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Pilate the Intransigent

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 what we in fact know about Roman practices of crucifixion.   I should point out that if it were *Jews* who had executed Jesus, then indeed their law would have required them to bury him that day; but it was not Jews, it was Romans who killed him.  Jewish law does not apply to Romans and Jews could not insist that it did.  Even if they did insist, they would be doing nothing different from what every other nation, race, and people did – protest that they wanted to bury their dead.   Romans never, so far as we know, paid attention to these local sensitivities in the case of the crucifixion of enemies of the state.

Second, I showed yesterday that Craig very much misreads the incident of the Roman standards, as based on the account that he himself cites (the Jewish historian Josephus).   Pilate showed, in that incident itself, that he did not care a twit about Jewish sensitivities – he was offensive, intransigent, and brutal.

Most important for this current post is a fact that Craig (understandably) fails to mention in his discussion of Pontius Pilate, in his critique of my view.  That is that we have hard *evidence* that Pilate did not “learn his lesson” when it came to offending Jewish sensitivities.  The evidence comes from the same source Craig uses, and it shows beyond any doubt that Pilate was the vicious, insensitive ruler that history, but not Craig, has portrayed him as being.

In a second story from Josephus we learn of an incident from later in Pilate’s rule, by which time, in Craig’s calculation, Pilate had grown sensitive to Jewish customs.  You can figure out for yourself whether you think he is right about that.

This second anecdate again comes from Josephus Antiquities, book 18.   Pilate wanted to provide fresh water for Jerusalem and so arranged to have an aqueduct built (a noble idea) – but he paid for it by raiding the treasury in the Jewish Temple (not a noble idea).   The Jewish populace was incensed, and staged a massive protest (Josephus speaks of tens of thousands of Jews).   And did this massive indignation remind Pilate that he should not trample on Jewish customs, practices, and insensitivities?  Well, not exactly.

Instead of backing down (we have no record of Pilate *ever* backing down: remember the golden shields, the standards, and now the aqueduct), Pilate had his soldier disguise themselves in local dress with clubs under their outer garments and mingle among the crowds.   And then when the crowds refused to disperse, he gave the signal, the soldiers broke out their weapons, and started pounding people left and right.   Chaos ensued, and many people died.

If someone wants to maintain that Pilate was a wise ruler who, after an initial but understandable mistake, realized what he was dealing with when trying to rule Judea and so took particular care not to offend, let alone, harm his Jewish subjects – this is Craig’s view – then I think one is compelled to present some evidence of this view.   On the contrary, all of the evidence points in the opposite direction, from the two sources of information we have of Pilate’s reign, Josephus and Philo of Alexandria.   We would do well to recall Philo’s assessment of Pilate’s governorship, spoken after he had been removed from office.   When Philo speaks Pilate’s:

“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.” (Flaccus, 83)

When Craig insists that Pilate would not have flaunted Jewish sensitivities in following the standard Roman practices of crucifixion, I think he is simply overlooking every surviving piece of historical evidence that we have about the man.

Discovered Crucifixion Nails
Did Pilate “Learn His Lesson”?



  1. Robertus
    Robertus  July 19, 2014

    “I should point out that if it were *Jews* who had executed Jesus, then indeed their law would have required them to bury him that day; but it was not Jews, it was Romans who killed him.”

    This is a bit of a false dichotomy and anachronistic. We know from Josephus that the sunedria were imposed by Rome as the local aristocratic governmental bodies in place of the earlier Jewish/Idumean monarchy. They were necessarily staffed by loyal Roman collaborators and Caiaphas was especially good at collaboration, managing to hold his leadership position in Jerusalem for many years. All of the later gospel evidence points to this local Roman governmental body being involved in Jesus’ accusation and sentencing before Pilate of Caesarea, who happened to be in town for Passover. If we accept Josephus’ account as probably having an authentic core, which I believe you do, he also attests to this. Our earliest historical account of this event also points to the involvement of local Jewish/Judean authorities (1 Thes 2). Paul Winter argues that the local sunedria still had the power of capital punishment at this time and Geza Vermes argues for crucifixion also being a Jewish form of capital punishment. Any royal or messianic claim would be judged as sedition by the sunedria, which were put in place to replace the monarchy.

