Pilate, the Politics of Rome, and Evangelical Politics

While Jesus pursued his dispute about arrangements in the Temple, events in Rome had altered the political landscape around him in ways he himself could not begin to fathom.

By Bruce Chilton
Bernard Iddings Bell Professor of Religion
Bard College
February 2005

Controversy regarding Jesus’ death and responsibility for his execution come with the regularity of spring, prompted by the Christian calendar of worship that recollects his Passion at the end of Lent. The issue of Jewish culpability – often pitched in terms of the guilt of Jews, sometimes as a people – perennially features as the starting point.

Yet in the first century Rome alone exercised authority to carry out crucifixion. By beginning with the perspective of Pontius Pilate, we can better assess the presentation of the Gospels, and counteract a prominent cause of anti-Semitism in the Christian West.


Pilate confronted a difficult situation on two fronts in the autumn of 31 CE.

The first problem must have seemed routine at the outset. A rabbi named Jesus had disputed with the high priest Caiaphas concerning commercial arrangements inside the Temple. Given the number of times Josephus refers to Galilean disturbances there during the first century, one more incident like the others can hardly have daunted Pilate.

Yet Jesus’ incursion had temporarily halted the conduct of sacrifice in the Temple (Mark 11:15-17), [1] and that kind of interference directly engaged the interests of Rome. To the Romans, one potent symbol of their rule over the Jews was that the high priest accepted offerings that the Emperor paid for every day, in effect interceding with God on his behalf, and on the behalf of the Roman hegemony. The fact that many people in Jerusalem resisted Caiaphas’ efforts to centralize power in his own hands – as Rabbinic sources show – did not concern Pilate directly. The fact that someone went into the Great Court with enough force – amounting to between 150 and 200 men -- to evict traders, drive out animals, and break up the cages for birds, most obviously did.

While Jesus pursued his dispute about arrangements the Temple, events in Rome had altered the political landscape around him in ways he himself could not begin to fathom. Tiberius sent a letter from Capri, which he ordered read before the Senate in the presence of Sejanus, the strong man of Rome. [2] Sejanus had overreached himself. This apparently invincible regent, Prefect of the 9,000 soldier Praetorian Guard, had become the target of ambivalent messages from the Emperor himself. Writing from his Villa of Jupiter on the island of Capri to the Senate, Tiberius balanced trenchant criticism of Sejanus’ policy of arrogating judicial power against his detractors in Rome, while flattering Sejanus personally. Speculation grew in Rome that Sejanus’ days were numbered.

Any concern Sejanus himself may have felt was overcome by recent rumors he had heard that Tiberius was about to promote him, making him second in command to the Emperor himself within the Empire. The Senate assembled on October 18 in the temple of Apollo on the Palatine, and listened to the sort of long, rambling, missive Tiberius had acquired the habit of sending. But the message became increasingly pointed in its criticism of Sejanus, and at last accused him of treason.

At the end of the reading of the Imperial letter, the Vigiles (local police) bound Sejanus and marched him to the Mamertine dungeon. A crowd had gathered in the street and they screamed in hatred as Sejanus was bullied past them. Tiberius had thrown them a scapegoat, someone to attack for all the dissatisfaction and hardship they knew. They ran wild, smashing the statues of himself that Sejanus had erected, and the forces of order in Rome did nothing to stop them. In his confinement, Sejanus might have hoped for a sentence of exile, rather then death, but the Senate knew to act quickly, before Sejanus got any bright ideas of what to do with the 9,000 crack troops of the Praetorian Guard under his command.

By the end of that same day, the Senate ordered Sejanus strangled, even for Rome a gruesome form of execution. The executioner wound a leather garrot around Sejanus’ neck, yanked its crossed ends, and crushed his windpipe. The soldiers pulled the corpse into the street. The waiting crowd descended upon it and tore it to pieces.

Pilate would learn of these events from traders and Roman functionaries recently arrived from Rome itself. The arrest of a high official on the charge of treason was enough to strike fear into anybody’s heart. But the gruesome tale went on and on. Sejanus’ uncle and son were also killed, as well as many of his friends and collaborators. His divorced wife, Apicata, committed suicide. Even his two young children were executed, the girl gang-raped by soldiers before she was dispatched. Livilla, to whom Sejanus was engaged, found little mercy, although she was a member of the Imperial household. Her own mother, in a demonstration of fealty to the Emperor, starved her daughter to death. The Emperor’s whims were as capricious as his power was boundless; he was "Divi filius," God’s son. As a well-known Jewish proverb (see Matthew 26:52 and Isaiah Targum 50:11) said those who lived by the sword died by it. That applied especially to those who served the Empire.

