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Pontius Pilate: Roman Governor

Pilate’s enormous “life and death” power should shape how we read the gospel narratives of Jesus’ crucifixion. Pilate is not a neutral or weak or minor character. He is not forced to crucify Jesus by the Jerusalem leaders against his will. He crucifies Jesus because it is in Rome’s interests to do so, interests he is charged with protecting and furthering.

By Warren Carter
Professor of New Testament
Saint Paul School of Theology
Kansas City
September 2004

Much contemporary Christian scholarship and popular media - Gibson’s Passion of the Christ is a recent example - present Pontius Pilate as a weak figure with an incidental role in Jesus’ crucifixion. Too spineless to stand up to the hateful Jerusalem leaders, he reluctantly allows Jesus to be crucified. Too lacking in intestitudinal fortitude to do the right thing and release an innocent man, he yields tamely to the death demands of Jerusalem’s bully-leaders.

Yet the Apostle’s Creed, regularly recited in many congregations, has a different spin. It assigns Pilate a central role in Jesus’ death with the words, "suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried."

Christians have had several reasons for diminishing Pilate’s role. A Christian tradition spanning nearly two millennia has emphasized Jewish responsibility for Jesus’ death.1 Moreover, Christian interpreters have often read the New Testament passages concerning Pilate with the presupposition that the Gospels deal with religious, not political, matters. Pilate is understood to be reluctant to get involved in what Christian interpreters have often depicted as a religious dispute. He has to be bullied into action by the Jerusalem leaders who pursue their religious agenda.

A recent inadequate study, for instance, reflects these erroneous understandings. Writer Helen Bond claims that Matthew’s presentation of Pilate emphasizes Pilate’s political neutrality.2 She goes on to assert that Matthew’s scene has removed all hints of political pressure from the presentation.

But such attempts to lower Pilate’s visibility, responsibility, or even political identity are unconvincing.3 Several factors suggest that we should not be too quick to diminish Pilate’s role. To describe this death-penalty scene in terms of political neutrality and lacking political pressure is to miss fundamental realities of the Roman imperial world. The different gospel scenes need to be interpreted in the light of historical information about that world and about the functions of Roman governors in it.4 Innumerable commentaries on the four gospels simply do not discuss the incredibly powerful and strategic roles that governors played in the Roman imperial system. When this information is brought into the interpretive process, Pilate emerges as a powerful figure who played a central role in Jesus’ death. His use of the death penalty against a troublesome provincial indicates that he is not politically neutral, that political dynamics pervade the scenes, and that he is not weak or coerced.

Apart from his association with Jesus recorded in the Gospels, we know very little directly about Pilate. Two first-century Jewish writers, Philo of Alexandria (Embassy to Gaius 299-305) and Josephus of Rome (Jewish War 2.169-77; Antiquities of the Jews 18.55-89), mention him briefly. An inscription discovered in Caesarea in 1961 and some coins also refer to him. These sources, along with the gospel accounts, need to be read in relation to the larger picture of the roles of governors in the Roman imperial system.

Pilate was governor of Judea for the years 26-37CE. His appointment as governor indicates that he came from a wealthy, powerful, elite Roman family. His family, and Pilate himself, was probably well connected with the emperor Tiberius. Philo and Josephus’ accounts of Pilate’s actions, including his use of funds from the Jerusalem temple to fund the building of an aqueduct, suggest that he shared an insensitivity to Jewish customs that was typical of elite Roman prejudices toward provincials.

Roman governors exercised considerable power as representatives of Rome’s oppressive rule. Five factors, often neglected in interpretations of the gospel scenes, shed light on Pilate’s role in Jesus’ death.

Religion is Politics

The Roman world did not separate politics and religion. Priests and temples had religious and socio-political roles. The chief priestly families and their allies in Jerusalem were political leaders in Judea (Josephus, Antiquities 20.251). Pilate represented a Roman system that claimed to originate with Jupiter and to manifest Jupiter’s and the gods’ blessings. Politics is religion, and religion is politics.

