Pilate and Jesus, a colonial view

In studying the last days of Jesus, like in lesson 26 of Gospel Doctrine, we habitually view the complicated chain of events that led to Jesus’ death from the viewpoint of the victim, with the dominant party furnishing the bad guys, the culprits of the story. Evidently, the Jewish authorities are prime suspects, but throughout Christian history one specific player has had a very bad press, Pontius Pilate. Most Christians have at least partly blamed him for the crucifixion, pointing either at his ruthlessness or at his presumed lack of spine, or even both. That, however, is the view from below. Let us now have a look from ‘above’, and see the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate in action as a colonial administrator. For me as a Dutchman, living in a country which has a – both lamented and glorified – colonial past, such a view might be closer than for an American. After all, Indonesia and West Papua once were Dutch colonies. And the insights I cite here stem from an anthropologist, my teacher Jan van Baal, who had a glorious colonial career as the before-last governor of New Guinea. So here is the story of Pilate and Jesus from a colonial viewpoint.
The gospels indicate that Pilate was not by chance in Jerusalem; based in Caesarea, for this particular Passover he had taken his wife to the capital, always a ruler’s sign of confidence and courtesy. It was the yearly occasion of mutual goodwill, but the velvet glove of the prefect always covered his iron hand, as he travelled with a military escort. Also the yearly pardon of a convict was a benevolent sign from the Empire, and concerned a criminal judged by Roman law. As in any colony, part of the jurisdiction remained in the hands of the colonized, the Jews, especially in family law, religious law, and most of property law. Only the crimes against the functioning of the Empire, like rebellion or interference with tax collection, had to be judged by the colonial authorities, and here Pilate served as a delegate of his superior, the legate of Syria.
Pilate knew about Jewish religion and customs, each colonial officer does, as he lets himself be advised. So we will see Pilate politely emerging from his office to meet the Jewish elders, cognizant of their purity rules. He also clearly knew what the issue was, he even had talked about it with his wife; after all, she sent him a note pleading for ‘this righteous one’, (Mt 27:19), probably informed by some colonial pillow talk.
Without any doubt Pilate was informed about Jesus’ arrest by the Jewish authorities. The commander of the Jerusalem garrison surely had his network of contacts, and now with his superior and his wife present he would be very keen to keep everything under control. Furthermore, messianic movements are the nightmare of any colonizer, so Pilate must have been on the alert for these, knowing the Jewish authorities at his side on this issue. Even if a messianic expectation was mainstream in Judaism, the parties in power were understandably slow in acknowledging any such claim, since that would annihilate their own privileged position.
We are informed that the Jewish elite tried to get their hands on Jesus, who had become a threat. Two days before Passover they arranged with Judas to have him delivered (Mt. 26:2-5); the conspiracy worked, Jesus fell into their hands, and they convicted him for blasphemy. The crucial question then is why the Jews did not choose to have Jesus stoned. They must have considered it, but they knew how popular Jesus was with the common folk, so his arrest entailed a risk and stoning is a highly public way of execution, even a collective one: Jesus would have to be taken through a city full of people who still had his glorious entrance engraved in their memory, and then be stoned outside the city in plain view from Jerusalem. Much too risky.

Jesus was tried by the Jewish elite in a hasty trial

Jesus was tried by the Jewish elite in a hasty trial


My readers might object here. Surely, somewhat later, when the Jews stood before Pilate, they claimed not to be allowed to put someone to death. We tend take this at face value, but actually this claim is highly dubious. In Acts 7: 57, 58, the Jews stoned Stephanus, and in John 8:3-11 Jesus at the very last moment saves an adulterous woman from a stony death. So they could execute someone according to their own laws, and the Romans would not have stopped them unless there was a riot. They could stone, but not crucify.
Why did they not wait till after the feast? Probably their hands were forced, since at the feast Jesus had signaled Judas that he knew about the plans, and had sent him on his way (John 13:21-30). The conspiracy had been under pressure to act quickly. That is the reason why Jesus’ case was, as Jewish law was concerned, railroaded, a fact often elaborated upon. So they decided to have him tried by the Roman authorities. For the Jews Jesus was guilty of blasphemy, but that charge did not tally with Roman law, so they had to rephrase it as tax meddling and political upheaval, say a claim on kingship and rebellion. They did manage to whip up some support, a spectator crowd to give the case the appearance of a threat for security.
Thus the crowd came along with Jesus and Pilate was quite forthcoming: “Pilate then went out unto them, and said, What accusation bring ye against this man?” Their answer was an insolence: “If he were not a malefactor, we would not have delivered him up unto thee.” Pilate’s reaction is a succinct dismissal, as befits such an impudence. “Take ye him, and judge him according to your law.” They start to waffle with the charges (see Luke 23:2): he interfered with taxes, and called himself king. Pilate, as we saw, was prepared, as a good colonial administrator should be. His abrupt dismissal might also reflect some irritation that the Jews wanted him to do their dirty work. But he still did his job. All four gospels concur that he took Jesus in, asked whether he considered himself king, that Jesus answered in the affirmative; John stresses that the kingdom was not of this world. Clearly, in all four accounts, Pilate thinks Jesus is not a threat to the Empire. Case dismissed!
Pilate then went back to the waiting crowd and here made his one and only mistake, a tactical one. He declared that he had found no guilt in Jesus: there would be no court case. That was juridical correct, but a political error. What he should have done – and here the accumulated colonial wisdom of the Netherlands comes to the fore – was to tell the crowd that the case merited a more thorough investigation, that Jesus would be kept in custody, and then to take him with his soldiers to Caesarea and deal with the issue in the quiet Roman surroundings of that garrison. Later his successor would do the same with Paul, and thus save his life.
Pilate must have underestimated the crowd, or might have hoped that in the meantime the Jesus supporters would have entered the square. That was not the case, at least they kept a very low profile. So now he was trapped. He could have ordered his cavalry to wipe the square, but this was a feast, an occasion to mix and mingle with the Jewish elite, to show them the benevolence of the Empire. So no soldiers. Political expediency – again our colonial wisdom – dictated to simply give in and rid himself of the problem. Instead he did go to some extreme maneuvers. First he sent Jesus to Herod. That was a double gesture: he honored the regional regent, which is important in the indirect rule of the Empire – we did exactly the same in the former Dutch Indies – while giving Jesus’ followers the time to get their act together. Herod concurred with Pilate: the idea of Jesus as king was ridiculous, and he turned the event into a joke, sending Jesus back to Pilate as a mock-king, with thorns for a crown. It showed, by the way, Herod’s political confidence, as Jesus would have replaced him, not Pilate. Our dear Roman prefect used this charade of kingship as a plea for dismissal, but in vain. The crowd was relentless (crucify him!) so the Jesus faction appeared to be absent – or very silent. Pilate took Jesus in again, asked about his kingship for a second time, was convinced that Jesus was not threat, but realized that no show of a frail Jesus would sway the crowd. The crowd calling ‘we have no king but Caesar’ seems to be strange for Jews, but our colonial experience shows that such an overt and public expression of loyalty to a colonial empire, is very easy to elicit. For colonial subjects it is cheap, expedient, and highly opportunistic.
Jesus and Pilate

