- Christogenea Internet Radio
On the Gospel of John, Part 46: Crime and Culpability
As we presented our commentary on the opening verses of John chapter 19, we saw that the apostle clearly sought to describe Pontius Pilate in a way that absolved him of any complicity, minimizing his culpability in the murder of Christ. So the first charge by the Judaeans regarding Christ that would be a serious offense to Rome was that He had claimed to be king, which is not necessarily true although the gospels do record others as having made that claim on His behalf. Pontius Pilate, interrogating Christ about that charge, sought the truth of the matter and when Christ answered him with an inquiry of His Own, Pilate asked “Am I a Judaean?” That evidently indicated that he was admitting having known nothing of matters peculiar to the people of Judaea, as he then asked “Thine own nation and the chief priests have delivered thee unto me: what hast thou done?” So to answer Pilate’s first question, Christ did not deny or admit being a king, and only said that His kingdom was “not of this world” while professing that He came into the world only to speak the truth.
Although Christ did not deny the charges made by the Judaeans, Pilate was nevertheless reluctant to accept them, and sought to release Him. At this point a custom is mentioned which is difficult to verify because it is only mentioned here in the Gospel accounts, and not in any other surviving records. Pilate was described as having customarily released a prisoner on the feast as a favor to the Judaeans. While Josephus does not discuss anything like this custom in his histories, he does mention other instances of pardons which may have been granted by Roman procurators. So Pilate hoped that they would agree to release Christ, but they demanded Barabbas instead. Barabbas was a robber and a murderer, the leader of a sedition, and therefore he deserved to die. But looking at the name Barabbas from a prophetic point of view, since in Hebrew it apparently means son of the Father, in that manner it very well represent the fact that Christ had died in exchange for the sins of the sons of His Own Father.
The Judaeans, not yet having convinced Pilate that Christ was worthy of death, when Pilate would have no part with His death they added another charge. So John explained that “7 The Jews answered him, We have a law, and by our law he ought to die, because he made himself the Son of God.” Now Pilate, speaking privately to Christ, had already admitted not knowing anything about the peculiar affairs or beliefs of the Judaeans. But as a Roman, only the emperors themselves bore the designation “son of god” as a title, and for another man to make such a claim was an affront to the emperor and to Roman religious sentiments of the time. So John wrote that “8 When Pilate therefore heard that saying, he was the more afraid.” Evidently Pilate was afraid because he knew he was being given little choice in the matter, yet he continued to resist their demands.
So the Jews pushed him further, and they threatened him by telling him that if he released Christ, then he was no “friend of Caesar”, a description which was actually a treasured political designation. Ostensibly, for Pilate to have been given the office of procurator, or perhaps more precisely, prefect, over Judaea for ten years, he must have been a friend of Caesar. But then the Jews said “Anyone making Himself king speaks in opposition to Caesar!” At this point in the gospel of Matthew, we read in chapter 27 that “24 When Pilate saw that he could prevail nothing, but that rather a tumult was made, he took water, and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this just person: see ye to it.”
As it is often revealed in the histories of Josephus, throughout this period of history there had been many seditions, and there were uprisings against the Romans which were described by Josephus and also mentioned in the book of Acts. Here where Matthew said that Pilate had seen that a tumult was made, he must also have feared a riot among the Judaeans, at a time when many tens of thousands of people were in Jerusalem for the feast, so many people may have lost their lives. Frequently when such troubles occurred, the Judaeans sent embassies to Rome to complain about their kings or their governors, and in that process several of them were removed.
If this charge that Christ sought to make himself king had reached Caesar, especially being attached to the charge that Christ had used a title belonging to the emperor, a title which the emperors used to legitimize their own authority, which is “son of god”, it would have cost Pilate his office, and perhaps also his very life, since he would have been seen as having supported a man who sought to set himself up as a king, possibly even leading a coup or causing a sedition. This was also an age where emperors, or those who would be emperor, were often assassinated, so threats to the imperial authority were taken very seriously. Pilate was certainly in a quandary: he either had to slay an innocent man, whose death meant nothing to the Romans, or suffer the consequences of risking a pardon and losing his position, and possibly also his own life.
The political circumstances of the time left Pilate no other choice but to allow the crucifixion of Christ, and as we also explained, and as John recorded in his own words to Christ, he had power of life and death over the citizens of Judaea, so he had no apparent risk if he had Christ executed. Of course, he feared because he had heard the warning which his wife had received in a dream, and evidently because he must have heard other things about Christ, but his fear was of transcendental consequences, and they were outweighed by the immediate consequences which he would suffer if he did not satisfy the blood-lusts of the Jews.
So following our last presentation of this commentary on the Gospel of John, which was titled Gods and Emperors, there was an inquiry concerning some of the claims made by Jews and their Christian sycophants in more recent times, which aim to mitigate any perception of Jewish guilt over the incident which is described here, and transfer culpability for the crucifixion of the Christ from the Jews to Pontius Pilate. However even as we have seen in John, Christ Himself had said to Pilate that “he that delivered me unto thee hath the greater sin.” There Christ could only have been referring to the Judaeans themselves, and not to Pilate, nor to Rome, nor even to Judas, but only to the scribes, Pharisees and high priests who had all conspired to kill Him.
In this endeavor, some commentators who seek to remove the guilt of the Jews go so far as to accuse the apostles John and Matthew of having an agenda by seeking to put the blame for the murder of Christ on the Jews rather than Pilate, as if the Christian gospel is not really representative of the truth, but rather, that the gospel itself is a conspiracy against the Jews. The audacity, or perhaps the chutzpah of such commentators is astounding, as they often make these and similar claims under the guise of being Christian publications. Here we shall discuss some of those charges.
As this presentation is made, there is an article at the stackexchange.com website which discusses Pilate’s act of washing the guilt from his hands. The event was actually only recorded in the Gospel of Matthew, and in comments there we read that “Wikipedia says Pilate's reluctance to execute Jesus in the gospels has been seen by [the] Anchor Bible Dictionary and critical scholars as reflecting the authors' agenda to place the blame on the Jews, not on Rome.” So they claim that Matthew had an agenda other than to tell the truth. A citation was made to the Wikipedia article on Pontius Pilate. However the Wikipedia article has evidently been edited since that reference was made, and it no longer contains such a statement. It cited the “Anchor Bible Dictionary and critical scholars”, but I cannot verify whether the statement is in the Anchor Bible Dictionary, because I do not presently have access to that quite voluminous work.
