The Biography of an Invented Man

One of the most intolerant acts of the state in history-the decision of the fifth Roman prefect of Judea to crucify Christ-was itself in the end, perhaps, an act of faith.

By Ann Wroe
February 2002

    If you wanted one picture—one example—of simple faith pitted against the power of the state, you might well think of the trial of Jesus. On the one hand stands Christ, half-naked, battered, bleeding, mockingly crowned with thorns—but still defiant. On the other stands Pilate, the Roman governor, sleek and perfectly groomed, backed up by aides and soldiers, basking in his authority. Christ is faith and tolerance personified; he loves his enemy, and, therefore, he loves Pilate. But Pilate does not understand him. He has no patience with him and kills him when he is persuaded that the man is a danger to peace. It is a confrontation that has been repeated hundreds of times since, as the authorities encounter people who are threatening or disruptive simply because they believe. It has seldom been reduced so strikingly to two men, together in a room, who might be five thousand miles apart.

    Artists in the nineteenth century painted this scene again and again, and it is probably no accident that they loved it so much. The Victorian age was seeing the creation of big, new nation-states and quasi-Roman empires. The rulers of this age worshipped Christ, the victim, but they also felt some sympathy with Pilate, the executioner. They understood all too well that the civil authorities sometimes found people like Jesus too difficult to deal with. The larger the state structure, the easier it should have been, in theory, to deal with minor free-thinkers. But the reverse was often true. Minor free-thinkers could be real thorns in the flesh. Their faith was a threat to public order. The limit of tolerance came when faith gave weapons to those who had none and destroyed the peace, which the new administrators were painstakingly trying to achieve.

    With this contemporary problem in their minds, the Victorians turned again with some interest to the trial of Jesus. Had Pilate been justified in crucifying Christ, or not? On one side stood John Stuart Mill, the great liberal thinker, who naturally took the view that the trial itself was a travesty and Pilate's sentence an outrage against freedom of speech and freedom of religion. On the other side stood James FitzJames Stephen, the uncle of Virginia Woolf, who argued that Pilate's moral absolutes would have been different. If a ruler, he argued, was charged to keep the peace, that naturally became his first priority. He was not required to be tolerant of free speech or religion if that meant he would have a riot on his hands. Pilate's first concern was the glory of Rome; his second, the preserving of his own skin, and both depended absolutely on keeping the peace in Jerusalem.

    The balance between tolerating faith, with all its fire and potential for disruption, and preserving public order was one that dogged Pilate throughout his time in Judea. The trial of Christ was only a part of it. And matters were complicated by the fact that Pilate was not without faith himself. Perhaps that seems a surprising statement. It is natural to think of Pilate as an intelligent skeptic, a man who believed in nothing much. That view of him comes from his most famous question, "What is truth?" which he asks Jesus in the Gospel of John. The gospel accounts of the trial are not, we know, gospel truth, but theological argument; Pilate probably spoke rather little of what he is supposed to have said there. But "What is truth?" is such a strange remark, given added strangeness by the fact that Pilate wanders off without waiting for an answer, that I tend to think it is authentic.

    If it is authentic, what did it mean? It has been interpreted in all kinds of ways. Sometimes it is seen as a sneer, suggesting an intolerance of the whole cloudy notion of philosophy or religion. If this was so, it would seem to be emblematic of the way secular authorities often look at faith. They have no time for this primitive, airy-fairy stuff; it makes trouble. On the other hand, a question about truth would not have been a religious question in a Roman's mind. It was a philosophical one. To sneer at truth might show a lack of intelligence or a disregard for the Academy but not a lack of religious feeling or belief; that was in another compartment. And Pilate, in any case, seems to have thrown out the question as a simple challenge: "All right, if you're so clever, YOU tell me what truth is." Pilate is playing with Jesus rather than making some grand remark about the possibility or impossibility of knowing the truth. This was, after all, a soldier—a Roman prefect who would do his own fighting if he had to—and not some book-bound magistrate.

    And he was a believer. It is clear from the archaeological evidence and the pagan sources, Josephus and Philo of Alexandria, that Pilate came as close as any governor of his age to indulging and spreading the divine cult of the emperor. This was then a relatively new cult, attached mostly to Augustus, who shortly after his death had been enthroned among the gods. Tiberius, the man actually in charge, dismissed the idea that divinity should be ascribed to him, though some of the ancient chroniclers thought he secretly rather liked it—(Who wouldn't?). At any rate, Pilate in Judea seems to have felt all the fervor of a cult that was not only new but was underpinned by the evident favor of the gods for the whole Roman enterprise of empire. He put imperial cultic symbols on his coins, raised the holy imperial standards in Jerusalem, and consecrated golden shields to the emperor inside his palace. He even seems to have put up a temple or shrine to Tiberius: a dedication stone from this building is almost the only physical evidence we have of him.

