Monday, March 11, 2013

Undercover Agnostic (Update 5): Twisting History Beyond All Recognition

Another Sunday, another week as the Undercover Agnostic. As I was driving into church, as usual, I had St. Louis rock station 105.7 The Point on the radio, and sometimes the music playing can be rather ironic for the situation, as I talked about in the last Undercover Agnostic update, Musical Irony and Political Activism. This week's song while driving into church was rather fitting, I think.

It was the band Fall Out Boy: "My Songs Know What You Did in the Dark", the subtitle is "Light Them Up". As I listened to the song, and that repeating chorus of "Light them up, up, up", I was thinking that's what I want to do to my past, and the life I currently have now, light it up, burn it down, completely burn it up and start over again, even though it will be hard to start over again like that.

The song was especially fitting in light of my post on Saturday about my fears of moving forward, and how will I rebuild my life after coming out. I was genuinely surprised and overwhelmed by the reaction to that post, 312 views so far, and 10 comments of support. Thanks everyone for your encouragement and advice.

Anyway, back to my life now. A new quarter means a new Sunday School book, the old book is out, and this quarter has two books it's based off of. This first half is by a pastor named John Stott, who died in 2010. The book is called The Cross of Christ, and the weekly lesson plans are based off of it.

What really stood out to me was it's portrayal of Pilate, it casts him in a negative light, which is not at all surprising, because he is basing his writings off of the crucifixion story in the Gospels.

 The Bible, in the crucifixion story, places an equal amount of blame upon Pilate, the Roman imperial governor over the district of Judea for the unjust execution of Jesus, as it does upon the Jewish leaders (Pharisees and Sadducees) who wanted him dead, because of his differences in theology with them and his challenging of their corrupt theocratic rule over the Jewish people

 Yes, the Roman empire did rule over what is now modern day Israel and the Palestinian territories but the Roman government gave quite a bit of liberty to the Jewish religious establishment to govern there, they had their own court system even, but they could not sentence anyone to death, which is why they came to Pilate, and wanted him to try him for treason (claiming that he wanted to set up his own kingdom in Israel, using his statements about being "the king of Jews" against him, he meant it in a spiritual sense, that he felt that he was sent by god to minister to the Jews).

The crucifixion accounts, and this book portray Pontius Pilate as weak, spineless, a waffling politician, who bent to the whims of the Jewish people and the Jewish establishment. Luke 23 will give you a good idea of the Bible's view of Pilate in Jesus' trial and execution.

Here's a quote from the text by John Stott, to give you an idea of his view:
"How could Pilate champion innocence and justice if in the process he denied the will of the people, flouted the nation's leaders, and above all, provoked an uprising. thereby forefeiting the imperial favor? His conscience was drowned by the loud voices of rationalization. He compromised because he was a coward"
 However, this view of Pilate as spineless politician doesn't match up even with portrayals of him elsewhere in the Bible. In Luke 13, an incident is mentioned where Pilate ordered a group of people to be killed, then had their blood mixed with the animal sacrifices they had presented at the temple.

That sounds more like the actions of a ruthless, bloodthirsty dictator, rather than the waffling politician that the crucifixion story portrays him to be. The incident was mentioned in Luke 13, because some people were asking Jesus if those people were worse sinners than other because of their brutal deaths at the hands of Pilate's soldiers.

The Bible shows that at the time, in Jewish culture, it was presumed that everything that happened to a person was directly correlated to their actions, and the way the lived their life. If someone was wealthy, happy, and lived a peaceful life, it was presumed that they had done something to earn God's favor.

 If they had calamities come upon them, then they must have done something wrong to deserve that (or maybe god punished them for the sins of their family), we see this idea again in John 9, where Jesus' disciples ask him if a man that he healed of blindness was blind because of his sins or his parents. Jesus replies that neither is the case, that he was born blind so that God's glory could be should through this miracle.

