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Jesus Before Pilate: What’s Wrong with This Picture?

Sadly, the gospel accounts are at complete odds with the available historical data about the relationship between Pilate and the Jews. The evidence suggests that the gospel accounts are wrong, that if there is any historical core to this story then Pilate never intended to release Jesus and Jews had nothing to do with Pilate’s decision to have Jesus crucified.

See Also: The Judas Brief (Pereset Press, 2014).

By Gary Greenberg
President of the Biblical Archaeology Society of New York
August 2014

To read this article in its entirety, we have presented it here in PDF format.

Comments (8)

Overall, I find your article very convincing. I take issue with the description of the Samaritans as "orthodox Jews" though--the term comes off as anachronistic for one (Judaism was fractured into multiple sects all claiming orthodoxy before the destruction of the temple in 70), and the Samaritans considered (and still consider) themselves to be Israelites, but not Jews. The origin of the names of the two groups are in origin geographic--the Jews (Iudaioi or Yehudim) were those Israelites who followed the southern Jerusalem cult of the established by the former Davidic dynasty (from the tribe of Judah), while the Samaritans were similarly Israelites who followed the northern Samaria cult based at Gerizim (probably from the 5th century BCE onwards following the separation of the two provinces in the time of Artaxerxes I). The pre-Hasmonean evidence indicates that the two cult centers competed for dominance until the Maccabees conquered Samaria in the 2nd century BCE. Converts to the Israelite religion in Idumaea, Galilee, and Ituraea became known as Iudaioi (Jews) because the conversions were the result of the Jerusalem-based Hasmonean dynasty; the Samaritans already had an Isaraelite tradition by then and so were never considered Iudaioi (Jews).

With that down, Pilate's actions against the Samaritans probably would not have been considered an offense against the Jews per se, but they still conform to the general pattern of ruthlessness that you describe.
#1 - Robert M. Jennings - 08/13/2014 - 23:25

1. Thanks for this eloquent summary of the evidence! However, I too was rather astonished by the claim that Samaritans were Jewish, rather than Israelites who were by no means regarded as Jewish by themselves or others. The Samaritans must still have been smarting at the destruction of their main sanctuary by John Hyrcanus a century before. Conversely, any attempt to refound that sanctuary on Mt. Gerizim would have gone down very badly with the Jerusalem priests.
2. Pilate broke up(it seems) an armed band of Samaritans attempting to do exactly that, and executed ringleaders. This cannot have met with much objection from Jerusalem and perhaps indicates a policy on Pilate's part of working closely with the Jerusalem leaders and maintaining what the Samaritans would have considered a blasphemous monopoly. The same might well go for the Galileans who were engaged (if they did exist; we have no 'confirmation')in presumably unauthorised sacrifices outside the Temple.
3. Pilate's term in office was exceptionally long and this must have meant that he was satisfactory in Rome and to the then dominant section of the Herodian family, themselves Romans of the highest effective status, 'friends of Caesar'. Pilate, not even a senator, was a flunky in comparison.
4. The story of the golden shields/standards is garbled and comes from pro-Roman Jewish authors who wanted to show that imperial authority had often been benevolent.
5. It strains belief to think that there was mass dissent, rather than dissent from the priestly class for which Josephus speaks, when Pilate gave priority to the (no doubt desperately needed) water supply over Temple repairs.
6. Pilate needed and must, to survive so long, have actually had friends and supporters within the Jewish world.
7. There are many implausible things about the Gospel stories but the idea that Pilate, however ruthless he was when crossed, would still have wanted to conciliate, reward or somehow pay back those Jewish forces which supported him is absolutely not one of them. The Gospels' pretty clear suggestion that he resisted from at least something of a sense of justice and had to be pushed quite hard is less easy to believe.
8.From a scientific point of view the Gospel story is highly problematic and does not permit us to ascertain what happened between Pilate and unofficial Jewish religious leaders such as Jesus is supposed to have been. I don't think that the case that Jesus was in good standing with Jewish opinion, itself in fact very various, and in trouble only with the Romans can be definitively established. Anti-Roman sentiments among 'early Christians', who may or may not have had historical information about Jesus, existed but hardly seems dominant. Jewish sentiment about Jesus, which may or may not have historical value, is remarkably negative.
9. I'm not saying Pilate was a nice guy or a good administrator, just that we don't really know.
#2 - Martin Hughes - 08/14/2014 - 13:17

From the author:
Regarding the identification of Samaritans as Jews:

The term "Jew" was/is a complicated term having several religious, linguistic, cultural and political meanings. While the name Judea has its origins in the southern kingdom of David, it came to have different meanings over time as various foreign governments (and subsequent Jewish rulers)conquered the remnants of the Israelite kingdoms and created a province/polity called Judea, with possibly shifting boundaries that may have had nothing to do with the Kingdom of Judah in its original state. Eventually Judea encompassed at least two particular meanings. It defined people who lived in Judea (Israelite or not) and it came to be identified as the homeland of the Israelites, people who followed the law of Moses, who as a result came to be known as Jews, regardless of whether they came from the kingdoms of Judah or Israel. Paul, who claimed to be from the tribe of Benjamin, which was associated with the Kingdom of Israel as opposed to Judah, claimed to be a Jew. Many people whose family roots went back to the Kingdom of Israel rather than Judah, were called Jews. Some of them lived in Samaria. People who lived in Rome, Alexandria, Antioch, and Galilee were Jews because they believed in the Law of Moses, not because they claimed descent from the tribe of Judah or had families in Judea. Many Israelites moved into Judah after the Assyrian conquest. Samaritans believed in the Law of Moses and their lands were frequently incorporated into provinces identified as Judea. As far as I am concerned, they are Jews who disagreed with other Jews about the role of the Jerusalem Temple in Jewish life.
#3 - Gary Greenberg - 08/14/2014 - 15:16

