Pontius Pilate: the first Christian?
Review of Aldo Schiavone’s "Pontius Pilate: Deciphering a Memory"
Aldo Schiavone is one of my favorite writers on ancient Roman economics, or more broadly Roman history. I learned a lot and truly enjoyed his elegant and small volume The end of the past which cleverly, and yet profoundly, and in a beautiful prose, discusses the greatness of a globalized empire created by Rome and the limits which prevented it from going further, developing ten centuries before it eventually appeared in Lombardy, a much more extensive form of globalized commercial economy. It was the economy of conquest leading to slavery and cheapness of labor that prevented Roman technological upgrading (a view shared by Marx and more recently by Bob Allen): “Military plunder turned out to be the sole mechanism for the self-support that the Roman economy managed to build” (The end.., p. 81). In addition, Schiavone writes, there was the disdain for labor in general; the ideal life consisted of aristocratic rural indolence: all elements hardly leading to a capitalist economy. There was also a hubris, belief that the pinnacle of human evolution has been reached, that nothing new could be invented, summarized in a beautiful pithy sentence by Schiavone, “They all thought they had finished, but in truth they had not even begun” (The End…, p. 134).
Now, one of the most famous living historians of Rome has set himself the task in the just published, Pontius Pilate: Deciphering a Memory, to explore probably the most portentous meeting in human history: that of Pilate and Jesus. I was very excited when I saw that the French, and just a couple of days ago, English translations of the book are out. Nobody, I thought, could do this reconstruction better than Schiavone. I pre-ordered the book, and read it in one evening/night. It is short, some 200 pages including copious reference and discussion of numerous sources.
The first part, where Schiavone describes Judaea in fifty years before the Common Era and in the period up to the year 30, when, by all evidence, the fatal encounter took place, does not disappoint. Schiavone describes very persuasively the intellectual febrility of Judaea, crisscrossed by preachers, holy men and vagabonds (imagine a Connecticut-size country with perhaps a several thousand Rasputins running around), its social structure, its implacable theocracy with high priests and Sanhedrin sitting on top of an aristocratic-religious regime that looks very similar to today’s Saudi Arabia. “It is no accident that the word ‘theocracy’ was invented by Josephus to describe the peculiarity of his county’s political tradition” (p. 110).
And then Schiavone explains perfectly the bewilderment of Romans in this environment that linguistically, and more importantly ideologically, they find entirely alien. Although Jews and Romans (and Greeks) have lived together for several centuries by then, Roman incomprehension of Jews had never gone away. Gibbon gives literally dozens examples of their “oil-and-water” relationship—that is, when they were not at war. Even more difficult was it to be the prefect in such an environment, permanently trying to check the incipient insurrection while avoiding the converse danger that, in order to placate one faction of the Jews and prevent such insurrection, the Roman authorities may be used by that faction to suppress its rivals (the typical “tail-wags-the dog” dilemma of all big powers).
And this indeed is what happens here. The Jewish religious aristocracy feels threatened by the sudden popularity acquired by the Galilean preacher, convinces Pilate to arrest him, but then fails to produce the evidence that the preacher is undermining Roman political order. For the crux of the matter is here: Jewish religious establishment has a full control over its religious matters, but has no right to impose the capital sentence (which they desperately want to pass on Jesus). Only Romans can do that—but the Romans will do that, not because of a religious dispute among the Jews, but only if the crime is political (that is, directed against Rome).
The rest of the story is well known and I will not tread on it here. It is where Schiavone’s two key points are made. First, he argues that, impressed by Jesus’s behavior and answers (or lack of answers) during the interrogation, Pilate at first refuses to impose the death sentence even if it puts him in a potentially serious conflict with the Jewish establishment. But then—more extraordinarily—he is awed by this most unusual preacher who claims to descend from the Heavenly Kingdom, and becomes convinced that the preacher wants to be executed. The humiliating death on the cross is Jesus’s desired end-point, a culmination of his Earthly mission. We thus have at the very end, all three parties agreeing that Jesus should die: Jewish establishment wants to get rid of an inconvenient religious rebel, Jesus craves his sacrifice, Pilate is his willing accomplice.