    None of this had ever been done in Judea before. Whether Pilate did this out of genuine religious feeling or whether he just wanted to keep his job safe, it is impossible to know. I suspect there was something of both in it. Like every other Roman (this, too, is hinted at in the trial of Jesus), he would have feared Tiberius and the sudden fits of anger that could destroy the emperor's most devoted servants. But there was also a strong religious element to his public duties, including the performance of sacrifice and the word-perfect recital of prayers, for the prefect was also a priest in his jurisdiction and a facsimile in miniature of the emperor himself. A man who showed fashionable skepticism at Roman dinner parties might feel rather differently when, many miles away, he invoked the gods of the Augustan house and the Roman peace.

    When we talk, then, about faith and the limits of tolerance, we have to deal first with how Pilate squared his own strong feelings—his faith—with his duties in Judea, which demanded tolerance for another faith that was observed as passionately as any in the world. The answer is that he had a lot of trouble. The firm policy of Tiberius and of Augustus before him had been to tolerate the Jews both in Rome and outside it. They were allowed to practice their religion, keep their Sabbaths, send their first-fruits to the Temple in Jerusalem, and escape military service. This did not mean that the Romans understood, or even cared to understand, what the Jews believed. They thought they did not work on the Sabbath because they were lazy and that the Holy of Holies contained the head of an ass. They had the greatest possible trouble trying to think what the Jewish God might be like: "a sort of cloud" or "a sort of brightness in the heavens" were two of their ideas. They particularly remarked that Jewish ceremonies—perhaps they meant the High Holy Days and Yom Kippur—were "gloomy" and "miserable" in contrast to their own songs and circuses. But however strong these prejudices were, it did not change the fact that Roman policy was basically tolerant of Judaism, as it was of all religions. And this extended far enough in Judea to mean that the Roman authorities did not flaunt the image of the emperor as a god as they did throughout the rest of the empire. In Jerusalem, his image was not allowed at all.

    Pilate, according to Josephus—a Jewish historian of the first century who is generally a good source, though, of course, not without his own biases—determined to change all that. The very moment he arrived in Judea, he sent the emperor's standards into Jerusalem. The result was uproar. The Jews came in delegation to Pilate's palace at Caesarea, on the coast, and demanded that he take the standards down. For five days, he refused. On the sixth day, he lost patience and threatened to kill the Jews en masse if they did not go home. And then an astonishing thing happened. The Jews fell down before him, and he was so impressed that he could not kill them. Instead, he capitulated and ordered the emperor's standards taken down.

    This was, in effect, a religious confrontation. It was belief against belief: worship of one god, the emperor, against worship of the God of Gods, the god of the Jews. It was faith—not lack of faith—that made Pilate reach the limits of his tolerance. He would not take the standards down, Josephus says, because of "the insult to the emperor." But he took them down eventually because he met a zeal that was even stronger than his own. Josephus says he was "astonished" by the "religious purity" of the Jews. And the effect of that show of faith was that Pilate was forced, against all his own instincts and beliefs, to be tolerant. The faith of the Jews had touched him.

    It did not go very deep, perhaps. Philo of Alexandria gives us another incident when Pilate wouldn't give in. He had put up some golden shields in his palace in honor of the emperor. The local Herodian princes—sounding in this case more like the chief priests—came and petitioned him to take them down as an insult to the Jewish religion. Presumably, because we know they had no images on them, they simply referred to Tiberius or Augustus as divine. But, of course, that was enough.

    Pilate refused. He could have done so out of pure arrogance or cussedness, both of which Philo says he had in plenty, but the reason Philo gives is different: Pilate couldn't take them down because they had been consecrated. They were holy. Once more, faith was up against faith. When the Herodian princes complained to Tiberius, the emperor was furious and ordered Pilate to take them down. He had to learn to accommodate, to be flexible, to understand what the Jews couldn't take. He had to try to show tolerance, even when he didn't feel it, and even when he seemed to be a mere victim of the religious intolerance of other people.

    So Pilate seems to have tried. When it comes to the trial of Jesus, we can see him almost being polite. He is aware of the Jewish laws of impurity and the importance of the Sabbath, and at one point he even talks of "your Passover." He is obviously acting in collusion with the Jewish high priests, though they sometimes show scant respect for each other. He has learned something. However, he has also learned that faith can give strength to those who have no weapons. It can make them highly dangerous. At Caesarea, in the confrontation over the standards, the Jews had overcome Pilate and his troops by the sheer force of their belief in God. In the matter of the golden shields, they had felt strongly enough to complain to the emperor himself, which might have cost Pilate his job or even his life. Their zeal was frighteningly impressive, but how far should a governor let himself be impressed or cowed by such things, and when should he strike?

    This is the psychological background to Pilate at the trial of Jesus. It was complicated enough, but there was now an added complication. Jesus had tested the tolerance of the Jewish leaders. The Pharisees could not stomach his insistence that he was the Messiah; to them, this was blasphemy. It deserved death. Their faith was outraged. "What need have we of further witnesses?" cried Caiaphas, the high priest, and tore his garments in mourning. Pilate was untouched by these considerations. His first reaction to the charges laid against Jesus, as the priests crowd round him in John's gospel, is to say: "Take him and judge him according to your law." He is the prototype of the detached Roman, to whom all foreign religions are one and the same and not worth much. Faith makes the Jews furious; indifference makes Pilate cool.