Pilate knew that the Senate would stumble over itself to fill the vacuum that Sejanus’ removal created. They perennially bemoaned the influence they lost when the oligarchic Republic they governed had become an empire in 31 BCE, ruled by the brute fact of the Emperor’s concentrated military power. The Senate would no doubt try to reverse Sejanus’ policies and introduce a kinder and gentler approach to Imperial policy. Pilate was known to be a hard-liner in his dealings with the Jews, and he was afraid. Association with Sejanus and his policies might lose him more than his position.

As he ruminated over Sejanus’ death Pilate doubtless thought of Caiaphas. A strong working relationship with the high priest was now imperative, like it or not. Caiaphas would have known that, and he pressed Pilate on the matter of Jesus’ arrest. Rabbi Jesus had initially registered on the prefect’s [3] radar as an annoying but harmless lunatic. Now he wanted to appease Caiaphas and show Rome that he controlled Judea without deliberately antagonizing local leaders as he had in the past. Terror and humiliation were still his tactics, but he had to learn to find the right targets.

Pilate had no choice but to make common cause with Caiaphas. Through that redefinition of a vitally important alliance, he showed himself a consummate politician. He bided his time. He would not appear weak in the sight of the people he ruled. The city was winding down for the winter in any case; the prefect was not going to act unless it was necessary, and then only when action was most clearly to his own benefit.

As if Jesus wasn’t already in enough danger from the prefect and high priest, his old foe Antipas, Tetrarch of Galilee and Perea, was also taking a keen interest in events in Rome and the tightening of the alliance between Pilate and Caiaphas. After all, it was Antipas’ Galilean subjects who had been killed in Jerusalem during the riot of 30 CE (see Josephus, Jewish War 2 §§ 175-177; Antiquities 18 §§ 60-62 and Luke 13:1-3); he felt Pilate owed him a favor after the prefect’s ruthless action, and this was a propitious moment to press the claim. More importantly, he wanted to show himself both in command of his own territory and cooperative with other agents of Rome and local religious leaders in the uncertain circumstances after Sejanus’ execution. Might he use his Roman colleague and priestly co-religionist to rid himself of Jesus at long last and solidify his position? Unless Antipas, Caiaphas, and Pilate together showed that they could effectively rule their Jewish subjects, each of them was in danger being stripped of his title, position and power.

The nuances of the new common interest shared by the high priest, the prefect, and the tetrarch eluded Jesus as much as the recently changed complexities of power in Rome. Politically, he was now out of his depth. As one of my students once remarked, Jesus’ action in the Temple was focused on the issue of sacrifice, but what he did was unleashed a perfect storm of political opposition from Tiberius’ Rome and Antipas’ Galilee as well as from the Jerusalem of Pilate and Caiaphas. Later interpretation has also shown itself naïve in treating Jesus’ execution as if it were caused by resistance to his teaching within Jewish opinion.


The best point of departure for understanding what the present generation of scholarship as made of Jesus’ execution is Raymond Brown’s monumental work, a nearly comprehensive treatment of the passion of Jesus. [4] Brown proceeds pericope by pericope, analyzing both exegetical and historical issues in discrete sections within the context of the secondary literature. He correctly portrays events as centering on Jesus’ confrontation in the Temple, which he sees as "prophetic dramatic action against improprieties in the Temple." [5]

At the level of historical reconstruction (more prominent here than elsewhere in his book), Brown proposes that the Sanhedrin met concerning Jesus sometime before the arrest, much as the Gospel according to John (11:47-53) would suggest. Then the malefactor was brought before Caiaphas immediately before he was denounced to Pilate. The entire scenario is developed within the framework of Brown’s judicious discussion of the political realities in Jerusalem at the time. [6] He is well aware of the objections to the historicity of the account of Jesus’ trial: "The conflicts between the Gospel accounts of the trial and later rabbinic procedure . . . have sometimes been estimated at twenty-seven." [7] He realizes "the Sanhedrin" is not as described in Mishnah, that it had no capital jurisdiction, that it would not have convened at night or during the course of Passover. In his reading, the Gospels reflect an "interrogation" [8] of Jesus (rather than a trial) before two competent authorities, a council of elders and the High Priest.


