Pontius Pilate: Deciphering a Memory by Aldo Schiavone (Translated by Jeremy Carden) - review by Frank McLynn

Frank McLynn

Did He Wash His Hands?

Pontius Pilate: Deciphering a Memory


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Until recently Pontius Pilate was a household name; in modern, pagan Britain one can no longer be sure. He definitely existed: as well as in the Gospels, he is mentioned in the writings of Tacitus, Philo and Josephus and, perhaps most significantly, on the Pilate Stone, which was discovered at Caesarea in Israel in 1961. His life has interested many writers, including Nietzsche, Anatole France, Shaw and Bulgakov. Some of his alleged sayings (‘What is truth?’) have provoked thinkers down the ages. History has less to say. We know that at the time of the trial of Jesus and the Crucifixion, which Aldo Schiavone plausibly dates to the night of Thursday 6 April AD 30, he had been prefect of Judaea for four years and would rule for another six. He was of equestrian, not senatorial rank, probably aged around forty in the year 30, and a protégé of Sejanus, the great favourite of Tiberius, who famously overstepped his bounds and was executed in disgrace by the emperor. All historical evidence suggests that Pilate died in the reign of Caligula (37–41) and tradition has it that his place of death was Vienne in France. During his ten years in Judaea, Pilate had to deal with Rome’s most difficult subjects, the Jews, and by the time of the Crucifixion had already endured two major clashes with them: over the display of ‘heathen idols’ (the legionaries’ eagles) and the building of an aqueduct. The prefect of Judaea was always in a precarious position: he had just 3,000 soldiers under his command and, in times of serious trouble, had to call on support from his senior, the legate of Syria, who commanded four entire legions.

So much for sober history. Schiavone has set himself the task of filling in the historical gaps by a scholarly interpretation of the passages concerning Pilate in the three Synoptic Gospels, those of Matthew, Mark and Luke, and in the Gospel of the Evangelist he hugely prefers, John. It is perhaps not so surprising that Schiavone, an Italian academic and scholar, should prefer the Neoplatonist John to the more parochial authors of the Synoptic Gospels.

His main argument is that a close reading of the Gospels shows a massive battle of wits going on between the Jewish elders of the Sanhedrin (the supreme council of the Jews) and Pilate himself. Pilate, he argues, concluded that Jesus was harmless, a scapegoat for Sadducee bigotry, and tried to head off the death sentence the Jews demanded, first by scourging the accused and then by offering them a choice between the execution of either Jesus or Barabbas, confident they would choose Barabbas, a known killer and a sworn enemy of the Sadducees. But the elders outwitted him and, in the end, Pilate was persuaded that Jesus’s failure to deny being ‘King of the Jews’ could be construed as treason against the Roman state and that he was thus deserving of the fate laid down in the lex Iulia maiestatis: crucifixion. As a Parthian shot, to show his contempt for the Sanhedrin, he allowed the inscription INRI (short for ‘Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews’) to be placed on the Cross, and met Jewish protests with the devastating reply quod scripsi, scripsi (‘what I have written, I have written’).

This is an interesting thesis, but it is vulnerable to what I see as fatal objections. In the first place, Schiavone’s attempt at close argument is a muddle. He frequently excoriates the authors of the Synoptic Gospels for their historical ignorance in asserting things that could not conceivably have happened, such as Pilate’s famous washing of the hands, an episode found only in Matthew (together with Luke, the focus for Schiavone’s most withering contempt) and something that Roman culture and hygiene practice would never have allowed. At other times he treats their dubious accounts as, well, gospel. He takes the story of Barabbas seriously, when most scholars see it merely as the most egregious example of evidence tailored to make the Jews, not the Romans, the killers of Christ. Barabbas is not mentioned in a single other historical source. Schiavone spots that the frequent references to the presence of a baying ‘crowd’ or ‘multitude’ during the investigations into Jesus’s activities must be nonsense, since these enquiries were all conducted behind closed doors. He fails, however, to see that the same logic must condemn the ‘Jewish elders’ to the realm of fiction as soon as Pilate enters the scene, as his examination of Jesus was carried out privately (we can assume that there was an armed guard outside the chamber door). Schiavone cannot make up his mind about the Evangelists. Why does he treat some parts of their testimonies as nonsense while taking others seriously? In any case, how could they have ever known what was said in a private interview between Pilate and the prisoner? And yet they all, even Schiavone’s beloved John, quote the conversation verbatim.

The truth is almost certainly that Jesus was, if not a Zealot, then certainly a Zealot ‘fellow traveller’. Mere membership of this sect, whose adherents the Romans called sicarii (‘dagger men’), was an express act of treason and punishable by death. It is certain that Pilate condemned Jesus to crucifixion as a political rebel. All suggestions that he was condemned to death for blasphemy and for claiming to be the ‘Son of God’ are red herrings. Certainly, members of the Sanhedrin would have viewed with alarm the teachings of a radical rabbi and would have wished him dead, but they had their own ecclesiastical courts and could have imposed on him a capital sentence, which in the case of blasphemy meant being stoned to death. This is why Enoch Powell made the apparently sensational claim that Jesus was stoned to death. If all the blather in the Gospels about blasphemy were true, this must have been what happened. But no: Jesus was tried as a political rebel and crucified under the lex Iulia maiestatis, as Tacitus clearly states. Following St Paul’s transmogrification of Jesus’s teachings into Christianity, its adherents wished for acceptance by Rome and concocted the story that the Jews were the killers of Christ, so as not to offend the Roman state. This narrative, of course, took on paramount importance in the fourth century, when Christianity became the state religion. And so arose the legend of the Jews as killers of Christ, until the 20th century the central tenet of global anti-Semitism. The correct reading of the Gospels is to construe them as a kind of historical novel, complete with invented dialogue. If this is so, then Schiavone’s ‘reconstruction’ simply adds another layer of myth-making, for if you tinker with fiction you are surely going to end up with just another fiction.

Although Schiavone has got himself caught in a web of fictionalised narratives, his book is nevertheless an intriguing investigation into Pilate’s life, containing some formidable biblical exegesis.

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