Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Pilate: brutal tyrant or vacillating weakling?

"We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, [...]
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate."

- Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed

Was Pontius Pilate a ruthless dictator who would execute a potential Jewish troublemaker at the drop of a hat or a spineless pushover terrified of the Jews? Over Easter, Dick Gross has written an article in the Sydney Morning Herald claiming that the portrayal of Pilate in the canonical Gospels is not credible when compared with other historic accounts of this figure.

Murray Smith (my brother) has written an excellent reply also published in the SMH over the weekend.

History matters to Christianity. If the Gospels are no more than inspiring fables, then Jesus may entertain, stimulate or even illuminate us, but he cannot save us.


Ian Packer said...

Murray did a complete demolition of Gross with the best of British politeness.

Mike W said...

cool, calm, entertaining, informative. Thanks family smith

Anthony Douglas said...

I saw the Gross article when it popped up, and thought it deserved a good kicking, so I'm glad Murray administered what was required.

By the way, typo in your post: you have 'arguing' when I think you mean 'asserting' ;-)

Adi Gibb said...

Hi Byron,

I followed your link to your brother's article but was unable to leave a comment there so thought I would leave it here so you can pass it on.

I too am a PhD student, my thesis is specifically focused on Pontius Pilate, in the HPRC school at the University of Queensland. Overall I side with your brother about Pilate's portryal as a 'moster' as being unreasonable and simplistic. Just wanted to add a couple of things:

The archaeological evidence gives us very little insight into the Judean Prefect, though some arguments have been made that this evidence shows a clearly negative aspect to Pilate’s character. A limestone inscription at Caesarea, found in the 1960s gave, for the first time, physical proof of the existence of Pilate outside the gospels. The inscription is a part of a Tiberium, or temple dedicated to Tiberius which, it is argued, would have undoubtedly been viewed as insensitive to monotheistic Jews. Some bronze coins, minted during Pilate’s governorship, could also be viewed, prima facie, as examples of insensitive provocation. The coins had pagan symbols on them, as well as Jewish ones, and these were part of an attempt, according to some, to introduce to Judea a pagan, emperor based cult. However, when looked at closely, it is accepted that both of these pieces of archaeological evidence are merely remnants of a Roman governor carrying out Roman policy in a provincial way, while attempting, as much as possible, to negate any kind of offence to the people (afterall, he could have minted coins which were totally Romanised). Indeed, it seems the coins were in circulation for a very long time after Pilate's term of office, seeming to indicate that they could not have caused too much offence! (see: H K. Bond, "The Coins of Pontius Pilate: Part of an Attempt to Provoke the People or to Integrate Them into the Empire?," Journal for Study of Judaism 24 (1996), for further discussion)

Another aspect mentioned was Tactitus (in terms of whether Prefect or Procurator), and the sources Philo and Josephus who are chiefly responsible for the monstrous portrayal of Pilate. Both of these writers had obvious and quite blatant political and apologetic agendas which were served by portraying a Pilate who is corrupt, even evil, but who is capable of being controlled and made to respect the Jewish religion through the intervention of an emperor like Tiberius. Without going too deeply into it, both of these writers were attempting to appease the highest authority, and their audience, by exposing a corrupt representative of that authority. The Roman historian Tacitus, however, who had little to gain from any hyperbole, and could be relied upon to have related any significant events during Pilate’s time as governor in Judea, states that in Judea, “Under Tiberius all was quiet”.

Your brother mentioned Helen Bond, a wonderful Pilate scholar from the University of Edinburgh and an inspiration of mine in this field. She states, when dealing with Philo and Josephus, that they are influenced, “…to a great extent by his own particular theological, apologetic and/or community situation”. (H.K. Bond, Pontius Pilate in History and Interpretation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998))

Could you pass this all on to your brother and thanks for the link!

Adrian Gibb

David Palmer said...

Hi Byron, you old sluggard,

Time to wake up!

I just read both articles, and indeed your brother did a splendid job with a nice flourish/invitation to finish off.

What a blessing: a brother in the flesh, a brother in Christ.



byron smith said...

I haven't been asleep, simply out of regular access to the net for the last few weeks. This has gone on for a little longer than I'd anticipated due to some interesting and picturesque geological forces and may continue for another week or so. I'll do what I can.