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The Increasing Innocence of Pilate in the Death of Jesus

QUESTION:

How is it that all four gospels portray Pilate as recognizing the innocence of Jesus and being extremely reluctant to order his execution?

 

RESPONSE:

What is most intriguing (and enlightening) is that over time in the Christian tradition – both inside the New Testament and outside of it – Pilate becomes more and more innocent in the death of Jesus with the passing of time.   You can see this clearly simply by lining up the Gospels chronologically and seeing how they portray Pilate at the trial of Jesus.

Our earliest Gospel is Mark (15:1-15).  There Pilate is somewhat reluctant to do what the Jewish leaders ask him to do – crucify Jesus – and he seems a bit bewildered.  He has a custom of releasing a prisoner during Passover and suggests Jesus.  But the crowd, stirred up by the chief priests, wants Barabbas instead.  And so, after a very brief trial Pilate, does what they ask.  Here Pilate is simply complying with the Jews’ wishes; he puts up some resistance, but not a whole lot.

Our next Gospel (chronologically) is Matthew (27:11-26).  Here Pilate is …

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The Ironies of Jesus’ Trial
Why Discrepancies Matter for Interpretation

63

Comments

  1. Avatar
    jhague  February 19, 2018

    Since all four gospels are telling “stories” to state a certain message to readers, there is likely not much historical substance to these stories. How do you think the events more likely happened after Jesus was arrested?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 20, 2018

      Long story. I discuss it in my book Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium.

  2. Avatar
    jhague  February 19, 2018

    How did the statement “His blood be upon us and our children.” end up in Matthew since Matthew seems to be more Jewish themed?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 20, 2018

      Matthew is strongly in favor of the Jewish religion (as interpreted by Jesus) but just as strongly (or more) against the Jewish leaders and those who reject Jesus.

      • Avatar
        llamensdor  April 8, 2018

        Do you really believe “the Jews” said, “his blood be upon us and our children.”? I think this ranks among the most despicable lies in the history of mankind.

  3. Avatar
    mannix  February 19, 2018

    I always wondered about this “crowd”…I thought that Jesus” entry into Jerusalem for the Passover was “triumphant” because of a large “crowd” cheered him in, laying down palms, etc. Did all these admirers suddenly turn on him? Also did all these people cry out “crucify him” and “His blood be on us…” in unison?? Sounds like something that would happen in a movie. Finally, who witnessed all this and was able to recall by memory 30-40 years later everything that was said, particularly in Pilate’s residence (in John)? I suspect “all the people” probably includes only a gaggle of pro-Sanhedrin supporters.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 20, 2018

      Yes, I talk about that precise point in my book Jesus Before the Gospels.

    • Avatar
      godspell  February 23, 2018

      I’m sure a very large number of things that really happened in Jesus’ life would sound like a very implausible film script. Because that’s how the lives of remarkable people invariably read, and sometimes ordinary ones as well.

      But no matter how amazing the true story is, those telling it afterwards will still often feel the need to try and improve on it.

      Jesus entered Jerusalem. That would have been, for him and his followers, a very significant moment. There would have been some kind of symbolic gesture to reflect that. It got magnified in the telling, and retelling.

  4. Avatar
    dankoh  February 19, 2018

    All 4 gospels were written after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. There were many consequences to the destruction, but the one that’s relevant for me here is that Jews who might previously been open to the idea that Jesus was/had been the messiah no longer thought so, since a messiah would have prevented the destruction.

    On a second aspect, there is considerable uncertainty about the nature and extent of Jewish opposition to the Jesus Movement in the first century. I do not see the authorities “persecuting” the apostles for their belief in Jesus. They would drive them out of the synagogues when they thought the apostles were trying to convert Gentiles away from worship of the civic gods, as the Romans considered that to be treason. In addition, anyone who criticized the Temple itself (as opposed to the priests who were running it) was liable to attack by an enraged mob; that’s what happened to Stephen.

    Ironically, if the initial direction of the Jesus Movement had allowed Gentile Jesus followers to continue performing their civic obligations to the state gods, they would have had a much easier time of it. But Paul needed the “sin” of idolatry as a means for requiring the Gentiles to need Jesus.

