Was Pontus Pilate scared of the Jews? This question is one that has taken on new life in recent years. The common assumption is that a Roman Prefect would not bend to the whims of local leadership of a province they governed. Roman authority was absolute. And Roman leaders surely would not have gotten involved in a theological squabble among the local people.
PILATE WAS NOT SCARED OF THE JEWS!
When I first became a Christian, I began reading at furious rate. I had a burning desire to know more about Jesus, theology and the history of Christianity. I read every book I could get my hands on. Enrolling in a class on Christian history at my local community college seemed like a logical next step in my education.
This class proved to be interesting on many levels. My class required that we submit 4 papers for the semester. The 4 papers covered different time periods in Christianity beginning with the events of Jesus’ life and death.
For my first paper I chose to write on the events of Good Friday. I laid out a careful case on why Pilate might have acquiesced to the Jewish leadership’s demands that Jesus be crucified. My paper was carefully footnoted and referenced. I received an A on the paper.
When I submitted my second paper, I received it back with a note to see the professor. When I met with him, he looked at me puzzled and said “Was I drunk when I read your first paper?” Not sure how to answer, I mumbled something to the effect of “Uh, I don’t know…?”.
He handed me back my second paper. As this was a progressive work, the first paper was incorporated into the second. Across the front of the paper he had written in red ink in all capital letters “PILATE WAS NOT SCARED OF THE JEWS!”
My Theory Didn’t Change
I was puzzled to say the least. How could he have missed the entire point of my paper when he read it that first time? What’s more, there was no refutation or evidence offered to counter my arguments. It was just a blanket assertion that Pilate was not scared of the Jews.
I think this is an understandable reaction if you haven’t looked at the history of what happened between Pilate and the Jewish people. We have several sources that tell us of some of the challenges Pilate faced while ruling in Judea from 26-36 A.D.
Josephus and Philo are the two main sources for the history of these events. Here are three separate incidents that created friction between Pilate and the Jewish people.
The Incident of the Standards
Pilate started his rule in Judea off on the wrong foot to put it mildly. When he arrived in Jerusalem, he did so by bringing many banners along with him. These banners bore the image of the emperor on them. The word “image” in that last sentence probably gave away the problem the Jewish population had with this.
The display caused a 5-day mass protest by the citizens. They felt it violated the prohibition in Exodus 20:4-5 which forbids engraved images. Pilate ultimately relented and the banners were taken down.
The Aqueduct Riots
Josephus mentions the Aqueduct Riots in both The Antiquities of the Jews and The Jewish Wars. The riots were a result of the population learning that money from the temple treasury had been used by Pilate to construct the aqueduct system is Jerusalem.
To be fair, it’s highly unlikely this could have occurred without the knowledge, and help, of the Jewish Sanhedrin. Especially since part of the aqueduct went under the temple itself, a place no outsider would have been allowed.
But the people blamed Pilate and the Romans. When Pilate traveled to Jerusalem, an angry mob gathered. Pilate ordered his troops to disperse the crowds with clubs, resulting in several people being killed.
The Golden Shields
Later in his reign, Pilate set up several golden shields in his Jerusalem headquarters. Perhaps he thought this wouldn’t cause a problem, as the shields had no images on them. They only had a simple inscription of dedication to Tiberius Caesar.
But once again, the people protested. This time Pilate refused to remove the shields. But the politics of the region soon reared their ugly head. Herod Antipas and his brothers protested to Tiberius himself to have the shields removed. The emperor sent Pilate a letter ordering the shields taken down. Pilate was also warned to uphold the religious and political customs of his Jewish subjects.
The Table Was Set
When view in light of the above incidents, one thing becomes clear. When the crowd in John 19:12 tells Pilate “If you let this Man go, you are not Caesar’s friend. Whoever makes himself a king speaks against Caesar”, it’s not an idle threat. The message being communicated to Pilate is that if you let this man live, we’re going to tell on you. We’re going to make sure Caesar knows that someone in your province put himself above the Emperor, and you let Him go.
So was Pontus Pilate scared of the Jews? In light of the history surrounding the situation, it’s not so difficult to see that Pilate had a problem. Pilate may not have been scared of the Jewish leaders per say. But the thought of another bad report reaching Rome would certainly have caused him concern. Had Pilate refused to crucify Jesus, he could have lost his position, and his life. Any reasonable person would fear that.
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