going to be left to rot on the cross, yes, but not caring enough to make sure of it. He may even have headed back to Caesarea, or “had one foot out the door,” by the time someone bribed a guard to let him have the body.

    And *if* that happened, of course, I’m assuming there was a natural explanation for Jesus’s body possibly having “disappeared from a tomb.” My preferred explanation being that Joseph of Arimathea had never intended to leave it there permanently – just wanted to put it in a safe place before sundown, and later had it moved elsewhere.

  3. Avatar
    Steefen  January 22, 2018


    I would like to hear your case that Pilate did find fault with him [Jesus]. For, if he found no fault in him, Pilate could at least not let a dead man hang on the cross so long. Just as General Titus let Josephus take down three men from the cross, Pilate could let Jesus be taken down from the cross.

    = = =

    “Ebionim was one of the terms used by the sect at Qumran that sought to separate themselves from the corruption of the Temple.” That sect may have been the Essenes. Anyway, Jesus seems to have acted against the corruption of the Temple. In any of your books, have you written a definitive description of Temple corruption? What are some of the best books are books with chapters on Temple corruption? Apparently, the corruption went beyond money changers. Have you done a thread here on the topic?

    Thank you.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 23, 2018

      If Pilate found no fault in him he wouldn’t have tortured him to death.

      • Avatar
        Steefen  January 26, 2018

        It was by the insistence of those Jesus offended that Pilate sentenced Jesus. Jesus was not keeping the peace with Jewish authorities: publicly criticizing them, turning over tables in the Temple.
        After Jesus’ death, the sentence had been sufficiently carried out–no need for overkill.
        = = =
        Maybe you have not included in your textbooks, the corruption at the Temple of Jerusalem; but, supposedly, at the Temple, the High Priest won the office through bribery and maybe treachery. The appointing of the high priest by Roman client king (Herod the Great) and governors could also be considered a corruption. (During the Jewish Revolt, the Idumeans faulted the Temple for not including them, not listening to their needs and wants.)

        Jesus, again, stays widely clear of criticizing Rome which had its leaders of Judea with the Herods and the governors, both of whom appointed high priests. Even here, we have Jesus behaving in a way that Rome (Pilate) would find no fault in him–behaving in no way for Pialte to fault Jesus for behaving against Rome.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  January 23, 2018

      Jesus’ disciples would like to think that Pilate found “no fault” in Jesus. That’s just wishful thinking. The inconvenient reality is that Pilate had Jesus crucified probably because he found fault in him.

      • Avatar
        dagrote  April 16, 2018

        Possible but not necessary. The Romans wanted order more than justice in the provinces. There’s every reason to suppose Pilate allowed the crucifixion to go forward for the reasons the gospels say : he wanted this mob out of his office.

  4. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  January 22, 2018

    An interesting debate with two differing views. Thanks

  5. epicurus
    epicurus  January 22, 2018

    I’m sure Craig is a nice guy and all, but he is starting with a faith based conclusion that requires Jesus’ body to be placed in a tomb, so Craig must manipulate and cherry pick evidence to make that happen.

  6. epicurus
    epicurus  January 22, 2018

    Question for Dr. Ehrman – Do we know of any Roman law that would require Pilate to even give Jesus a trial at all before sentencing Jesus to Death. Some peasant who is not even a Roman is causing problems and his own Jewish leaders condemned him. Given the differing gospel accounts, I’ve long wondered if there was a trial at all – might have just been a quick “Is this the guy causing trouble and claiming to be a king? Ok, take him out and crucify him.”

    • Bart
      Bart  January 23, 2018

      No, there were no federal laws like that. The Roman empire didn’t have federal criminal regulations the way we do today.

      • epicurus
        epicurus  January 23, 2018

        Thanks very much. Would you mind if I asked two related law questions – are there any Roman or non Biblical sources confirming only Romans could execute Jesus, and not the Jews themselves, as in John18:31 where they say they cannot put anyone to death (contradicted by the stoning of Stephen)?
        Secondly, any Roman or non Biblical sources confirming that any Roman Citizen anywhere could appeal to Caesar and get shipped to Rome? I hear it said all the time, but does everone just assume it’s true because of Paul’s story and think it’s not worth checking into? I read A.N. Sherwin-White’s “Roman Society and Roman Law in The New Testament” but didn’t find any answers.

