BMCR 1999.09.19

Pontius Pilate in history and interpretation. Society for New Testament Studies, Monograph Series 100

, Pontius Pilate in history and interpretation. Monograph series / Society for New Testament Studies ; 100. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. xxvi, 249 pages : map ; 23 cm.. ISBN 9780521631143

Few individuals in the field of New Testament studies have commanded such diverse interpretation as Pontius Pilate. Either castigated for excessively insensitive behaviour or derided for exhibiting weaknesses of character, Pilate’s reputation has suffered at the hands of those who have used misrepresentation to their own ends. Historical detail has been concealed by the fluctuating social and political trends of history even through the twentieth century.

Helen Bond’s volume represents an attempt to produce a more balanced interpretation of this important historical figure. Concentrating her study on the first century CE, B. endeavours to find the man behind the somewhat limited literary references of the first century. For this purpose she undertakes a re-reading of the works of Philo, Josephus and the four Gospel narratives, each in its own way providing very different images of one individual.

B. follows a simple methodology, presenting her material in an easily accessible format. The volume divides into four sections: a historical overview of the period, discussion of Jewish and Christian sources and concluding arguments. Detailed analysis of source material is provided, in each case examining the rhetorical aims of the authors and indicating the influence that this exerted upon their texts. B. seeks first of all to reassess the manipulated or created image of Pilate arguing that it is the misinterpretation of modern academic work that is responsible for his unfortunate reputation. Following this she also raises the possibility of tracing the touches of reality that remain amongst a largely created background and examining the possible readership of each text.

Chapter one provides an introduction to Pilate’s time as governor, placing it within its chronological context during the Roman occupation of Judaea. To do this B. draws upon a wide range of textual and archaeological material, comparing the considerable length of Pilate’s rule over Judaea with other governors, the potential inherent social problems awaiting him upon his arrival and his relations with the existing political and religious parties. For the uninitiated this is a valuable chapter, permitting the reader to absorb the social and political geography of the period. Further, this permits a broader consideration of Pilate, through comparison with his predecessors and by pre-empting potential literary bias with factual detail taken from archaeological and administrative source material.

Having placed Pilate in context, B. then approaches her textual sources. Her primary concerns are the two images of Pilate derived from academic interpretations of the Jewish and Christian texts. Readings of Jewish source material invariably portray Pilate as a headstrong individual given to insensitivity and poor judgement. His period of control is marked by acts of deliberate anti-Semitic provocation and tyrannical suppression.

Traditional sources for such interpretation are Philo’s Legato ad Gail, Josephus’ War and the Antiquities of the Jews. Traditional interpretation of these since Schurer’s Geschichte des Judischen Volkes have afforded great credibility to these accounts of heavy handed, insensitive behaviour. Stauffer and Smallwood in particular have combined textual interpretation with study of numismatic designs to argue for a conscious anti-Semitic policy in Pilate’s government.

B. overturns such readings, arguing that they are indicative of shallow and generalised readings of a more complex situation. In her re-reading of the incident of the Aniconic shields in the Legatio, B. argues that Philo’s gloss of political rhetoric and theological motivation exaggerates the malicious intent in an otherwise carefully planned act of Imperial piety. B. cites in particular Pilate’s avoidance of Imperial imagery, limited inclusion of inscription material and placement of shields in buildings reserved for Roman administration and activity.

Again, in her discussion of Josephus, B. concentrates on the historical subtext of the pieces, not their accusations. The concluding image of Pilate is once again favourable. B. accepts that Pilate was by no means infallible. He was certainly not above utilising forcible measure of control, as the extracts concerning the Temple funds and the Samaritan uprising indicate. But equally in the account of the Imperial standards, B. provides valid evidence of a flexible Governor willing to extend a certain leniency to his subjects.

B. is obviously keen to rehabilitate the image of Pilate, and her interpretation may be seen as a further extension of writers such as Lemonon and McGing who in the past have advocated a balanced if not favourable depiction of the Judaean Governor. Certainly B. is firm in her refutation of Schurer, Staufer et al. She strongly advocates reinterpretation of Pilate’s coinage issue. Citing as evidence the declining levels of Imperial symbolism and inscription detail, plus the retention of Jewish representation, she argues that these represent a non-offensive policy towards the residents of Judaea. Pilate appears not as an insensitive tyrant but a man divided between Imperial allegiance and mindfulness of the people under his command.

Portrayals of Pilate in the Gospels receive a similar approach. Concerning herself initially with the image assigned to Pilate by each evangelist, B. is keen to refute his uniform representation as a consistently weak and ineffective character. It must be stated that B. does not attempt to create the non-existent. Matthew’s Pilate remains a rather two dimensional, neutral figure, eclipsed by the evangelist’s wider textual concern of conflict with Judaism. The account of Luke-Acts is also found to contain a rather spineless individual who bows to public pressure. In B’s work on Mark, however, Pilate re-emerges as a skilful political manipulator, firmly in control of a potentially violent crowd. Finally, in the Johannine text, Pilate appears not only to be shrewdly in control, but also fully prepared to manipulate the trial scene to his advantage politically. B. utilises this new interpretation as a basis on which to address the limited academic consideration given to images of Pilate in each Gospel. Previously authors such as Winter have advocated such a level of textual interdependency between the first three Gospels that the representations of Pilate are virtually indistinguishable from one another. The four very different images that B. creates in her readings of the texts genuinely refute such opinions.

Finally B. utilises this diversity of portrayals to undermine the traditional view of a linear development of Pilate’s image through the four texts. Traditionally the image of Pilate is thought to have improved in the later Gospels, moving towards an increasing exoneration of Rome’s responsibility for the crucifixion. B. disproves such a claim. She cites as particular evidence the great geographical and chronological separation between the four authors. Further, as she quite rightly illustrates, the varying agendas of the evangelists in terms of proposed readership and relations with Rome dictated four very separate images of the Judaean Governor. B. highlights the different social and spiritual requirements facing the community of each evangelist, emphasising the lack of homogeneity in the experiences of the early church.

Overall in this discussion of Pilate, B. aims to be fair and unbiased. Whilst recognising his faults, she also taken pains to emphasise the possible misinterpretation of events surrounding him, placing Pilate within the machinations of Roman society and portraying him as one of a line of administrators, not a single example of intrusive rule. Whilst recognising that Pilate’s relationship with his subjects was influenced more by benefit than sympathy, B. argues that Pilate was not given to deliberate acts of provocation or violence during his time in office. In so doing, B. portrays a man of firm authority and long-standing service within the Roman Empire.

Yet it becomes clear that B. has accomplished more than merely rehabilitating Pilate’s image. B. She has challenged established academic thought and introduced important information into a vital area of New Testament study. Most importantly B. illustrates the extent to which modern academic misinterpretation has contributed to the manipulation of an already created image. This volume is as much a re-examination of Pilate’s biographers as it is of his biography. Yet in seeking to rehabilitate the image of Pilate, B. has in effect achieved far more, not least of which are the useful commentaries on the Gospels, and valued insight into the tenuous social situation of first century Judaea. Along with an excellent bibliography and detailed appendices, B. has created an extremely accessible volume, valuable for academics and students alike.