    • Avatar
      godspell  February 23, 2018

      I don’t think there’s any reason to believe most Jews ever seriously entertained notions Jesus might be Messiah.

      They might have been more sympathetic to him, in some quarters. A fellow Jew done to death by the Romans. Somebody who was clearly devout, ascetic. Somebody rumored to work wonders (the tradition of the ‘Wonder Rabbi’ existed then, people believed in it, and variation of that type of folk belief in personal holiness leading to the ability to perform miracles can still be found in various religions today).

      But for most Jews, Jesus’ story wasn’t that important. Christians were one tiny splinter group among many. There were other Messianic pretenders. John the Baptist was thought by some to have been Messiah, even though he’d been killed by Herod.

      Mainstream Judaism continued to think the Messiah would be born in Judea, and would lead the Jewish people to victory against the oppressors. But people got tired of waiting, so they rose up without him.

      The definitive split between Christians and Jews was probably triggered, in part, by the anti-military Christians suffering the consequences of that rebellion, as Rome cracked down with a vengeance. They had to persuade the Romans they were not Jews (imagine trying to explain the difference to a pissed-off Roman soldier who just wants to go home–similar conversations must have happened in the Middle East quite recently). And more and more of them were gentile converts anyway.

      There was anger and misunderstanding in both directions. Today, we think of Jews as the ultimate oppressed minority. That was not the situation then in Palestine. To a Christian, that doomed uprising would just prove Jesus was right that violence is never the way. That the traditional Jews lacked the faith to wait for God to intervene.

      It’s a tragedy, that Christianity, the child, turned on Judaism, the parent.

      A very predictable one, in retrospect.

      • Avatar
        dankoh  February 28, 2018

        I am unaware of any evidence that Rome “cracked down” on Christians because they thought they were Jews who had participated in the rebellion. By and large, Jews who did not revolt in 66-73 CE were not attacked. Indeed, it was around this time that Jochanan ben Zakkai was able to establish his academy at Yavneh (other aspects of his story are more fantastical).

        Rome had no interest in intra-Jewish sectarian conflicts. To them, a Jew was someone who was ethnically Jewish; what he believed or practiced didn’t matter to them. And Jews, as an ethnic group, were exempted from the general civic worship of the Roman gods.Thus a Jewish Christian who refused to sacrifice to the civic gods because Paul told him not to was still covered by the Jewish exemption.

        But gentile Christians were not. Romans considered gentiles (non-Jews) who converted to Judaism or who became followers of the Jesus Movement as traitors to the state and deserters of their families. They might ignore a lower-class gentile Christian, but not a high-ranking one. So there would have nothing gained by a Christian trying to convince the authorities he was not Jewish (though there is no record that Christians ever claimed to be Jews in order to escape persecution that I am aware of).

        The “split” between Christianity and what became rabbinic Judaism – more accurately, the divergent development of the two religions – did not happen all at once, or for one single reason.

        (Yes, Bart, I’m simplifying. Forgive me.)

        • Avatar
          godspell  March 16, 2018

          I got that from Elaine Pagels’ “The Origins of Satan.” Easy for you to scoff, when you’re not surrounded by legions of angry pissed off soldiers, looking for somebody to blame for their latest crappy posting.

          It took a long time, and this is a fact, for most Romans to bother to distinguish between Jews and Christians. It took some time for even Christians to make this distinction.

          We really should bear in mind that even among the best historical scholars, Bart included, there’s a lot of educated guesswork going on. If we only go by what we know for an absolute fact, the books would be very very short.

          • Avatar
            dankoh  March 19, 2018

            I prefer to rely on Fredriksen. There is also Marius Heemstra, who argues (convincingly) that the first, or one of the first, definitive signs that Rome understood Christians to be different from Jews was when the Emperor Nerva exempted Christians, both Gentile and Jewish, from the fiscus Judaicus; this occurred in 96 CE. Certainly, by 110 CE, when Pliny the Younger was questioning and executing Christians for refusal to sacrifice to the civic gods, Roman authorities were making a legal distinction between them and the Jews, who remained exempt from this duty. (Rome defined religion through ethnicity, which further complicates any discussion about how they viewed these early Christians.)

