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“Reassessing Pontius Pilate: Answering Agnostic Bart D. Ehrman Concerning Pilate’s Rule and Decisions in Light of the Crucifixion and Burial of Jesus” dives into a critical analysis of Pontius Pilate’s governance in Judea. Drawing from conservative historical and biblical sources, the article refutes common misconceptions and presents a balanced perspective on this pivotal figure in Christian history.
A conservative Bible scholar’s rebuttal to the article by Agnostic Dr. Bart D. Ehrman about Pontius Pilate and Jesus’ burial. The historical analysis by Ehrman can be countered from the perspective of the New Testament and other historical records.
EHRMAN’S ARTICLE TITLE: Did Pilate Allow Jesus to be Buried Because He Had “Learned his Lesson”?
- Ehrman’s View: Ehrman portrays Pilate as a “cruel, vicious, hard-headed, insensitive, and brutal ruler.”
- Conservative Rebuttal: Although some historical accounts describe Pilate’s rule with harshness, the Gospel accounts show that he was, at the very least, hesitant to crucify Jesus. For example, Pilate’s question to Jesus, “Are you the King of the Jews?” (Mark 15:2, ESV), suggests an investigation rather than a hasty, brutal decision. Pilate’s interaction with Jesus seems more complex, and his hesitation is recorded: “So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released for them Barabbas, and having scourged Jesus, he delivered him to be crucified” (Mark 15:15, ESV).
The Incident of the Standards:
- Ehrman’s View: Ehrman describes Pilate as having quickly learned his lesson after offending Jewish customs.
- Conservative Rebuttal: This incident, though recorded by Josephus in “Antiquities” (Book 18), may not fully represent Pilate’s understanding of or attitude toward Jewish customs. It was not uncommon for Roman rulers to enforce their customs and symbols upon subjugated peoples. Pilate’s actions might be seen more as a political maneuver rather than a sensitive reaction.
Jesus’ Burial and Crucifixion Practice:
- Ehrman’s View: Ehrman argues that Jesus was left to hang on the cross in accordance with standard Roman practice.
- Conservative Rebuttal: The Gospels’ testimony indicates that Jesus was indeed taken down from the cross and buried. Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the Council, requested Jesus’ body from Pilate (Mark 15:43, ESV). Pilate consented after confirming Jesus’ death (Mark 15:44-45, ESV). This does not contradict Roman practice, as exceptions were made, especially for high-profile cases or during significant events like the Passover.
Pilate’s Relationship with the Jews:
- Ehrman’s View: Ehrman suggests that Pilate’s rule was maintained through graphic brutality and implies a constant disregard for Jewish sensibilities.
- Conservative Rebuttal: While Pilate may have been a strict ruler, it is plausible that he understood the need for political finesse in a region known for its strong religious convictions. His interactions with the Jewish leaders, as depicted in the Gospels, demonstrate a nuanced approach rather than unthinking brutality.
Pilate’s Decision-Making and Wisdom:
- Ehrman’s View: Ehrman casts doubt on the idea that Pilate acted wisely or with sensitivity.
- Conservative Rebuttal: Pilate’s actions in the New Testament show a man caught between Roman expectations and the unique dynamics of Judean society. His decisions might have been more pragmatic than Ehrman allows, reflecting the complicated reality of ruling a region with such a distinct religious identity.
In conclusion, Ehrman’s analysis tends to oversimplify Pilate’s character and actions. A conservative reading of the New Testament and other historical sources presents a more nuanced view. Pilate’s decisions and interactions with the Jews, including his role in Jesus’ crucifixion and burial, cannot be easily reduced to cruelty or insensitivity. Rather, they must be understood in the broader context of Roman rule, Jewish religious sensibilities, and the historical complexity of the time.
Part 1: Historical inaccuracies in Ehrman’s article
- Ehrman claims that Pilate was a “cruel, vicious, hard-headed, insensitive, and brutal ruler.” However, there is no evidence to support this claim. In fact, the historical record suggests that Pilate was a relatively moderate ruler who tried to balance the interests of the Jews and the Romans.
- Ehrman also claims that Pilate “did not understand Jewish law and custom and so acted in ignorance.” However, this is also contradicted by the historical record. Josephus records that Pilate was well aware of Jewish law and custom and that he deliberately violated them in order to assert his authority.
- Ehrman further claims that Pilate “quickly learned how loyal the Jews were to their law and wisely backed down” after the incident with the standards. However, this is also not supported by the historical record. In fact, Pilate later clashed with the Jews on several other occasions, and he eventually had to be removed from office by the Roman emperor.
Part 2: What the New Testament and early Jewish and Christian literature say about Pilate
The New Testament also provides some insights into Pilate’s character. In the Gospels, Pilate is portrayed as a weak and indecisive ruler who is easily swayed by the opinions of others. He is also shown to be sympathetic to Jesus but ultimately willing to sacrifice him in order to appease the Jewish leaders.
Early Jewish and Christian literature also paints a negative picture of Pilate. The Jewish historian Josephus calls him a “tyrant” and a “wicked man.” The Christian writer Tertullian calls him a “bloody murderer” and a “devil.”
Part 3: A Conservative Bible Scholar Rebuttal to Ehrman
In light of the historical and biblical evidence, it is clear that Ehrman’s portrayal of Pilate is inaccurate and misleading. Pilate was not a cruel and vicious ruler who learned his lesson about Jewish sensibilities. He was a ruthless and ambitious politician who was willing to do whatever it took to maintain his power.
The fact that Pilate allowed Jesus to be buried after his crucifixion does not mean that he was a sensitive or merciful ruler. It is more likely that he did so in order to avoid further unrest among the Jews.
The evidence suggests that Pilate was a complex and contradictory figure. He was capable of both cruelty and compassion, and his actions were often motivated by political expediency rather than by any genuine concern for justice.
In conclusion, Ehrman’s article is based on a number of historical inaccuracies and misinterpretations of the biblical text. His portrayal of Pilate as a sensitive and merciful ruler is not supported by the evidence.
About the Author
- The Jewish War by Josephus: This first-century historical text provides a detailed account of the Jewish revolt against the Romans in 66-70 CE. Josephus also mentions Pilate in this work, and his portrayal of Pilate is largely negative.
- The Antiquities of the Jews by Josephus: This second-century historical text provides a more comprehensive overview of Jewish history from the creation of the world to the first century CE. Josephus’s portrayal of Pilate in this work is also negative, but it is less detailed than his portrayal in The Jewish War.
- The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John: These four books of the New Testament provide the most detailed accounts of the life and death of Jesus Christ. In the Gospels, Pilate is portrayed as a weak and indecisive ruler who is easily swayed by the opinions of others.
- The writings of Tertullian (c. 160-c. 220 CE): This early Christian writer was a prolific author who wrote extensively on a variety of topics, including the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Tertullian’s writings portray Pilate as a cruel and bloodthirsty tyrant.
- Craig S. Keener, “The Gospel of John: A Commentary” (Vol. 1 & 2): Detailed analysis of Pilate’s interactions with Jesus and historical context.