Monday, May 2, 2011

The Minor, Trivial Biblical Stuff, Part 9: Pontius Pilate, First Part

A belated Happy Easter to one and all! Christ is Risen!
Sorry again for the (usual) silence here in this blog. To make some amends: we'll have a bit of look on the man whose name is known to most Christians all over the world in a daily basis solely because he has some involvement in the death of Jesus Christ.

Pontius Pilate (Pontius Pilatus; Greek Πόντιος Πιλᾶτος, Pontios Pilatos) was the fifth prefect of the Roman province of Judaea, from AD 26-36. He is probably famous as the man who ordered the crucifixion of Jesus. We do not know much about him, save for the scraps that men of former ages have left down for us. Pilate's name has become famous only because of his association with Jesus Christ: "He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate." Indeed, we can say that if he did not have any involvement with Jesus' death at all, he would only be yet another of those minor footnotes in the history of the Roman Empire.

Most of the governors (praeses (provinciae), rector provinciae) who ruled the forty-something provinces of the Roman Empire are actually virtually unknown to historians, who consider themselves lucky when they happen to know who was responsible for a province at a certain moment. There are, however, some exceptions to this.

Now the governor of any given Roman province had four tasks.

1.) He was responsible for taxation and financial management. Depending on the basis of his appointment, he was either the Emperor's personal agent, or the Roman Senate’s financial agent, and had to supervise the local authorities, the private toll collectors, and levy taxes. A governor could mint coins and negotiate with wealthy institutions such as temples and private money-lenders that could advance money.

2.) He was the province's chief accountant: meaning, he inspected the books of major cities and various operations as well as supervising large-scale building projects throughout the province.

3.) The governor was the province's supreme judge. The governor had the sole right to impose capital punishment, and capital cases were normally tried before him. To appeal a governor's decision necessitated travelling to Rome and presenting one's case before either the Praetor urbanus, or even the Emperor himself, an expensive, and thus rare, process. The governor was also supposed to travel across his province - in the case of the governor of Judaea, this necessitated travel through the districts of Samaria, Judaea and Perea - to administer justice in the major towns where his attention was required.

4.) He commanded the military forces within the province. In the more important provinces, this could consist of legions, but elsewhere, there were only auxiliaries, as was the case in Judaea. As a part of his standing orders the governor had the authority to use his legions to stamp out organized criminal gangs or rebels in the area without need for the Emperor's or Senate's approval. Two cohorts had their barracks in Jerusalem (at the old palace and at the Antonia fortress); a third cohort guarded the capital, Caesarea Maritima; and two cohorts of infantry and one cavalry regiment were on duty throughout the province. Taken together, the prefect of Judaea commanded 6×500 men: a force to be reckoned with, but not enough when things went seriously wrong. In that case, his superior, the legate of Syria, would have to send a legion to his aid.

The Fortress Antonia (reconstruction by Leen Ritmeyer)
Pilate's tenure of office - at least at first - was not typical, however, because the Syrian governor Lucius Aelius Lamia was absent. Lucius Aelius Lamia the younger, the scion of an illustrious family of cavalry officers that Augustus elevated to senatorial status and himself (or his father) reportedly a personal friend of the poet Horace and Cicero Minor, has had a prestigious career: he was consul of Rome in AD 3 and afterwards served as governor of Germania, Pannonia and Africa. He was assigned the post of legate of Syria in AD 22, but the title was purely nominal: for reasons entirely unclear, Tiberius requested the popular senator to stay in Rome. There, he was elevated to the status of prefect of Rome in AD 32. The aging military bureaucrat died after only a year in office and was honored with a state funeral.

The absence of an imperial legate for a decade gave Pilate much greater autonomy than was usual for a military prefect, as he could not rely on the Syrian governor and his troops to give him aid. In case of an emergency, he and his auxiliaries were alone.

Judaea was so unimportant a province, that no senator would have deigned to become its governor. Consequently, its governors belonged to the second class of the Roman elite, the equestrian order (ordo equester). These men were not entitled to become legates or proconsuls, but had to content themselves with the title of prefect (after AD 41, procurator).

Pilate, along with his wife, arrived at Caesarea in AD 26. Trouble started almost immediately at the beginning of his term as a prelude to his quite-stormy career: soldiers had brought army standards or inscribed shields, and almost the entire population of Jerusalem marched to Caesarea, imploring the new governor to remove the effigies, which were in violation of the Law.

Moreover, I have it in my power to relate one act of ambition on his part, though I suffered an infinite number of evils when he was alive; but nevertheless the truth is considered dear, and much to be honoured by you. Pilate was one of the emperor's lieutenants, having been appointed governor of Judaea. He, not more with the object of doing honour to Tiberius than with that of vexing the multitude, dedicated some gilt shields in the palace of Herod, in the holy city; which had no form nor any other forbidden thing represented on them except some necessary inscription, which mentioned these two facts, the name of the person who had placed them there, and the person in whose honour they were so placed there.

But when the multitude heard what had been done, and when the circumstance became notorious, then the people, putting forward the four sons of the king, who were in no respect inferior to the kings themselves, in fortune or in rank, and his other descendants, and those magistrates who were among them at the time, entreated him to alter and to rectify the innovation which he had committed in respect of the shields; and not to make any alteration in their national customs, which had hitherto been preserved without any interruption, without being in the least degree changed by any king of emperor.

But when he steadfastly refused this petition (for he was a man of a very inflexible disposition, and very merciless as well as very obstinate), they cried out: "Do not cause a sedition; do not make war upon us; do not destroy the peace which exists. The honour of the emperor is not identical with dishonour to the ancient laws; let it not be to you a pretence for heaping insult on our nation. Tiberius is not desirous that any of our laws or customs shall be destroyed. And if you yourself say that he is, show us either some command from him, or some letter, or something of the kind, that we, who have been sent to you as ambassadors, may cease to trouble you, and may address our supplications to your master.'"