        • Bart
          Bart  January 24, 2018

          1. It is debated among Roman historians, but this appears to be the consensus; 2. I’m not so sure about that. It seems implausible to me, but maybe appealing to Caesar did not mean necessarily getting a private audience with the man himself

        • Avatar
          dagrote  April 5, 2018

          If I may add my thoughts, for what they’re worth on 2. It seems entirely impractical that any Roman citizen anywhere could demand and automatically be granted a trial before the emperor himself. (When would Nero have had time to practice his singing and harp playing? He’d have been in court all the time.) I assume, but have no evidence, that an appeal to Caesar meant appealing to an imperial court in Rome, which would conduct the trial in the name of the emperor, not before the emperor himself (the contrary “evidence” of the Acts of Paul notwithstanding).

          Next, there’s a rather peculiar moment in Acts 25:12, just after Paul makes his appeal to Caesar : “Then Festus, when he had conferred with the council, answered, ‘You have appealed to Caesar? To Caesar you shall go!'” If an appeal to Caesar automatically resulted in a change of venue, what need would there have been for Festus to confer with anyone? It simply can’t be that any Roman citizen anywhere in the empire could demand and de iure be granted a trial in Rome if he thought things were going badly for him locally. There must have been some discretion granted to the local authority whether to grant it. Acts 25:12 implies there was.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  January 23, 2018

      Justice worked the same way back then as it has always worked. If you’re rich and famous enough, you could literally get away with murder. But if you’re poor, good luck even getting a trial, let alone a fair one.

  7. Avatar
    NancyGKnapp  January 22, 2018

    How is it that all four gospels portray Pilare as recognizing the innocense of Jesus and being extremely reluctant to order his execution? In Matthew Pilate washes his hands of innocent blood before doing so and the Jewish leaders accept responsibility..

    • Bart
      Bart  January 23, 2018

      If you read them chronologically, you’ll see that Pilate becomes increasingly innocent over time. The reason: who then is at fault for Jesus’ death? Maybe I’ll post on this.

      • Rick
        Rick  January 23, 2018

        Reminds me of a question,I have had…. So, it’s been pointed out 4 gospel sources say…. Whatever. How do you count gospels sources assuming Markan priority snd the document theories? Are Mark, Mathew and Luke one source or three? Seems like one to me….

        • Bart
          Bart  January 24, 2018

          I count Mark, Q, M, L, and several sources behind John.

        • Avatar
          dagrote  April 16, 2018

          The degree to which Matthew and Luke don’t just copy Mark word for word but add their slant to it, we can say that the synoptics represent three “sources” that blend into the Christian traditions.

      • Avatar
        Brian  January 24, 2018

        The Jews, of course. But why did this group of Jews become so, well, anti-Semitic?

        • Bart
          Bart  January 26, 2018

          It’s a long and complicated story, but it is all rooted in the fact that the vast majority of Jews rejected the Christian claims about Jesus, so the two groups became rivals.

  8. Avatar
    Wilusa  January 22, 2018

    I’d guess the odds of the “empty tomb” story – with a natural explanation – being true at 50-50. But it is, of course, a minor issue for those of us who don’t believe in the resurrection!

  9. talmoore
    talmoore  January 22, 2018

    One bit of evidence that Pilate’s cruelty was a bit exaggerated may be Pilate’s longevity. He was governor for 10 years. That’s the second longest tenure out of the nearly two dozen Roman governors of Judea in the first century. If he was such a monster how did he last so long?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 23, 2018

      By raising taxes and preventing rebellion. Those were his two required tasks.

