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Easter and Pontius Pilate

James Studdard is an attorney with a passion to separate the Historical Jesus from the Scriptural Jesus. He may be reached, if absolutely necessary, at studlaw2000@yahoo.com.

During Pilate’s governorship of Judea and Galilee, there was relative peace and tranquility, though Pilate did, on occasion, exacerbate Roman-Jewish relations with his callousness and ruthless brutality. There were two incidences that stirred Pilates’ ire toward his (Jewish) subjects, and both involved Jesus. It was the time of Passover, the holiest of holy celebrations in the Jewish Jerusalem and in the Diaspora. Pilate was aware of the possibility for restive behavior during the Passover and was well equipped to deal with any slight disturbance of Roman peace or rule.
During Passover, Pilate would travel to Jerusalem and along with him came a cohort (300 to 600) of soldiers just in case any anti-Roman demonstrations were staged. The temple in Jerusalem was the social, political, and religious center of the Jewish world. The complex was quite large (169,000 sq.ft. or twenty football fields) and guarded internally by Roman guards stationed in the Antonia fortress to the immediate north of, but within, the temple. Once in Jerusalem, the soldiers were posted in the Antonia fortress which overlooked the synagogue and gave the guards a bird’s eye view of all the activity within the synagogue walls. This tactical setup by Pilate causes one to wonder how, as related in the New Testament, Jesus was able to enter a synagogue packed with Jewish pilgrims, turn over their tables, swear at and beat vendors, and in general upset all in attendance without any reprisal from the Roman guards. Of course, during this holy week there would have been literally tens of thousands of pilgrims in the temple so that perhaps tipping of a few tables would have gone unnoticed by the Roman guards.
The Barabbas episode is yet another attempt to portray Pilate as a weak, kindly, and compassionate man, who stood by helplessly, unable to resist the Jewish demand for the crucifixion of Jesus. The gospel authors in the New Testament seem to exonerate Pilate and the Romans in the death of Jesus, while casting the worst light possible on the Jews. Again, Pilate is said to have found no fault with Jesus and was opposed to his condemnation, but was coerced by Jewish pressure to yield to their cry for a crucifixion. Given Pilate’s reputation for ruling with an iron hand, the New Testament’s description of his (Pilate’s) sudden sympathy for an alleged seditionist (who claimed to be a king) seems to be a fantasy. Pilate could not have cared less about some intra-Jewish squabble unless it threatened Roman authority, likewise, he would have had no reservations about executing a troublemaking Jew. Fantasy notwithstanding, Christians seized upon the opportunity to lay complete blame for the death of Jesus upon the Jews and not upon the Romans.
The New Testament Scripture tells us that the final successful argument (and threat) by the Jews for the crucifixion of Jesus was to intimate to Pilate that his refusing their demands to crucify Jesus who claimed to be a king, would show that Pilate was no “friend of Caesar” John 19:12. Pilate, again, given his track record for violence and keeping Roman peace, would never have succumbed to a threat that to release Jesus would put him in bad light with the emperor.  Pilate could easily explain the execution of a known rebel, Barabbas, and the release of a harmless religious preacher. Moreover, crucifixion, under Pilates’ rule was the punishment du jour and he would not have hesitated for an instant to dispatch anyone to a cross who demonstrated any behavior that threatened to upset the Pax Romana. Pilate knew from experience, if he gave in to the demands of this small group of Jewish clergy, as described in the gospel narratives, he would appear vulnerable, fearful and render his rule ineffective. This he would not do. That a Roman Prefect of an already rebellion-prone province would submit to the demands of a local crowd and release Barabbas, as the New Testament paints as a known insurrectionist and murderer while executing a harmless preacher is rather incredible. Had Pilate really believed Jesus to be an insurrectionist, not only would he have crucified Jesus, he would also have rounded up as many Jesus followers as possible and crucified them as well. Not one disciple of Jesus or Apostle was killed in the crucifixion aftermath. Pilate, who had little regard for Jesus, Jewish customs or culture, handed over Jesus to the Jews for selfish reasons only, i.e., to avoid a nasty and disruptive scene with the Jews.
As further proof text of the historical Pilate’s penchant for violence, Philo the philosopher, (circa, 25 B.C., to 50 A.D.) described Pilate as naturally inflexible, possessing a blend of self will and relentlessness. These traits, according to Philo, were in addition to his vindictiveness and furious temper. Pilate’s tenure as Prefect was infamous for briberies, insults, robberies, and the outrages of wanton injuries, executions without trials, and constantly repeated careless and supremely grievous cruelty. Hardly a man who, contrary to the New Testament’s description of him, would cow tow to a gang of Jews looking to settle a religious dispute unless for reasons of self-interest. What was one Jew, more or less, to Pilate. It appears the gospel authors would have us believe that Pilate suddenly changed his usually vicious character, and out of kindness and sense of justice, opted to save a man who claimed (contra to Caesar) to be a king. The story of the freeing of Barabbas, as told by Christians over millennia, whatever the historical facts might have been, succeeded in placing the blame for Jesus’ death on all Jews, for all time, and all places. In next week’s Easter piece, I will explain why there had to be a resurrection story for Christianity to survive.