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The Innocence of Pontius Pilate: How the Roman trial of Jesus shaped history by David Lloyd Dusenbury

08 April 2022

Alexander Faludy finds that this scholarship will change the debate

THIS book concerns Jesus’s brief trial and the, far longer, “trial of Pilate”: how theologians and jurists have analysed the Roman governor’s actions over two millennia. En route, Dusenbury recovers important, largely forgotten, Christian, Jewish, and Islamic traditions about the death of Jesus and brings them into dialogue with each other and political thought

A tendency to “wash Pilate’s hands” for him established itself early in Christian literature. Outside the canonical New Testament, the Gospel of Peter shifts the blame to Herod (not the Sanhedrin) as early as the second century. The reasons are complex and may initially, Dusenbury suggests, controversially, have arisen not from pernicious anti-Judaism (a later development, he maintains) but from a concern to present Christianity as compatible with Roman civil order. This latter was a real problem, given Christianity’s perception as a “novel” (and thus invalid) religion within the Empire’s settled “Temple-State” nexus.

One oddity about the myth of Pilate’s “non-judgment” is less its genesis than its continuance. It persists today separate from the (dreadful) myth of a “Jewish crucifixion” which it once supported. It does so in defiance of clear contrary textual evidence (Luke 23.40, 24.20).

Yet more surprising is that early Christian assertion of Pilate’s innocence of Jesus’s death is complemented by overlooked traditions of Talmudic-Jewish and early Islamic commentary on Jesus’s fate. These exonerate the Roman governor by implication, leaving him, and even Jesus’s crucifixion, out of the story. In some rabbinic literature, Jesus’s death (by hanging or stoning) becomes a matter of intra-sectarian conflict over allegations of sorcery and prophetic authority — not claims to divinity. Muslim sources posit a body double.

Contrary to these Levantine/Arabian exegetical traditions stands, Dusenbury claims, an “African” one most fully developed by St Augustine of Hippo. For this bishop, Pilate’s passing of sentence on Jesus, and Roman agency in Jesus’s arrest and crucifixion, were not only clear, but vital. This was so that protagonists in the Passion drama might genuinely believe, and act, the absurdity that they held authority over the one from whom all authority stems.

Yet Augustine’s establishing Pilate’s real co-responsibility with the Temple authorities for Jesus’s death goes together with exoneration of both from blame. Governor and priests acted as they did only because, like the soldiers nailing Jesus to the cross, they “knew not what they did” and so were innocent.

Dusenbury claims that Augustine’s Homilies 112-17 (on St John’s Gospel) and not, as usually held, Homily 180 (on St James’s Epistle), contains the first recorded use of the term mens rea (“guilty mind”). Jesus’s trial thus grounds the test of criminal responsibility used in courts today

Reprising Augustine’s judgement that Pilate’s ordering of the execution of Jesus was “valid” on account of an assertion of sovereignty (“My kingdom”) but mistaken (because it is not “of this world”) allows us — Dusenbury argues — to recover the essential underpinning for distinguishing the earthly and heavenly cities in Augustine’s City of God. At heart, Augustine’s political theory, if not always his practice, saw Christianity’s power as persuasive but the State’s as coercive. Thus was born Western Christianity’s and, ultimately, Western Modernity’s concept of “secularity”.

This paradoxical Catholic-Christian creation of “secular space” would later find outworking in the mutually contrasting Protestant thought of Thomas Hobbes and Samuel von Pufendorf. Sub specie aeternitatis, Hobbes subsumed ecclesiastical authority into temporal monarchy, while Pufendorf sought to insulate conscience from state interference. Augustine’s formulation would also, ultimately, provoke Rousseau’s revolutionary critique of Christianity as weakening the State by dividing its internal sovereignty.

The Innocence of Pontius Pilate is arresting and erudite — but raises other questions that it does not answer. An attractive case is presented for a distinctive “African tradition” of interpreting Jesus’s trial — and distinguishing spiritual and temporal power — developing through Tertullian and Augustine to Pope Gelasius I. What, though, was it about life in Roman Africa which stimulated such thinking? We are left to wonder.

The interrelationship in reception history of John 18.36 and the Synoptic saying “Render unto Caesar” (Mark 12.13-17 and parallels) goes unexplored. This surprises, given the care with which Dusenbury articulates the co-dependence of John’s “My kingdom” with St Luke’s and St Paul’s language of “this age” (Vulgate: “saeculum”) as balancing conceptual categories in interpretative tradition.

Great scholarship, however, arguably does not settle a topic, but opens new questions. Inquiry into the interpretation history of Jesus’s Roman trial cannot be the same after Dusenbury’s work.

The Revd Alexander Faludy is a freelance journalist based in Budapest.


The Innocence of Pontius Pilate: How the Roman trial of Jesus shaped history
David Lloyd Dusenbury
Hurst £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50

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