Jonathan MS Pearce’s Critical Examinations: Pilate and the Jews

After taking a break last week to talk about a post by Richard Carrier, I’m going to return to talking about Jonathan MS Pearce’s critical examinations again.  As noted before, I’m pretty much going to skip everything about the Nativity except for what I’ve already talked about and move on to talking about his book on the Resurrection.  Even here, I’m not going to talk about everything in the book or even the bulk of the book, because much of it I don’t find to be interesting or important contradictions or problems for the account.  And I’m not going to quote very much from it except where absolutely necessary — usually where Pearce says something that seems to me to be rather ridiculous and I want to make it easy for people to tell if I’ve interpreted it correctly or not — because I have them in hard copy and it’s not all that easy to quote from a hard copy.

Before getting into this in detail, let me reiterate that there are two things I will do here that Pearce may not agree with but that I think is fair given my position.  The first is that since I consider Pearce to be making a knowledge claim that these are major contradictions that cannot be reasonably resolved all I’m going to try to do is come up with a reasonable sequence of events given the Gospel narratives that resolves at least most of the contradictions.  The second is that there is no requirement for me to take the texts literally, so I can allow for some aspects to be legendary in nature.  The one thing that I’m going to resist is any attempt to claim that the Gospel writer completely invented it, and instead will aim for explanations that allow for those details of have been generated from the oral accounts and selected for by the Gospel writers, usually in line with their overall project.

So, let’s start with the events leading up to the Crucifixion, specifically Jesus’ trial and being condemned to death by Pilate.  Pearce questions this on the basis that since Jesus’ main crime was blasphemy He would have been tried by the Jewish religious leaders and stoned to death, not crucified.  Also, Pilate wouldn’t have acted the way he was presented in the accounts that focus on him.  He certainly, the argument goes, wouldn’t have had a tradition to release a prisoner for the people for the religious holiday so that he could offer them Jesus and have the people choose the other prisoner instead, and demand Jesus’ execution.  So, for these and some other reasons that I won’t list right now, he finds that account pretty suspicious.

Here’s what I think is the reasonable interpretation.

The Jewish religious leaders saw Jesus as a threat to their religious authority, and wanted to get rid of Him.  But He has support among the people, and they knew that they risked riling up their own people if they moved against Him without a sufficient case against Him.  This actually brings in their attempts to trap Him into making directly blasphemous statements, so that they could use that as justification for His arrest and potentially eventual execution.  But He managed to evade their traps.  However, at one point He made a “mistake”, at least from their perspective, and said that He was “The King of the Jews”.  While He certainly meant it religiously, this would seem like a glorious opportunity for them, as it would bring Him in opposition to the secular authorities and, thus, the Romans.  While He had evaded their earlier attempt — them asking Him to talk about whether the Jews should pay taxes to the Romans — and while this wasn’t as strong a statement, it was probably good enough for them to push Pilate to try and execute Him, and thus they’d eliminate the threat to their power while leaving their hands clean.

So, they arrested Him themselves and presented Him to the Roman authorities so that they could try Him.  But from what people in this debate have said about Pilate, he was both politically adept and a bit of a jerk.  So he would have realized fairly quickly from Jesus’ testimony that Jesus didn’t really mean it in the political sense and so what was happening was that the religious leaders were trying to use him to remove a rival.  And so he would have been fairly clear that he didn’t see this as being treason against the state and that he wanted to release Jesus.  But then the religious leaders would point out that the statement is technically seditious and so if Pilate let Jesus go free it would look like he was going easy on such sentiments, and would at least imply that they’d make sure that opinion was circulated among the people.

So at this point, Pilate has a bit of a political issue here.  And again Pilate is politically adept and a bit of a jerk, and so he will be examining this situation quite carefully.  Obviously, he’s not going to want the Jewish authorities feel that they can get him to do their dirty work all the time.  However, he also doesn’t want to get into these clashes for any reason either, because that will unsettle the area and make things difficult for him.  The first thing he’d note is that Jesus Himself is not in any way important enough for Pilate to fight over.  Pilate didn’t care one whit for Jesus except for His role in this specific situation.  So he had no reason to go to bat for Jesus Himself.  Given that, it would be far easier to just go along with the religious leaders and execute Jesus.  However, he would want to make it clear to the religious leaders not to make these sort of maneuvers a habit, and he would want to try to make it public that the main impetus for this execution was not him but was the religious leaders, in case the people got upset about the execution.  The religious leaders wanted to be able to blame him for the execution, but he wanted the people to blame them if they got upset.