  10. Avatar
    fishician  January 22, 2018

    The gospels say it was evening when Joseph went to Pilate. I doubt Pilate had an open-door policy. Joseph would have had to convince somebody that he needed an audience with Pilate concerning the criminal he just had crucified. I’m not sure I’d want to be the one taking that message to Pilate! So it’s not just Pilate that Joseph has to convince.
    Then after Pilate hears him out he has to summon the centurion (outside the city) to see if Jesus is dead. Surely it is already night by now. Pilate and his staff sure are going through a lot of bother for a crucified insurrectionist. I don’t see how our sources suggest that he would be so patient and considerate. Let alone the time crunch of trying to get Jesus buried before nightfall.

    • Avatar
      dagrote  April 17, 2018

      In the gospel accounts, it’s clear that Joseph wasn’t just some guy off the streets. He was a well known and respected member of the Sanhedrin, so he might have had “connections.” As for the timing, I don’t quite see the problem. Galgatha is right outside the city gates. Like this : Jesus dead at 3 PM, Joseph’s visit to Pilate by 4 PM, body inspected and report brought back by 5 PM, body taken down and laid in a tomb before sunset at 8 to 9 PM (the beginning of the Sabbath).

  11. Avatar
    ardeare  January 22, 2018

    There are some opposing arguments than can be made. I would suggest two stories written by Josephus and Mark. The first comes from Josephus, ” I saw many captives crucified, and remembered three of them as my former acquaintance. I was very sorry at this in my mind, and went with tears in my eyes to Titus, and told him of them; so he immediately commanded them to be taken down, and to have the greatest care taken of them, in order to their recovery; yet two of them died under the physician’s hands, while the third recovered.” So here we have a first century example of a Jew approaching the Roman emperor and having his wishes granted ‘immediately’.

    The second part then is found in Mark 15:43-45 “Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the council, who was also himself waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. 44 Then Pilate wondered if he were already dead; and summoning the centurion, he asked him whether he had been dead for some time. 45 When he learned from the centurion that he was dead, he granted the body to Joseph.” Here we have an example of a respected councilman meeting with a prefect, Pontius Pilate. While his request was not granted ‘immediately’, it was nonetheless granted.

    There seems to be a consistency within these two accounts. I see no evidence that Mark and Josephus would have known each other or one of them having borrowed the story from the other. One of the aspects I try to zero in on is whether the people contemporary to Mark and Josephus would have believed their stories. In both cases, these accounts lack a theological disposition and maintain a literal understanding. It seems the audiences would have taken them literally and believed upon them as historically reliable.

  12. Avatar
    toejam  January 22, 2018

    Quick question regarding the term ‘According to’ (κατά). Is this term ever used to title other greek texts in which we can be safely sure about its authorship? For example, are there copies of Josephus’ “Antiquities of the Jews” titled “The Antiquities of the Jews κατά Josephus”, or Plutarch’s “The Life of Romulus κατά Plutarch”? Or was there another phrase (perhaps closer to our “written by”) that was more commonly used? Would authors themselves use this term, or was it more often than not something a scribe might add to save confusion?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 23, 2018

      No, it’s not a term an author would ever use of his own work. The “according to” was made part of the title by later scribes who wanted their readers to know *which* account this was, given the fact there were several.

      • Avatar
        toejam  January 23, 2018

        Thanks. But just to clarify further, even if Josephus or Plutarch (or similar) themselves might not have used it, are there copies of manuscripts of these kind of words that do? E.g. Is there an example of a scribe adding “κατά Livy” to a copy of “The History of Rome”? Or is this a gospel only phenomena?

  13. Avatar
    Tony  January 22, 2018

    We can safely dismiss Evans’ apologetics as motivated by Christian piety. But what about that other possibility – that the Jesus crucifixion in Jerusalem was a Markan fabrication?

    Mark 15:2-5 portrays Pilate as inquisitive, and interested in hearing Jesus’ side of the story. Next, Mark comes up with the Barabbas exchange and we know what that represents. None of this fits the behavior of Pilate as described by either Josephus or Philo. On that basis alone, it suggests that the Markan Pilate is a fabrication.