The lack of separation of politics and religion means that Pilate did not engage Jesus as an isolated "religious" problem. Jesus claimed to manifest God’s kingdom or empire and was understood to be a king. He presented a non-violent challenge to the extensive power of Rome and the Jerusalem leadership.

Governors

Roman governors had enormous power as representatives of Rome. They enforced Roman interests and defended the hierarchical social order. They exercised military, political, social, judicial, and economic control, often in exploitative and harsh ways, for the benefit of the elite.

Pilate’s enormous "life and death" power should shape how we read the gospel narratives of Jesus’ crucifixion. Pilate is not a neutral or weak or minor character. He is not forced to crucify Jesus by the Jerusalem leaders against his will. He crucifies Jesus because it is in Rome’s interests to do so, interests he is charged with protecting and furthering.

Crucifixion

Jesus dies by a distinctly Roman form of execution. Rome did not usually delegate the right to impose the death penalty to provincial leaders. It was Pilate’s decision.

Crucifixion was reserved for low-status defendants, not for Roman citizens and members of the elite. It made an example of those who threatened the Roman social order: runaway slaves, those who attacked the property of the powerful rich, those who committed treason by claiming power and rule not authorized by Rome. Jesus’ crucifixion indicates that he is perceived by the ruling elite to pose a threat to the status quo.

Jesus proclaimed the "empire of God." The noun translated as "kingdom" or "reign" is used in other writings to refer to various empires including Rome’s. His announcement threatens Rome’s empire with a rival way of restructuring the world. He is understood to claim to be "king of the Jews," a title that only Rome could award to safe and loyal elite allies. Rome killed others who claimed such a role without Rome’s blessing. He attacks the Jerusalem temple, the center of power for the Jerusalem leaders, Rome’s allies, and a key institution in maintaining the vast inequalities of wealth and power. Jesus does not die as a poor, innocent, person mistreated by a weak Pilate. He dies as a subversive threat to Rome’s system. Pilate decides to put him to death for Rome’s sake.5

Alliances

Pilate and the Jerusalem leaders are allies. Making alliances with local leaders was a common strategy Rome used to rule its empire. Along with taxes and military power, alliances with provincial elites were an effective way of establishing control. Mutual interests of wealth, power, and status held these aristocratic alliances together under Roman control.

The Roman governor appointed the high priests in Judea. The chief priest Caiaphas was a political appointment who held power at the pleasure of his Roman masters. Of course, there were tensions and struggles within these alliances. But together, the Roman governor and the local Jerusalem leaders sought to maintain Rome’s imperial system in which about three percent of the population ruled for their own benefit at the expense of the rest.6

Maintaining this alliance required good political skills. If the Jerusalem leaders view Jesus as a threat to their power, Pilate knows to take their concern very seriously. Their interests are Pilate’s interests.

But there are other political games to play. On one hand, Pilate needs to keep them happy by granting their request to remove Jesus. In Matthew and Mark, he and the Jerusalem leaders cooperate in manipulating the crowd into calling for Jesus’ death, thereby expressing and accomplishing the elite’s will. Pilate can execute a kingly claimant as the people’s will without fearing unrest and reprisals. On the other hand, he needs to show the provincial leaders that as the Roman governor he is their superior and that they are dependent on him. John’s account especially highlights this dimension where Pilate seems to taunt them about their dependent status and skillfully solicits from them an amazing declaration of loyalty to the emperor (John 19:15). In Luke’s account, he makes them beg him to execute Jesus while ensuring that no rift develops in the alliance.

Roman "Justice"?

Roman justice often operated on the basis that the punishment would fit the person. A bias toward the elite and against low status people existed in the administration of Roman "justice."7 As governor, Pilate administers justice to protect the elite’s interests against a low status, provincial peasant/artisan like Jesus.