What I did find, however, is another, separate Wikipedia article titled Jewish deicide which is said to be “Part of a series on Antisemitism”. There, in reference to Matthew 27:24-25 it says “It has also been suggested that the Gospel accounts may have downplayed the role of the Romans in Jesus' death during a time when Christianity was struggling to gain acceptance among the then pagan or polytheist Roman world.” Of course, the suggestion is ludicrous, but with that statement it cites the Anchor Bible Dictionary volume 5, pages 399–400, published in 1992 by Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group. Then the article says “Ulrich Luz describes it as ‘redactional fiction’ invented by the author of the Gospel of Matthew”, citing an apparently Swiss theologian at the University of Bern who died last year. Then the article continues by saying “Some writers, viewing it as part of Matthew's anti-Jewish polemic, see in it the seeds of later Christian antisemitism”, where it cites page 12 of a 2001 book titled Scripture in tradition by one John Breck, who is described on the OrthodoxWiki as “an archpriest and theologian of the Orthodox Church in America.” Evidently, not even Protestant theologians and Orthodox priests actually believe the Scriptures, but with that I am not at all surprised.
There is another article about Pontius Pilate at the People Pill website which also cites the Anchor Bible Dictionary, and states that “Pilate's reluctance to execute Jesus in the gospels has been seen by Anchor Bible Dictionary and critical scholars as reflecting the authors' agenda. It has thus been argued that gospel accounts place the blame on the Jews, not on Rome, in line with the authors' alleged goal of making peace with the Roman Empire and vilifying the Jews.” Perhaps all of these supposedly informed articles are repeating the same piece of propaganda, as the lead editor of the Anchor Bible Dictionary was also a Jew, who purportedly “converted” to being a Presbyterian, just like a steak on Friday evenings in Catholic neighborhoods can be called fish. Thinking about this statement, it truly reflects an agenda of the Jews, who evidently seek to portray Christ and the apostles as Jewish traitors, when in fact they were neither Jewish nor traitors, so this is all an attempt in the ages-old plot of the Jews to undermine and destroy Christianity.
However the same line of thinking which is reflected by the converso-Jew who edited the Anchor Bible Dictionary has also infected traditional Christian scholars. In a doctoral thesis presented to The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary by one Matthew Jay McMains in December of 2018, we read the following: “The dialogue between Pilate and Jesus, his attempt to release Jesus instead of Barabbas, and even his symbolic hand washing declaration of Jesus’ innocence cannot in the end ‘veil his own complicity, even if reluctant and passive, in the death of Jesus.’” Saying that, McMains was citing a commentary on Matthew by one Donald Hagner, and said that “While Hagner has argued thus far that Pilate is indifferent to the matter and would rather release Jesus, ultimately he concludes that because Pilate was willing to crucify a man whom he considered innocent, he cannot escape guilt.” McMains seeks to lay the blame for the crucifixion equally on both Jews and Romans, rather than on the Jews alone, and for that he argues that Pilate was guilty. But Christ had explained that the Jews were far more guilty, and the apostles portrayed Pilate in a manner which consistently minimized his culpability.
So it seems that many so-called Christians in academics today are willing to twist the words of the apostles, even to attribute conspiracies to them, in an effort to alleviate the guilt of the Jews in relation to the crucifixion of Christ. Christianity does not represent truth in their eyes, but is reduced to the level of being a plot against the Jews. While McMains and some others may do this with relative subtlety, others are far more brash. One philo-Jewish commentator, found at a website called “Enduring Word”, which contains the writings of David Guzik, presents Pilate and his actions related to the Crucifixion in a way which seems to be rather typical of such sources.
In a commentary on Matthew chapter 27, Guzik attempts to portray Pilate in the worst possible manner where he says “History shows us Pontius Pilate was a cruel and ruthless man, unkind to the Jews and contemptuous of almost everything but raw power. [Actually this is all a lie, history does not show us any of this.] Here, he seems out of character in the way he treated Jesus. Jesus seems to have profoundly affected him.” Other commentators, whom we will not introduce here, have used this same claim that Pilate was acting “out of character” to discredit the entire account, imagining the apostles of Christ to be liars. Guzik also makes the claim that “As Pilate sat in judgment of Jesus, he failed to give the accused justice. Pilate had all the evidence he needed to do the right thing – to release Jesus.” Actually it was not Pilate threatening to cause a riot if Jesus were released, it was the Jews, so who really failed to “give the accused justice”? That is one aspect in the role of the Jews that all of these commentators glean over. They do not even consider the behavior of the Jews in their condemnations of Pilate, seeking only for ways by which to criticize Pilate. Saying that, all Guzik cited for evidence was his own imagined portrayal of Christ’s demeanor, which is hardly acceptable as evidence, and by which Guzik makes himself a fool. To the contrary, Pilate had no evidence and no testimony to counter the charges made by the Jews, and many reasons why he was compelled to accept those charges. Seeking to diminish the culpability of the Jews, Guzik’s arguments are based on emotional pleas, rather than historical reality. Guzik goes on to state that “It was out of character for Pilate to bend this way to the religious leaders and the crowd. He could have chosen differently.” However that too is a lie, as we have already demonstrated from a proper view of the circumstances, and we shall see from the testimony of Flavius Josephus that in at least one other crucial moment near the beginning of his tenure as prefect, or as translations of Josephus call him, procurator, Pilate certainly did concede to the religious leaders of Judaea.
But Guzik reveals his real agenda where he says “Strangely, in later periods of Christian anti-Semitism, some Christians tried to rehabilitate Pilate, wanting to put all the blame on the Jews.” Then further, in relation to the exclamation of the Jews that “His blood be on us and our children”, Guzik purposely misinterprets it to mean the exact opposite of what it really meant, where he says: “They really had no understanding of what they asked for. They didn’t understand the glory of Jesus’ cleansing blood, and how wonderful it would be to have His blood…on us and on our children.” But the statement does not mean that the Jews could have accepted the atoning blood of Christ. Rather, it only means that they accepted the guilt for His death. Pilate declared his own innocence, and the Jews immediately accepted all responsibility for the crime so long as he would permit it to happen.
Then to compound the insolence of his wayward interpretation, concerning Christians who properly see that the Jews, rather than the Romans, are to blame for the crucifixion, Guzik arrogantly cites Genesis 12:3, which has nothing at all to do with Jews, as Abraham was not a Jew, and he makes the claim that “… even if this did put these people and their descendants under a curse… Those Christians wicked and foolish enough to curse the Jews have indeed been cursed by God in one way or another.” So Guzik, contrary to Scripture, warns against cursing Jews. But the Jews are indeed a cursed people, and Christians certainly will not be punished for recognizing that. The apostle John warned in his second epistle that Christians should not even so much as greet anyone who denies that Jesus is the Christ, lest one be a partaker of their evil deeds. Paul said in Galatians chapter 3 that “10 For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse”, and the Jews pretended to put themselves under the law.
