Our Catholic Controversies series looks at important moments and figures in the Passion narrative, which forms the basis of the Pope’s new book Jesus of Nazareth Part II.
Here, Biblical scholar Dom Henry Wansbrough OSB tells us about Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Palestine at the time of Jesus.
Numerous attempts to reconstruct the character and motivation of Pontius Pilate have been made, often with the liberty of a historical novel.
Benedict XVI, in his new book, Jesus of Nazareth II, traverses this ground again with the help of Flavius Josephus and Philo of Alexandria.
These two Jewish sources present Pilate’s brutal repression of the Jews as the real cause of the bad blood between Romans and Jews which would lead to the Jewish Revolt 30 years later.
It is difficult to support another point of view. There are no other primary sources for Pilate. It is, however, worth examining more closely the biased allegations of Josephus and Philo. A different interpretation of the stories they tell is certainly possible.
Pilate can be represented as the dupe of the Jewish leaders. He tried to be helpful as governor, and avoid trampling on their complicated prejudices and incomprehensible susceptibilities, but he was repeatedly outplayed by them and made to look a fool.
Incident One: Graven images must not be seen in Jerusalem. Roman troops can’t march without their standards. Pilate’s solution: March the troops up at night in the dark! The standards were spotted and all hell broke loose.
Incident Two: Graven images must not be seen in Jerusalem. Pilate wants to honour the emperor. Solution: Put up not a statue but a simple inscription in gold lettering inside Pilate’s residence. They reported him to Rome for insulting the Holy City.
Incident Three: Jerusalem was expanding and needed a larger water supply. Pilate built an aqueduct, 27km long, to bring in the water – a brilliant piece of Roman engineering. It went over budget and they refused to pay.
Incident Four: In the ensuing riots Pilate used plain-clothes agents to control the mob instead of armed riot-police. ‘He wouldn’t even let us be martyred.’
A prophet from Galilee is denounced to me by the local rulers, involving some complicated theological argument which the locals claim is subversive. I can’t understand it myself and he doesn’t act like a subversive, but I have worked with Caiaphas for half-a-dozen years (his residence is just next to mine), so I’ll trust his judgement.
Final incident, 6 years later: Pilate puts down a messianic revolt in Samaria with too much severity. He is packed off to Rome by his superior, the governor of Syria. He has governed Palestine for a decade, instead of the usual two years, and there is now a new emperor; it is time for a change. Pilate disappears from history.
Dom Henry Wansbrough OSB is Chairman of the Trustees of the Catholic Biblical Association and served on the Pontifical Biblical Commission.
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