Now, this part which I have just described is nicely argued and written but is in reality a genre of historical fiction. It could be that it happened exactly that way as Schiavone tries to convince us, but it could have happened in a myriad other ways. The number of parties, combinations of their interests, shifting alliances even in these twenty-four hours, leave may possibilities open. Schiavone makes a strange decision to treat John’s and the three Synoptic gospels as a textual evidence of what was said in the proceedings. But this is clearly baseless. As Schiavone mentions, very few people were likely to have been present at Pilate’s interrogation of Jesus; at most only the translators since Pilate was unlikely to have spoken Hebrew or Aramaic and Jesus unlikely to have spoken Greek or Latin (p. 102). Were Jesus’s disciples later in touch with interpreters? Did interpreters tell somebody else who then conveyed that information to the writers of Passion? And even if we answer these questions is in the affirmative, it is naïve to believe that the Gospels would have written in a way unfavorable to Jesus. The nature of the documents is such that they have to present Jesus as a superior interlocutor in the duel between Caesar and God.
Further, since the textual evidence of the four writers differs on important points, Schiavone is reduced to doing what all writers who need to push one side of the story have to do: to selectively choose now from one, then from another, writer. John is the most reliable (p. 97), before he becomes the least (“John’s account no longer holds up”, p. 164); tiny and probably meaningless or accidental inclinations in the text (e.g. “from then on” or “thus”) are given implausibly heavy interpretations. The whole story takes on an almost Hollywoodesque aspect where the implacable Roman prefect becomes awed by the holy man and decides to connive in his desire to die. “We are no longer in an interrogation. Progressively…we have been transported from the Praetoreum of Judaea to a dialogue of Plato” (p. 123). Roman prefect, a hardened military man, some 15 years Jesus’s senior, caring about the eschatological mission of an itinerant preacher whose neither religion nor language he can understand?
We are here touching at the edges of Christian mysticism even if Schiavone tries hard to motivate presumed Pilate’s fall under Jesus’ spell by invoking the role of superstition in Roman lives. The story totally collapses in that latter part: the scarce facts that we have cannot reasonably be expected to support Schiavone’s heavy scaffolding.
Congrats! Great weekend blog,. Completely agree Schiavone is outstanding master of portraiting anicent Roman history.
“Schiavone describes very persuasively the intellectual febrility of Judaea, crisscrossed by preachers, holy men and vagabonds (imagine a Connecticut-size country with perhaps a several thousand Rasputins running around), its social structure, its implacable theocracy with high priests and Sanhedrin sitting on top of an aristocratic-religious regime that looks very similar to today’s Saudi Arabia.”
This seems overly focussed on certain religious aspects of the region, and especially the temple religion centered in Jerusalem. Second temple era Judea was also full of revolutionary nationalists, admirably committed to indefatigable anti-imperial resistance, and engaging in frequent revolts, assassinations and uprisings, until the brutal and thieving Romans finally leveled the temple, and then 50 or so years later deported the population after the Bar Kochba rebellion. Also, many of the apocalyptic religious tendencies of the time were inseparable from the political resistance, because they taught the coming of a godly kingdom that was going to displace the world’s barbaric and profane empires - especially the Romans.
The earliest followers of Jesus after his death were Jews, led by his brother James. After Christianity began to spread in the empire, it took on more and more pro-Roman and pro-Pilate apologia, and became full of anti-Semitic tripe, because the Jews, as notorious anti-imperial resistors, had become disreputable and scary throughout the empire - perhaps something like the Cubans or Vietnamese to Cold War America. This narrative smells of that tradition. But by all accounts Pilate was a ruthless procurator. It seems entirely plausible that he would have had zero patience with disturbances of the peace such as Jesus had instigated that week in the temple compound, and would have eagerly crucified him without much thought, although he might indeed have felt a need to gauge Jesus’s popularity first, in order to avoid sparking an even larger revolt.
The comparison with Saudi Arabia seems a little strange, although it might make sense if you re-imagine the House of Saud as just a family of rich priests, completely subjugated to an American occupying authority.
The Romans were not urbane classical gentlemen “mystified” by the Jews. They were murderous gangsters periodically frustrated by their inability to fully subjugate the Jews. The Jews of that time are among the most admirable people of the Roman world. They fought subjugation incessantly while many others abjectly submitted to the yoke.