Brown himself summarizes his scheme in the following way: [9]

• a Sanhedrin session was called to deal with Jesus
• an issue in that session was the threat Jesus posed to the Temple
• the one who urged the others to decide Jesus’ death was the High Priest
• there was a judgment equivalent to a death sentence
• there was a high-priestly investigation of Jesus on the night that he was arrested.

In short, Brown abstracts from the Gospels’ account material he believes to be historical, recognizing that the bulk of the passage is pulled together for dramatic purposes.

Brown’s concluding sentence may help to assess his analysis overall:

The clarity and force of the unified trial presentation has moved and been remembered by hundreds of millions; the awkwardnesses have bothered a handful of scholars subjecting the narrative to microscopic examination. [10]

In the very act of writing his book, Brown proved that he is one of the bothered few, but he also writes with a sense of responsibility for the outline of faith as presented in the Gospels. That dual loyalty involved him in some inconsistency.

Brown’s analysis wisely accords much more weight to the issue of the Temple itself than had been conventional in writing until his time. He devotes an extensive section of his commentary to that general issue, [11] but his overall concern is whether Jesus would have said anything against the Temple (as in Mark 14:58). He concludes that he would have, but the form of Brown’s concern leads to a lack of focus in regard to what Jesus did. Prophecies against the Temple had been traditional from the time of Jeremiah, and even under disturbed conditions much later (four years before the war against Rome), Jesus son of Ananias was scourged for his prophecy, not executed (see Josephus, Jewish War 6.5.3 § 300-309). Jesus of Nazareth evidently constituted a more pointed threat, both to the cultic authorities and to Pilate, whose chief interest was public order.

Brown oddly does not cite the work of Victor Eppstein, [12] or of Benjamin Mazar, [13] or of the present writer, [14] or of Craig Evans. [15] All those contributions address the arrangements in the Temple which Caiaphas innovated, and which resulted in Jesus’ occupation. Brown refers to some of the relevant Talmudic passages (Bavli Sanhedrin. 41a; Shabbat 15a; Abodah Zarah 8b), but not in relation to the issue of Caiaphas’ growing power. He does not refer to the evidence of Pharisaic actions akin to Jesus’ (see Bavli Besa 20a-b and Mishnah Keritot 1:7), nor to the strong tradition of a failure in the efficacy of the Temple forty years prior to its destruction (Bavli Yoma 39b):

Forty years before the destruction of the house, the lot did not come up in the right hand, the crimson strap failed to turn white, and the western light would not burn, and the gates of the Temple opened on their own…

In a commentary that is nearly comprehensive in its reach, these omissions are striking.

Because Brown does not develop an adequate understanding of the issue that divided Caiaphas and Jesus, he falls back on the argument that Jesus "blasphemy" was that he spoke with authority and out of turn. [16] Here Brown joins a tendency of pious scholarship which has been evident since the ’fifties. [17] While Brown concedes that Jesus made no directly messianic claim, [18] the matter of Jesus’ identity eclipses the issue of the Temple, although Brown had already shown that the Temple was the historical pivot of events. That is an example of the triumph of Christian apologetics over sound historical sense. No one can read the Talmudic episodes of rabbinic actions in the Temple, including driving animals into the place and changing sacrificial requirements in order to control the prices of offerings, and conclude that cultic arrangements were anything but contentious, or that claiming authority for oneself presented the biggest offense imaginable within that setting. Instead of exploring why Jesus appeared more threatening to the cultic authorities than his contemporaries did, Brown reverts to the picture of Jesus’ "authority" causing the Sanhedrin to turn against him, with Caiaphas signing on at the last moment out of annoyance about something Jesus said in the Temple. The implicit assumption that inappropriate speech would automatically result in execution is implausible.

The same sort of implausibility afflicts the claim that Jesus was put to death for claiming to be the messiah or having people make that claim on his behalf. Brown’s distortion is extended, when scholars argue that Jesus’ messianic claim provoked his death at Pilate’s hands. [19] Brown would probably not have agreed with those who extend his work in that way. [20] The portrayal of the messianic issue reflects the perspective of those who told the story, rather than the perspective of Jesus, Caiaphas, or Pilate.