The Jews, or at least, the people of Judah who eventually mingled with the Edomites and became the Jews, were cursed by God in Jeremiah chapter 24: “9 And I will deliver them to be removed into all the kingdoms of the earth for their hurt, to be a reproach and a proverb, a taunt and a curse, in all places whither I shall drive them.” This curse was repeated by Christ Himself, where He said in relation to the pending destruction of the temple by the Romans: “21 Then let them which are in Judaea flee to the mountains; and let them which are in the midst of it depart out; and let not them that are in the countries enter thereinto. 22 For these be the days of vengeance, that all things which are written may be fulfilled. 23 But woe unto them that are with child, and to them that give suck, in those days! for there shall be great distress in the land, and wrath upon this people. 24 And they shall fall by the edge of the sword, and shall be led away captive into all nations: and Jerusalem shall be trodden down of the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles be fulfilled.” So by any interpretation of the Gospel, Christians have a right, and even an obligation, to consider the Jews an accursed people.
In another article, titled His Hands are Still Stained, Guzik exploits a line from the 4th century Apostles Creed where it says that Christ had “suffered under Pontius Pilate” to somehow be proof of Pilate’s guilt in the matter. Guzik brazenly concludes: “He could not avoid this responsibility and his guilt is forever echoed in the Apostles’ Creed. For centuries Christians have declared that Pontius Pilate’s hands are still stained.” However the fact which the Apostle’s Creed expresses, that Christ had suffered under Pilate, is only an objective statement and it does not attribute any guilt by itself.
So here we must ask, to whom did the apostles of Christ consign the blame for the crucifixion? Specifically addressing Israelites in Judaea, rather than the Edomites or others who claimed to be Judaeans, Peter is recorded in Acts chapter 2 of having said “22 Ye men of Israel, hear these words; Jesus of Nazareth, a man approved of God among you by miracles and wonders and signs, which God did by him in the midst of you, as ye yourselves also know: 23 Him, being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain.” Then, so these words and the phrase “by wicked hands” cannot be misconstrued, later in his address he said “36 Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly, that God hath made that same Jesus, whom ye have crucified, both Lord and Christ.” Peter said nothing about the Romans, nor about Pilate, but instead he had placed direct blame for the crucifixion on the people of Judaea.
Likewise, Paul of Tarsus blamed Judaeans for the crucifixion, and neither Pilate nor the Romans, where he wrote in his first epistle to the Thessalonians, in chapter 2, and said “14 For ye, brethren, became followers of the churches of God which in Judaea are in Christ Jesus: for ye also have suffered like things of your own countrymen, even as they have of the Jews: 15 Who both killed the Lord Jesus, and [the] prophets, and have persecuted us; and they please not God, and are contrary to all men: 16 Forbidding us to speak to the [Nations] that they might be saved, to fill up their [the Jews] sins alway: for the wrath is come upon them [the Jews] to the uttermost.” The King James Version actually has “their own prophets”, which is not true as there was a late interpolation in the manuscripts, evidently from after the start of the 7th century. In any event, according to the apostles themselves, the Jews bear exclusive guilt for the crucifixion of the Christ.
Even Flavius Josephus, in Book 18 of his Antiquities, did not lay blame for the crucifixion on Pilate alone. Although the passage is contested, there is no real evidence that it is an interpolation, where Josephus apparently wrote in reference to Christ: “64 And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men among us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him, for he appeared to them alive again the third day…” Of course, Josephus was not a Christian, and his information would have most likely come from Jewish sources, since he was also a Pharisee. But not being born until around 37 AD, Josephus got his information from second-hand sources.
In an article on Pontius Pilate at Wikiwand, we see an assessment of Pilate’s tenure in Judaea which is not at all fair, because it judges him by modern standards where it says: that “The Jewish historian Josephus and philosopher Philo of Alexandria both mention incidents of tension and violence between the Jewish population and Pilate's administration. Many of these involve Pilate acting in ways that offended the religious sensibilities of the Jews. The Christian Gospels record that Pilate ordered the crucifixion of Jesus at some point during his time in office; Josephus and the Roman historian Tacitus also appear to have recorded this information. According to Josephus, Pilate's removal from office occurred because he violently suppressed an armed Samaritan movement at Mount Gerizim.” This assessment is also not fair, because it gives one the impression that these things which Pilate had done were extraordinary, when in truth, they were quite common throughout the history of Judaea in the first century. Furthermore, it is not true that “Pilate ordered the crucifixion of Jesus”, but rather, only that Pilate was compelled to order the crucifixion of Jesus.
As we have shown, if Pontius Pilate had not relented and crucified Christ, there would have been riots in Jerusalem at a time when the population was exceedingly inflated for the feast. We have also already shown, as Josephus had explained, that the people were often so unruly even under normal circumstances that the Romans were compelled to station a large contingent of soldiers around the temple during the feasts simply in order to keep the peace. So if there were a riot, as Matthew also suggested would have happened, then many Judaeans would have died in the ensuing violence. Pilate would have had to have written Caesar explaining the cause of the riots, and the Jews would have sent an embassy to Rome blaming Pilate himself, claiming that he released a man who made himself a king and called himself the “son of god”, a title which the Roman Senate had designated to Caesar himself. There is no doubt that Pilate would have lost his position and that his own life would have been in danger as he would have been heavily penalized for his poor judgment. That this would have been the outcome is apparent in several places in the histories of Josephus, where for very similar reasons the same thing had happened on several occasions.
Another and usually scholarly resource which has placed more blame on Pilate for the crucifixion than the true culprits, the Jews, is Livius.org. There, in an article on Pontius Pilate, we read in part: “According to Matthew (whose report cannot be corroborated) Pilate even washed his hands: a Pharisean custom to wash away impurity, such as the impurity caused by convicting an innocent man. Of course, this was nonsense. As the supreme magistrate of Judaea, Pilate carried the full responsibility. But it is not implausible that the governor used the occasion to obtain pledges of loyalty from his subjects. John's statement that the Jews even declared to have ‘no king but Caesar’ may indeed be a historical fact. Pilate may have regretted that he had to crucify a man who was fairly innocent, but he may have considered this human sacrifice an acceptable price to be paid for the smooth cooperation with the Temple authorities.” So here, Matthew is reduced to being a liar, John may or may not be more accurate, and Pilate was only manipulating those poor innocent Jews so that they would be his friends. But in reality, Matthew and John are true, and this article is only one more example of anti-Christ Jewish propaganda.
But notice what Livius.org, a site which is supposed to be rich in knowledge of ancient history, said about Pilate’s hand-washing, that it was “a Pharisean custom to wash away impurity”. But this is wrong on two counts. First, to the Hebrews hand-washing does not wash away sin, and second, the writer ignores the fact that certain Greeks and Romans did believe that it could symbolically wash away sin. However there are many other articles available which even discount the act of hand-washing by Pilate because it was something that only the high priests did, or it was only a Jewish tradition, etc. Some commentators have even ignorantly stated that the account of Pilate’s hand-washing could not be true, since it was only something which the high priests did.
