April 2, 2010

The Multidimensional Pilate

No, this isn't sci-fi. This is characterization. The central critical issue on Pontius Pilate remains what it has been for the past couple of centuries - why is Pilate so crushingly brutal in Josephus & Philo and yet so hand-washingly coercible in the Gospels?

Many skeptics naturally see this contrast as evidence of Gospel spin, explained by reading anti-Jewish & semi-pro-Roman attitudes into the Gospel writers' agenda. Helen K. Bond's 1998 book Pontius Pilate in history and interpretation charted a much more nuanced if similarly skeptical view. Yet Bond's work hasn't stopped people from dredging up the overly simplistic characitures, as a columnist calling himself "Godless Gross" did Monday in
Australia's National Times.

Responding in today's Brisbane Times, PhD candidate Murray Smith (of the Department of Ancient History at Macquarie University) has a simpler solution. What accounts for Pilate's differing behavior? Circumstance. Partly traditional and partly just common sensical, Smith's brief analysis nevertheless shows an awareness of the complex historical issues and even raises the bar for keeping politically aware about who and what Pilate had to be at the time of the Passover, particularly. A key excerpt:
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: ‘‘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.
It's a newspaper article, not a scholarly one, but it's well worth reading. I would love to see Murray Smith interact more with Bond about Pilate. He's also got a piece in an upcoming book from Eerdmans. So here's hoping we get to see Dr. Smith making more waves in the future.


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