            My other point is that it is incorrect to describe Judaism and Christianity of the post-70 period as mother and daughter. They are more like siblings, maybe even cousins, each being a descendant of the varieties of Jewish thinking that were being developed in the Second Temple period.

            One last point: I do not understand what you mean by “scoffing.” I am presenting a serious argument here.

  5. Avatar
    dankoh  February 19, 2018

    Along with the increasing innocence of Pilate, there is also increasing vituperation against the Pharisees – with the curious exception of Luke, who in his gospel and in Acts make them (or some of them) out to be sympathetic to Jesus. Any ideas why?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 20, 2018

      It may be that his community was not in serious conflict with the local Jewish synagogue.

      • Avatar
        dankoh  March 2, 2018

        Here is another thought: I read in David Sim’s study of Jewish Christians (cited in your Triumph book, 302n4), that Luke had a “political agenda to minimise the differences between the Hebrews and the Hellenists…” (428). This agenda might also help explain his more favorable view of the Pharisees.

  6. Avatar
    godspell  February 19, 2018

    I’m sorry to say, it’s John’s account of ‘The Passion’ that has proven most influential on the Catholic liturgy. Even the nonsensical “We have no king but Caesar” makes the cut for the Good Friday mass.

    Underlying that is a recognition that Jesus is being tried for sedition, not blasphemy. If it was purely a matter of a theological dispute between two branches of a religion he finds ridiculous, Pilate wouldn’t have any dog in that fight. It’s not hard to believe that factions antithetical to Jesus and his cult among the Jewish authorities might have leaned hard on the sedition angle–hard enough that Pilate might have felt like Jesus didn’t live up to the advance publicity.

    I find it hard to believe the Romans needed no prompting at all, because Jesus and his small band of followers wouldn’t have attracted all that much attention. We can’t minimize their influence and then turn around and say “The Romans did it all.” Jesus was intentionally challenging the authority of the Temple, and the Temple was, at that time, under the authority of Rome, trying to keep the peace, while more radical factions of Judaism (some of whom did want a violent uprising, and eventually got one) simmered away in the background.

    Mark’s account, as usual, is the most minimalist, and the most believable, but there’s probably some embellishment there as well. Perhaps including the oddly named Barabbas. Though I could see Pilate looking for a loophole to just make the whole thing go away.

    It would have been nice if Josephus had gone into a bit more detail.

    • Avatar
      Steefen  February 20, 2018

      Josephus could not go into more detail because Jesus was a fictional character, Roman propaganda, Julius Caesar in the sheep’s clothing of a do-no-evil Jewish preacher; hence, Josephus refers to his Testimony of Jesus as a calamity.

      • Avatar
        dankoh  February 28, 2018

        If Jesus were a fiction, this would certainly have been used by the opponents of the Jesus Movement during the first century CE, when plenty of people were still alive who would have realized he never existed. While there are many many questions about the details of Jesus’s life, mission, death, etc., the mere fact of his existence is as well established as that of Pilate, for example.

        Josephus never called his testimony a calamity. He mentions Jesus in passing as one more example of Pliate’s excesses. (The Testamonium has been manipulated over the centuries to the point where it is difficult to say what Josephus actually wrote, beyond the bare fact that he was writing about Jesus.)

        • Avatar
          Steefen  March 2, 2018

          In the works of Josephus Jesus is not as well established as Pilate.
          You are in error to say Josephus never called his testimony a calamity. The Testimonium Flavianum is Chapter 3, Section 3, 63-64 and “About the same time, another sad calamity put the Jews into disorder…” immediately follows in section 65 of Antiquities of the Jews, Book 18.
          Jesus as one more example of Pilate’s excesses? What does that mean?

          The bare fact is not that he was writing about a historical Jesus, the bare fact is that Josephus was aware of the contents of the gospels.