 The view of Pilate as spineless doesn't match up with some historical accounts, either. Here's what the website  of the Ecole Initiative of Evansville University   says that Greek historian Philo of Alexandria had to say about Pilate:

A fifth incident from Pilate's term of office is described in Philo's Legatio ad Gaium, an incident in which Pilate set up gilded shields in Jerusalem (Legatio 299-305). Although written only a few years after Pilate's departure from Judaea, this work is highly polemical in nature. The story is part of a letter, supposedly from Agrippa I to Gaius Caligula, in which the Jewish king attempts to persuade the emperor not to set up his statue in the Jerusalem temple. Philo uses all the drama and rhetoric at his disposal to cast Pilate in a particularly brutal light and to contrast him with the virtuous Tiberius, an emperor who (unlike Gaius) was intent upon preserving the Jewish law.

Pilate is described as corrupt, violent, abusive and cruel (§§ 301, 302). He is accused of intentionally annoying the Jewish people by setting up gilded shields in Herod's palace in Jerusalem. These shields contained no picture but only an inscription stating the name of the dedicator and the name of the person to whom they were dedicated. When the significance of this inscription was widely known, the people chose four Herodian princes to appeal to Pilate on their behalf and ask for the removal of the shields. When Pilate refused, they threatened to send an embassy to Tiberius. According to Philo, this worried Pilate enormously because of the atrocities committed throughout his governorship. The embassy went ahead and Tiberius upheld the Herodian complaints, ordering Pilate to remove the shields to the temple of Augustus at Caesarea.

So why does the Biblical crucifixion account portray Pilate like it does? Was it to portray that Jewish religious leadership in a more negative light? Is it to make them the villains, and Pilate a somewhat unwilling pawn in their power play? Apparently so.


  1. I never got while Pilate was vilified by the church. At the most he was a coward (which is not a sin I do not think) but otherwise he just said at least how I read it "look this is your customs your guy your problem so I am going to let you decide what you do with him." He is just some poor bastard sent out to govern a people he probably knew little about and what just hoping not to start a riot.

    1. Probably true. People weren't aware of other cultures outside their own then, and was worried that if word of a riot got back to the emperor, he would be seen as an incompetent governor, and replaced.

      Although, if he was so brutal to the Jewish people up to this point, why would be be so concerned about putting down the riots with brutal force, to make an example of him? He had committed atrocities before, so why the apprehension now?

  2. I've always heard that he was made out to be more sympathetic in the crucifixion story because the writer wanted to lay more of the blame on the Jews.

    1. That was probably the case, they wanted a villain, and the Pharisees were a mighty convenient one. After all, Jesus was at odds with them from the beginning of his ministry.

  3. I always felt that Pilate was put in an impossible situation. If the accounts are true (I know, but just saying), he had a choice between allowing Jesus to be crucified and stirring up rebellion and civil disobedience on a massive scale.

    Thank you for reminding me that I ought to read The Cross of Christ again. I went through that one 15 years ago when I was a keen evangelical, and loved every word. It seemed to be an epic work of evangelical theology. I hate to think how I'd feel about it now.

    1. He was in a tough spot, maybe he thought tensions were between the Romans and Jews were almost at the breaking point, and it was either execute Jesus, or face the possibly of a revolution.

      Maybe you should read it again, and give your thoughts about it on your blog.

  4. I recall listening to Robert Price's podcast (The Human Bible or the Bible Geek) that the whole Jesus and Barabbas story of the NT was specifically added to mirror the scapegoat ritual of the OT.

    1. Interesting idea. It does have parallels to that "scapegoat" routine at Yom Kippur/Day of Atonement, where an animal is killed, it's blood sprinkled on a goat, and the goat set free.

  5. Have you read Bart Erhman's book Interpreting Jesus? He goes into a lot of this. There was a lot of anti-Jewish culture that went around after Jesus' death. He is not convinced it was the Jews who wanted him killed.

    1. Hmm... I haven't read his works before, I've heard of him. I know back when I used to listen to Hank Hanagraaf (aka The Bible Answer Man), he hated him, so he must be good. ;)

  6. BTW, when you click the links to my blog on your side bar, its going to show that the link is dead. Its because I changed web hosts. To resolve that, unfollow and then refollow with wideopenground[dot]com

    I lost my blogroll when I did the change. So I'll get my links back up sometimes this week.


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