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Pilate, the Politics of Rome, and Evangelical Politics

   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.

Brown himself summarizes his scheme in the following way: [9]

• a Sanhedrin session was called to deal with Jesus
• an issue in that session was the threat Jesus posed to the Temple
• the one who urged the others to decide Jesus’ death was the High Priest
• there was a judgment equivalent to a death sentence
• there was a high-priestly investigation of Jesus on the night that he was arrested.

In short, Brown abstracts from the Gospels’ account material he believes to be historical, recognizing that the bulk of the passage is pulled together for dramatic purposes.

Brown’s concluding sentence may help to assess his analysis overall:

The clarity and force of the unified trial presentation has moved and been remembered by hundreds of millions; the awkwardnesses have bothered a handful of scholars subjecting the narrative to microscopic examination. [10]

In the very act of writing his book, Brown proved that he is one of the bothered few, but he also writes with a sense of responsibility for the outline of faith as presented in the Gospels. That dual loyalty involved him in some inconsistency.

Brown’s analysis wisely accords much more weight to the issue of the Temple itself than had been conventional in writing until his time. He devotes an extensive section of his commentary to that general issue, [11] but his overall concern is whether Jesus would have said anything against the Temple (as in Mark 14:58). He concludes that he would have, but the form of Brown’s concern leads to a lack of focus in regard to what Jesus did. Prophecies against the Temple had been traditional from the time of Jeremiah, and even under disturbed conditions much later (four years before the war against Rome), Jesus son of Ananias was scourged for his prophecy, not executed (see Josephus, Jewish War 6.5.3 § 300-309). Jesus of Nazareth evidently constituted a more pointed threat, both to the cultic authorities and to Pilate, whose chief interest was public order.

Brown oddly does not cite the work of Victor Eppstein, [12] or of Benjamin Mazar, [13] or of the present writer, [14] or of Craig Evans. [15] All those contributions address the arrangements in the Temple which Caiaphas innovated, and which resulted in Jesus’ occupation. Brown refers to some of the relevant Talmudic passages (Bavli Sanhedrin. 41a; Shabbat 15a; Abodah Zarah 8b), but not in relation to the issue of Caiaphas’ growing power. He does not refer to the evidence of Pharisaic actions akin to Jesus’ (see Bavli Besa 20a-b and Mishnah Keritot 1:7), nor to the strong tradition of a failure in the efficacy of the Temple forty years prior to its destruction (Bavli Yoma 39b):

Forty years before the destruction of the house, the lot did not come up in the right hand, the crimson strap failed to turn white, and the western light would not burn, and the gates of the Temple opened on their own…

In a commentary that is nearly comprehensive in its reach, these omissions are striking.

Because Brown does not develop an adequate understanding of the issue that divided Caiaphas and Jesus, he falls back on the argument that Jesus "blasphemy" was that he spoke with authority and out of turn. [16] Here Brown joins a tendency of pious scholarship which has been evident since the ’fifties. [17] While Brown concedes that Jesus made no directly messianic claim, [18] the matter of Jesus’ identity eclipses the issue of the Temple, although Brown had already shown that the Temple was the historical pivot of events. That is an example of the triumph of Christian apologetics over sound historical sense. No one can read the Talmudic episodes of rabbinic actions in the Temple, including driving animals into the place and changing sacrificial requirements in order to control the prices of offerings, and conclude that cultic arrangements were anything but contentious, or that claiming authority for oneself presented the biggest offense imaginable within that setting. Instead of exploring why Jesus appeared more threatening to the cultic authorities than his contemporaries did, Brown reverts to the picture of Jesus’ "authority" causing the Sanhedrin to turn against him, with Caiaphas signing on at the last moment out of annoyance about something Jesus said in the Temple. The implicit assumption that inappropriate speech would automatically result in execution is implausible.

The same sort of implausibility afflicts the claim that Jesus was put to death for claiming to be the messiah or having people make that claim on his behalf. Brown’s distortion is extended, when scholars argue that Jesus’ messianic claim provoked his death at Pilate’s hands. [19] Brown would probably not have agreed with those who extend his work in that way. [20] The portrayal of the messianic issue reflects the perspective of those who told the story, rather than the perspective of Jesus, Caiaphas, or Pilate.


But that early Christian perspective is as important to appreciate as the perspective of Jesus, if we want to understand the Gospels (all of which were composed after 70 CE). Christians, as partisans of Christ, claimed that Jesus was son of God, and they therefore denied that Caesar was Divi filius. That is what lead to persecution and pogrom at Roman hands from the time of the fire in Rome in 64 CE until Constantine’s edict of Milan. During that long period, the best that Christians could hope for was a Roman policy of "don’t ask, don’t tell." In the correspondence between Pliny the Younger and Trajan during the second century, that is just what they got, and Tertullian rejoiced in that precedent. [21]

The Gospels are in part designed to encourage that policy. You can see that in the unique additions each Gospel offers to get Pilate off the hook of the political responsibility he alone bore. In John, Jesus tells Pilate, "My kingdom is not of this world" (18:36). Although this exchange regarding political theory is not plausible, at least it is presented in Greek, rather than in Latin (as in Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of the Christ"). Luke alone among the Gospels has an acquittal pronounced at the moment of Jesus’ death (Luke 23:47-48):

The centurion standing by opposite him saw what happened and glorified God, saying, In fact this person was righteous. And all the crowds that came upon this sight, observing what had happened, returned beating their breasts.

Mark is unique in having a befuddled Pilate "utterly astounded that he had already died" (15:44), as if he had not known Jesus had been flogged prior to crucifixion. Matthew’s Gospel is the most inventive, in passing on the legend of Pilate’s wife (27:19), although prefects of Pilate’s rank were not authorized to bring their wives on posting. In any case, Pilate and his entourage resided in Caesarea, not Jerusalem. Matthew is sensitive to the latter fact (as Mel Gibson is not), and has the wife "send" a message to Pilate.

By means of such embellishments and legends, early Christians supported the Roman policy of "don’t ask—don’t tell," and deflected blame for Jesus’ crucifixion as best they could from the Romans. In doing so, they wound up repeating a version of what Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy said in 1 Thessalonians. Those writers fiercely asserted that the Pharisaic teachers from Judea who had tried to prevent contact with Gentiles formed an obstacle to their preaching (2:14): "For you, brothers, became imitators of the churches of God that are in Judea in Jesus Christ, because you also suffered the same things from your kinspeople as they did from the Jews."

This refers back to the deep contention in Jerusalem among Jewish followers of Jesus. Paul, Silas, and Timothy are using the word "Jews" (Ioudaioi in Greek) to mean the people back in Judea that wished to "forbid us to speak to the Gentiles" (2:16). They had some disciples of Jesus in mind, teachers such as those Pharisees who believed in Jesus’ message but insisted that circumcision was a requirement of salvation (Acts 15:5). [22] But the same term could also be used during the first century (and later, of course) to mean any practitioners of Judaism anywhere, and that is the sense of the term "Jew" in common usage. The lineal descendant of 1 Thessalonians 2:16 is the Wagnerian crowd in Matthew 27:25 that declares, "His blood is on us and on our children."

So the three companions, writing to Thessalonica and dealing with local issues and recent history, [23] spoke in a way that has encouraged anti-Semitism. Had Paul, Silas, and Timothy known they were writing for something called the New Testament, and how their words would be used to justify the persecution of Jews, they obviously would have spoken differently. So would the writers of the Gospels. And so should we.


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