          Josephus does write about a Jesus of Galilee who had followers who were mariners. That Jesus fought against the Romans with his mariners and lost. Josephus also writes about three men being crucified with one surviving. At best, Jesus is a character of historical fiction (he really did exist but not at the time and not with the events of the gospels). Jesus was from Galilee, he did have mariner followers, somebody else was one of three crucified who survived, and many elements of Julius Caesar’s life and the son of Divine Julius Caesar, Augustus Caesar are preserved in the gospels.

  7. Avatar
    caseyjunior  February 19, 2018

    I just read your post of Feb. 16 and have a question relating to it. After finishing The Triumph of Christianity ( which I really enjoyed and found convincing ) I bought ( due to a note in Triumph ) Candida Moss’s The Myth of Persecution. In it she speculates that the difference between the passion stories in Mark and Luke may be because Luke wanted to fit Jesus into the pagan tradition of a ” noble death ” . What is your opinion of this idea? Would the illiterate gentile audience for Luke be aware of what a ” noble death ” was? (Or is there any way to know? ).

    • Bart
      Bart  February 20, 2018

      Yes, that theory has been around for a while, and I think there’s a lot to it.

    • Avatar
      godspell  February 21, 2018

      Well, you don’t have to be literate to go to see a play.

      The gospels are all written in Greek. If you can understand Greek, you can go to the theater, if there is one near you, and see some of the best stories about noble death ever written enacted before your eyes.

      Greek culture was just as influential and widespread as the language that came with it.

      Christianity isn’t just illiterate Jewish workmen anymore, by the time Luke is writing. That’s why he’s writing in Greek.

  8. Avatar
    fishician  February 19, 2018

    Isn’t there currently a sort of contradictory attitude among some Christians toward the Jews: they are the chosen people and Israel must be defended at all costs, but those that don’t repent are still going to hell? Is this mainly because Israel is necessary for their end-of-times scenario? (And I do hope your opponents don’t take your words out of context and use them to suggest that you yourself are anti-semitic!)

    • Bart
      Bart  February 20, 2018

      Yes, I think ultimately it is this theological issue that is driving it — even among conservative Christians who don’t consciously reflect on just *why* they are so pro-Israel.

    • Avatar
      scissors  February 23, 2018

      Fishician

      I doubt pro Israel Christians think about it in those terms. Some of what you write about here is, IMHO,
      the product of the knowledge that Jesus was a Jew.
      Much of what fuelled the hostility in early Christianity towards the Jews is gone.

  9. Avatar
    Pattylt  February 19, 2018

    I remember very clearly the first time I was called a Christ killer. I was 9 and living in Florida. I had absolutely no idea what a Christ killer was and why I was one. Needless to say my poor mother had a long conversation with me to explain what it meant and how I should respond (simply say that I was I was sorry they felt that way and walk away quickly). I don’t think I really understood it until many years later but I remember how I felt. It was the first time that I hated a Christian for being Christian. Thankfully, I had very close Christian friends that allowed me to see that all were not like that! To this day, I know that some Christians still view Jews as Christ killers but because most of Christianity has turned a large corner in that ideology the remaining bigots are largely underground… until President Trump somehow encouraged them to become more vocal again.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 20, 2018

      Wow. That’s quite a story.

    • Avatar
      AnotherBart  February 20, 2018

      Anti-semitism has no rightful place in Christianity. Paul’s love for the Israelites oozes from this:
      “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people, those of my own race, the people of Israel. Theirs is the adoption to sonship; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises. Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of the Messiah, who is God over all, forever praised! Amen. Romans 9:2-5

    • Avatar
      Hormiga  February 20, 2018

      I’ve never fully understood why Christians consider “Christ killer” to be a term of opprobrium. After all, wasn’t the God-intended and preintended point of Jesus’ appearance on Earth that he be killed and thus bring the potential for salvation to the human race? So why aren’t the people, Jews and Romans, who brought that about in accordance with God’s plan esteemed rather than hated?

    • Avatar
      godspell  February 21, 2018

      Some people go through their lives looking for reasons to hate anybody different.

      Jesus or no Jesus, they’d have found one.

      It’s a problem in all cultures.

      I repeat–all cultures.

      • Avatar
        turbopro  February 23, 2018

        >> It’s a problem in all cultures.

        if I may please: you know this how?

