Pontius Pilate vs Jesus

Mark Tooley on September 14, 2021

Tooley: Hello this is Mark Tooley, editor of Providence: A Journal of Christianity and Foreign Policy, as well as the President of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, with the pleasure today of interviewing, chatting with, conversing with, David Dusenbury, author of a fascinating new book called — and let me make sure I get this precisely — The Innocence of Pontius Pilate: How the Lonely Trial of Jesus Shaped History, which is getting very favorable reviews so far, touching on themes that previously have not been, perhaps, fully and comprehensively touched upon. So David, great to see you again, and you are now in Budapest, Hungary.

Dusenbury: This is correct, I just started a fellowship at the Danube Institute here in Budapest, Very good to be here.

Tooley: And so please tell us the major themes of your book

Dusenbury: I suppose there are two main themes, one of which is suggested by the title and the other of which is suggested by the subtitle. The one theme suggested by the title is that of Pilate’s innocence or guilt, and I try, basically, for the first time to trace through history these dueling readings of the Roman trial of Jesus, both within the Christian tradition and in neighboring traditions, so I actually talk a bit about Pilate in Jewish and pagan and Islamic traditions as well as in the Christian tradition. But let’s just say the innocence of Pontius Pilate for the Christian tradition is the one that concerns me most and bears most upon European history. Beginning with the first couple of Christian centuries and running all the way up to Freidrich Nietsche and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, I sort of point out that a number of consequential Christian writers have noticed that Pilate can be seen as a figure who is basically very sympathetic, or even completely innocent of the death of Jesus. Conversely — and this I think might be interesting not only to you Mark but to some of the viewers — Augustine of Hippo is really the primary church father who says that absolutely no, Pontius Pilate sentenced Jesus and therefore he bears significant blame for the death of Jesus. So this is the story, the question of Pilate’s guilt or innocence is kind of the golden thread that ties the whole book together. But then I try to show, and this honestly, this second story was kind of slow in coming, it took me awhile to realize that there seems to be a connection between these varying readings of the Roman trial of Jesus and mainly the Christian tradition, and the emergence of certain conceptions of secular authority, secular power, sacred authority in European law and politics. And so this subtitle, which you just read out, How the Roman Trial of Jesus Shaped History, is sort of the second theme that begins to emerge, that as Christian legal theorists and philosophers and bishops read and reread the Roman trial of Jesus, they begin to center upon or return to Jesus’s statement that His kingdom is not of this world. And I try to show that, again, Augustine’s interpretation of this saying, “My kingdom is not of this world,” really has huge implications later in the tradition, running all the way up to fellows like Thomas Hobbes and Samuel Pufendorf. So these are the two stories: the innocence of Pontius Pilate and the emergence of secularity, as originally a Christian term and Christian theme.

Tooley: Obviously it would surprise many contemporary Christians that secularism is essentially a Christian invention. If you could elaborate on that.

Dusenbury: Absolutely, and I do think it’s worth clarifying, perhaps even a bit more than I clarified in the book. There are certainly some footnotes on this that I would urge all readers to pay attention to. But basically Mark, my understanding is that in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, secularism, which is the word you just used, secularism emerges as a self-consciously anti-Christian or post-Christian movement, which is nevertheless using a lot of Christian terms and concepts, including secularitas. I have a whole chapter on the fact that secularization and secularity are terms of medieval canon law, they don’t exist in Roman law, they don’t exist in Jewish law, Islamic law, these are Christian terms, Christian concepts, which are kind of revolutionized in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, in order to increasingly erode, let’s say, the political efficacy of the church in Europe. But nevertheless, I focus in this book not on this sort of strictly modern set of developments, one could say anti-Christian or post-Christian, these are very complicated movements. I try to focus on the fact that in the early modern period, it’s primarily about Christians, and even in the early Enlightenment it’s primarily committed Christians who are concerned to show that the church should differentiate itself from the state in terms of the methods it uses, it doesn’t require force for instance, violence is formed to promulgate the gospel and so on and so forth. And so it’s in these conversations that secularity and secularization figure long before they come to be seen as inimical to, let’s say, the Christian legacy in politics.