A scene in Matthew, for example, provides commentary on this legal bias. When Jesus is handed over to Pilate in 27:1-2, the narrative switches to Judas. Verse 3 of chapter 27 begins, "When Judas his betrayer saw that he (Jesus) was condemned…". The choice of verb is telling. There has been no "trial" yet, no announcement of condemnation. But Judas concludes from the handing over of Jesus to Pilate that Jesus is as good as dead. Like any low status person, Judas knows that the system will make sure of it.

The biggest challenge for Pilate in crucifying Jesus comes from the risk of unrest from Jesus’ supporters. In executing a "wannabe" king, Pilate runs the risk of provoking social unrest and dreams of freedom, especially at Passover. In several gospel accounts, Pilate questions the crowds about what to do with Jesus. He does so not because he is unsure about Jesus the king or unwilling to put him to death. Rather, he is testing levels of support for Jesus. He polls the crowd. He questions the crowd to find out how extensive and how solid is their support for Jesus.

Manipulated by the Jerusalem leaders at work among the crowd and intimidated by Pilate’s power, the crowd expresses support for Pilate’s action. The gospel narratives show Pilate to be an astute governor in administering Roman justice.

Pilate, then, has a central role in the crucifixion of Jesus. Jesus’ death comes about in ways typical of Roman imperial control. An astute and powerful Roman governor, Pilate works with his allies, the Jerusalem leaders, to remove a threat to their power and to their vision of society.


Footnotes

(back)1 Pilate was an intriguing figure for early Christians in the centuries after the Gospels were written.  Some Christians expanded the gospel accounts and shaped quite different traditions about Pilate.  In excusing Pilate for any responsibility in Jesus’ death, they regrettably often increased blame on the Jewish leaders.

Texts can be found in J. K. Elliott, The Apocryphal New Testament (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993) 164-225.

(back)2 H. Bond, Pontius Pilate in History and Interpretation (SNTSMS 100; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998) 129-38, esp. 133, 136.

(back)3 The following argument is elaborated in W. Carter, Matthew and Empire: Initial Explorations (Harrisburg: Trinity Press International, 2001) 145-68; W. Carter. Pontius Pilate: Portraits of a Roman Governor (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2003); also Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2000) 521-29.

(back)4 See, for example, the relevant essays in P. Brunt, Roman Imperial Themes (Oxford: Clarendon, 1990) 53-95, 163-87, 215-54.

(back)5 Is there any connection between the Christian claim that “our sins crucified Jesus” and Pilate’s active role in bringing about Jesus’ crucifixion?

                It is important to recognize that these are two quite different ways of thinking about Jesus’ crucifixion.  To talk about Pilate’s role is to make a historical analysis of why Jesus died.  This statement arises from research and historical investigation.  It is to focus on the historical reasons that account for Jesus’ death.  It investigates the personnel and the processes that caused his death. 

                To say that “our sins crucified Jesus” is a very different claim.  It offers a theological explanation of the meaning of Jesus’ death.  This statement arises from faith that understands the significance of Jesus’ death in a particular way.  It interprets Jesus’ death not just as an interesting historical event but as one that has personal, religious significance for a particular tradition.

                Yet it is possible to draw the two perspectives together.  In relation to this later claim, Pilate’s actions as Roman governor can be viewed as an example of the sorts of sin because of which and for which Jesus dies.  Pilate rejects Jesus’ claims to represent God’s reign or purposes.  Pilate finds Jesus’ claims to be king threatening to the very unjust societal structures that Pilate enforces.  Pilate presides over a societal structure that the Gospels declare to be antithetical to God’s purposes (see Matt 20:24-28).  Pilate expresses his rejection of God’s purposes and Jesus’ role in crucifying Jesus.  Christians have understood sin in various ways, including both the personal and systemic rejection of God’s purposes for a just and lifegiving world for all, revealed in Jesus. 

(back)6 See J. Kautsky, The Politics of Aristocratic Empires (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1982); G. Lenski, Power and Privilege; A Theory of Social Stratification ((Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984) 189-296; for overview, Carter, Matthew and Empire, 9-53.

(back)7 P. Garnsey, Social Status and Legal Privilege in the Roman Empire (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970).