  10. Avatar
    Jana  February 19, 2018

    From reading your blogs singularly I’ve learned how religious racism against the Jews evolved. Thank you for elucidating here even more clearly and into the 21st century. Yes. Locally I’ve heard Jews referred to as “Christ killers.”

  11. Avatar
    Tempo1936  February 19, 2018

    I think Your trade books may be largely responsible forThe emergence of postmodern mega churches that Focus on social gospel, as compared to the Traditional churches where reciting of the Nicene creed and belief In the infallibility of scripture are taught and preached.

  12. Avatar
    anthonygale  February 19, 2018

    Might the portrayal of Pilate as innocent also serve the function of trying to make the burial story seem more believable? If Pilate never wanted to kill Jesus in the first place, then why would he object to Joseph of Arimathea taking the body? I’m not saying it actually happened that way, but “if” it had happened that way, it would be more believable than Joseph catching Pilate on an unusually good day. I imagine that stories about Pilate and the burial were told very early. Even if worsening tension with the Jews explains the progressive portrayal as Pilate being more innocent, he seems to have been portrayed as innocent early on. Is that because tension went back that early, or were there other reasons to portray Pilate as being innocent?

  13. Lev
    Lev  February 19, 2018

    Do you think that these themes that develop and evolve with each later gospel, whether they be Pilate’s attitude toward Jesus or Christological development, have a core nugget of historical truth that is added to and dressed up over time – or do you think it’s all made up fiction?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 20, 2018

      I think Pilate simply decided Jesus was a trouble maker and had him crucified that morning along with other trouble makers.

      • Avatar
        anthonygale  February 21, 2018

        Ive read at least one scholar opine that Jesus probably never had a trial. What do you think? Might someone have told Pilate that Jesus was causing trouble and Pilate simply ordered his crucifiction on the spot?

        • Bart
          Bart  February 22, 2018

          It completely depends on what would constitute a “trial.” It’s possible Pilate questioned him and sent him right off to be crucified as a trouble maker. In a *sense* that’s a trial, but not like we normally think of one.

          • Avatar
            anthonygale  March 4, 2018

            Is it plausible that Pilate had Jesus killed without even seeing him? And is it more likely one way or another whether Pilate actually met Jesus?

          • Bart
            Bart  March 4, 2018

            I don’t know if it’s plausible, but it is *possible*.

  14. Avatar
    AnotherBart  February 19, 2018

    Matthew, though written to a Jewish audience, is full of harsh words towards the Jewish leaders. Those harsh words are regularly mollified by Luke.

    Compare:
    “Leave them (the pharisees); they are blind guides. If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.” Matt 15:14

    “He also told them this parable: “Can the blind lead the blind? Will they not both fall into a pit? Luke 6:39

    Compare:
    “[John the Baptist] said to [the Pharisees and Sadducees]:
    “You brood of vipers!”” Matt 3:7-10

    “John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him,“You brood of vipers!”” Luke 3:7

  15. Avatar
    fishician  February 19, 2018

    When the gospel of John changes the reason for Jesus’ arrest from the clearing of the temple to the raising of Lazarus (John 11:53) isn’t that an additional shot at the Jews? “See, they persecuted him because of the wonderful things he did! Jealousy! Not because they really cared about the Law or the temple!”

  16. Avatar
    ardeare  February 20, 2018

    If Pilate gets more innocent through time, which he appears to do, the charges of sedition become less plausible. What becomes more plausible is that Joseph of Arimathea would have been permitted to take the body off the cross.

    .

  17. Avatar
    jmmarine1  February 20, 2018

    I guess the issue that escapes me when Christian people feel the need to defend the historical reliability of the New Testament is how they link that reliability to the theological message(s) that the NT authors are putting forth (even they would admit that history alone brings ‘salvation’ to no one). How is it that when John seems to be well informed on Jewish holidays, his message about the Word becoming flesh is now automatically true? How is it that it can be assumed that a historically reliable gospel is now similarly true in its unique theological content? I simply do not understand this point, or why they feel the need to defend it.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 20, 2018

      My sense is that most Christian believers are principally interested in the theological truth of the Bible, but many realize that historical errors and contradictions could call these more important truths into question.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  February 20, 2018

      It could simply be a classic case of projection. Committed fundamentalist Christians are in the habit of picking apart other religions by highlighting errors in details: “Hey, look over here. This part of [pick your religion] is clearly false, so the whole religion must be false.” These Christians fear the undoing of their own faith via similar tactics, which is why they so stridently defend even the smallest — even trivial — details. And this isn’t unique to Christianity. Fundamentalist Muslims do the same thing, as do Ultra-orthodox Jews. It’s a universal human defense mechanism.