    It was Pilate, though, who had the power to pronounce the death sentence. The Jews, therefore, took care to present the offence as a political one: Jesus had said he was the King of the Jews. In a Roman's eyes, this was sedition. This was a crime that came close to blasphemy, with strong sacrilegious overtones: it was an offence "against the majesty of the Roman people," and it reached as far as carrying coins with the emperor's image into a brothel or a latrine. But it was firmly in Pilate's court. In theory, Pilate could overlook the element of faith in Jesus—what Mill would have called the free-speech and freedom-of-religion point—and execute him, just about in good conscience, as a menace to public order. The fact that, by the end of the trial, the Jews seemed on the point of rioting made Pilate's job all the easier. Why spare one man and lose Judea? Why take risks, once the majesty of the emperor had been brought into the equation? Yet there were apparently several moments of hesitation. The gospel Pilate tries to pass the buck, getting someone else to take responsibility for this awkward case. Most notoriously, in Matthew, he hands it over to the whole Jewish people—a patently fake exchange, which makes the effect it has had through history even more appalling. We cannot possibly know, historically, whether Pilate wanted to get rid of the case of Jesus or whether he found no difficulty with it. But there is vacillation of some sort in all the gospels, and the hesitation probably came from the fact that this was really a religious case in which Pilate should have kept out. His first instincts had been correct. Roman prefects after him did just this in the religious cases that were brought to them; they refused point-blank to get involved. Why didn't Pilate persist with his refusals and keep a Roman distance from these matters of religious intolerance?

    One answer may be that he was not completely indifferent; that he was actually a bit intrigued by Jesus. This man's reputation (so Josephus tells us) was as a healer rather than a trouble-maker, and Romans were as obsessed with their health as the next man. They might have dismissed marvelous cures as mumbo jumbo, but they wanted to try them for their headaches just the same. And when it came to claims of divinity, the Romans were not completely indifferent to these either; you had to keep the gods on your side, even if they were as wildly exotic as Egyptian cats and hippos. These cults were so clearly inferior—unlike Judaism—that nothing was lost by humoring them.

    One incident in the trial is very suggestive of all this. As with all the gospel incidents, there is no way of knowing whether it happened or not; but again, it has that tingle of authenticity that comes from its very strangeness. The high priests, who at first had been getting nowhere with Pilate on the sedition charge, raise the charge of blasphemy: "By our law he ought to die, because he called himself the Son of God." And this, according to John, really worries Pilate. He becomes "more afraid" and, taking Jesus aside again, asks him "Where are you from?"—meaning, pretty clearly, "Are you from heaven?"

    Craven superstition, say the old writers. Perhaps it was. But this was a man of some religious feeling, even if it was the usual Roman jumble of Greek gods, fatalism and emperor-love. In the scene that follows, Jesus begins to work on Pilate, and Pilate begins to capitulate, just for a moment. His Roman blustering gives way; he seems vulnerable and affected. Perhaps he will even spare Jesus. It is touch and go. But almost as quickly as it came, it evaporates as the Jews remind Pilate that his first duty is to keep them happy and keep the peace. He has been tolerant, and he has even gone further; he has felt the first prickings of a different sort of faith, even if he barely understands what they mean. And that is as far as he can go. Duty demands that he recover himself and treat Jesus as the threat to public order that he clearly is. Duty demands that he show the maximum intolerance for this man.

    Was the faith of Jesus, as he stood there, really a threat to the Roman power? In later years the activities of Christians worried Roman officials a great deal. We know from the letters of Pliny, an enlightened and compassionate man, that the Christians seemed a seditious crew; not just because of their "secret meals and meetings," which it was hard to find fault with, but because, like the Jews, they worshipped a God beyond and above the emperor and would not pay the emperor homage in the usual ritual ways. This was deeply damaging to the fabric of the empire, which was held together by that time by the very emperor-worship that Pilate had pioneered in Judea. That was why men like Pliny did not hesitate to torture Christians and would not have stopped from killing them if they supposed it necessary.

    But all this was in the future. At the time of the trial, Christianity consisted of one battered man and a handful of followers, all of whom had fled. The faith itself presented a nuisance to Judaism but no threat to Rome. Pilate could have extended a hand of tolerance, or a studied indifference, to these believers and left his troops to keep control in Jerusalem. By doing so, he would not merely have served justice but appeased the flickerings of unease in his own conscience.

    Why did he fail to? John's gospel provides a simple, but not necessarily inaccurate, answer. If Pilate saved Jesus, the high priests told him, he would no longer be Caesar's friend. There was the reminder, and Pilate gave in at once. He was impressed by displays of faith in the people he governed; he had been moved before, and in the case of Jesus, he seemed to be moved again. But his first faith was in Rome and in his boss. Those other displays affected him, but the allegiance of his heart and mind was to Tiberius. Devotion to the emperor, and the obligation to preserve the peace in his name, were completely connected. One of the most intolerant acts of the state in history—the decision of the fifth Roman prefect of Judea to crucify Christ—was itself in the end, perhaps, an act of faith.

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