'Christ before Pilate', c1306-1348, Pietro Lorenzetti (Photo by Art Media/Print Collector/Getty Images)

The questionable innocence of Pontius Pilate

Steve Morris argues that this new book about Pontius Pilate helps us understand the limits of state and law

Artillery Row Books

David Lloyd Dusenbury is a research fellow at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He didn’t expect to be writing this book. Instead he had decided to write a review of another book, Giorgio Agmben’s Pilate and Jesus in 2015. He never got round to writing that review, because the book set him to ask questions. Agmben’s thesis is that Pilate was innocent of blame. Dusenbury decided to find out if he agreed.

The Innocence of Pontius Pilate: How the Roman Trial of Jesus Shaped History by David Lloyd Dunesbury, Hurst Publishers

Sometimes issues of great secular significance can be revealed through pieces of theological scholarship. I can put a solid bet down that most of us don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the role of Pontius Pilate in the death of Jesus. Thankfully, David Lloyd Dusenbury has put in the hours and the results are startling. It turns out that it really matters what we think about this key event in the passion narratives. Why? Because that trial set the pattern for much of Western Law and because it served to muddy the waters about the roles of the secular state and the kingdom of God.

Dusenbury points out that many scholars, theologians and preachers have tended to divert blame away from Pilate and the Roman authorities for the execution of Christ. The author says we need to bust three main myths – that Pilate was innocent of blame, that he didn’t actually judge Jesus and that the crucifixion was carried out by the Jewish authorities.

With these three swept out of the way, what have we left? That although the Jewish authorities were involved (as the Gospels and other ancient texts show), Christ was judged and then killed by the Romans – by gentiles. There were, he argues, reasons why getting Pilate off the hook was a project carried out by both church and secular state. On the one hand, the idea of Pilate’s ‘innocence’ helped the church to remain close to the centre of political power. Tragically, it also allowed for Christian anti-Semitism to take root in Europe. These aren’t wholly new insights, but they have perhaps never been so beautifully mined.

And then there are thrilling pages on Augustine. Augustine was an African bishop, and perhaps due to the history of persecution in Africa, he saw the truth for what it was. Jesus’ death was a secular killing, he preached, and the Jewish people should not be persecuted by Christians. Indeed, they should have a divinely sanctioned, protected status in the christianised Roman Empire.

The idea of Pilate’s ‘innocence’ helped the church to remain close to the centre of political power

Augustine’s views have been on the margins because they don’t appear in his seminal book The City of God. Instead they are contained in his homilies on John’s Gospel. Hidden away there, they have been a quiet voice whispering a most shocking truth – that everyone is somehow complicit in the death and judgement of Christ. We all could have done it. If this is true, then it means that none of us have the right to be anything other than humble and realistic about what we are made of.

The books raises interesting questions. If Augustine had been the predominant voice in later interpretations of the passion, what might have been different? Well, for a start, we might have wondered a bit more thoroughly about the limits of the state. We might have cherished more the freedom that Christianity can offer. By exonerating Pilate, Christians somehow begin to link together politics and the life of the church. But it was the state, we should not forget, that judged God in the Gospels. We may have begun to ask if the only true and reliable judge might be the God.

Any reader of the Gospel accounts of the trial will remember Christ’s assertion that Pilate has no authority over him. That is something to ponder upon.

The Innocence of Pontius Pilate is scholarly, yes. It is written in that high scholarly linguistic style and it has nearly 200 pages of notes. But none of this is any kind of problem. The great scholars wear their learning lightly and that is true of Dusenbury and his future output is certainly worth looking out for.

It is odd, but when you think of it, at the heart of every European city lies a mystery: the figure of the cross. Visit London’s financial hub, St Petersburg or any other city and somewhere near its centre will be a major church and a cross. In post-christendon this symbol may be irrelevant to most, but we do well to understand what it means. But that takes work and the dedication to ask some hard questions. It also takes the kind of mind that asks – what if we need to think again?

Pilate was guilty. So were many others. That matters a lot.

Rev Steve Morris is the author of: Our Precious Lives: why telling and hearing stories can save the church, Authentic Media.

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