  18. Avatar
    Steefen  February 20, 2018

    Professor Ehrman:
    These Gospels were written at a time in which the Christian followers of Jesus were in heated opposition to Jews who refused to acknowledge that Jesus was the Jewish messiah. Tensions had arisen and in places they led to real persecution of the small groups of Christians at the hands of their more numerous and far more powerful Jewish opponents.

    Steefen,
    Jesus was Roman propaganda to promote the religion of the Imperial Cult and to destroy Judaism and its spirit and hope in a Messiah. Jesus was 1) a retelling of Julius Caesar, 2) a non-violent, non-rebel against Rome after the Jewish Revolt started [so we have the gospel of Mark (a retelling of Julius Caesar and a non-violent, non-rebel) dating about the same year, year 66, when Herod Agrippa II had to flee Jerusalem followed by the Roman Legion Fulminata being defeated by Jewish rebels) , and 3) a destroyer of Judaism (his body and blood clearly referencing the desecration (Psalm 106: 38, Jeremiah 19: 4-5) of the Holy Land in that Jesus is a messiah of the Holy Land, the defeat of the Jewish people (Deuteronomy 28: 53, 55; Jeremiah 19: 9; Lamentations 4: 10) and turns the face of the God of Moses away from the Jewish people (Leviticus 17: 10-11).

    The authors of Jesus knew there would be opposition to Jesus Propaganda; hence, Jews shouting for the crucifixion of Jesus and Pilate handing Jesus over to “them” for crucifixion flows right into the Babylonian Talmud which states Jews did crucify Jesus.

    Pilate would be innocent because Pilate’s real position is: Do not kill Julius Caesar. Why? Because Brutus and Cassius Longinus, liberators of the Republic lost the war against Octavian and Mark Antony. Furthermore, Octavian Augustus had built temples to Divus Julius (the godman Julius Caesar). Pilate in all likelihood celebrated the religion of Julius Caesar.

    Were Jews Christ killers? Yes: they were killing the propaganda, the fictional Jesus Christ, Julius Caesar in the sheep’s clothing of a do-no-evil Jewish preacher.

  19. Avatar
    Wilusa  February 20, 2018

    On the issue of anti-Semitism…in some cases, it may have nothing at all to do with “Christ”! My father (who died in 1951) struck me as being at least mildly anti-Semitic. He resented Jews because, in his experience, Jewish immigrants to the U.S. always seemed to have well-educated, financially well-off contacts here, who “showed them the ropes,” and helped *them* get good educations and ultimately good jobs. Whereas he couldn’t manage to afford college, or advance beyond being a bookkeeper.

    On the other hand, I remember what I think was the first time I ever heard of Jews. My mother (a Catholic) was chatting with someone about a Jewish man who lived on the next block. They were saying they felt sorry for him, because his religion – I don’t know what branch of Judaism it was – wouldn’t let him get a divorce!

  20. Avatar
    caesar  February 21, 2018

    There is a Christian apologetic argument that attempts to make sense of Pilate being so reasonable. Sejanus revolted against Tiberius, and Tiberius had him executed. Tiberius then was rounding up people he suspected of being co-conspirators with Sejanus–from that point on Pilate was walking on eggshells, and really was afraid to make any kind of wrong move. This is supposedly why he behaved so uncharacteristically after this revolt in 31 CE. This would of course require a crucifixion date after 31. Does this seem plausible?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 22, 2018

      Not really, in light of what we know about Pilate’s later actions.

      • Avatar
        AnotherBart  April 23, 2018

        Are you referring to his attack on the Samaritans?

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