Pontius, Our Pilot – Part 4

<< Continued from Part 3

Summing the Woeful Tally

The gospels simply do not tell a consistent story about the trial of Jesus.

Prophecy: In the first three gospels, a Silent Jesus comports with the prophecy of Isaiah, as intimated by Luke’s record in Acts. In John, a Mouthy Jesus precludes any possibility that Isaiah’s prophecy was fulfilled by the quick-witted Nazarene, who parried questions with a series of paradoxical comebacks that worked circles around a hapless Pilate. Either (1) Isaiah was indeed foretelling the messianic Jesus, and hence John was exaggerating the story for his own dramatic ends; or else (2) John finally told us the truth about just how talkative Jesus was, and the prior three gospels were skewing the trial to make the life of Jesus seem to fit Isaiah’s prophecy, when it really didn’t. In any case, one or more of the gospels was playing fast and loose with historical fact. Either Jesus fulfilled Isaiah, or Jesus out-pointed Pilate.

Pilate: The character of Pontius Pilate is not portrayed realistically in any of the four gospels. The entire scene appears contrived, with a weak and placating Pilate cowing to demands from an indignant crowd. Yet the Pilate of history was not the sort to placate nor the sort to be badgered with angry demands. The Pontius described in the gospels, not unlike the Jesus of the gospels, is no more historical than Hamlet. One may as well make serious assertions about a meek Bonaparte or a chaste Presley.

Trial: The public nature of the examination does not fit with historical practice. The drama of Pilate as the intermediary – shuttling to and fro between the accused and the mob, intermingled with the theatrics of mocking proclamations, hand washing, and judicial dodges – simply doesn’t comport with the historical reality of how things were done or who Pilate was. Jesus had said and done everything a person needed do, if he wanted to be arrested and executed for sedition on Passover.

Information: The detail and drama of the stories grow in the later-written gospel accounts. This alone raises a flag in terms of historical accuracy. And none of the accounts says from where they derived such new information; no sources are ever indicated. Flag two. But the details innovated by each author differ notably. Herod becomes involved, but only according to one account. The actions of Pilate become more dramatic, though different in each account. A dream of warning from Pilate’s wife appears in only one account. And so on. Flag 3. Yet at each point, We The Readers are left with a sensible but unanswerable question – how on earth do the later authors come to know these new bits and boulders of information, and why doesn’t Mark appear to have known any of it? Much of this content is simply not ancillary. If a single divine source inspired all four accounts equally, he seems to have done so with rather remarkable degree of – politely put – asymmetry.


What is truth?

That’s a good question, and its been embarrassed out of the asking for too long. The portrayal of Pontius Pilate in the Bible just isn’t real or accurate. He was a villain, to be sure, but not for the reasons Christians think. Pilate’s real-world villainy, in fact, helps point to the villainy of the fictitious gospel records themselves. It is safe to conclude that Pilate only ever asked, “what is truth?,” in the imagination of St. John, the Liar.  As such, we can and should reclaim the right of good inquiry, and we should do so knowing that we are not parroting a truth-blind villain by our asking.

We should ask, what is truth? What, indeed, is “gospel truth”?

The gospels are not disinterested or objective histories about the life of Jesus. They are simply stories told about Jesus, written by a later generation of followers that didn’t personally know Jesus. The gospels are hero tales. The book of Acts is another collection of hero tales. And like all good hero tales, they grow with time. They are stories told to make the life of Jesus appear to fulfill Old Testament prophecy. But the only place such fulfillment exists is in the storytelling, which artfully bends and invents “facts” as need arises. The result is a set of texts that are discrepant with one another and divergent from historical reality.  Its a good story. A grand story. And lets face it – its a tall order to tell a tall tale without fibbing your facts.

There remain so many fish in this barrel. The virgin birth narratives. The invention of Lazarus and his resurrection. Whether Jesus went into the wilderness after his baptism. What day he was crucified on. Whether the dead emptied their graves at the crucifixion. The reputed hours of darkness and earthquake. Whether he ever made any claims to be god. Discrepancy and divergence abound.

And now allow your eyes to fall shut and imagine. Ponder in the quietness, and consider what happens, when you apply serious scrutiny to the rest of the Bible.


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. Superb, Matt. I have just read through the series.

    So many things that are glaringly obvious but we simply ‘miss’.


  2. The disparities in Pilate’s personality and the actions of the Jewish leaders needed to be “gospelized” if you will because by the time this was written, Christianity had been thrown out of the synagogues and the Jewish religious population in general and was basically, one more hero cult in the Roman world. With that in mind, you now need to characterize the Romans as being sympathetic good guys and the Jews as the villains. Notice where in John, Jesus mentions being taken by the Jews? Not the Chief Priest of the Temple and his enforcers, but the Jews generically. He speaks that way (under the pen of “John”) because he is not one of them, he is something different. Jesus is now a good Roman type personage. Gotta love the politics!

    Missed your take on all of this, good to have things like this again! The Bible cult phenomenon is very interesting. Having started out Catholic, I never got any of the inerrancy stuff, and the idea of a church being based on the Bible simply labelled it as a Johnny come lately and not “authentic”. Perhaps in light of your notes on St. John the Liar, Johnny come lately may be an apt phrase!


    • I think you’re probably correct about John, which was also probably written in several stages according to various scholars. Matthew and Luke as well – it is Matthew that has the handwashing episode, of all things.


  3. Reblogged this on Christianity Simplified and commented:
    Behold! Some hard evidence backing up my suspicion that the Gospel of John goes above and beyond what is written in the other three Gospels. This is the final part of a 4-post exploration comparing the Biblical and historical views of Pontius Pilot. It gets to the point, but I recommend reading the first three parts as well.

    A warning to believers – the subject is approached a little harshly at times. I hope you can read this utilizing grace and attempt to understand the information that is presented.



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