by Phillip Brown
There are historians who question the authenticity of Jesus’ trial before Pilate. Could there be a reason for their scepticism regarding this event? In this article I am going to discuss some of the evidence, which suggests that Jesus’ likely appeared before Pilate, just as The New Testament claims.
One of the chief criteria that historians use to determine whether, or not an event is historical is multiple attestation. Jesus’ trial before Pilate certainly meets this criteria. The trial and persecution of Jesus is recorded in all four Gospels as well as in extra-biblical sources such as the writings of Tacitus and Josephus. From this alone we may surmise that Jesus likely went though some kind of trial. This just the tip of the historical iceberg though. There are other compelling reasons to believe that the event did occur.
The relationship between the Jewish people and the Romans had been tenuous from the time that Pompey conquered Jerusalem in the early 60’s BC. When discussing the destruction of the Jerusalem, Josephus speaks of the Jews “miseries”(Wars, Preface, 4. 9) and says that it was their own seditious temper, which destroyed their country(Wars, Preface, 4.10). More contemporary with Jesus was an incident, which speaks of friction between the Jews and Pilate. He put up Roman shields, or effigies, in the Palace of Herod(Philo, Embassy to Gaius 38.299-305). Josephus confirms this event(Antiquities, 18.3.1). This immediately invoked an uproar from the Jews. What is clear is that Rome did not have a good relationship with the Jews. If this is true, it seems to me to be unlikely that a peasant who caused a disturbance in the Temple, as Jesus did when he cleansed it and chased out the merchants and money changers(Matt 21:12-13), would have been seen as nothing more than a nuisance. A crime for which a flogging, or a bit of time in prison would have been the punishment. And John 19:1-4 records that Pilate did just that. Jesus was flogged and released. But The New Testament says that Jesus appeared before Pilate. There must have been something special about Jesus to warrant such an appearance with governor of the entire Roman province of Judea. And there was. Jesus threatened the authority of the Jewish priests and that is why they wanted him dead. But only the Roman authorities had the power to sentence someone to death.
Luke records that Pilate had tried to release Jesus, saying that he found no guilt in him and that Jesus had done nothing deserving death(Luke 23:14-16). Similarly, the Gospel of John reports that Pilate found Jesus to be innocent of the crimes that he had committed(18:38, 19:4, 19:6). So why, then, did Jesus end up on the cross? It seems likely to me that Jesus was crucified because Pilate wanted to avoid an uprising.
We know that Roman officials were responsible for keeping the peace in their provinces. And when trouble arose, it could be disastrous for a governor who did not react in just the right way. In fact Josephus records that some time after Jesus’ death Pilate himself was removed from his position and sent to Rome to answer for accusations of murder, which stemmed from an uprising in Samaria(Antiquities, 18.4.2). Rebellions were particularly dangerous and it was in the best interest of Roman governors to do what needed to be done in order to keep the population under their jurisdiction placated.
The Jewish authorities put pressure on Pilate to have Jesus crucified(John 19:6,15, Luke 23:18,21,23). John goes so far as to say that Pilate was afraid(19:8). Pilate was likely concerned because he had realized that the people were becoming very uneasy(Matt 27:24). This pressure must have been enormous. And the circumstances could have put Pilate in a very bad situation.
In his book Zealot, Reza Aslan claims that the Gospel accounts of Jesus appearing before Pilate are likely unhistorical(148). It seems to me, however, that there are good reasons to think that Aslan is wrong. On the contrary, there are many good reasons to think that this even is historical. It is very likely that Pilate would have seen Jesus, because not putting him on trial might have resulted in civil discord. And it is just as likely that Pilate ultimately agreed to have Jesus crucified because the life of a peasant would have been a small price to pay to avoid an uprising.
Claims like the one made by Reza Azlan are common among sceptical scholars. But as I have just shown, there are no good reasons to be so sceptical about the event in question. The more that events recorded in The New Testament can be shown to be historical, the more weight the text has as an accurate historical document. And this then increases the likelihood that less verifiable events recorded in The New Testament might also be true. For an unbeliever who philosophically rejects Christianity, this is a dangerous thing. It begins to undermine their worldview and likely much of what they build their career on. So it is in the best interest of sceptical scholars to try to show that events like Jesus’ appearance before Pilate did not occur, in spite of evidence to the contrary.