Jesus and Pilate


John’s assurance that Pilate was afraid is highly dubious, and is not needed at all. If so, he would also not have used his last resort. Seating himself on the seat of judgment he tried to use the festival pardon of releasing a prisoner at Pesach, to free Jesus, selecting the most unlikely alternative candidate, Barabbas. No success, the cry for crucifixion persisted. To extend the official pardon to two prisoners would have been a precedent in the Roman administration, for which he would be called to account; that was out of the question. So he did the only thing he could do, at long last he gave in. But in doing so he did make it abundantly clear that this had not been a Roman court case, by washing his hands in full view of the crowd and loudly testifying that for him Jesus’ had no guilt, implying that Jesus’ kingdom was not of a kind with the Roman one. Many people have criticized Pilate that this was not a proper Roman court, but the whole point is that it never came to a case, as the charges were dismissed at the start. Pilate had lost political control of the situation, so deftly devolved all further proceedings on the local elite. That is why he had that sign identifying Jesus as King of the Jews, in three languages, nailed on the cross: in this way, you Jews have dealt with your own king, words he refused to change.
This is, in fact, an excellent action, good colonial administration. Pilate is to be commended for his handling of the case. Later Josephus would accuse Pilate of excessive violence in his further career, but even if this were true, it is completely irrelevant to the Jesus ‘case.’ Pilate had an acute grasp of the case and even if, as has been claimed, he did not like the Jews, he did show considerable leniency towards Jesus. Remember, a week earlier the Romans had stood aside at his entry of Jerusalem, as they had done with his cleansing of the temple. Pilate simply made one political miscalculation, and then tried to patch up things as well as he could; seeing how he was blocked by the intransigence of the local elite, the prefect could not have acted better.
Well, probably it is too late to exonerate Pilate, as libraries have been written to condemn him. But from a colonial perspective, Pilate’s actions make sense, reflect an able and conscientious administrator, who made a very human mistake, and despite his efforts to heal the situation, had to live with the consequences of that mistake. Maybe not so much during his life, but definitely during the ensuing two millennia, he has been haunted by that one small error of judgment.
Rembrandt's etch of Jesus, Pilate and the crowd

Rembrandt’s etch of Jesus, Pilate and the crowd

9 comments for “Pilate and Jesus, a colonial view

  1. Perhaps you know it but there’s a new book out by Giorgio Agamben called Pilate and Jesus (Stanford 2015). I confess I haven’t read it yet but the blurb looked interesting along the lines you’ve essayed here.

  2. Love this perspective. Thank you. I’ve always felt Pilate was in a difficult position.

  3. It is interesting noting that there wasn’t an influx of Jesus supporters, even with the delay. I wonder if the apostles finally got the message that they needed to let it happen (and as Jesus said, anyone who tried to divert him from it was of the devil). That means Peter probably should not have been there to witness at all, as he would have been strongly tempted to try and stop things (as he had been rebuked for before), and this directly lead to his denying the Christ.

    People and history are so wonderfully complex!

  4. For me the fact that no-one came to Jesus’ defence, even his apostles, is highly significant. I strongly doubt that they (his followers) missed the events/trials because they understood his mission. Rather the fact that all abandoned him should help us understand that if we were there we would have abandoned him as well. We all share in the shame of his treatment.

  5. Thanks for all the positive reactions. It is good to see that such an alternative view on Pilate is that productive. Thanks (5) for the reading suggestion, I will surely follow it up. The thorny question raised by 7 and 8, is the theological one. I sincerely doubt whether the disciples had the same Atonement-through-Sacrifice view during this Passover weekend. I agree completely with 8: no one at that time could or would view the trial of death of Jesus as something that should happen and should not be stopped. Such a detached view is only possible in retrospect. Also, in such a view there would be no reason to blame anyone at all, not Pilate, not the Jews, and even Herod would be exonerated from any of his acts.
    As the events unfolded on the Passover weekend, the followers of Jesus were devastated, and, indeed they were scared as well. So not only Peter was afraid, but all followers were frightened, no one dared to speak up. Yes, a shared shame for all of us.

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