But this last sentence exasperated him in the greatest possible degree, as he feared least they might in reality go on an embassy to the emperor, and might impeach him with respect to other particulars of his government, in respect of his corruption, and his acts of insolence, and his rapine, and his habit of insulting people, and his cruelty, and his continual murders of people untried and uncondemned, and his never ending, and gratuitous, and most grievous inhumanity.

Therefore, being exceedingly angry, and being at all times a man of most ferocious passions, he was in great perplexity, neither venturing to take down what he had once set up, nor wishing to do any thing which could be acceptable to his subjects, and at the same time being sufficiently acquainted with the firmness of Tiberius on these points. And those who were in power in our nation, seeing this, and perceiving that he was inclined to change his mind as to what he had done, but that he was not willing to be thought to do so, wrote a most supplicatory letter to Tiberius.

And he, when he had read it, what did he say of Pilate, and what threats did he utter against him! But it is beside our purpose at present to relate to you how very angry he was, although he was not very liable to sudden anger; since the facts speak for themselves; for immediately, without putting any thing off till the next day, he wrote a letter, reproaching and reviling him in the most bitter manner for his act of unprecedented audacity and wickedness, and commanding him immediately to take down the shields and to convey them away from the metropolis of Judaea to Caesarea, on the sea which had been named Caesarea Augusta, after his grandfather, in order that they might be set up in the temple of Augustus. And accordingly, they were set up in that edifice. And in this way he provided for two matters: both for the honour due to the emperor, and for the preservation of the ancient customs of the city.

- Philo, On the Embassy to Gaius (38) 299-305

Now Pilate, who was sent as procurator into Judea by Tiberius, sent by night those images of Caesar that are called ensigns into Jerusalem. This excited a very among great tumult among the Jews when it was day; for those that were near them were astonished at the sight of them, as indications that their laws were trodden under foot; for those laws do not permit any sort of image to be brought into the city. Nay, besides the indignation which the citizens had themselves at this procedure, a vast number of people came running out of the country.

These came zealously to Pilate to Cesarea, and besought him to carry those ensigns out of Jerusalem, and to preserve them their ancient laws inviolable; but upon Pilate's denial of their request, they fell down prostrate upon the ground, and continued immovable in that posture for five days and as many nights.

On the next day Pilate sat upon his tribunal, in the open market-place, and called to him the multitude, as desirous to give them an answer; and then gave a signal to the soldiers, that they should all by agreement at once encompass the Jews with their weapons; so the band of soldiers stood round about the Jews in three ranks. The Jews were under the utmost consternation at that unexpected sight. Pilate also said to them that they should be cut in pieces, unless they would admit of Caesar's images, and gave intimation to the soldiers to draw their naked swords.

Hereupon the Jews, as it were at one signal, fell down in vast numbers together, and exposed their necks bare, and cried out that they were sooner ready to be slain, than that their law should be transgressed. Hereupon Pilate was greatly surprised at their prodigious superstition, and gave order that the ensigns should be presently carried out of Jerusalem.

- Josephus, Wars of the Jews 2.169-174

BUT now Pilate, the procurator of Judea, removed the army from Cesarea to Jerusalem, to take their winter quarters there, in order to abolish the Jewish laws. So he introduced Caesar's effigies, which were upon the ensigns, and brought them into the city; whereas our law forbids us the very making of images; on which account the former procurators were wont to make their entry into the city with such ensigns as had not those ornaments.

Pilate was the first who brought those images to Jerusalem, and set them up there; which was done without the knowledge of the people, because it was done in the night time; but as soon as they knew it, they came in multitudes to Cesarea, and interceded with Pilate many days that he would remove the images; and when he would not grant their requests, because it would tend to the injury of Caesar, while yet they persevered in their request, on the sixth day he ordered his soldiers to have their weapons privately, while he came and sat upon his judgment-seat, which seat was so prepared in the open place of the city, that it concealed the army that lay ready to oppress them; and when the Jews petitioned him again, he gave a signal to the soldiers to encompass them routed, and threatened that their punishment should be no less than immediate death, unless they would leave off disturbing him, and go their ways home.

But they threw themselves upon the ground, and laid their necks bare, and said they would take their death very willingly, rather than the wisdom of their laws should be transgressed; upon which Pilate was deeply affected with their firm resolution to keep their laws inviolable, and presently commanded the images to be carried back from Jerusalem to Cesarea.

- Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 18.55-59 (18.3.1)
There are two striking differences between these three stories. To start with, Philo knows about a petition by four sons of Herod and tells us nothing about the sit down action that Josephus describes with much gusto. The other difference is that Josephus thinks that army standards were involved, whereas Philo mentions gilded shields with an inscription. But whatever their differences, Philo and Josephus have one thing in common: they do not tell the story from Pilate's point of view, but tell it from a Jewish perspective, which is extremely hostile to the governor. Some debate still goes on as to whether Pilate deliberately did this to provoke the Jews or whether these were accidental faux pas on his part.

After the incident, Pilate may have written a letter to the emperor, to which was attached the request by the four Jewish leaders. It was common practice that a governor reported incidents and asked guidance from the monarch; the letters written by the 2nd-century governor of Bithynia-Pontus, Pliny the Younger, to Trajan are known to us and show us that the emperor was consulted frequently, and for matters of far less importance than the incident with the gilded shields (or the iconic standards). Philo must have known about this letter to Tiberius, but he can never have read it. He - and also we - certainly did not know the answer, which must have been friendly: Pilate was to be governor for another ten years.

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