But that early Christian perspective is as important to appreciate as the perspective of Jesus, if we want to understand the Gospels (all of which were composed after 70 CE). Christians, as partisans of Christ, claimed that Jesus was son of God, and they therefore denied that Caesar was Divi filius. That is what lead to persecution and pogrom at Roman hands from the time of the fire in Rome in 64 CE until Constantine’s edict of Milan. During that long period, the best that Christians could hope for was a Roman policy of "don’t ask, don’t tell." In the correspondence between Pliny the Younger and Trajan during the second century, that is just what they got, and Tertullian rejoiced in that precedent. [21]

The Gospels are in part designed to encourage that policy. You can see that in the unique additions each Gospel offers to get Pilate off the hook of the political responsibility he alone bore. In John, Jesus tells Pilate, "My kingdom is not of this world" (18:36). Although this exchange regarding political theory is not plausible, at least it is presented in Greek, rather than in Latin (as in Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of the Christ"). Luke alone among the Gospels has an acquittal pronounced at the moment of Jesus’ death (Luke 23:47-48):

The centurion standing by opposite him saw what happened and glorified God, saying, In fact this person was righteous. And all the crowds that came upon this sight, observing what had happened, returned beating their breasts.

Mark is unique in having a befuddled Pilate "utterly astounded that he had already died" (15:44), as if he had not known Jesus had been flogged prior to crucifixion. Matthew’s Gospel is the most inventive, in passing on the legend of Pilate’s wife (27:19), although prefects of Pilate’s rank were not authorized to bring their wives on posting. In any case, Pilate and his entourage resided in Caesarea, not Jerusalem. Matthew is sensitive to the latter fact (as Mel Gibson is not), and has the wife "send" a message to Pilate.

By means of such embellishments and legends, early Christians supported the Roman policy of "don’t ask—don’t tell," and deflected blame for Jesus’ crucifixion as best they could from the Romans. In doing so, they wound up repeating a version of what Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy said in 1 Thessalonians. Those writers fiercely asserted that the Pharisaic teachers from Judea who had tried to prevent contact with Gentiles formed an obstacle to their preaching (2:14): "For you, brothers, became imitators of the churches of God that are in Judea in Jesus Christ, because you also suffered the same things from your kinspeople as they did from the Jews."

This refers back to the deep contention in Jerusalem among Jewish followers of Jesus. Paul, Silas, and Timothy are using the word "Jews" (Ioudaioi in Greek) to mean the people back in Judea that wished to "forbid us to speak to the Gentiles" (2:16). They had some disciples of Jesus in mind, teachers such as those Pharisees who believed in Jesus’ message but insisted that circumcision was a requirement of salvation (Acts 15:5). [22] But the same term could also be used during the first century (and later, of course) to mean any practitioners of Judaism anywhere, and that is the sense of the term "Jew" in common usage. The lineal descendant of 1 Thessalonians 2:16 is the Wagnerian crowd in Matthew 27:25 that declares, "His blood is on us and on our children."

So the three companions, writing to Thessalonica and dealing with local issues and recent history, [23] spoke in a way that has encouraged anti-Semitism. Had Paul, Silas, and Timothy known they were writing for something called the New Testament, and how their words would be used to justify the persecution of Jews, they obviously would have spoken differently. So would the writers of the Gospels. And so should we.


[1] For the many other references to the Gospels, Rabbinica, and secondary literature relevant here, together with chronology, see Rabbi Jesus. An Intimate Biography (New York: Doubleday, 2000). The present essay was prepared originally for a symposium entitled "Jesus’ Death and Anti-Semitism" at the House of the Redeemer in Manhattan, sponsored by Auburn Theological Seminary, the Ecumenical and Interfaith Commission of the Episcopal Diocese of New York, and the Institute of Advanced Theology at Bard College. My principal partner in the symposium, Professor Jacob Neusner, has published his findings as "Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Reading the Passion Narratives in the Context of the Mishnah's Rabbinic Theology, or: How, in the Mishnah, the Death Penalty is Merciful" New Blackfriars 85 (2004) 239-246.

