New College, University of Edinburgh
Pilate and biblical baddies

Pilate and biblical baddies

(Helen Bond) Welcome to our new CSCO website! As the previous posting notes, we’re all going to take it in turns to introduce ourselves and our research over the next few weeks and the honour of going first seems to have fallen to me.

I got into biblical studies in the first place not primarily out of any particular Christian commitment (though I am a member of the Church of Scotland), but out of a fascination with ancient cultures and later their languages. I read Biblical Studies at the Universities of St Andrews, Durham, and Tuebingen; in the last two places I was lucky enough to work with Profs Jimmy Dunn and Martin Hengel, whose work I greatly admire.

I’m particularly interested in the gospels. First, in the historical background to the texts – both the historical Jesus, and the historical context of the gospels themselves. I don’t think that the evangelists were writing primarily to convey historical information (they had much more important truths to convey), but the eternally frustrating quest to piece together ‘what actually happened’  keeps me quite happy. My second interest is in the theological and literary presentations of the gospels, the way they present Jesus, and the way in which events and characters serve to promote their Christological views.

Both of these interests came together in my two books – the first on Pilate and the second on the high priest Caiaphas. Somehow I seem to be drawn to characters – not, I hope, in a naive hope that I can recover something of what they were really like, but as an umbrella under which I can look at a number of distinct but related studies (so for Pilate I was able to look at his coins, and the description of him in Philo and Josephus; and for Caiaphas I was able to look at the tomb that’s thought to be his, varying Christian traditions linked to his house, and his ‘afterlife’ throughout the centuries).

My interest in ‘bad guys’ is becoming a bit of a joke (did I mention that I edited a festschrift for Larry Hurtado?!), but I’m now doing something I vowed I would never do, and that’s writing a book on Jesus (for Continuum’s Guide for the Perplexed). I’m continually feeling overwhelmed at the amount of literature out there, but trying to piece the evidence together so that it makes sense in a first century context is indescribably exciting . . .

  • CSCO Team,
  • 16th July 2010


  • Lloyd Pietersen, 16th July 2010 at 12:08 pm | Reply

    Hi Helen

    Great to see this new blog and I shall add it to my blog list! Thanks for the brief intro – with your interest in bad guys and my interest in the sociology of deviance we make a great pair of biblical scholars!

    Best wishes


  • Chris Keith, 16th July 2010 at 3:40 pm | Reply

    Thanks to you and the rest of the crew for starting this blog! I look forward to the lively discussions that will no doubt take place. I’m particularly looking forward to your Jesus book. Might you offer some broad stroaks on some of the themes as a teaser?

  • cscoedinburgh, 16th July 2010 at 7:23 pm | Reply

    Thanks for your kind comment, Chris. A teaser on my Jesus book . . . well, as I said there are so many things to take into consideration. Basically I go along broadly with Sanders’ approach, that is, Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet. That seems to me to make best sense both of the evidence in the gospels and of what we know of the first century context, not to mention early Christian claims that Jesus was resurrected. I’m sure that early Christians interpreted what happened to Jesus (his suffering and vindication) in terms of his apocalyptic outlook, rather than imposing this on his death (and empty tomb? visionary experiences?) later on.

    I’ll probably be spending quite a bit of time on Jesus’ trial and execution, too. As most of my previous work has covered both the Jewish and Roman trial of Jesus, this is an area where I have a lot to say. I really don’t think that there is much hard historical detail in the trial narratives as we have them now (they are all quite different for one thing!), though I’m less sceptical than some over the broad contours of the gospel picture. I don’t think that Jesus had a ‘Jewish trial’ as such, probably more of a preliminary interrogation in front of the high priests and his advisers (perhaps something like what we have in John), and I’d imagine the Roman hearing would be fairly brief (perhaps the whole thing was rather like the trial of Jesus ben Ananias later in the century), but I do think that the early Christians had some idea of the basic course of Jesus’ last few hours. All four gospels give the charge against Jesus as claiming to be the King of the Jews, so I’d guess that the reason the Romans wanted to get rid of him was basically political expediency – the last thing they wanted at Passover was a popular prophet claiming that he was some kind spokesman for God (and with some declaring that he was some kind of a kingly figure?). The high priests might have seen him as a false prophet or a deceiver of the people, but again they were anxious to avoid trouble at the festival. (I tend to think that the charge of blasphemy, which is only in Mark and Matthew, is a later retrojection into the trial narratives, perhaps to parallel the kind of charges early Christians were themselves facing).

    I could go on at great length, but perhaps you get some idea of where I’ll be going with all of this. I should also point out that Continuum’s Guides for the Perplexed are aimed at honours/masters students and perhaps interested lay people too, so part of the challenge is to write it all in an accessible manner!

    Best wishes, Helen

    • Steven Carr, 19th July 2010 at 11:17 am | Reply

      Why does Paul write about people who rebelled against Rome the following?