So here we have several refutations to make concerning Pontius Pilate. First, we answer the question as to whether Pilate was really “acting in ways that offended the religious sensibilities of the Jews”, or if he was only trying to do what was expected of him as a Roman governor. Then we shall address the question of Pilate’s supposed character as a “cruel and ruthless man, unkind to the Jews and contemptuous of almost everything but raw power.” Then we shall examine why Pilate used a water basin to wash his hands of any guilt related to the crucifixion of Christ. We have already defended Pilate by explaining the true reasons as to why he was compelled to have Christ crucified, in the historical context of the time, but that shall also hopefully become even more apparent here.
Herod Archelaus was the heir to his father’s kingdom, but he was not appointed king by the Romans. So when the Edomite king called Herod the Great died, Archelaus was made ethnarch over half of his father’s former kingdom. He ruled over Judaea, Idumaea and Samaria for perhaps about 9 years, until he was removed and exiled in 6 AD. In Book 2 of his Wars of the Judaeans, Josephus summarizes his rule as follows: “111 And now Archelaus took possession of his government, and used not the Judaeans only, but the Samaritans also, barbarously; and this out of his resentment of their old quarrels with him. Whereupon, they both of them sent ambassadors against him to Caesar; and in the ninth year of his government, he was banished to Vienna, a city of Gaul, and his effects were put into Caesar's treasury.”
The Judaeans actually grew accustomed to sending such embassies to Rome for various reasons in the time of the first Herod, to complain about some or another perceived injustice, and this practice was maintained all throughout the period, as other nations ruled by Rome also frequently used such embassies. After Archelaus, the former kingdom was further divided into tetrachies, and several of Herod’s other sons were each given a fourth-part of their father’s former estate over which to rule. From that time Judaea was made a province, and the emperor regularly appointed a prefect or a procurator over it to govern it in the interests of Rome. Whether Pilate was a prefect or a procurator has been a matter of debate. In translations of Josephus he is called a procurator, which is the term we often repeat. But officially, he was a prefect, as the Pontius Pilate inscription which was discovered at Caesarea Maritima in 1961 affirms. Prefects were of the equestrian order and commanded troops, while procurators were usually of the higher senatorial class and were generally financial administrators. But in the imperial provinces, which were military provinces, the Prefect had authority over military, financial and judicial affairs.
After the deposition of Archelaus, Judaea was governed by Prefects, of which Pontius Pilate was the fifth. The first three, Coponius, Marcus Ambivalus, or Ambivius, and Annius Rufus, had each held the office for only about three years. The fourth, Valerius Gratus, was despised by the Judaeans for removing Annas, the Hannas of the Gospel accounts, from the office of high priest, but he nevertheless managed to retain his appointment for eleven years. After he returned to Rome, Pilate was appointed as Prefect, and he held the office for ten years, from about 26 to 36 AD, so at least four of those years followed the crucifixion of Christ.
In modern Christian articles on Pilate, he is often demeaned as a governor, accused of cruelty, incompetency, and many other faults which are not consistent with the actual historical record. Of all the Roman governors of Judaea, Gratus had held the office the longest, and Pilate was second only to him in longevity. Marcus Antonius Felix, who is known to Christians from the later chapters of the Book of Acts, had the fourth-longest tenure, at eight years. Few others lasted longer than 3 years, and out of 30 recorded Roman governors of Judaea over a period of nearly 130 years, only 6 men managed to hold the office for four years or longer. Pilate, having held it for ten years, must have managed it quite well for at least most of that time. Judaea was a troublesome province, and Rome usually had demonstrably little patience with incompetent administrators.
According to Flavius Josephus, Coponius was the first prefect of Judaea after Archelaus was removed, and he had returned to Rome after certain Samaritans had evidently littered Jerusalem with corpses. The same Coponius had quite violently crushed the tax protesters who had followed Judas the Galilean a few years earlier. From Wars, Book 2: “117 And now Archelaus' part of Judea was reduced into a province, and Coponius, one of the equestrian order among the Romans, was sent as a procurator, having the power of [life and] death put into his hands by Caesar.” This affirms the question by Pilate to Christ as it is recorded by John, where he wrote in chapter 19 of his gospel “10 Then saith Pilate unto him, Speakest thou not unto me? knowest thou not that I have power to crucify thee, and have power to release thee? ”
Continuing with the account from Josephus: “118 Under his administration it was that a certain Galilean, whose name was Judas, prevailed with his countrymen to revolt, and said they were cowards if they would endure to pay a tax to the Romans and would, after God, submit to mortal men as their lords. This man was a teacher of a peculiar sect of his own, and was not at all like the rest of their leaders.” Having read several translations of the literature of the Dead Sea Scrolls, this passage and what followed about Judas’ leading a “fourth sect” after the Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes has convinced me that Judas was the leader of the sect which kept the Dead Sea Scrolls, and wrote the sectarian literature which was found among them. The Dead Sea Scroll popularly called the War Scroll fully reflects this same attitude which the sect had towards Rome and all of the Judaeans who cooperated with Rome. However Josephus does not say much about Coponius, or even how he put an end to the protest led by Judas the Galilean. But the Book of Acts, in chapter 5, records Gamaliel as having said that “37 After this man rose up Judas of Galilee in the days of the taxing, and drew away much people after him: he also perished; and all, even as many as obeyed him, were dispersed.” Later in Wars Book 2, Josephus called this Judas “a very cunning sophister”.
