An important question I’ve received from another scholar who is interested in New Testament studies but is an expert in a different field.
Have you ever encountered the argument that the Gospels’ portrayal of Pilate giving in to the crowd’s call for Jesus’ death could be possible in as much as Pilate would have wanted to avoid a riot and so acquiesced for that reason? I am wondering whether this is an old apologist argument of some sort?
It is a great question and it has an easy answer. Yes I have indeed. This is a standard argument made by people, including scholars, who think that the Gospel accounts are entirely reasonable and probably accurate. It’s the view I myself had for years. The idea behind it is pretty simple, and works in easily delineated stages:
- Jesus was exceedingly controversial among the crowds in Jerusalem.
- His trial was a major public event.
- The Jewish leaders were intent on having him executed, and they stirred up the crowd by having them shout for Jesus to be crucified.
- Pilate saw that a riot could be starting.
- He didn’t himself think Jesus had done anything to deserve the death sentence; but in order to placate the crowds, he handed Jesus over to be crucified.
The reason this is a popular explanation is that, well, it’s exactly what the Gospels themselves say. So for most people you don’t need to mount an argument that this is what actually happened. Instead, you simply say, “Yup, that sounds reasonable!
The question is whether it actually is reasonable. That is, whether it is plausible given what we know, historically, about how things happened at the time. We can imagine it happening this way, to be sure. But is that our imagination (fueled by Hollywood movies) or is it actually plausible, historically?
Here’s the short story from my end: I absolutely don’t think it’s what happened. In fact, I think just about everything about the imagined scenario …
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