Tooley: So it’s fair to say that prior to the gospel, the world lived under essentially temple states, where state and temple, throne and temple, were intertwined, and it really is the Gospel, perhaps embodied in the exchange between Jesus and Pontius Pilate, who makes these distinctions between the temple and the throne.

Dusenbury: This is my argument, this is my interpretation. And I must say the next book I’m working on is subtitled A Political Life of Jesus, and I’m going to have to keep working through these themes in a much more rigorous way in terms of the narrative of the gospels. But in this book I center, as I’ve said, upon really the Augustinian interpretation of this folgorous moment in John where Jesus says His kingdom is not of this world, and the implications that have been drawn in different ways from that.

Tooley: The book in my mind in many ways builds upon the work of Tom Holland’s Dominion, in terms of how Jesus and the Gospel transformed the world, the notion of human equality obviously being a chief theme, but also this distinction between throne and temple which we take for granted but certainly must have been startling and quite shocking in the early centuries of the early church. Is it fair to say that even today those outside of Christian culture, especially in Islamic civilization, essentially looked at what we’ve called the secular West and still see it as some form of Christendom, so they recognize its origins don’t they.

Dusenbury: I’m a huge admirer of Tom Holland’s Dominion, and I do agree with the basic section which as stated is that Europe and the West are regarded by non-Europeans as far more Christian and Roman than most post-Christian Euopreans or Americans themselves. I suppose I could only add here that it is quite interesting, roughly a hundred years, a bit more than a hundred years after Augustine’s death, there was an African pope named Gelasius, and I have a chapter on the letters of Gelasius, which were quite important for medieval Christian political theory. And basically both Tom Holland’s and my arguments are anticipated by this pope in late antiquity, and he, Gelasius says that all pagan empires before the coming of Christ saw the political ruler as a high priest. And this is incidentally true in Jerusalem no less than it is true in Rome. And something I learned in researching the book is that even in Jesus’s day, there were sacrifices made in the Jerusalem temple for the Roman emperor every day. And prayers were offered for the blessing and the peace of the empire. But Gelasius is the one who says that Jesus splits the two offices of priest and emperor and he argues that this is a means by which Jesus inculcates humility. Obviously different analysis could be offered, but both Tom Holland’s thesis and mine I think have antecedents in early Christian thought.

Tooley: What are the distinctions between how the early church fathers looked at this exchange between Jesus and Pontius Pilate versus the medieval church versus the Protestant reformers, and what were the social and political implications of those perspectives?

Dusenbury: I must say this is a huge question and it took me several hundred pages to begin, and I really do want to stress this Mark, that I only begin to tell in this book some of the stories that I think others could definitely continue to explore and draw out. I suppose for my purposes and the purposes of this conversation, it seems fair to say that Augustine is really quite a singular character in his reading of the Roman trial of Jesus in late antiquity. So, Augustine, as I’m sure you know, did not have very much Greek, he worked very hard to acquire enough Greek to sort of work his way through the Greek fathers, but he was not a very good hellenist, and so in many ways one could say he was limited to writings in Latin or Greek writings which had been translated into Latin. But in the heartlands of the Roman Empire in the East, this recognition that Rome was really implicated in the death of Jesus in a profound way was much less acute. There’s a tendency to place all of the blame, to speak very crudely, to place all of the blame for the death of Jesus on the temple authorities and the Judean crowd that gathered at Pilate’s tribunal and so on and so forth. So the Greek fathers don’t seem to have very much to offer in terms of the particular story I’m telling, in their readings of the Roman trial of Jesus. It’s Augustine who’s very attuned to the Roman hand in the death of Jesus, from even before the beginning of Jesus’s trial. So Augustine points out the fact that in John, John says there’s a cohort that comes out to arrest Jesus, and Augustine picks up on the fact that this is a military term, which indicates under at least Augustine’s reading, that Romans were present when Jesus was apprehended in the Garden of Gethsemane. So even before Jesus is taken to testify before the high priest, he was apprehended by Roman soldiers. It’s Augustine’s very sensitive reading of some of the legal, the juridical language of the passion narratives which, I believe, allows him to see that the Romans are implicated from the very beginning of the passion, and also allow him to detect the signals which are relatively subtle, but are definite signals in all four passion narratives that Pontius Pilate pronounced the sentence of death. This has been denied by various people, and it seems to be denied by at least certain Greek fathers. So, I hope I’m not too long winded, in a way what I’m trying to say is that there seemed to be some genuine distinctions between the Greek fathers and Augustine, who represents the Latin tradition, in their readings of the Roman trial of Jesus. And it does seem to me, I mean you ask about the implications for later tradition. I’ve already mentioned Gelasius is heavily influenced by Augustine, and so Gelasius strongly, starkly, differentiates it from the office of emperor from the office of pontiff. I would argue that this is already a mark of Augustinian influence. There’s something else I could say Mark which I think is important to add, is that where Augustine’s influence is strongest in the Medieval European church, antisemitism, Christian antisemitism is weakest. And there’s actually very good work that’s been done on this by a couple of Jewish historians. So Augustine’s recognition of the Roman hand in Jesus’s death does have real world effects in Europe, not just in regards to theories of secular power, but also in terms of Christian relations to the Jewish minorities in Medieval Europe, in Christendom.