Writing in Antiquities Book 20, speaking of the procurators Fadus, whose tenure was from 44 to 46 AD, and his successor Alexander, who governed Judaea from 46 to 48 AD, Josephus referred once again to the protest of Judas the Galilean, and he said: “101 Under these procurators that great famine happened in Judea, in which Queen Helena bought grain in Egypt at a great expense, and distributed it to those who were in want, as I have related already; 102 and, besides this, the sons of Judas of Galilee were now slain; I mean that Judas who caused the people to revolt, when Quirinius came to take an account of the estates of the Judaeans, as we have showed in a foregoing book. The names of those sons were James and Simon, whom Alexander commanded to be crucified. ”
The earlier account to which Josephus had referred is found in Book 18 of Antiquities: “1 Now Quirinius, a Roman senator, and one who had gone through other magistracies, and had passed through them till he had been consul, and one who, on other accounts, was of great dignity, came at this time into Syria, with a few others, being sent by Caesar to be a judge of that nation, and to take an account of their substance. 2 Coponius also, a man of the equestrian order, was sent together with him, to have the supreme power over the Judaeans. Moreover, Quirinius came himself into Judea, which was now added to the province of Syria, to take an account of their substance, and to dispose of Archelaus' money; 3 but the Judaeans, although at the beginning they took the report of a taxation heinously, yet did they stop any further opposition to it, by the persuasion of Joazar, who was the son of Boethus, and the high priest; so they, being persuaded by Joazar's words, gave an account of their estates, without any dispute about it; 4 yet was there one Judas, a Gaulonite, of a city whose name was Gamala, who, taking with him Sadduc [a Hellenization of the Hebrew name Zadok], a Pharisee, became zealous to draw them to a revolt, who both said that this taxation was no better than an introduction to slavery, and exhorted the nation to assert their liberty: 5 as if they could procure them happiness and security for what they possessed, and an assured enjoyment of a still greater good, which was that of the honour and glory they would thereby acquire for magnanimity. They also said that God would not otherwise be assisting to them, than upon their joining with one another in such councils as might be successful, and for their own advantage; and this especially, if they would set about great exploits, and not grow weary in executing the same; 6 so men received what they said with pleasure, and this bold attempt proceeded to a great height. All sorts of misfortunes also sprang from these men, and the nation was infected with this doctrine to an incredible degree; 7 one violent war came upon us after another, and we lost our friends which used to alleviate our pains; there were also very great robberies and murder of our principal men. This was done in pretence indeed for the public welfare, but in reality for the hopes of gain to themselves; 8 where arose seditions, and from them murders of men, which sometimes fell on those of their own people, (by the madness of these men toward one another, while their desire was that none of the adverse party might be left,) and sometimes on their enemies; a famine also coming upon us, reduced us to the last degree of despair, as did also the taking and demolishing of cities; nay, the sedition at last increased so high, that the very temple of God was burnt down by their enemies' fire. 9 Such were the consequences of this, that the customs of our fathers were altered, and such a change was made, as added a mighty weight toward bringing all to destruction, which these men occasioned by their thus conspiring together; for Judas and Sadduc, who started a fourth philosophic sect among us, and had a great many followers therein, filled our civil government with tumults at present, and laid the foundations of our future miseries, by this system of philosophy, which we were before unacquainted with, 10 concerning which I will discourse a little, and this the rather, because the infection which spread there among the younger sort, who were zealous for it, brought the public to destruction.”
This is not the only reason, but there was a long history of seditions and uprisings in Judaea in the decades leading up to when Pilate had taken office, which must have helped to shape his attitude towards the Judaeans by the time that he took office.
Thus far should be evident both the fact that Judaeans were accustomed to sending embassies to Rome to complain about their rulers, but also of seditions and uprisings against Rome which often had to be put down with violence, and that this condition persisted for some time in the years leading up to the appointment of Pilate. In Antiquities, Book 18, Josephus summarized the end of the tenure of Coponius: “ 29 As Coponius, who we told you was sent along with Quirinius, was exercising his office of procurator, and governing Judea, the following incidents happened:-- As the Judaeans were celebrating the feast of unleavened bread, which we call the Passover, it was customary for the priests to open the temple gates just after midnight. 30 When, therefore, those gates were first opened, some of the Samaritans came secretly into Jerusalem, and threw around dead men's bodies, in the cloisters; on which account the Judaeans afterward excluded them out of the temple, which they had not used to do at such festivals; and on other accounts also they watched the temple more carefully than they had formerly done. 31 A little after this incident Coponius returned to Rome, and Marcus Ambivius came to be his successor in that government… ; under whom Salome, the sister of King Herod, died, and left to Julia, [Caesar's wife,] Jamnia, all its toparchy, and Phasaelis in the plain, and Archelaus, where there is a great plantation of palm trees, and their fruit is excellent in its kind. ”
Following this, Josephus merely mentions the other successors of Coponius, but like Marcus Ambivius, he hardly says anything specific about them or any of the events of their tenures, where he continues and says: “ 32 After him came Annius Rufus, under whom died Caesar, the second emperor of the Romans, the duration of whose reign was fifty-seven years, besides six months and two days (of which time Antony ruled together with him fourteen years; but the duration of his life was seventy-seven years); 33 upon whose death Tiberius Nero, his wife Julia's son, succeeded. He was now the third emperor; and he sent Valerius Gratus to be procurator of Judea, and to succeed Annius Rufus. 34 This man deprived Ananus of the high priesthood, and appointed Ismael, the son of Phabi, to be high priest. He also deprived him in a little time, and ordained Eleazar, the son of Ananus, who had been high priest before, to be high priest: which office, when he had held for a year, Gratus deprived him of it, and gave the high priesthood to Simon, the son of Camithus; 35 and, when he had possessed that dignity no longer than a year, Joseph Caiaphas was made his successor. When Gratus had done those things, he went back to Rome, after he had tarried in Judea eleven years, when Pontius Pilate came as his successor. ”
Unlike his immediate predecessors, Pontius Pilate is mentioned quite often by Josephus. So now we will offer an account found in Antiquities, Book 18, which certainly does show that Pilate was not as cruel as modern commentators make him out to be. Here Pilate did exhibit empathy at a time when he was not compelled to do so. This we read where Josephus records an event wherein Pilate had sought to uphold the Roman traditions of the time as he came into office in Judaea, although it is evident that his predecessors failed to do so, and he brought the Roman images into Jerusalem. So Josephus writes: “55 But now Pilate, the procurator of Judea, moved the army from Caesarea to Jerusalem, to take their winter quarters there, in order to abolish the Jewish laws. So he introduced Caesar's effigies, which were upon the ensigns, and brought them into the city; whereas our law forbids us the very making of images; 56 on which account the former procurators were wont to make their entry into the city with such ensigns as had not those ornaments. Pilate was the first who brought those images to Jerusalem, and set them [Here Josephus seems to be missing something. If Pilate were the first governor to attempt to bring the Roman effigies into Jerusalem, then why would he expect problems and attempt doing it in secret under cover of night? But perhaps Josephus himself, whom we esteem to be of an honest character, did not have the whole story from his sources.] 57 but as soon as they knew it, they came in multitudes to Caesarea, and interceded with Pilate for many days that he would remove the images; and when he would not grant their requests, because it would tend to the injury of Caesar, while yet they persevered in their request, on the sixth day he ordered his soldiers to have their weapons secretly, while he came and sat upon his judgment seat, which seat was so prepared in the open place of the city, [this explains the situation of the trial of Christ, where the Judaeans would not enter into the Praetorium] that it concealed the army that lay ready to oppress them; 58 and when the Judaeans petitioned him again, he gave a signal to the soldiers to surround them, and threatened that their punishment should be no less than immediate death, unless they would stop disturbing him, and go their ways home. 59 But they threw themselves upon the ground, and laid their necks bare, and said they would take their death very willingly, rather than the wisdom of their laws should be transgressed; upon which Pilate was deeply affected with their firm resolution to keep their laws inviolable, and presently commanded the images to be carried back from Jerusalem to Caesarea.”