      Romans 13
      Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.

      Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. For he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.

      What did Paul think of people who called themselves ‘King of the Jews’ and were crucified as rebels against authority?

      Did Paul think that the Romans had killed the Son of God , but ‘hold no terror for those who do right’?

  • Sabio Lantz, 16th July 2010 at 10:30 pm | Reply

    I subscribed to this site — looks fun.
    I am also ordering Hurtado’s books after reading about him on James McGrath’s site.
    I just did a posted a diagram I did of NT translation history. It may be helpful to visual learners trying to understand this area.
    Looking forward to your posts !!

  • WoundedEgo, 17th July 2010 at 1:21 pm | Reply

    The NT does not describe Pilate as a bad guy. He is, in fact, a sweetie-pie. He declares Jesus innocent and only agrees to put him to death to please the Jews. But first he offers to release him.

    The NT writers wrote to villify the Jews. They are the target of the polemic. They are accused by Paul as Christ-killers, even though history in and out of the scriptures makes it clear that the Romans killed him.

    Jews are always portrayed as rabid dogs in the NT. My favorite laughable account is this one:

    Acts 23:
    6 ¶ But when Paul perceived that the one part were Sadducees, and the other Pharisees, he cried out in the council, Men and brethren, I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee: of the hope and resurrection of the dead I am called in question.
    7 And when he had so said, there arose a dissension between the Pharisees and the Sadducees: and the multitude was divided.
    8 For the Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, neither angel, nor spirit: but the Pharisees confess both.
    9 And there arose a great cry: and the scribes that were of the Pharisees’ part arose, and strove, saying, We find no evil in this man: but if a spirit or an angel hath spoken to him, let us not fight against God.
    10 And when there arose a great dissension, the chief captain, fearing lest Paul should have been pulled in pieces of them, commanded the soldiers to go down, and to take him by force from among them, and to bring him into the castle.

    Note how the Romans are exonerated and are ever in the best light, providing a helping hand and ever believing:

    Mark 15:39 And when the centurion, which stood over against him, saw that he so cried out, and gave up the ghost, he said, Truly this man was the Son of God.

    So, you probably are planning a book where you describe “the bad men of the Bible” so I am writing to give you a suggestion on where to look for the locus of that heat so you don’t accidentally promote another wave of pop religious sermon fodder.


    • cscoedinburgh, 17th July 2010 at 4:08 pm | Reply

      Thanks for your comment. Yes, I entirely agree with you that the NT authors were anxious to show that Jesus committed no crime against Roman law and that he went to his death primarily because of the actions of the Jewish leaders. I’m not sure that they described Pilate, though, as a ‘sweetie-pie’! I think the portrait of the governor in each gospel is quite complex: for Luke, for example, he is a weak figure, who tries to pass the case off to Antipas, three times declares Jesus innocent, but finally capitulates in the face of Jewish pressure. The picture in John is much more complicated: throughout the seven scenes of the trial narrative Pilate questions Jesus in a number of ways, only once appearing fearful and attempting to release him; in the end he sends Jesus to the cross just as the Jewish leaders declare that they have ‘no King but Caesar’ – not a bad morning’s work for a provincial governor, some might think.

      The particularly negative portraits of Pilate, though, are to be found in Philo (Legatio ad Gaium 299-305) and to a lesser extend in Josephus (War 2, Ant 18). Again, I don’t think that these can be taken at face value. Both these Jewish writers wrote to show that Jews were law-abiding, loyal subjects of Rome, and take care to present high ranking officials in a generally positive light; but provincial governors often had a bad press in Rome, and no Roman would have been surprised to hear that the governor of Judaea was a harsh, vindictive and insensitive man. It was safe, then, to blame any uprisings on the governor himself. I don’t think that we’re in a position to know what Pilate was really like.

      Can I assure you that I’m not planning a book on ‘the bad men of the Bible’?! Nor am I (or any of my colleagues here at CSCO) in the business of promoting ‘pop religious sermon fodder.’ These first few introductory blogs are designed to give readers a sense of the general areas that each of us are interested in. We’ll be able to tackle more specific topics as time goes by.

      With thanks again for your comment,

  • Steven Carr, 19th July 2010 at 11:27 am | Reply

    ‘(I tend to think that the charge of blasphemy, which is only in Mark and Matthew, is a later retrojection into the trial narratives, perhaps to parallel the kind of charges early Christians were themselves facing’

    Why does Paul say that Christians were persecuted on the issue of circumcision, and that they could avoid persecution by compromising on that belief?

    Paul even proves he has not compromised on the issue of circumcision by pointing out that he is still being persecuted.

    Galatians 5
    ‘Brothers, if I am still preaching circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been abolished.’

    Where are the apologetic defenses against charges of blasphemy that you might expect in early letters like Paul’s or Hebrews or 1 Peter or James?

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