So the entire scene where Pilate washes his hands of the situation and offers to release someone else to cries from the crowd to kill Jesus may not have actually happened as described.  Pilate could possibly have arranged some sort of dramatic signal of his views, and it’s not unreasonable to think that the religious leaders might have staged some sort of protest to demonstrate that they had the power to stir the people up against Jesus and thus against Pilate if Pilate didn’t execute Jesus.  But this also could have been legends that got mixed in afterwards.  However, if so, it seems reasonable to me that these were legends that were invented because they reflected the attitudes at the time, and ones that both sides were willing to make public:  Pilate making it clear that he didn’t think that Jesus deserved to be crucified and that the push for this came from the Jewish leaders, and the religious leaders making it clear that the people themselves railed against Jesus as someone pushing sedition and thus risking more oppressive measures being taken by the Romans against the Jews.

Pearce, if I recall correctly, talks about the Pilate stories being invented at the time when Christianity moved towards blaming the Jews instead of the Romans for Jesus’ death.  However, as seen above, the stories didn’t need to be invented, but instead could have been selected for to align with that idea, from a thread that Pilate would have deliberately created for his own political gain.

There’s also a curious issue here in that Pilate does ask them why they can’t try Jesus themselves and the religious leaders reply that they aren’t allowed to put someone to death.  As Pearce notes — and his entire argument relies on this — they were able to sentence people to death for blasphemy by stoning.  So why would they say that they couldn’t?  Since they wanted Jesus executed but to be executed by the Romans, it’s possible that they were relying on Pilate not knowing much about their authority to catch them in a lie, although I would think that Pilate would be aware if they could execute people or not given how much authority that entailed.  Pilate might also have not wanted to argue with them over the lie at this stage, especially given that he probably wouldn’t want them to execute people too blithely either.  Or else this one was invented by storytellers — not the evangelists — to answer that very question and explain why Jesus had to be crucified.

So, I think this account works, as it fits with pretty much everything that is described in the biblical accounts (or, at least, everything important).  And this account creates the political situation that explains a lot of what happened later, as next time I return to this topic I’ll talk about Joseph of Arimathea.


5 Responses to “Jonathan MS Pearce’s Critical Examinations: Pilate and the Jews”

  1. Jonathan MS Pearce’s Critical Examinations: Joseph of Arimathea | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] leaders means that he doesn’t have to support their position and could toss the threat that the religious leaders threw at Pilate back at them (at least in my version):  they could go after him for giving the criminal a proper […]

  2. GJ Says:

    There’s also a curious issue here in that Pilate does ask them why they can’t try Jesus themselves and the religious leaders reply that they aren’t allowed to put someone to death. As Pearce notes — and his entire argument relies on this — they were able to sentence people to death for blasphemy by stoning. So why would they say that they couldn’t?

    I always assumed they just meant “We aren’t allowed to put people to death for this kind of crime” — the official charge against Jesus was sedition, not blasphemy, so the ability to stone blasphemers wouldn’t have been much help to the priests in this situation.

    • verbosestoic Says:

      In that case, the real reason would probably be that they couldn’t make a charge of blasphemy stick, but thought they could make a charge of treason stick. But then Pilate being unconcerned about the treason charge doesn’t really fit. So I prefer my interpretation where they are trying to pawn the blame off on Pilate with a claim that does technically fit as treason and then using public pressure to push him into doing it even though he knows what they’re doing and doesn’t think it merits execution. They could always have lied to him about their laws since he might not have bothered to check if they could execute people or if they could execute someone for blasphemy.

      • GJ Says:

        I’d say Pilate is sceptical about the treason charge, rather than unconcerned. And I don’t think it’s that hard to make it fit — perhaps the priests overestimated Pilate’s willingness to execute an alleged traitor on their say-so, or perhaps they knew it would be tough to convince him but thought they had a better chance doing that than trying to gin up some evidence for blasphemy (which they’d already tried, without success).

      • verbosestoic Says:

        I agree that considering that Jesus dodged most of their attempts at blasphemy charges does open up the idea that they were using the treason approach because they actually could make it work, but given the specific charge and Pilate’s reaction that charge seems nominal at best. When I said that Pilate was unconcerned, what I meant was that he didn’t really think that what Jesus did was really treason and the movement was not something that he needed to quash. Given that, he wouldn’t be all that concerned about Jesus making a specific religious claim come true that was less related to any treason charge.

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