    What would have been Mark’s source of Pilate? The majority of scholars think Mark wrote his Gospel sometime after CE 70. Josephus first mentions Pilate in “the Jewish War” which was written mid-70’s. Mark using Josephus as his source for Pilate seems plausible.

    • Avatar
      dagrote  April 5, 2018

      My thought on this is that not everything that’s possible is plausible.

  14. mwferguson
    mwferguson  January 22, 2018

    Hi Dr. Ehrman,

    I have a technical question regarding Roman burial practices for crucified criminals. Previously you have said:

    “More commonly they would simply have left the carcass to rot on the cross, as part of the humiliation, or possibly thrown it into an open pit with other decaying bodies…”

    For bodies thrown into an open pit, after the pit was full enough, was it filled in with dirt afterward, so that the bodies were technically buried?

    Or was the top of the pit left open to exposure?

    Or did the practice vary by region and/or circumstance?

    Or do we not know?


    • Bart
      Bart  January 23, 2018

      We don’t know for certain, but it is usually thought that the carcasses would not be left rotting in an open pit, but would be covered with dirt. That’s normally the procedure for mass graves throughout history, as I understand it.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  January 23, 2018

      Bodies in mass graves are usually covered in something that slows decomposition and mitigates the stench, such as lime or lye. Can’t say if the Romans did the same, however.

  15. Avatar
    llamensdor  January 22, 2018

    Craig is totally wrong — and I can’t figure out why he’s at all sympathetic to Pilate. However, I disagree with you on the subject of Pilate giving permission for removal of Jesus from the cross (if he was actually dead) and being buried “properly” rather than dumped in a mass grave. Of course, we’ll never know what actually happened, and the probabilities go with your and Dom Crossan’s version.

  16. Avatar
    4Erudite  January 22, 2018

    If Jesus was left on the cross…assume that would have been for days…if so, how do you think all that plays into what we read in gospels and rising from the tomb on the third day? Did they just make all this up to fit some previous narrative/prediction/etc? I hope I didn’t miss something in a previous post that addressed this…reading several posts quickly today.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 23, 2018

      There were theological reasons for Jesus to be raised on the third day (Hosea 6:2; Jonah). That was teh later legend. And for him to be raised three days later, he obviously had to be buried. That’s where the Joseph of Arimathea story arose.

      • Avatar
        SidDhartha1953  January 28, 2018

        There’s also Exodus 19:9ff. in which YHWH reveals himself to the Israelites on the 3rd day after he tells them to prepare for his coming to them.

  17. Avatar
    godspell  January 22, 2018

    Philo isn’t exactly an objective witness, but neither were the gospel authors (if you can even call them witnesses).

    You have to assume that a colonized people are going to take a very negative stance about any person in power who symbolizes their oppression–Pilate wouldn’t have to be as bad as all that to be remembered that way. He was probably just a typical Roman provincial governor of that period. Which is hardly the best thing you can say about someone.

    Let’s not forget that in dealing with colonies, brutality was a normal practice, and not just with the Romans. There’s the famous story of how Athens sent a ship to destroy Mytilene, which had rebelled and allied itself with Sparta. All adult males were to be killed, all women and children sold into slavery.

    But before the order was carried out, more moderate forces in the Assembly countermanded it, sent a ship to overtake the genocidal mission, stop the slaughter.

    None of which changes the fact that the order was given, and in other cases, such bloody punitive actions were carried out, by Athens and other city states, by most if not all great powers of the ancient world. The glory that was Greece, the grandeur that was Rome. (Like we’re in a good position to judge.)

    But even the most merciless could still show mercy, and this wouldn’t really be mercy, would it? Jesus died a humiliating painful death, and his followers had scattered. There was no reason to think these Christians would ever be a problem again. And Pilate would have had reason to suspect they were never going to be any problem at all. That people had overreacted, and the crucifixion had been overkill (literally).

    So again, if you allow for transmission error, and dramatic embellishments, it’s not impossible somebody gave the okay for him to receive some form of burial.

    If they had left his body for the scavengers, how hard would it have been to retrieve it? I never believed the story about guards at the tomb. They’re going to guard a garbage heap?