    When you say, ‘Romans never, so far as we know, paid attention to these local sensitivities in the case of the crucifixion of enemies of the state’, you are still ignoring the evidence from Josephus. I know you intend to eventually discuss this.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 21, 2014

      Even if (IF!) the Jewish opponents of Jesus recommended Jesus’ execution to Pilate (I’m not sure they did), it still was Pilate and Pilate alone who ordered his crucifixion. Jews did not kill Jesus. The Romans did. Specifically Pilate ordered it. It was a Roman job from beginning to end. THEY, not the Jewish leaders, were the ones who condemned Jesus to death, flogged him (apparently), and crucified him. They were the ones — not the Jewish council — that would decide whether to leave him on the cross, as was standard practice. The Jewish authorities had no say in the matter.

      • Robertus
        Robertus  July 21, 2014

        The question pertains to whether or not there was a standard practice of crucifixion in Judea at the time, as attested by Josephus, and, if there were, whether Pilate’s involvement in this particular case would have entailed abandoning this practice.

    • Avatar
      dkmare  January 16, 2019

      Off Topic: Yosef Ben Matityahu born into the Hasmodean line, tried out as an Esene but eventually settled on Pharisee. Head of the Jewish forces in Galilee against Flavious Vespasian, gets cornered in a cave alongside forty of his men. Comes up with a suicidal pact that every third man kill his opponent since suicide is a sin, and low and behold Yosef winds up being one of the survivors. We do not even know the name of the other Survivor. He tells Vespasian that one day he will be Cesar, so he is then made a slave/soon to be historian taken back to Rome and assumes the name Yosephus Flavious. His work is inaccurate, especially on the events of Masada/Metsudah . We come back to this suicidal pact rubbish, 925 survivors come up with Yosef’s Galilee cave idea. To date they found 25 bodies, what happened to the other 900? He might have once been Esene but he had obviously never been to Masada (only 30 miles from Kirbet Qumran) or he would not have failed to mention the main Temple. His work was originally written in Greek, and we do not get it till very late. It is several hundred years before we get it in Hebrew, I think he was extremely bright and had great survival instincts but I would not give him the time of day for his so called historical aspects.

      • Bart
        Bart  January 17, 2019

        There are some great books on the merits of Josephus as a historian. A good place to start are the books by Steve Mason.

        • Avatar
          dkmare  January 25, 2019

          Thank you, I will look to read his book. 11 years ago I watched a utube video you gave, you said ” do you have a degree? If not why not? Who are your sources?…otherwise your just an independent analyst,,.,”So I went and got my degree, studied with E-teacher Biblical and Israel Study Center. The tutors I had were not great fans of Yosephus.

          • Bart
            Bart  January 27, 2019

            Wow. I said that? Sounds a bit… arrogant!

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    John123  July 19, 2014

    Raiding the treasury in the Jewish Temple to pay for an aqueduct does not seem the same as violating a God given Jewish tradition as in the case of shields. Wouldn’t this difference explain why Pilate did not back down in the case of the aqueduct, but did back down in the case of the shields, and wouldn’t this difference make the aqueduct incident irrelevant to the question of whether Pilate might back down when faced with a God given Jewish tradition?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 21, 2014

      Raiding the Jewish Temple was a violation of its very sanctity — much worse than having some gold shields in town.

      • Avatar
        John123  July 21, 2014

        Where in Antiquities 18.3.2 does it say that any of Pilate’s men actually set foot in the Temple? The applicable part of Antiquities 18.3.2 reads:

        “But Pilate undertook to bring a current of water to Jerusalem, and did it with the sacred money, and derived the origin of the stream from the distance of two hundred furlongs. However, the Jews were not pleased with what had been done about this water; and many ten thousands of the people got together, and made a clamor against him, and insisted that he should leave off that design.”

        It sounds like the Jews might have even AGREED to use the sacred money for the water supply; they appear to only be upset about the DESIGN of how the water was routed to Jerusalem. Where does it say anywhere that Pilate’s men “raided” the Temple treasury, as in actually setting foot in the Temple?