Tooley: And finally, I think it’s fair to say, although rarely commented on, that our contemporary notions and assumptions about religious liberty date back to this exchange between Pilate and Jesus?

Dusenbury: Yes, and I must say there’s one fellow, one church father in my book who’s a bit of a bete noire. His name was Lactantius and he was a protégé here at Constantine’s court, so really the first Christian court, let’s say, in Europe. And Lactantius, he is a bit of a piece of this book because he very very clearly says that Pilate does not sentence Jesus, and that Jews actually crucified Jesus, which is most certainly false, both in terms of Roman bureaucracy and because of Roman records. Nevertheless, Lactantius has a very very beautiful line, where he says “nothing is more voluntary than religion.” And I do think Mark, that in the early modern period when Christian legal theorists begin to very strongly assert that the power of the state should not be used to promote religion conviction or confession or behavior, they’re tapping back into a primitive Christian conviction and tradition, which I try to show in a variety of ways is tied to Jesus’s testimony before Pilate.

Tooley: David Dusenbury, author of a, momentous I would say, new book, The Innocence of Pontius Pilate: How the Roman Trial of Jesus Shaped History. Thank you for, as expected, a very thoughtful and informative conversation.

Dusenbury: Thanks so much Mark.

  1. Comment by Excellent work on September 15, 2021 at 9:06 am

    I would simply ask this, even though it might not be answerable without reading the book and further study: Isn’t it best to see that except for a few countries for a limited time the idea of sacred and secular in politics is not a real issue?

    As we see in our own time, religion, or what certain people call ‘religion’ is always used as a foil by the rich and powerful to justify their rule. the religious leadership in Jesus day did it, the Roman emperors and Egyptian pharaohs set themsleves up as a gods to support and/or justify their rule, and Marx substituted his secular religion of communism to build a narrative that the totalitarian state is justified now but will fade away as real equality is gained.

    In other words, real or false religion is always able to be used as a tool of those who wish to cement their power, and as the OT Prophets said over and over again this kind of religion is anathema the one true God.

    Comments welcome.

  2. Comment by David on September 15, 2021 at 2:32 pm

    “Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by rulers as useful.” —Seneca, a contemporary of Jesus.

  3. Comment by Roger on September 17, 2021 at 4:58 pm

    Psalm 2: 1 – 4 tells of the crucifixtion story. KJV Why do the Gentiles rage? Why do the people imagine a vain thing? The Kings (Gentiles) and the rulers(High Priest) join together to against Jesus, the Son of God? They want to break the the hold religion has on the people and the government. God will laugh at them in scorn and put them into derision. Pilate is in a quandry of what to do? He wants to release Jesus of Nazareth, yet the Jesus who is the Priest”s son (Bar Abbas) is a rebel. The people decide to release the Rebel. God has blinded the Jews to who Jesus is> See Romans 11: 7 & 11. It is both Jews and Gentiles that have a part in the crucifixtion of Jesus, Just as Psalm predicted.

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