A Gross misrepresentation of history?

Murray Smith askswhether we can trust the Gospel accounts of the first Easter

Dick Gross raises an important point (My Gospel Gripes, SMH 29/03/10). The death and resurrection of Jesus have always been at the heart of the Christian faith. If we can’t trust what the Gospels say about the events of the first Easter, then we should abandon the cross and embrace the chocolate bunny as the true symbol for the long weekend.

Gross invites us to start with the Gospels’ portrayal of Pontius Pilate. He levels two major criticisms. First, he says the characterisation of Pilate in the Gospels as a reluctant executioner is ‘laughable’ and ‘fraudulent’. Second, more seriously, he says that the Gospels lay all the blame for Jesus’ execution on ‘the Jews’. This matters, he says, because the Gospels ‘began two millennia of intractable and murderous anti-Semitism’. These are serious accusations. In neither case, however, does Gross provide a plausible reading of the evidence.

Let’s start with the Gospels’ portrayal of Pilate as a reluctant executioner of Jesus. Here we need to clear up a niggling detail. Gross implies that the Gospels inaccurately identify Pilate as the Roman ‘Procurator’ of Judea, when in fact he held the post of ‘Prefect’. These are Latin titles, and it was the Roman historian Tacitus who got it around the wrong way (Annals, 15.44). The Gospels, which were written in Greek (not Latin) simply use the general term hegemon (Matthew 27.2; Luke 20.20) which serves as a designation for any ‘ruler’ or ‘governor’. At any rate, the distinction is a fine one, so we can probably let Tacitus off the hook!

But was this Roman Prefect a reluctant executioner of Jesus? The Gospels accounts (Matthew 27; Mark 15; Luke 23; John 18-19) say yes. Gross says no. My vote, for what it is worth, is with the Gospels. The reason for Pilate’s reluctance is simple. He feared a riot. Yes, Pilate was capable of brutal suppression. Yes, he enjoyed provoking the Jewish aristocracy. But the primary responsibility he had been given was to maintain peace in the turbulent province. And his primary aim was to maintain his own position in power.

In AD 33 this was proving to be a difficult task. Pilate found himself in a vulnerable position, under pressure from above and below. In Rome, Pilate’s sponsor, the infamous Sejanus, had recently been executed for treason by the Emperor Tiberius. This placed Pilate under suspicion in the capital. In Judea, his inept administration had provoked rebellion at least twice (Josephus, Antiquities 18.55-59, 60-62; Jewish War 2.169-174; 175-177). This repeatedly clumsy management of a delicate situation had led Herod Antipas and other high level officials in the region to formally complain to the Emperor against him (Philo, Embassy 299-306). Pilate’s hold on his position was tenuous. One more uprising and he might lose his job. Indeed, this is exactly what happened three years later when he was deposed for mishandling an incident in Samaria.

the arrival in Jerusalem at Passover of a popular prophet-cum-Messiah, was bad news for Pilate

In this context, the arrival in Jerusalem at Passover of a popular prophet-cum-Messiah, was bad news for Pilate. The populace was split. Crowds of supporters had accompanied Jesus from Galilee. But the Jerusalem aristocracy vehemently opposed him. The Roman Prefect was in a no-win situation. To execute Jesus meant risking a popular backlash. To release him meant further alienating the Jewish leadership.

To make matters worse, Pilate had only limited resources. The best estimates place Pilate’s firepower in Jerusalem at 600-1,000 soldiers (one cohort). The nearest Roman legions were stationed far away at Antioch in Syria. During Passover, the population of the city swelled from 50,000 to 250,000. If a riot broke out, it was all over red rover for Pilate’s political career. The Prefect’s initial reluctance to execute a popular leader is therefore understandable. His eventual capitulation to the demands of the Jewish leadership, and the crowds they had whipped into a frenzy, also makes sense. The characterisation of Pilate in the Gospels is eminently plausible.

Gross paints Pilate as a one-dimensional character: he is simply brutal and murderous. Gross does this to create a contrast between the ‘weak’ Pilate of the Gospels and the ‘brutal’ Pilate of the Jewish sources (Philo and Josephus). But the Gospels also mention Pilate’s brutality (Luke 13.1) and, like the Gospels, Philo and Josephus also point out how Pilate backed down when it suited him politically (Josephus, Antiquities 18.55-59; Philo, Embassy 299-306). As Helen Bond concludes in her comprehensive study of Pontius Pilate in History and Interpretation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998, 205): ‘demarcation between the ‘harsh aggressive Pilate’ of Jewish sources and the ‘weak, vacillating Pilate’ of Christian ones is much too simplistic’. The portraits of Pilate in the Gospels and the other sources are nothing like as different as Gross suggests.

Gross’ second criticism is more serious. The Gospels, he says, blame ‘the Jews’ for Jesus’ execution, while exonerating Pilate. They are, therefore, at least partly responsible for 2000 years of anti-Semitism. But there are two mistakes here. To begin with, it is all too often forgotten that Jesus and most of the earliest Christians were themselves Jews. The Gospels self-consciously stress the deep connections between Jesus and his Jewish heritage. If they are critical of the actions of the Jerusalem aristocracy, it is because of their deep regard for the traditions of Israel. To label the Gospels ‘anti-semitic’ because they record the shameful actions of the Jerusalem leadership makes as much sense as labelling the Herald un-Australian because it dares to criticise government policy. Certainly, Western society, the church included, has an atrocious record of mistreatment of Jewish people. But to blame this on Jewish-Christian texts from the first century is simply anachronistic. In addition, it is surely significant that all four Gospels name Pilate as the man who sentenced Jesus to death. He doesn’t come off looking innocent. He appears, rather, as a self-interested figure whose chief guiding principle is political expediency. He shares the blame for Jesus’ execution.

That, at least, is how I read it. But the Gospels are readily accessible. Anyone who is interested can read the accounts for themselves. This one brief and fascinating moment in ancient history has shaped our modern world more than any other. What better time than Easter to re-investigate the story?

Murray Smith is a PhD candidate in the Department of Ancient History at Macquarie University and a Fellow of the Centre for Public Christianity. His research on 'The Political Context of the Gospels' is due out later this year in M. Harding and A.M. Nobbs, The Content and Setting of the Gospel Traditions, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.'

This article first appeared in The National Times