How not to get oneself crucified by Pilate

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by Neil Godfrey

Christiansborg Palace. Image via Wikipedia

Another “guest post”, one might say:

It is no more imaginable that the British vice-regent of India should sentence a Hindu to death for expressing heterodox opinions about the teachings of Buddha, than it is that a Roman procurator should interfere on account of an accusation like the one made against Jesus, according to Mark 14:58 . . . and that he should do so in the face of admittedly conflicting evidence. He is reported to have said:

“I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and within three days I will build another made without hands.”

The Gospel according to St. John takes this statement in a symbolic sense. Taken literally as it is in Mark, it does not seem to imply anything socially dangerous.

Let us suppose that a man of our own day should be accused of having said: “I will destroy Christiansborg [i.e. one of the principal royal palaces at Copenhagen, . . . occupied by the Rigsdag, the Supreme Court, and various government departments], but within three days I will build another palace of much greater spiritual beauty.”

The court would then first make sure that he had really said such a thing. Then it would inquire whether the defendant actually had taken any steps toward the material destruction of the palace. This not being the case, the matter would undoubtedly be dropped. Any inquiry whether steps had been taken toward the building of a heavenly Christiansborg may be regarded as quite out of the question.

In the same way, the Roman official would undoubtedly first of all have ascertained whether the defendant had made any attempt to tear down the Temple. If this were denied, he must have understood that the utterance credited to Jesus, if ever made as reported, must be taken in a figurative or poetic sense, and thereupon he would have dropped the case as none of his concern.

Of this we may be pretty sure, for in the Acts 18:12, where, quite exceptionally, an historical personality appears, thus lending credibility to the story, we read of the answer given by Junius Annaeus Gallio, the brother of Seneca, when he was procurator of Achaia (A. D. 51-52) and the Jews of Corinth accused Paul of “persuading me to worship God contrary to the law.” He said:

“If it were a matter of wrong or wicked lewdness, O ye Jews, reason would that I should bear with you: but it if be a question of words and names, and of your law, look ye to it: for I will be no judge of such matters.”

All through the Old Testament appear statements that might be interpreted as referring to a Messiah-like the one supposed to have arrived. In Deuteronomy 18:15 . . . “The Lord they God will raise up unto thee a Prophet from the midst of thee, of thy brethren, like unto me [Moses] . . . . . In John 6:14, a reference to these words follows immediately after the story about the feeding of 5,000 . . . And in Acts 3:22, Peter draws support from the same statement by Moses.

Several passages occur in the Prophet Zechariah which evidently have suggested acts ascribed to Jesus. In Zechariah 9:9 we read as follows: “Rejoice greatly . . . Jerusalem: behold, thy King cometh unto thee . . . riding upon an ass. . .”

And again we read in Zechariah 14:21: “And in that day there shall be no more the Canaanite in the house of the Lord of hosts.” This may be regarded as an excuse for ascribing to Jesus his otherwise quite unreasonable attack on those who sold doves for sacrifice in the outer court of the Temple, or who exchanged the coins that were to be paid in tithes. Imagine a modern reformer trying to drive away the old women in front of Notre Dame who are selling wax candles to be lighted for the peace of the dead!

pp. 27-31 of Jesus a Myth by Georg Brandes, 1926. Translated from the Danish by Edwin Björkman.

No doubt some of those dove sellers wanted to see Jesus sued.

The Gospel authors were smart enough to know that you cannot get from a failed potential or even merely apparent political insurrectionist to a heavenly saviour so they created a much more sensible story that explained Jesus’ death as the sacrifice of an innocent lamb or another atoning Isaac. We make fools of ourselves trying to pull it apart to satisfy our needs for historicity.

Georg Brandes
Georg Brandes. Image via Wikipedia
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Neil Godfrey

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4 thoughts on “How not to get oneself crucified by Pilate”

  1. “The court would then first make sure that he had really said such a thing. Then it would inquire whether the defendant actually had taken any steps toward the material destruction of the palace. This not being the case, the matter would undoubtedly be dropped.”

    Your average, common-or-garden, Imperial official (Roman, Han, British, or whatever) would undoubtedly mutter to himself, “Another religious loony. These natives are crazy.”

    He would certainly not condemn the defendant to death for rebellion against the Empire.

  2. While I think the gospel account of Pilate is fictional, Josephus mentions that Pilate was concerned about religious disturbances and killed people who were involved in them (in this case Samaritans):

    “The man who excited them to it was one who thought lying a thing of little consequence, and who contrived everything so that the muiltitude might be pleased; so he directed them to get together upon Mount Gerizim … and assured them … he would show them those sacred vessels which were laid under that place, because Moses put them there. So they came there armed, and thought the discourse of the man probable … and desired to go up the mountain in a great multitude together; but Pilate prevented their going up, by seizing the roads with a great band of horseman and footman … [S]ome of them they killed, and others they put to flight, and took a great many alive, the principal of which, and also the most potent of those that fled away, Pilate ordered to be killed” (Ant. 18.85-87).

    Another Roman governor did the same thing to Jews:

    “[T]he country was filled with robbers and imposters, who deluded the multitude. Yet did Felix catch and put to death many of those imposters every day, together with the robbers” (Ant. 20.160-161).

    It might be an interpolation, but in keeping with the accounts of Pilate and Felix, Rome’s puppet ruler Herod the Tetrarch executed John the Baptist for fear “lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his power an inclination to raise a rebellion, for they seemed ready to do anything he should advise” (Ant. 18.118).

    Seems like normal enough policy to me, even if it was not always sanctioned by emperors.

    1. John:

      These events were not just “religious disturbances,” but armed uprisings. According to Josephus, the Samaritans were carrying weapons. In view of this, Pilate’s actions do not seem unnecessarily oppressive. Besides, only the ringleaders were put to death. As often noted, any Roman prefect neglecting to deal with an armed uprising would have been failing in his duty.

      Maria Misra, lecturer in modern history at Oxford University, has argued that, in India, the British Empire increased division, religious tension and religious oppression. Empires usually team up with what they think of as the dominant groups when they take over, such as religious leaders, and concentrate on governing through these intermediaries. Thus she believes that the British Empire helped establish sharia law and the caste system! It would be interesting to know whether similar mechanisms were at play in ancient Judea, where the religious grip on society was particularly extreme.

      1. Religion and armed uprisings often went hand in hand in this period. There are numerous examples of this in Josephus, and he also says this outright:

        “These were such men as deceived and deluded the people under pretense of divine inspiration, but were for procuring innovations and changes of the government; and these prevailed with the multitude to act like madmen, and went before them into the wilderness, as pretending that God would there show them the signals of liberty” (War 2.259).

        If it’s not an interpolation (and I don’t think it is), so great was the fear of these religious uprisings that John the Baptist was executed only for the potential of his words to start one, not for actually doing it.

        Even in the NT Jesus’ group is portrayed as being armed and having “zealots” among its members.

        You could just as well say that the events I cited weren’t just armed uprisings, but also religious disturbances, like Josephus says.

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