In 1866, the Russian historian Alexander Popov made an astonishing discovery. Leafing through a Renaissance Slavonic translation of the first-century Jewish historian Josephus, Popov found detailed notes on the trial of Jesus written by none other than Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor who sentenced Jesus to death. The notes, finally published in a German edition 60 years later, were impressively detailed. They described Jesus as a ‘crooked’ and ‘horse-faced’ man whose eyebrows met over his nose. They showed how he had arrived in Jerusalem in the week before his death in the company of secretly armed partisans, intending to occupy the Temple. And they proved that Pilate had been forced to act to keep the peace. The sentence he passed was lawful. Jesus was guilty, Pilate innocent.
The notes were, of course, a fabrication and they fooled few, but their declaration of Pilate’s innocence was no innovation, being part a longstanding tradition. David Lloyd Dusenbury’s The Innocence of Pontius Pilate is, in the first instance, a forensic study of that tradition. The book traces numerous readings of the trial from its canonical origins in the gospels, and highlights the various attempts to get Pilate off the hook. The best known of these are the Christian ones, motivated by the twin desires to exonerate Rome and (further) impugn the Jews. An innocent Pilate suited those who wanted to curry favour with the authorities (in the early centuries) or demonise society’s outsiders (in the later ones).
Pilate is also pardoned, however, in many other traditions. Pagan intellectuals remembered, or rather reinvented, him as an innocent man and a just judge. A now lost Acts of Pilate forcefully made the governor’s case and was apparently taught by Roman schoolmasters, at least according to the historian Eusebius. More surprisingly, there is a Talmudic tradition which proudly proclaimed Jewish responsibility for Jesus’s death, recollecting how he was charged, sentenced, stoned and ‘hanged’ by Judeans rather than by the Romans on the basis that he was not the messiah but merely a ‘blasphemer and idolater’.
As far as the Islamic tradition is concerned, Sura 4 in the Quran claims that Jesus did not die on the cross and implies that he was replaced by a body double. The Quran does not mention Pilate by name, but the implication of this is that he was innocent of Jesus’s death; and a later tradition, from around 1000, offers a detailed retelling of the trial in which it is Herod rather than Pilate who acts as Jesus’s judge.
This is all interesting stuff but it is really part of a bigger and more important case that Dusenbury is making. As well as exploring the ‘brute [historical] fact’ of what happened at Jesus’s trial and how it was subsequently interpreted, he is interested in the ‘legal fact’ of what Pilate’s guilt and innocence meant for law and politics. His answer is: a very great deal.
Exculpating Pilate left everything he stood for intact. Pilate was the representative of Roman political power that was also, by its own lights, divine. If he was simply and correctly discharging justice in his encounter with Jesus, all of that — Pilate, Tiberius, Rome, empire — remain authoritative.But if Pilate was indeed guilty, as the gospel writers, the mainstream tradition of the Church and, most influentially, St Augustine insist, then all this quasi-divine political authority is undermined. That is why the myth of Pilate’s innocence is of more than mere historical interest. As Dusenbury says, those traditions that exculpate Pilate ‘leave untouched the archaic temple state, by saving the legal structure from taint of the guilt of having executed an innocent man’.
By contrast, the Latin Christian tradition points an accusing finger at Pilate and the powers that be, and insists that they cannot, now, claim complete authority. Subsequent European law and politics, beginning with Justinian’s influential law code given ‘in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ’, takes as its foundation the court-ordered execution of an innocent man who claims to be a witness to a truth that is higher than the court that convicts him. In other words, the very idea of secular power — legitimate but limited, passing judgment but also under judgment — can be traced to Pilate’s encounter with Jesus.
The idea that the secular can be traced to Christianity in general and Augustine specifically is not a new one and, in that regard, Dusenbury is simply building on a pre-existing line of thought. But by doing so through the story of Pilate and his alleged innocence, he brings a fresh and engaging dimension to the debate. Although the title will entice conspiracy cranks, The Innocence of Pontius Pilate is a model of intelligent, accessible and persuasive scholarship.