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  July 22, 2014

          No, the passage is never read to my knowledge as indicating that the Jews in Jerusalem willingly gave from the Temple treasury for the aqueduct. Just the opposite. That’s why they rebelled. The reason for thinking that Pilate’s soldiers went in to get the money is that there was no other way for them to get it. This is not a controversial position.

          • Avatar
            John123  July 22, 2014

            Ok, thanks for that clarification. I did not know that. It’s strange though the way the Josephus passage was written (i.e. he makes no mention of the Jews being upset at their money being stolen, but at the “design” of the water source some 25 miles away). Oh well, I guess I will assume with everyone else that Pilate’s men violated the sanctity of the Temple to get the money.

          • Avatar
            EricBrown  August 1, 2014

            in reply to John123,

            I suspect the word translated in the excerpt as “design” might be replaced with “scheme” or “undertaking” rather than with “architectural plan” or the like.

    • Avatar
      Scott F  July 22, 2014

      Those offerings that went in to the Temple Treasury were offerings to and required by God. Pilate was stealing God’s money!

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    kidlat  July 19, 2014

    When you write books for non scholars, do you consider areas where critics will mostly make an argument and so expand your topics as if answering those critics? Most readers of your books don’t have access to this forum but may have access to critics so they’re missing out on your counter arguments.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 21, 2014

      Yes, I try to anticipate and answer possible objections if it doesn’t lead to too much of a digression.

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    fishician  July 20, 2014

    Does Craig say why the Jewish leaders would want to allow a crazy heretic to get a decent burial? If Pilate saw Jesus as a potential trouble-maker why give his body to someone who might be a co-conspirator (Joseph of A)? Was Jesus a prominent council member or a disciple of Jesus or both? And where is Arimathea anyway? There just seem to be a lot of holes in this story.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 21, 2014

      For Craig it was a simple act of Jewish piety. Arimathea, so far as we know, did not actually exist– if Joseph of ARimathea actually is a historical figure, Arimathea must refer to some other town (that *did* exist)

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    SJB  July 21, 2014

    Prof Ehrman

    Sorry I realize this is somewhat off topic but you’ve made the statement a couple times in your past posts that after the crucifixion the disciples fled Jerusalem presumably back to Galilee and wouldn’t have been witnesses to the disposal of Jesus’ body however that was accomplished. Yet in Paul’s letters and in Acts the leaders of the early church seem to be based in Jerusalem. Assuming they fled to Galilee why do you think they came back?


    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 21, 2014

      My sense is that Jesus’ earliest followers thought he was returning soon from heaven in wrath and vengeance — and that he would “return” in that way to Mount Zion. So they went to Jerusalem so they could be there to see it happen.

  6. Avatar
    asjsdpjk  July 21, 2014

    Off topic question (sorry)

    What do you make of the Gabriel stone?

  7. Avatar
    Wilusa  July 21, 2014

    “I should point out that if it were *Jews* who had executed Jesus, then indeed their law would have required them to bury him that day; but it was not Jews, it was Romans who killed him.”

    I’m not disputing that it was Romans who killed him – ordered the crucifixion, and carried it out. But what if other crucifixions in Judea – in Jerusalem and, maybe, Hebron – took place when Pilate (who’d *ordered* them) was in Caesarea? Might the actual executions, in those cases, have been performed by Jews? And if it was then the “norm” for executions in those cities to be performed in a way that didn’t offend Jews, might they have been performed the same way when Pilate was in the city and Romans actually did the killing? Would Pilate have insisted on a different policy for one week out of the year?

    And…I still feel like I’ve missed something. *Did* Roman soldiers have “winter quarters” in Jerusalem in Jesus’s day?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 22, 2014

      My sense is that if anyone was ordered crucified by the Roman governor they would have been in the place where the Roman governor was — and hence there would be soldiers there. Yes, there were some soldiers permanently stationed in Jerusalem. The rest (most of them?) were in Caesarea.