From the author:
RE Pilate being satisfactory to the Herodians:

Even Luke acknowledges that Herod Antipas, the main Herodian ruler in the time of Jesus, was an enemy of Pilate. Antipas wanted to bring Judea under his own dominion and resented the Roman appointed governors. Judea was supposed to be a Herodian kingdom under the terms of his father's will and the Romans eventually removed the Herodian ruler of Judea and imposed the governors on the territory. Antipas would have been furious at being passed over as a King of Judea.
#4 - Gary Greenberg - 08/14/2014 - 15:24

Benjamin was actually associated with Judah, not Israel, from at least the 9th c. BC on (cf. the references to "All Judah and Benjamin" in Jeremiah and Ezra-Nehemiah). Josephus and Nehemiah both imply that the Samaritan priesthood was descended from dissident Jerusalem priests who opposed Nehemiah's "no-intermarriage" policy. The Elephantine Papyri in Egypt appeal to the governors of both Judah and Samaria in requesting financial help in rebbuilding the Yeb temple, even though the authors identify themselves as "Judeans"; apparently some notion of common Israelite identity was stronger for them than the more exclusivist Jerusalem identity embraced by the Nehemiah faction.

The debate over the centrality of the Jerusalem temple in Israelite religion begins in the time of Josiah (or possibly Hezekiah), and the local rulers in Judah seem to have gone back and forth throughout the late monarchic and Persian periods--Sanballat, the governor of Samaria, and Tobiah the governor of Ammon were both probably Israelites (Tobiah may even have been a Judean), and Bagohi, apparently Nehemiah's successor, seems to have had no issue with the (polytheistic) Judean temple at Elephantine. The struggles described in Ezra-Nehemiah probably represent late stages in the struggle over the "Jerusalem-alone" question, although there seems to have been some fluidity even into the Hellenistic period given that Onias IV built a Jewish temple at Leontopolis in Egypt.

What seems clear is that the Jerusalem-alone question was separate from the monotheism question, since the Samaritans of the Hellenistic period were monotheists like contemporary Jews and had adopted a Torah and priesthood with probable Jerusalem origins. Hyrcanus's destruction of the Gerizim temple is often treated as the "final breach" between the two communities which, however, had deep roots. By the time of Jesus, however, the Samaritans and the Jews were strongly separate in terms of identity, and were apparently distinguished as such by non-Jews: "for the Jews have no dealings with the Samaritans" (John 4:9).

Also, contemporary Samaritans do not identify themselves as Jews, and I think it's best to let people define their own identity. The history indicates that in pre-Hasmonean times the Jewish/Samaritan boundary was still fluid. By the time of Jesus, however, it was not.
#5 - Robert M. Jennings - 08/14/2014 - 19:13

We have one brief statement from Luke, maybe indicating that Herod thought that Pilate had not hitherto treated him with sufficient respect but now revised his opinion. If you accept this otherwise unsupported statement you surely find it confirms the Gospel argument that Pilate pleased important sections of Jewish opinion by getting rid of Jesus.
There is no confirmation that Antipas, a Roman citizen and aristocrat as well as a man of
Jewish faith, was furious at not getting his hands on Judaea, a situation that had existed long before Pilate arrived. The Herodian family, though not unanimous in its views, was immensely influential in Rome and it is inconceivable that Pilate would have been maintained in office had they generally been against him. Roman government was always based on local supporters as well as on force: you should think of the situation in Caesar's Gaul and of Claudius' speech about admitting Gauls to the Senate.
There just isn't anything particularly strange about the idea of a local dissident being sacrificed to please the local leaders. Mind you, I'm not saying it happened.
#6 - Martin Hughes - 08/15/2014 - 14:38

From the author:
In my book "The Judas Brief" I argue that there was no plot to kill Jesus by the priests or Pilate and that an agreement to avoid demonstrations had been worked out by Judas as Jesus' representative. The agreement provided for a house arrest until after the holiday ended, supervised by the High Priest, and no demonstrations by Jesus' followers. BUT Herod feared Jesus and pressured Pilate to break the agreement and execute Jesus. It was Herod who threatened to charge Pilate with treason if he didn't execute the (rival) king of the Jews.
#7 - gary greenberg - 08/15/2014 - 15:53

Thank you for your very prompt reply and thank you for a very spirited argument. Maybe I'm not initially inclined to accept that such a detailed account as you suggest is really possible on the evidence we have. And I still think an alien governor seeking to please local priests is not all that much out of the question. But perhaps I'll just have to read the book.
#8 - Martin Hughes - 08/15/2014 - 17:12

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