To show that this was indeed a Roman tradition which Pilate had sought to uphold, and therefore he was acting as a Roman Prefect may have been expected to act, we will present Josephus’ account of a similar event which happened later, under the rule of Publius Petronius, who was appointed to the post of Legate of Syria (a post higher than Prefect) in 39 AD by the emperor whom Josephus calls Gaius, but whom history remembers by his childhood nickname of Caligula. This account is found in Wars of the Judaeans, Book 2: “181 But when Gaius was made Caesar, he released Agrippa from his bonds [referring to Herod Agrippa II, the Agrippa of Acts chapters 25 and 26], and made him king of Philip's tetrarchy, who was now dead; but when Agrippa had arrived at that degree of dignity, he inflamed the ambitious desires of Herod the tetrarch [Herod Antipas, the Herod of the gospels, Philip’s brother and this Agrippa’s uncle], 182 who was chiefly induced to hope for the royal authority by his wife Herodias [the woman who urged her daughter to demand the head of John the Baptist], who reproached him for his sloth, and told him that it was only because he would not sail to Caesar that he was destitute of that great dignity; for since Caesar had made Agrippa a king from a private person, much more would he advance him from a tetrarch to that dignity. 183 These arguments prevailed with Herod, so that he came to Gaius, by whom he was punished for his ambition, by being banished into Spain; for Agrippa followed him, in order to accuse him; to whom also Gaius gave his tetrarchy, by way of addition. So Herod died in Spain, where his wife had followed him. [Agrippa would now be king over that half of Judaea which his uncle Archelaus was not appointed over.] 184 Now Gaius Caesar did so grossly abuse the fortune he had arrived at, as to take himself to be a god, and to desire to be so called also, and to cut off those of the greatest nobility out of his country. He also extended his impiety as far as the Judaeans. [The entire period of Caligula’s rule is missing from the Annals of Tacitus. Until Caligula, emperors were the “son of god”, resisted being considered gods until they died, and after Caligula also, as Nero would not even consider the honor.] 185 Accordingly, he sent Petronius with an army to Jerusalem, to place his statues in the temple, and commanded him that, in case the Jews would not admit them, he should slay those that opposed it, and carry all the rest of the nation into captivity: 186 but God concerned himself with these his commands. However, Petronius marched out of Antioch into Judea, with three legions, and many Syrian auxiliaries. 187 Now as to the Judaeans, some of them could not believe the stories that spoke of a war; but those who did believe them were in the utmost distress how to defend themselves, and the terror diffused itself presently through them all; for the army was already come to Ptolemais.”
Later on, describing the outcome of this situation, which did not result in war, where Josephus continues he wrote in part: “192 But now the Judaeans got together in great numbers, with their wives and children, into that plain that was by Ptolemais, and made supplication to Petronius, first for their laws, and, in the next place, for themselves. So he was prevailed upon by the multitude of the supplicants, and by their supplications, and left his army and the statues at Ptolemais, 193 and then went forward into Galilee, and called together the multitude and all the men of note to Tiberias, and showed them the power of the Romans, and the threatenings of Caesar; and, besides this, proved that their petition was unreasonable, 194 because while all the nations in subjection to them had placed the images of Caesar in their various cities, among the rest of their gods [in their pagan temples] – for them alone to oppose it, was almost like the behaviour of revolters, and was injurious to Caesar. 195 And when they insisted on their law, and the custom of their country, and how it was not only not permitted them to make either an image of God, or indeed of a man, and to put it in any despicable part of their country, much less in the temple itself, Petronius replied, ‘And am not I also,’ said he, ‘bound to keep the law of my own lord? For if I transgress it, and spare you, it is but just that I perish; while he that sent me, and not I, will commence a war against you; for I am under command as well as you.’”
With this it should be fully evident, that Pilate did nothing extraordinary by bringing images of Caesar to Jerusalem. If he was “acting in ways that offended the religious sensibilities of the Jews” it was only to uphold the religious sensibilities of the their more powerful Roman rulers, which is what we have witnessed in the account of this similar action by Petronius. Later, in the time of Nero, this problem surfaced again, but the subsequent war and destruction of Jerusalem finally put it to an end. The history of Judaea vindicates Pontius Pilate of the charges levelled against him by modern Jews and their sycophants. Pilate was not ruthless, nor cruel, according to the standards of the times, and he did not innovate by violating Jerusalem with the images of Rome, since as Josephus records here, “all the nations in subjection to them [to the Romans] had placed the images of Caesar in their various cities, among the rest of their gods”, meaning in their own temples.
Here we will continue with just a little more of this account, where Petronius had shown the same empathy for the Judaeans that Pilate had exhibited thirteen years earlier: “196 Hereupon the whole multitude cried out that they were ready to suffer for their law. Petronius then quieted them, and said to them, ‘Will you then make war against Caesar?’ 197 The Judaeans said, ‘We offer sacrifices twice every day for Caesar, and for the Roman people;’ but that if he would place the images among them, he must first sacrifice the whole Judaean nation; and that they were ready to expose themselves, together with their children and wives, to be slain. 198 At this Petronius was astonished, and pitied them, on account of the inexpressible sense of religion the men were under, and that courage of theirs which made them ready to die for it; so they were dismissed without success.”
There is a ridiculous article about Pilate at the Christian Courier website which states, in reference to the ancient inscription which he evidently commissioned: “In 1961 at Caesarea, an inscription mentioning Pilate’s name was discovered (the first of its kind). A free translation is as follows: ‘The Tiberieum [a temple dedicated to the worship of Tiberius] of the Caesareans Pontius Pilate Praefect of Judea has given.’ The inscription illustrates how the Judean governor bowed and scraped before Caesar, and thus it harmonizes beautifully with the New Testament account that casts him in a similar light (see Jn. 19:12). The sustained corroboration of Bible history by means of archeological discovery is faith-building indeed.”
It certainly is edifying when archaeology proves the Scriptures to be true, but only when the archaeology is appropriately and correctly interpreted. But of course, the opinions in this paragraph are lies, because the writer is obviously ignorant of the Roman “religious sensibilities” and the historical context of the inscription. The writer is also not properly representing the inscription, and epigraphers have interpreted the surviving words, a couple of which are surmised by a single letter, to read “To the Divine Augusti [this] Tiberieum ...Pontius Pilate ...prefect of Judea ...has dedicated [this]” The former emperor, Augustus, was officially proclaimed to be divine, to be a god, by the Roman Senate, and the temple was dedicated to him, while it was named after Tiberius. All of this is in keeping with the Roman traditions of the time. The form of the word Tiberieum indicates the name of the temple, but not that it was dedicated to Tiberius.
