Among matters revived by Mel Gibson's stupendously popular movie "The Passion of the Christ": How evil was Pontius Pilate, the Roman ruler who ordered the crucifixion of Jesus?
In Gibson's portrayal, Pilate wasn't convinced that Jesus deserved execution but ordered it anyway, following urgings from Jewish leaders and a crowd they assembled.
Since that reflects the four Gospels, the underlying issue is whether the details of New Testament history are reliable. Many liberals say non-biblical history rebuts the Gospels' benign picture of Pilate and that he was fully responsible for Jesus' death (which the Gospels report was true legally), absolving Jewish leaders of responsibility.
The Gospels' Pilate is no hero, however, considering that he unjustly condemns an innocent man to death. And it's not implausible that a cruel tyrant might have hesitated in one particular case.
The Pilate puzzle was debated in the current Bible Review magazine by Paul L. Maier, who defended the Bible's version, and Stephen J. Patterson, who was critical of the Gospels (and of Pilate and Gibson).
Maier is a professor of ancient history at Western Michigan University, author of a work on Pilate and translator of Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian. Patterson is a New Testament professor at the United Church of Christ's Eden Theological Seminary in Missouri.
A typical disagreement concerned the account of Pilate's trial, which Patterson doubted because Jesus' colleagues wouldn't have been present to witness it.
In response, Maier said that's no problem if the Gospels are correct that Jesus rose from the grave and spent weeks with his disciples. He thinks it's natural that Jesus would discuss the Pilate encounter and that such information was passed along to the Gospel writers.
Maier thinks it's also possible that Pilate's guards reported what they heard, particularly since the New Testament says three of them converted to Christianity. There's also an ancient Orthodox church tradition that Pilate's wife converted.
Patterson cited Josephus and his contemporary Philo of Alexandria to portray Pilate's brutality.
Maier notes that the New Testament agrees. Luke 13:1 says that Jesus was told about "the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices." But he thinks Pilate wasn't unusually harsh by first-century standards and that this explains his relatively long rule (A.D. 26 to 36).
Francisco Garcia-Treto of Trinity University in Texas favors that conclusion in the HarperCollins Bible Dictionary and cautiously concludes, "It appears best to withhold judgment on (Pilate's) character."
Whatever the deeds of Pilate and the Temple authorities, what did the Jewish populace think about the Crucifixion? Maier, who loathes past Christian distortions about collective Jewish responsibility, underscores the Bible's report that when Jesus was taken to Golgotha, "there followed him a great multitude of the people and of women who bewailed and lamented" (Luke 23:27).
What was Pilate's track record outside the Gospels?
Archaeology corroborates Pilate's biblical name, reign and title in an inscription found at Caesarea in 1961. The only other Roman record that survived was in a mention of the Crucifixion by the historian Tacitus, which makes the Jewish writers Philo and Josephus more important.
Philo recalled that when Pilate installed golden shields with the emperor's name on them in his Jerusalem residence, Jews threatened to send a protest to Rome and Pilate feared this might expose his "senseless injuries" and "executions without trial."
Philo also said Herod Antipas reported Pilate's misdeeds to Rome, which would explain the hostility between the two reported in Luke 23:12.
Josephus recorded another conflict when Pilate used Temple funds to build an aqueduct. Pilate's soldiers broke up protests with clubs, killing and injuring many.
A final outrage occurred in Samaria when a prophet drew a crowd and Pilate's troops killed many and executed the leaders. That cruelty caused Pilate's removal from office by the Roman legate in Syria.
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