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Riddles and Secrets-Pontius Pilate
Who Killed Jesus?
Sometimes I watch a documentary that denies the historicity of the Bible and am surprised just how much support it provides for that historicity. A recent example is National Geographic’s “Secrets of the Cross - Who Killed Jesus?” Despite the clear pronouncements that the Bible is wrong about it’s portrayal of the trial and crucifixion of Jesus, the experts interviewed were clear that Jesus was a real person and that he was crucified. Two out of three isn’t bad. The third item, Pontius Pilate, the program says that the Bible got him all wrong.
Pontius Pilate was the Roman procurator of Judea during the ministry of Jesus. Very little is known about him, most of the history we have concerning him is in relation either to the Jews or to Jesus. Josephus records his treatment of the Jews when they opposed the bringing in of the Imperial ensigns to Jerusalem, Pilate relented. He also records a riot that occurred when Pilate used the Corban (money in the Temple treasury) to build an aqueduct, Pilate did not relent and many Jews died. He is also mentioned by Philo, and a few Roman historians record that he was the governor of Judea who crucified Christ.
The question posed by the program was, Does the historical Pilate match the biblical portrait of Pilate? The answer was no, the Bible is not history, but theology with a slim base of history. Let’s examine what we know of history.
There are six Roman governors known to us from the Bible, Quirinius, governor of Syria, 4B.C. -1 A.D. 6-10 A.D., Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea, 26-36, Sergius Paulus, proconsul of Cyprus, Gallio, proconsul of Achaia, Felix, procurator of Judea, 52-60, and Festus, procurator of Judea, 60-62.
Only four of these governors are of interest to us, Pontius Pilate, Gallio, Felix, and Festus. It should be noted that until 1961 there were scholars who thought that Pilate was a Gospel fiction as there was no archaeological evidence for his existence. In 1961 a stone was discovered that had a Latin inscription on it containing the name of Pilate. On the TV program Pilate is pronounced as the only archaeologically verified character in the crucifixion (the Caiaphas ossuary was not yet discovered although one of the archaeologists being interviewed was excavating Caiaphas’ palace). Each of these governors within the New Testament narrative is sitting in judgment on charges brought by the Jews. A comparison of their actions may help us to understand the character of Roman justice and whether or not Pilate’s actions recorded in the Gospels are consistent with his fellow governors.
Our first meeting with Pontius Pilate in the New Testament is in Luke 13:1, “There were present at that season some who told Him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices,…”. From this passage we would learn that Pilate has little regard for the religious customs of the Jews. When Jesus is brought before Pilate he knows one thing for certain, Jesus was not arrested by the Roman garrison for insurrection, rather he was arrested by the Temple guard under orders of the High Priest. Pilate’s declaration of Jesus’ innocence may therefore be a political jab at the High Priests, a recognition that Jesus is in fact innocent but also that the opinion of the High Priests carries little weight with Rome, or at least the present governor.
What Josephus tells us of Pilate is much the same. Pilate brings Imperial Ensigns into the city which offend the religious sensibilities of the Jews, only after a demonstration of non-violence did Pilate decide to remove the ensigns. Subsequently, Pilate used money gifted to the Temple treasury to pay for aqueducts. This time his soldiers were ordered to beat the protesters and many died in the subsequent affray. It would appear that Pilate had little fear of the Jewish religious authorities.
Pilate had probably heard of Jesus before this, the triumphal entry into Jerusalem (Matthew 21) can hardly have gone unnoticed, what Pilate would have noticed is the lack of public rhetoric that accompanied it. It is not unlikely that he would have had observers and spies tracking Jesus if he was thought a threat. He already knew of the lack of Jesus guilt simply by the warning or lack of warnings that the commander of the Jerusalem garrison had made regarding Jesus. Pilate seems then to have understood that the accusations against Jesus were being made primarily for religious reasons, cf. Matthew 27:18.
When Paul was at Corinth he was brought before the Roman governor Gallio (Acts 18:12-17). At that time Gallio refused to even consider the charges which were to him solely a question of religion. The beating the Jews received following his dismissal of them also did not concern him, but then Gallio was a personal friend of the Emperor.
Pontius Pilate could claim no such friendship. He was an equestrian, a lower order of the Roman aristocracy. The Gospel of John (ch. 19)tells us that Pilate was prepared to release Jesus until the time the High Priests declared “If you let this Man go, you are not Caesar’s friend, Whoever makes himself a king speaks against Caesar” (v.12). In the context of the times this was important. In A.D. 26, the Emperor Tiberius essentially turned over the practical affairs of the Empire to Sejanus, a trusted aide, while Tiberius remained nominal Emperor. In A.D. 31 Sejanus was accused and executed for plotting against Tiberius. This is significant because Luke 3:1 tells us that Jesus began his ministry in the fifteenth year of Tiberius, as Tiberius became Emperor in A.D. 14 his fifteenth year began in A.D. 28-29, with the execution of Sejanus and the crucifixion occurring in A.D. 31-32. The threat of the High Priests was that they would implicate Pilate in the treason of Sejanus.
Pilate now sits down and passes judgment on Jesus. In doing so he is also able to wring a confession of loyalty to the Roman Emperor from them, “We have no king but Caesar!”. The portrayal of Pilate in the Gospels is not that of a weak governor, but of a governor strong enough not to bow before the demands of the local aristocracy, smart enough to give in to the people when it did not affect his authority and just might avert an uprising, but still pliable to the threats of Imperial politics. I think the Bible got Pilate just right.
The governors that followed Pilate showed the same disdain for the religious concerns of the Jews as did Pilate. Felix, who would attempt to try Paul before the Sanhedrin to please the Jews, also sought personal monetary gain. The governors afterwards were worse until finally the Jews revolted.
So who killed Jesus? Acts 2:23 tells us, “Him, being delivered by the determined purpose and foreknowledge of God, you have taken by lawless hands, have crucified, and put to death;”. It was God’s plan, but the High Priests volunteered to be the executors of the plan (Woe to the world because of offenses! For offenses must come, but woe to that man by whom the offense comes! Matt. 18:7). Culturally the Jews of Jerusalem in A.D. 31 delivered up Jesus to be crucified, culturally the Jews crucified Jesus. Historically the Roman Empire used its legal authority to crucify Jesus, therefore, historically the Romans crucified Jesus. Theologically Jesus was a sacrifice for our sins (Romans 4:25), we crucified Jesus.