A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
A week from today, I’ll be starting a new course: an MPhil in New Testament studies. My dissertation project is about Pontius Pilate, specifically his representation in the accounts of Philo of Alexandria, a Jewish philosopher and his direct contemporary, and Josephus, the Palestinian nobleman who was captured by Vespasian while fighting the Romans in Galilee and who went on to write monumental works of history and apologetics under Flavian patronage.
The historical study of the New Testament is a relatively young discipline, and it is only recently that academic works on Pilate have begun to appear which give serious consideration to the non-biblical sources. Scholars such as Jean-Pierre Lémonon, Helen Bond, Anne-Catherine Baudoin and Warren Carter have broken new ground in the last decades by taking the ‘holistic view’ of the man who was, after all, prefect of Judaea for ten years, and who made more than one controversial decision. But the moves made by historians usually take a while to reach the public domain and, in culturally Christian contexts at least, most people have a view of Pilate that comes directly or indirectly from the Gospels. Or, at least, that is my impression.
Since I haven’t started my course yet, I decided to test my impression in a completely unscientific way, with a straw poll on Facebook. I asked my friends (and their friends): What do you think of first when you hear the name Pontius Pilate?
No less than five of the first responses were to do with hand-washing, which is straight from the Gospel of Matthew, and which my friends Jane and Kate in particular associated with “refusing to take responsibility” and “empty gestures”. “I feel rather sorry for him,” added my friend Geri, “but that’s not the first thing I think of.” She wasn’t the only one; Bookfox Hilary admitted to “more sympathy for his situation than is possibly traditional”.
Bookfox Moira, meanwhile, quoted John by way of Francis Bacon:
What is truth? said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer.
This wasn’t the only literary Pilate reference. A Russian friend was on hand to quote The Master and Margarita (thanks, Maya):
Early in the morning on the fourteenth of the spring month of Nisan, the Procurator of Judaea, Pontius Pilate, in a white cloak lined with blood-red, emerged with his shuffling cavalryman’s walk into the arcade connecting the two wings of the palace of Herod the Great.
“Biggus Dickus,” piped up Pam shortly afterwards, followed by Christopher, who thought of “Washing hands, then the scene in Asterix.” Josh, meanwhile, thought first of all of Jesus’ trial. “I don’t think I know anything about him outside that context,” he added. “Or within that context, tbh, as most of my knowledge about him comes from his comedic portrayal in a local theatre troupe rendition of Jesus Christ Superstar, so I imagine him with a snorkel and scuba gear.”
Of course, apart from Asterix (which is completely ahistorical in this particular respect, and renames him Pontius Pirate), everything here from Bacon and Bulgakov to Lloyd Webber and Life of Brian is based on some version of the biblical Pilate(s). This is understandable, given the historical and cultural reach of the New Testament sources. But, as my fellow theologian Ian Finlay reminded us all, this dominance has in the past brought with it terrible consequences:
I think of the Jews being the fall guys for two millennia for what was most likely Pilate’s decision to execute Jesus. It was the Romans rather than the Jews that most likely done Jesus in.
The vast majority of scholars these days agree: Jesus was tried and executed by a Roman prefect under Roman law for offences against Roman order. The role of the chief priests and Pharisees in the gospel narratives has more to do with the self-definition of the communities that produced them than it has to do with the likely historical reality. But, precisely as Ian points out, it’s necessary to remember that this consensus was only recently reached within academia, and there is still much work to do before it’s widely accepted among people who encounter the Gospels on another footing.
Ian wasn’t the only scholar to weigh in. Occasional Bookfox Michael Ng, a Roman historian, characterised Pilate as “a decent enough equestrian procurator who, however, was in over his head. He tried to administer and balance Rome’s and the Jews’ needs (public order and stability) in a province known for fractiousness and turmoil.”
And this brings me to the focus of my own project: the way in which Pilate’s tenure in Judaea was assessed by two of the most eloquent and prolific writers of the period, neither of whom viewed him primarily as the judge of Christ (indeed, Philo does not mention Jesus at all, and Josephus’ apparent testimony to his existence is at best heavily edited). To an extent, focussing on the non-biblical sources is still a necessary corrective to the sheer dominance of the gospel accounts; a dominance that is easy to explain given that, for believing Christians and by extension in broadly Christian cultural contexts, the execution of Jesus of Nazareth must be the defining act of Pilate’s career and indeed of his existence (witness his appearance in the Creed). Personally, in approaching this project, I have never been so aware of the comparative superficiality of my own faith perspective: I was studying history long before I ever voluntarily set foot in a church, so it’s fairly intuitive for me to file Pilate under “ancient history” rather than “christology”. (I don’t think that’s a strength or a weakness. It’s just a thing.)
But even for those who accord that theological importance to Pilate, with all its transcendent and transformative power, nothing can be lost by understanding how he was received by those who stood outside the (then) small, marginal communities that produced the biblical accounts. The last decades have seen tremendous progress in terms of understanding Christianity as a phenomenon that originated, and to a great extent continued to grow, within the context of diverse first- and second-century Judaism. The complex and difficult relationship between Rome and Judaea is a key part of that picture, and Pilate is a prominent representative of that relationship. That Philo and Josephus both single Pilate out for treatment is proof that his tenure in Judaea had considerable impact beyond the Christian communities who have ended up defining him in the eyes of many.
I can’t wait to get started.
Kirsty Jane Falconer is a theology student at Harris Manchester College, Oxford.