  18. Avatar
    AlbertHodges  January 22, 2018

    It is not just a question of Jesus’ importance, but also that of Joseph of Arimethea. Seems to me that ALL of the evidence from the period immediately after the crucifixion indicates that EVERYONE believed he had been buried immediately after.

    You are making this case that Pilate wouldn’t do so because he was a cruel man? Whether or not he was cruel or a teddy bear, aren’t you choosing to ignore all of the textual data that is unanimous that he was taken from the cross and buried just to support your own conclusion that is based on your psychological analysis of a man (Pilate) that has been dead for 2000 years?

    Seems to me you are putting forth a position that is contradicted by all of the evidence we currently have and that you are undercutting your own reputation by doing what you are very critical of others for doing…allowing your own beliefs to cloud your analysis of what the evidence suggests.

  19. Avatar
    Pattycake1974  January 23, 2018

    Mark 15: 43 Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent member of the Council, who was himself waiting for the kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body. 44 Pilate was surprised to hear that he was already dead. Summoning the centurion, he asked him if Jesus had already died. 45 When he learned from the centurion that it was so, he gave the body to Joseph.

    I take this to mean Jesus not only died quickly, but that he also died first. I think it’s possible that the reason Joseph didn’t ask for the other two was because they weren’t dead yet.

  20. Avatar
    moose  January 26, 2018

    Mr. Ehrman. I hope I you can take time to read this rather long post concerning the historicity of Jesus. My argument will this time depend on a closer study of the apocryphal scripture «The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs». Whether this scripture depends on christianity, or christianity depends on this scripture makes no difference. I’ll explain in the end.
    Now, Tertullian(and others) mentions that some of the patriarchs were types of christ, including Joseph. To show this connection between Joseph and Jesus is my goal, and thereby give a picture of which figures Pontius Pilate(and his wife) may depend on.
    When Joseph came to Egypt Potiphar had him put to jail. Listen to what The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs say concerning Josep: «14. Now the Memphian woman was looking through a window while I was being beaten, and she sent unto her husband, saying, Your judgment is unjust;(…)And when I gave no other answer though I was beaten, he commanded that we should be kept in guard(…) And his wife said to him, Wherefore do you detain in captivity this noble child, who ought rather to be set at liberty, and wait upon you.»
    This is Potiphar and his wife talking, but it could as well have been Pontius Pilate talking to his wife Procula. And listen to chapter 13 «And he(Potiphar) took me apart from him, and said to me, Are you a slave or free? And I said, A slave. And he said to me, Whose slave are you? And I said to him, The Ishmaelites’. And again he said to me, How did you become their slave? And I said, They bought me out of the land of Canaan. And he believed me not, and said, You are lying: and he commanded me to be stripped and beaten».
    There are many more hints in this scripture that points to Joseph as a type of christ, but I finish by now with a hint to Judas Iscariot as Gad: «Therefore I(Gad)and Judah sold him to the Ishmaelites for thirty pieces of gold, and ten of them we hid, and showed the twenty to our brethren: and so through my covetousness I was fully bent on his destruction. And the God of my fathers delivered him from my hands, that I should not work iniquity in Israel.»
    Now, if this tekst were written by christians after the death of Jesus by Pontius Pilate, then why did they make Potiphar and his wife look exactly like Pilate and his wife? Thats why it makes no difference when this was written. It points to Potiphar as Pilate anyhow. And the similarity between the names is another hint to the source of this story.

    • Avatar
      moose  January 26, 2018

      This is also a view that explains the rather strange story of Jairus and his daughter. The wife of Potiphar as the old woman which stretched out for Jesus’s robe, and Asenath, the coming wife of Joseph, as Jairus daughter.

    • Avatar
      moose  January 27, 2018

      Just to emphasize what I’m trying to say.
      Joseph is just a type of Christ, he is not Jesus. They just used this old story about Joseph at Potiphar for convenient reasons.
      Joseph from Arimathea is a more reasonable candidate for Joseph the Patriarch.
      And Nicodemus would be a good candidate for Job. Job had to be «born again».

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