Pontius, Our Pilot – Part 2

<< Continued from Part 1

The Reluctance and Showmanship of Pilate

But now we come to the second focal area of this essay: the purported reluctance of Pilate in condemning Jesus to crucifixion. The scrupulous reader can readily observe that the gospels do not paint the same picture on this question either.

Mark portrays Pilate as reluctant, condemning Jesus to placate the demands of the Jewish leaders.

Matthew amplifies the theatre of the scene by describing Pilate washing his hands, offering a literary opportunity for the Jewish leaders to call down a curse upon themselves and their descendants (a thematic move blamed by many for the later Semitic persecution of the Catholic church). Indeed, Pilate’s wife is even invoked, sending him warning to leave the righteous Jesus alone. And on both counts again – we should ask again how it was that a later account from Mathew seemed able to come up with additional details unknown to Mark. How would Matthew know about a private message from Pilate’s wife? And though the examination of Jesus was likely private, and our accounts thereby hearsay, the hand washing seems public. Yet the prior record of Mark seemed aware of the private examination and blind to Matthew’s public theatric of hand washing and curse demands. Overall, Pilate is portrayed as both weaker and more sensitive to misjudgment than in Mark. As such, we have good reason to question the innovations of Matthew’s depiction.

Luke adds still more twists to the tale, inserting a previously uninvolved Herod in the trial progression. Pilate demonstrates his unwillingness to convict Jesus by shipping him off to Herod – rather a significant and public point to have been omitted from the other accounts. From whom did Luke derive this boulder of information, and how is it that Mark and Matthew seem not to have heard anything about it? Still further, Pilate’s previous demands to know what Jesus had done wrong are replaced by an overt proclamation of innocence, for Luke has Pilate state that he finds no guilt in Jesus, twice. This conclusion represents a remarkable net progression when compared with the earliest record in Mark, where Pilate simply demands to know what his wrongdoings were.

And then of course, comes John. The trial in John’s telling takes place on both a different day and at a different hour than in the synoptics. Pilate again dodges rendering a judgment, and here we could mistake this as a point of solidarity with Luke’s telling. But not so, for Pilate does not dodge by sending Jesus to Herod – he does so by telling the Jews to execute Jesus themselves. He goes in and out to the crowds and Jewish leaders repeatedly, and in the process has Jesus scourged at a different point in the proceedings than in the other accounts. Pilate intermittently attempts to placate the Jewish crowd, yet punctuates these efforts by goading them with taunting showmanship: “Behold, the man!… Behold, your king!… Shall I crucify your king?” Yet despite the drama of the scene, oddly, no hand washing.

All four gospels portray Pilate as reluctant to sentence Jesus, but they aren’t telling the same stories or giving the same portrayals of him. In the first telling, Pilate did not see any particularly good reason to execute Jesus, but he sentenced him anyway to placate the crowds. Yet as the story develops in later gospels, embellishment abounds along diverging trajectories. Pilate can be seen as actually declaring Jesus to be innocent, as trying to have either Herod or the Jews kill Jesus instead, as engaging in notable acts of showmanship (albeit different ones), and as exonerating himself from the whole affair.

Are these historical facts, or the differing embellishments of good story tellers?

The Pilate of History

The problem is that not one of the four portrayals of Pilate fit with what we know of the man from historical sources.

The Pilate of history was cruel and iron-fisted, eventually being removed from his posting for excessive brutality. He was not the sort to seek carefully balanced justice, nor to be overly concerned with innocent blood on his hands:

We know from other sources, like Josephus, that Pilate was one brutal fellow who did not cater to the whim of the populace. And there would have been no reason to conduct a criminal investigation out in the open and ask for the crowds’ opinions.

~ Ehrman, Bart D. (1999-07-26). Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium (p. 222). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

Consider the following account from the Jewish historian Josephus, and ask whether it comports with a man readily cowed by the wishes of his Jewish subjects:

When Jews again protested his actions, Pilate had soldiers hidden in the crowd of Jews while addressing them. After giving the signal, Pilate’s soldiers randomly attacked, beat, and killed scores of Jews to silence their petitions.

~ Wikipedia, “Pontius Pilate” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pontius_Pilate)

Nor was such an instance isolated. Philo tells us that Pilate was black of character, and that such actions defined his administration:

…Philo writes that Pilate had “vindictiveness and furious temper”, and was “naturally inflexible, a blend of self-will and relentlessness”. He writes that Pilate feared a delegation that the Jews might send to Tiberius protesting the gold-coated shields, because “if they actually sent an embassy they would also expose the rest of his conduct as governor by stating in full the briberies, the insults, the robberies, the outrages and wanton injuries, the executions without trial constantly repeated, the ceaseless and supremely grievous cruelty”.

~ Wikipedia, “Pontius Pilate” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pontius_Pilate)

And indeed, his unflinching brutality eventually cost Pilate his post:

According to Josephus, he was ordered back to Rome after harshly suppressing a Samaritan uprising, arriving just after the death of Tiberius, which occurred on 16 March in 37 AD.

~ Wikipedia, “Pontius Pilate” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pontius_Pilate)

In short, Pilate was not the sort to roll over for the rabble; he was the sort that trampled upon the rabble.

It is difficult to imagine, against this backdrop of Pilate’s ruthless and bloody reputation, that a delegation of Jewish leaders would thunder up to his doorstep and make imperious demands as to how Pilate should conduct his own office. One could more easily imagine him ordering troop action against such a crowd. And since it was the height of the politically tense season of Passover, he certainly wasn’t shorthanded of men. No – any delegation to Pilate would likely have come cap-in-hand, and Pilate would do whatever he wanted, not whatever they wanted.

All of this would indicate that Origen may have been too modest in his observations. It seems that John isn’t the only gospel that played things a bit soft where historical accuracy was concerned.


Related Sources:

  • Thomas, Robert L, and Stanley N. Gundry. A Harmony of the Gospels, NASB. Harper Collins, 1978.
  • Price, Robert M., John Dominic Crossan, Luke Timothy Johnson, James D.G. Dunn, and Darrel L. Bock. The Historical Jesus: Five Views. Edited by James K. Beilby, & Paul R. Eddy. IVP Academic, 2009.
  • Ehrman, Bart D. Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don’t Know About Them). HarperOne, 2010.
  • Ehrman, Bart D. Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium. USA: Oxford University Press, 2001.
  • Borg, Marcus J. Evolution of the Word: The New Testament in the Order the Books Were Written. HarperOne , 2012.
  • Bart Ehrman. Lecture on Misquoting Jesus.
  • Debate: Bart Ehrman versus Craig Evans.


  1. These posts have so few comments and they deserve to be read. Maybe consider rerunning them or do a condensed version?



  1. […] << Continued from Part 2 […]


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