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Why Did Pontius Pilate Have Jesus Executed?

March 6, 2019 in History

By Christopher Klein

Historical accounts of the man who sentenced Jesus to death paint him as arrogant and cruel; the Bible goes easier on him, shifting the blame.

In the Gospel of John, Pontius Pilate poses a question to Jesus of Nazareth: “What is truth?”

It’s a question that could also be asked about Pilate’s own history. From the perspective of the New Testament of the Christian . That sort of behavior wouldn’t have been all that extraordinary for a Roman ruler, but Pilate apparently did it more ruthlessly than most.”

Problem is, it’s not easy to know how historical Philo’s account actually was, says Helen Bond, head of the University of Edinburgh’s School of Divinity and author of Pontius Pilate in History and Interpretation. “Philo is a hugely dramatic writer,” she notes, and one with very clear biases: “People who uphold Jewish laws are recorded in highly positive ways, while people who do not are described in highly negative terms.”

Given Pilate’s opposition to Jewish law, Philo describes him “very harshly.”

READ MORE: The Bible Says Jesus Was Real. What Other Proof Exists?

The scourging of Jesus, who was tortured prior to his crucifixion.

Pilate clashed with the Jewish population in Jerusalem.

Philo also wrote that Pilate permitted a pair of gilded shields inscribed with the name of the Roman Emperor Tiberius into King Herod’s former palace in Jerusalem, in violation of Jewish customs. Writing a half-century later, the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus told a similar tale that Pilate permitted troops carrying military standards bearing the likeness of the emperor into Jerusalem, although Jewish law forbade images in the city. A great crowd traveled to the Judean capital of Caesarea in protest and lay prostrate around Pilate’s palace for five days until he relented.

“Josephus was born in Jerusalem the year Pilate left office and so would have had reasonably good information,” Bond says. “The story has the ring of a new governor seeing what he can get away with and completely underestimating the strength of local opinion when it came to graven images.” At the same time, Bond notes, the story shows his willingness to back down and respect public opinion.

In another incident—with a bloodier ending—Josephus recounted that Pilate used funds from the Temple treasury to build an aqueduct to Jerusalem. This time when protesters amassed, Pilate dispatched plain-clothed soldiers to infiltrate the crowd. On his signal, they removed clubs …read more


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