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Pilate, the Politics of Rome, and Evangelical Politics

   While Jesus pursued his dispute about arrangements in the Temple, events in Rome had altered the political landscape around him in ways he himself could not begin to fathom.

By Bruce Chilton
Bernard Iddings Bell Professor of Religion
Bard College
February 2005

Controversy regarding Jesus’ death and responsibility for his execution come with the regularity of spring, prompted by the Christian calendar of worship that recollects his Passion at the end of Lent. The issue of Jewish culpability – often pitched in terms of the guilt of Jews, sometimes as a people – perennially features as the starting point.

Yet in the first century Rome alone exercised authority to carry out crucifixion. By beginning with the perspective of Pontius Pilate, we can better assess the presentation of the Gospels, and counteract a prominent cause of anti-Semitism in the Christian West.


Pilate confronted a difficult situation on two fronts in the autumn of 31 CE.

The first problem must have seemed routine at the outset. A rabbi named Jesus had disputed with the high priest Caiaphas concerning commercial arrangements inside the Temple. Given the number of times Josephus refers to Galilean disturbances there during the first century, one more incident like the others can hardly have daunted Pilate.

Yet Jesus’ incursion had temporarily halted the conduct of sacrifice in the Temple (Mark 11:15-17), [1] and that kind of interference directly engaged the interests of Rome. To the Romans, one potent symbol of their rule over the Jews was that the high priest accepted offerings that the Emperor paid for every day, in effect interceding with God on his behalf, and on the behalf of the Roman hegemony. The fact that many people in Jerusalem resisted Caiaphas’ efforts to centralize power in his own hands – as Rabbinic sources show – did not concern Pilate directly. The fact that someone went into the Great Court with enough force – amounting to between 150 and 200 men -- to evict traders, drive out animals, and break up the cages for birds, most obviously did.

While Jesus pursued his dispute about arrangements the Temple, events in Rome had altered the political landscape around him in ways he himself could not begin to fathom. Tiberius sent a letter from Capri, which he ordered read before the Senate in the presence of Sejanus, the strong man of Rome. [2] Sejanus had overreached himself. This apparently invincible regent, Prefect of the 9,000 soldier Praetorian Guard, had become the target of ambivalent messages from the Emperor himself. Writing from his Villa of Jupiter on the island of Capri to the Senate, Tiberius balanced trenchant criticism of Sejanus’ policy of arrogating judicial power against his detractors in Rome, while flattering Sejanus personally. Speculation grew in Rome that Sejanus’ days were numbered.

Any concern Sejanus himself may have felt was overcome by recent rumors he had heard that Tiberius was about to promote him, making him second in command to the Emperor himself within the Empire. The Senate assembled on October 18 in the temple of Apollo on the Palatine, and listened to the sort of long, rambling, missive Tiberius had acquired the habit of sending. But the message became increasingly pointed in its criticism of Sejanus, and at last accused him of treason.

At the end of the reading of the Imperial letter, the Vigiles (local police) bound Sejanus and marched him to the Mamertine dungeon. A crowd had gathered in the street and they screamed in hatred as Sejanus was bullied past them. Tiberius had thrown them a scapegoat, someone to attack for all the dissatisfaction and hardship they knew. They ran wild, smashing the statues of himself that Sejanus had erected, and the forces of order in Rome did nothing to stop them. In his confinement, Sejanus might have hoped for a sentence of exile, rather then death, but the Senate knew to act quickly, before Sejanus got any bright ideas of what to do with the 9,000 crack troops of the Praetorian Guard under his command.

By the end of that same day, the Senate ordered Sejanus strangled, even for Rome a gruesome form of execution. The executioner wound a leather garrot around Sejanus’ neck, yanked its crossed ends, and crushed his windpipe. The soldiers pulled the corpse into the street. The waiting crowd descended upon it and tore it to pieces.

Pilate would learn of these events from traders and Roman functionaries recently arrived from Rome itself. The arrest of a high official on the charge of treason was enough to strike fear into anybody’s heart. But the gruesome tale went on and on. Sejanus’ uncle and son were also killed, as well as many of his friends and collaborators. His divorced wife, Apicata, committed suicide. Even his two young children were executed, the girl gang-raped by soldiers before she was dispatched. Livilla, to whom Sejanus was engaged, found little mercy, although she was a member of the Imperial household. Her own mother, in a demonstration of fealty to the Emperor, starved her daughter to death. The Emperor’s whims were as capricious as his power was boundless; he was "Divi filius," God’s son. As a well-known Jewish proverb (see Matthew 26:52 and Isaiah Targum 50:11) said those who lived by the sword died by it. That applied especially to those who served the Empire.