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    stokerslodge  July 29, 2014

    Bart, when all is said and done; do we really know everything there is to know about Pontius Pilate? Is anyone –including you- in a position to assert with certainty that Pilate would not have permitted the body of Jesus to taken down from the cross and placed in a tomb? At the end of the day, doesn’t come down to conjecture and guesswork – and the possibility that your guesswork may be inaccurate and flawed?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 31, 2014

      No indeed, we know very little! But doing history is not just a matter of conjecture and guesswork. It’s a matter of carefully weighing the evidence we have. And what we have in this case all (every piece of it) points in the same direction. So it’s not a historical certainty. But it’s more probably than the alternative. Sometimes that’s all you can do with history.

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    prestonp  July 31, 2014

    The problem is when people take the version in Mark, and then the version in Luke, and combine them together into one big mega-Gospel in which BOTH are taken as “what really happened.” But my view is that you really should not do that. Because when you do, you change what *both* authors have tried to say and you destroy how *each* of them portrayed Jesus going to his death. By doing this, you have in fact written your own Gospel. Which is fine, if what you want to do is write a Gospel. But if you want to know what Mark is trying to say, you can’t do it by pretending that he’s saying the same thing as Luke. And vice versa.

    Was Mark trying to say something that wasn’t true? Was Luke?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  July 31, 2014

      No, they were both trying to say something that to them was true. And their truths were different.

      • Avatar
        prestonp  August 1, 2014

        10 children describe their parents. They will give different accounts. I get that. The oldest child shares a vivid memory of diving off her father’s shoulders at the beach at Lake Michigan. Number 5 describes how she and enjoyed the Wild Mouse roller coaster ride at Riverview Ramble, but she never went to the beach. The youngest proudly recalls receiving a brand new Toyota for earning straight A’s her senior year. No beach, no amusement park.

        Each child shares true examples of her experiences accurately. Their accounts vary but each is true. Combining them builds a more comprehensive picture of the family’s activities. What am I not getting?

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  August 1, 2014

          The problem is when their accounts are at odds with one another, or include “recollections” that can’t have happened.

          • Avatar
            prestonp  August 2, 2014

            Dr. Bart, those things that “could not have happened” are listed where? Do you recommend any resource in particular to learn about them?

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  August 2, 2014

            Try my book Jesus Interrupted for starters. (But just as a start, not as a finish!)

          • Avatar
            prestonp  August 2, 2014

            “Because when you do, you change what *both* authors have tried to say and you destroy how *each* of them portrayed Jesus going to his death.”

            Dr. Ehrman,
            Are you oversimplifying how Luke and Mark view and present their depictions of Christ’s passion. Luke’s “sweating as it were drops of blood” points to terrible agony, doesn’t it? .

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  August 5, 2014

            I’m trying precisely *not* to oversimplify. If you have a modern translation you’ll see that Luke 22:43-44 is not found in a lot of our manuscripts. I’ve written at length on this text to show that it was not originally in the NT. I discuss it briefly in Misquoting Jesus, which I think you should definitely read given your interests! But if you want the really full academic discussion, it is in my book Orthodox Corruption of Scripture.

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    urmenonhigh  August 16, 2014

    From what we know about Pilate it seems that he would have no aversion to selling Jesus’ dead body to Joseph of Arimathea for the right price. Pilate just wanted to be sure Jesus was actually dead since Jesus died relatively quickly when compared to most crucifixion deaths.

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    urmenonhigh  August 16, 2014

    Agreed, but we also have no sources that support Jesus not being removed from the cross because of Pilate’s unwillingness to do so. The only accounts we do have about this particular event indicated Pilate did turn the dead body of Jesus over but we don’t know exactly why. I really don’t believe Pilate was above taking a bribe.

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    Theonedue  July 31, 2015

    Why did Philo mention the resurrection of the saints from the tombs (if it happened)? Why didn’t he talk about the Christian claims that Jesus was thought to have been the Jewish Messiah?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 31, 2015

      He doesn’t mention the resurrection of the saints. And he doesn’t talk about Jesus at all — almost certainly because he hadn’t heard of him. Almost no one in Egypt had, so far as we know.

  13. Avatar
    Theonedue  July 31, 2015

    My b. I meant to say why didn’t Philo mention the saints who allegedly resurrected from their tomb. Okay, makes sense.

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