[2] The unfortunate history of Sejanus is discussed in the ancient histories of Dio Cassius, Suetonius, and Tacitus, supported by other sources; see Barbara Levick, Tiberius the Politician: Aspects of Greek and Roman Life (London: Thames and Hudson, 1976); Charles Merivale, History of the Romans under the Empire 5 (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1903); Robin Seager, Tiberius (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972); David Shotter, Tiberius Caesar: Aspects of Greek and Roman Life (London: Thames and Hudson, 1976); Charles Merivale, History of the Romans under the Empire 5 (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1903); Robin Seager, Tiberius (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972); David Shotter, Tiberius Caesar: Lancaster Pamphlets (London and New York: Routledge, 1992). For the particular relevance to Jesus of Sejanus’ rise to power and eventual fall, see also Harold W. Hoehner, Herod Antipas. A Contemporary of Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1980). David Kennedy and Martin Goodman provide a panoramic view of the political situation that Caiaphas, Jesus, and Pilate all had to deal with in their articles on Syria and Judea in The Cambridge Ancient History X (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996). 703-736, 737-781.

[3] This was Pilate’s title, not the later "procurator."

[4] R. E. Brown, The Death of the Messiah: From Gethsemane to the Grave (2 vols., ABRL 7; New York: Doubleday, 1994). In 1974, Professor Brown permitted me to participate in the doctoral seminar at the Union Theological Seminary in New York where he began to craft this work. That he let me do so before I was a doctoral candidate, and although I was a student "downtown" at the General Theological Seminary, exemplifies his gentle character.

[5] Brown, The Death of the Messiah, 458.

[6] Brown, The Death of the Messiah, 328-97.

[7] Brown, The Death of the Messiah, 358.

[8] Brown, The Death of the Messiah, 399, 408-28 and elsewhere.

[9] Brown, The Death of the Messiah, 425, 557-60.

[10] Brown, The Death of the Messiah, 560.

[11] Brown, The Death of the Messiah, 434-60.

[12] V. Eppstein, "The Historicity of the Gospel Account of the Cleansing of the Temple," ZNW 55 (1964) 42-58.

[13] B. Mazar, "The Royal Stoa in the Southern Part of the Temple Mount," Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research 46-47 (1979-80) 381-86; The Temple of the Lord (Garden City: Doubleday, 1975) 126.

[14] Galilean Rabbi and His Bible: Jesus’ Use of the Interpreted Scripture of His Time (Good News Studies 8; Wilmington: Glazier, 1984) 17-18; The Temple of Jesus. His Sacrificial Program Within a Cultural History of Sacrifice (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1992) 91-107; A Feast of Meanings. Eucharistic Theologies from Jesus through Johannine Circles: Supplements to Novum Testamentum 72 (Leiden: Brill, 1994), 46-74.

[15] C. A. Evans, "Jesus and the ‘Cave of Robbers’: Towards a Jewish Context for the Temple Action," in Evans, Jesus and His Contemporaries: Comparative Studies (AGJU 25; Leiden: Brill, 1995) 345-65 (an article which earlier appeared in 1993).

[16] Brown, The Death of the Messiah, 520-47.

[17] See, for example, V. Taylor, The Gospel according to St. Mark (London: Macmillan, 1966 [1st ed., 1952]), whenever the term "authority" (exousia) appears, for example at Mark 1:22.

[18] Brown, The Death of the Messiah, 473-80.

[19] See Paula Fredricksen, Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. A Jewish Life and the Emergence of Christianity (New York: Knopf: 1999) and the review in Bible Review 16.4 (August, 2000) 54-58.

[20] Brown, The Death of the Messiah, 520-27.

[21] A discussion of these policies is available in Trading Places. The Intersecting Histories of Judaism and Christianity (with Jacob Neusner; Cleveland: Pilgrim, 1996; also Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2004).

[22] See "James and the (Christian) Pharisees," When Judaism and Christianity Began. Essays in Memory of Anthony J. Saldarini I. Christianity in the Beginning: Supplements to the Journal for the Study of Judaism 85 (eds. A. J. Avery-Peck, D. Harrington, J. Neusner; Leiden: Brill, 2004) 19-47.

[23] For a treatment of these matters, see Rabbi Paul. An Intellectual Biography (New York: Doubleday, 2004).

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