The cult of emperor worship began in the early years of Octavian, or Augustus Caesar, and it continued for over three centuries, at least until the time of Constantine. Even the first Herod, called Herod the Great, had built a temple for the earlier Julius Caesar. Josephus writes, in Antiquities Book 15, “363 So when he had conducted Caesar to the sea, and was returned home, he built him a most beautiful temple, of the whitest stone, in Zenodorus' country, near the place called Panion. 364 This is a very fine cave in a mountain, under which there is a great cavity in the earth, and the cavern is abrupt, and prodigiously deep, and full of a still water; over it hangs a vast mountain; and under the caverns arise the springs of the river Jordan. Herod adorned this place, which was already a very remarkable one, still further by the erection of this temple, which he dedicated to Caesar.” The temple which Pilate had dedicated to Augustus, and named after Tiberias, was certainly not novel. It was done regularly by Roman governors and kings.
As we have already explained, in part of our Commentary on chapter 18 of this gospel, titled What is Truth?, when Vitellius was governor of Syria there was an uprising and armed insurrection led by a Samaritan who claimed to be a reincarnation of Moses. Pontius Pilate put down the insurrection and executed its leaders. He really did not do much different than Coponius had done in putting down the rebellion of Judas of Galilee. But for one reason or another, the local Jews were dissatisfied with Pilate, so Josephus wrote in Book 18 of his Antiquities: “88 But when this tumult was appeased, the Samaritan senate sent an embassy to Vitellius, a man that had been consul, and who was now governor of Syria, and accused Pilate of the murder of those who were killed; for that they did not go to Tirathaba [a village where they had assembled] in order to revolt from the Romans, but to escape the violence of Pilate [who according to Josephus had not yet caused them any violence]. 89 So Vitellius sent Marcellus, a friend of his, to take care of the affairs of Judea, and ordered Pilate to go to Rome, to answer before the emperor to the accusations of the Jews. So Pilate, when he had tarried ten years in Judea, made haste to Rome, and this in obedience to the orders of Vitellius, which he dared not contradict; but before he could get to Rome, Tiberius was dead.” But perhaps Vitellius was not so harsh on Pilate as this account may indicate, because at the same time he also replaced Caiaphas, who had been the high priest for even longer than Pilate had been the Prefect.
In any event, Pilate managed to remain in his office for ten years, longer than any Prefect except for Valerius Gratus. Another governor of Judaea who is mentioned in Scriptures, the Roman procurator Marcus Antonius Felix, who held the office from 52 to 60 AD, was also removed for charges of brutality. Josephus wrote very plainly about his crimes, and another historian, Tacitus, substantiated Josephus from a different perspective, writing initially of his brother, Marcus Antonius Pallas, and stating that “Pallas' brother, the knight Antonius Felix, who was the governor of Judaea, showed less moderation. Backed by vast influence, he believed himself free to commit any crime” (Annals, 12:53).
Tacitus mentioned Pontius Pilate as well, but only in connection to the crucifixion, where concerning Christians and writing of the time near the end of the rule of Nero, who was persecuting Christians, he said “Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilate, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their center and become popular.” Here it is also apparent that Tacitus was imbued with Jewish propaganda and slander concerning Christianity, as was the rest of Rome.
In the writings of Philo Judaeus, there is a lengthy condemnation of Pontius Pilate which is found in a work of his called Embassy to Gaius, paragraphs 299 and 304. In it, Philo is apparently reproducing a letter which he claims was written by King Agrippa I to the emperor Gaius Caligula, which used Pontius Pilate as a negative example of how to govern Jerusalem. Evidently, Philo manufactured this letter himself since his work was aimed at instructing the new Roman emperor Claudius on how a virtuous ruler should deal with the Judaeans. This is one conclusion in a balanced and seemingly prudent review of Philo’s depiction of Pilate, which is found in Volume 37, Number 4 of a publication called Restoration Quarterly, for October of 1995, in an article titled Philo on Pilate: Rhetoric or Reality? It surely is just rhetoric, as Philo was weaving a tale to support a political agenda.
So Philo, through the mouth of Agrippa, said that Pilate had “With the intention of annoying the Jews rather than of honouring Tiberius, he set up gilded shields in Herod’s palace in the Holy City…” Then a little further on, after several lengthy embellishments, Philo portrays the Judaeans as saying to Pilate: “Do not make Tiberius an excuse for insulting our nation. He does not want any of our traditions done away with. If you say that he does, show us some decree or letter or something of the sort, so that we may cease troubling you and appeal to our master by means of an embassy.’ This last remark exasperated Pilate most of all, for he was afraid that if they really sent an embassy, they would bring accusations against the rest of his administration as well, specifying in detail his venality, his violence, his thefts, his assaults, his abusive behaviour, his frequent executions of untried prisoners, and his endless savage ferocity.” Of course, Pilate was not required to try prisoners to the satisfaction of the Jews before executing them, so long as they were not Roman citizens. But of these other crimes, Josephus mentions nothing even though he says more about Pilate than all of his predecessors combined. Josephus had no problem at all recounting the many crimes of Felix, but there is one other incident which was described briefly by Josephus, where Pilate had taken funds from the temple treasury in Jerusalem and used them to build aqueducts for the city. That is not exactly stealing, since Jerusalem benefitted from the aqueducts, which carried water to the city from a distance of fifty Roman miles. But for the Judaeans, when they protested, Pilate had some of them beaten, however his actions were not extraordinary within the context of the times.
Continuing with Philo, as he proceeds in his description of Pilate he increasingly loses credibility: “So, as he was a spiteful and angry person, he was in a serious dilemma; for he had neither the courage to remove what he had once set up, nor the desire to do anything which would please his subjects, but at the same time he was well aware of Tiberius’ firmness on these matters. When the Jewish officials saw this, and realized that Pilate was regretting what he had done, although he did not wish to show it, they wrote a letter to Tiberius, pleading their case as forcibly as they could. What words, what threats Tiberius uttered against Pilate when he read it! It would be superfluous to describe his anger, although he was not easily moved to anger, since his reaction speaks for itself. For immediately, without even waiting until the next day, he wrote to Pilate, reproaching and rebuking him a thousand times for his new-fangled audacity and telling him to remove the shields at once and have them taken from the capital to the coastal city of Caesarea (the city named Sebaste after your great-grandfather), to be dedicated in the temple of Augustus. This was duly done. In this way both the honour of the Emperor and the traditional policy regarding Jerusalem were alike preserved.”
Here Philo seems to have innovated in order to use both Tiberius and Pilate as an example by which to obtain his own political objective. We have already presented the account of Josephus for this incident, and described the empathy which Pilate had where once he saw that the Judaeans were willing to die, he voluntarily removed the images he had brought to Jerusalem, and returned them to Caesarea Maritima. Instead, Philo omits all of this, and focuses on making a mockery of Pilate, where he evidently hoped to dissuade Claudius from ever violating the temple or those Jewish “religious sensibilities” that others whom we have discussed here had also accused Pilate of having done. Philo’s depiction of Pilate is sheer propaganda, but modern Christians who seek to please Jewish “religious sensibilities” use it to diminish Jewish culpability for the crucifixion, and shift the blame to Pilate.
