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Pontius Pilate of history less intriguing than the myth

By Helen K. Bond
Cambridge University Press, 250 pages, $59.95


To avoid moral and ethical responsibility.

To excuse oneself by shifting blame.

To wash one’s hands of guilt.

Such are the motivations historically linked to Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor whose public hand-washing in Matthew 27:24 has become a metaphor for cowardly avoidance.

“I am innocent of this man’s blood,” Pilate declared according to Matthew, indicating that he was only carrying out the will of the crowd in executing Jesus.

Given that the quest for the historical Jesus has occupied scholars for much of this century, it is only fitting that Pilate be subjected to similar scrutiny. The goal of the sometimes controversial Jesus quest, as anyone faintly familiar with contemporary biblical scholarship knows, is to separate what is historically accurate in the New Testament from interpreters’ distortions -- most notably those of the gospel writers with their various agendas.

In a rare English-language work, a scholar has produced a full-length historical treatment of Pilate, looking at his portrayal by six men: the Jewish writers Philo and Josephus and the authors of the four gospels.

The book, Pontius Pilate in History and Interpretation, by Helen K. Bond, was published by Cambridge University Press as one in a series of monographs sponsored by the Society of New Testament Studies.

Pilate served as Judea’s Roman governor, from 26 to 37, when Judea belonged to the Roman province of Syria. Pilate’s job depended on his keeping peace among sometimes fractious factions in his province.

The search for the “real” Pilate moves beyond those bare facts as authors portray him through their various lenses.

A common -- and overly simplistic -- assumption, Bond writes, is that all four gospels show Pilate as weak and vacillating.

Bond sees it differently. She sees in Mark’s Pilate, for instance, a shrewd, manipulative politician who saw beyond the concerns of the Jewish high priests. They saw Jesus as a threat to their religious authority; Pilate saw him as a potential threat to civil order. But to get Jesus out of the way, Pilate needed the support of the crowd. So he referred to Jesus as “king of the Jews.”

The people got the implied message: If they supported a “king” to whom Jews had no right, they would be in a dangerous position, perceived as opposing the political authority of Rome.

Bond assumes that Mark wrote for Christians in Rome after Nero’s persecutions in 64. Wary of Roman authority, they would have scoffed at a portrayal of a Roman governor as weak. Further, his portrayal of a Jesus who suffered at manipulative Roman hands would have strengthened them in the face of their own political persecutions, according to Bond.

In Matthew’s account, Pilate regards Jesus as innocent but washes his hands of the affair, letting the Jewish people take responsibility. This suits Matthew’s literary concern. Writing after the fall of Jerusalem in 70, his anti-Jewish tone reflects the breakdown in relations between his audience, Christians of Jewish ancestry and the Jewish synagogue leaders.

Luke, writing later, is concerned about creating a favorable environment for Christians in Rome.

In the passion story, Pilate gets off easy. Finding “no case” against Jesus, he is strongly inclined to let Jesus go with a flogging but buckles under pressure, allowing a Jewish mob to trump Roman justice.

John presents Pilate as a manipulative, mocking leader who, once persuaded by the crowd that Jesus is a political threat, decides to put him to death, but only after the people renounce their messianic hopes and unconditionally champion Caesar’s authority. But as John weaves his theology into the story, he pits Jesus against all earthly rule, so that in the end, it is really the Jews and Pilate who are judged.

It has become axiomatic among contemporary historians that history is always written with an agenda. Philo and Josephus were no exception, according to Bond.

Philo, whose account of the crucifixion of Jesus was, of the six accounts, written closest to its occurrence, was in the best position to gather firsthand facts. But Bond cautions that Philo’s pro-Jewish agenda has to be kept in mind when he presents Pilate as “spiteful, angry, lacking in courage, inflexible, stubborn and cruel” and given to savagery. Philo tends to black-brush Romans who lack respect for Jews.

By contrast, for reasons of his own, the Jewish historian Josephus portrays Pilate as a relatively able governor with a commendable distaste for excessive bloodshed, though insensitive toward Jewish religious concerns. Josephus’ message to Jews is that it’s futile to defy Roman rule.

Like the role of Jesus in the minds and hearts of believers, the role of Pilate in literary history surpasses elusive historical fact. Bond points out that in the former Soviet Union, Pilate served in literary works during the Stalinist era as a metaphor for avoiding responsibility. Over the centuries, Pilate has become an archetype of human tendencies to manipulate, scapegoat and evade.

As in gospel times, the mythical Pilate -- the Pilate who reflects tendencies we see all around us, as well as within -- may inspire more interest than any catalog of historical facts.

Whoever he was, whatever his true motivations, Pilate, through his chance encounter with Jesus of Nazareth, is assured an enduring place in Western consciousness.

Pamela Schaeffer is NCR’s special projects editor.

National Catholic Reporter, April 2, 1999