Pilate knew that the Senate would stumble over itself to fill the vacuum that Sejanus’ removal created. They perennially bemoaned the influence they lost when the oligarchic Republic they governed had become an empire in 31 BCE, ruled by the brute fact of the Emperor’s concentrated military power. The Senate would no doubt try to reverse Sejanus’ policies and introduce a kinder and gentler approach to Imperial policy. Pilate was known to be a hard-liner in his dealings with the Jews, and he was afraid. Association with Sejanus and his policies might lose him more than his position.

As he ruminated over Sejanus’ death Pilate doubtless thought of Caiaphas. A strong working relationship with the high priest was now imperative, like it or not. Caiaphas would have known that, and he pressed Pilate on the matter of Jesus’ arrest. Rabbi Jesus had initially registered on the prefect’s [3] radar as an annoying but harmless lunatic. Now he wanted to appease Caiaphas and show Rome that he controlled Judea without deliberately antagonizing local leaders as he had in the past. Terror and humiliation were still his tactics, but he had to learn to find the right targets.

Pilate had no choice but to make common cause with Caiaphas. Through that redefinition of a vitally important alliance, he showed himself a consummate politician. He bided his time. He would not appear weak in the sight of the people he ruled. The city was winding down for the winter in any case; the prefect was not going to act unless it was necessary, and then only when action was most clearly to his own benefit.

As if Jesus wasn’t already in enough danger from the prefect and high priest, his old foe Antipas, Tetrarch of Galilee and Perea, was also taking a keen interest in events in Rome and the tightening of the alliance between Pilate and Caiaphas. After all, it was Antipas’ Galilean subjects who had been killed in Jerusalem during the riot of 30 CE (see Josephus, Jewish War 2 §§ 175-177; Antiquities 18 §§ 60-62 and Luke 13:1-3); he felt Pilate owed him a favor after the prefect’s ruthless action, and this was a propitious moment to press the claim. More importantly, he wanted to show himself both in command of his own territory and cooperative with other agents of Rome and local religious leaders in the uncertain circumstances after Sejanus’ execution. Might he use his Roman colleague and priestly co-religionist to rid himself of Jesus at long last and solidify his position? Unless Antipas, Caiaphas, and Pilate together showed that they could effectively rule their Jewish subjects, each of them was in danger being stripped of his title, position and power.

The nuances of the new common interest shared by the high priest, the prefect, and the tetrarch eluded Jesus as much as the recently changed complexities of power in Rome. Politically, he was now out of his depth. As one of my students once remarked, Jesus’ action in the Temple was focused on the issue of sacrifice, but what he did was unleashed a perfect storm of political opposition from Tiberius’ Rome and Antipas’ Galilee as well as from the Jerusalem of Pilate and Caiaphas. Later interpretation has also shown itself naďve in treating Jesus’ execution as if it were caused by resistance to his teaching within Jewish opinion.


The best point of departure for understanding what the present generation of scholarship as made of Jesus’ execution is Raymond Brown’s monumental work, a nearly comprehensive treatment of the passion of Jesus. [4] Brown proceeds pericope by pericope, analyzing both exegetical and historical issues in discrete sections within the context of the secondary literature. He correctly portrays events as centering on Jesus’ confrontation in the Temple, which he sees as "prophetic dramatic action against improprieties in the Temple." [5]

At the level of historical reconstruction (more prominent here than elsewhere in his book), Brown proposes that the Sanhedrin met concerning Jesus sometime before the arrest, much as the Gospel according to John (11:47-53) would suggest. Then the malefactor was brought before Caiaphas immediately before he was denounced to Pilate. The entire scenario is developed within the framework of Brown’s judicious discussion of the political realities in Jerusalem at the time. [6] He is well aware of the objections to the historicity of the account of Jesus’ trial: "The conflicts between the Gospel accounts of the trial and later rabbinic procedure . . . have sometimes been estimated at twenty-seven." [7] He realizes "the Sanhedrin" is not as described in Mishnah, that it had no capital jurisdiction, that it would not have convened at night or during the course of Passover. In his reading, the Gospels reflect an "interrogation" [8] of Jesus (rather than a trial) before two competent authorities, a council of elders and the High Priest.


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