There is no doubt that there was antipathy between Pilate and the Jews, that Pilate seems to have despised them for their attitudes and behavior. So as we had pointed out in our commentary on the trial of Christ before Pilate, Pilate seemed to be mocking the Jews, taunting them, in his questions concerning their charges against Christ. It shall become apparent that he taunted them further as we proceed with our commentary on this chapter.
But now we have one more issue to address, which is the washing of the hands. Some commentators go so far as to state that the episode as it is described by Matthew is fictional, because it is not mentioned by the other gospels, and because only Jews washed their hands in that sense, or only the high priests. But all of that is also a lie.
The ancient Hebrews did use the washing of ones sins as an allegory for forgiveness, as we see in the 51st Psalm: “2 Wash me throughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.” There is also a rather prophetic exclamation found in the 26th Psalm: “5 I have hated the congregation of evil doers; and will not sit with the wicked. 6 I will wash mine hands in innocency: so will I compass thine altar, O LORD.” In Isaiah chapter 1 there is also a similar allegory, where Yahweh pleads to the children of Israel to cleanse themselves of sin before they attempt to approach Him: “15 And when ye spread forth your hands, I will hide mine eyes from you: yea, when ye make many prayers, I will not hear: your hands are full of blood. 16 Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil…” Likewise we read a similar admonition in the fourth chapter of the epistle of James: “8 Draw nigh to God, and he will draw nigh to you. Cleanse your hands, ye sinners; and purify your hearts, ye double minded.” But in the law, sin was not washed away with mere water, even if water was sometimes used as a sign that one was clean, free of sin. Christ used a similar allegory in John chapter 13, yet He still had to die, shedding His blood for the sins of the children of Israel.
In Deuteronomy chapter 21 we read: “1 If one be found slain in the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee to possess it, lying in the field, and it be not known who hath slain him: 2 Then thy elders and thy judges shall come forth, and they shall measure unto the cities which are round about him that is slain: 3 And it shall be, that the city which is next unto the slain man, even the elders of that city shall take an heifer, which hath not been wrought with, and which hath not drawn in the yoke; 4 And the elders of that city shall bring down the heifer unto a rough valley, which is neither eared nor sown, and shall strike off the heifer's neck there in the valley: 5 And the priests the sons of Levi shall come near; for them the LORD thy God hath chosen to minister unto him, and to bless in the name of the LORD; and by their word shall every controversy and every stroke be tried: 6 And all the elders of that city, that are next unto the slain man, shall wash their hands over the heifer that is beheaded in the valley: 7 And they shall answer and say, Our hands have not shed this blood, neither have our eyes seen it.”
Washing their hands over the heifer, they would only declare that they were not guilty of any sin, but it is the blood of the heifer itself which was shed in exchange for whomever had committed the sin, as he would probably never be discovered. So the water alone did not remove the sin. There were also ritual cleansings which were ordained by the law, such as when a man was defiled by touching a dead body or some other unclean person or object. Then there were ritual washings conducted by the Pharisees who made laws governing such washings and pretended to a greater sanctity on account of them. But in the Old Testament, sin was not removed without a blood sacrifice, and sin was not removed by water alone. This we read in the words of Paul of Tarsus, in Hebrews chapter 9 where he said: “22 And almost all things are by the law purged with blood; and without shedding of blood is no remission.”
All of these passages are cited by Christian commentators in reference to Pilate, by either those who recognize that the Jews bear much greater guilt for the crucifixion, or by those who seek to shift the preponderance of the guilt to Pilate. However while some of the correlations are interesting, and while Psalm 26:6 seems to evoke the act of Pilate, or even be a prophecy of it, they are not as relevant to the act which was described by Matthew as what Pilate himself must have believed.
The following paragraph is from my June, 2005 essay, Baptism – In What?: “While there are many examples of ‘baptism’ – ritual cleansing in water – in Greek literature, here I will cite one. In a play, Eumenides, by the fifth-century BC Greek poet Aeschylus, his character Orestes says at lines 448-452: ‘It is the law that he who is defiled by shedding blood shall be debarred all speech until the blood of a suckling victim shall have besprinkled him by the ministrations of one empowered to purify from murder. Long since, at other houses, have I been thus purified both by victims and flowing streams.’ (Loeb Library edition of Aeschylus). Here we see that the Greeks believed that one may be cleansed of sin either by baptism (“flowing streams”) or by the blood of sacrifice (compare Heb. 9:13).”
Aeschylus wrote in the 5th century before Christ, but closer to the time of Pilate was Pausanias, who wrote in the mid-2nd century AD. In Pausanias’ Description of Greece, Book 9, Chapter 30 (9.30.8), on Boeotia, he says in part: “There is also a river called Helicon. After a course of seventy-five stades the stream hereupon disappears under the earth. After a gap of about twenty-two stades the water rises again, and under the name of Baphyra instead of Helicon flows into the sea as a navigable river. The people of Dium say that at first this river flowed on land throughout its course. But, they go on to say, the women who killed Orpheus wished to wash off in it the blood-stains, and thereat the river sank underground, so as not to lend its waters to cleanse manslaughter.” Of course, we do not have to accept the fable. However the account, which was written not long after the time of Christ, clearly shows that Greeks believed that the washing of hands in water, in this case a river, could actually remove guilt for bloodshed.
The Roman poet Ovid was even closer to Pilate’s time, preceding him by about half a century. Ovid lived from about 43 BC to about 18 AD, so he was writing around the same time that Christ was a young man in Galilee, and Pilate was a young Roman soldier. Ovid’s Fasti is also sometimes given more descriptive titles, such as The Book of Days or sometimes On the Roman Calendar. The work is a six-book Latin poem which was published around the year 8 AD. From the Introduction to Book 2 of the Fasti of Ovid we read: “Peleus cleansed Patroclus, and Acastus Peleus from the blood of Phocus, by Haemonian waters.” Then a little further on, “Alcmaeon said to Achelous: ‘Absolve my sin’, And he did absolve that son of Amphiarus. Ah! Too facile, to think the dark guilt of murder could be washed away by river water!”
These writings reflect what Pilate must have also believed, that by washing his hands, he was free of the blood of Christ, at least as a sign that he was forced to proceed with the execution, while wanting no part in the crime. Pontius Pilate was certainly not perfect, being a mere man and a pagan Roman official. However at every turn, those who slander Pilate and try to lay undue guilt upon him, while at the same time trying to diminish the guilt of the Jews for the crucifixion of Christ, and those who even question the integrity of the apostles of Christ, are rebuked by the historical records. Only the Jews can be blamed for the crucifixion, as they left Pilate no other choice, and as the apostles of Christ attested, only they have culpability for the crime.
So we read where we had left off in John chapter 19, in verse 16:
16 So then he handed Him over to them that He would be crucified.
We will commence with our commentary at this point in our next presentation On the Gospel of John.