23 March 2018

Pilate's role in the crucifixion and its use for anti-Semitic purposes

Author Ann Wroe discusses the depiction of Pontius Pilate's role in the crucifixion and how the early church writers turned it to the service of anti-Semitism:

'...[F]antasies [of far-fetched miraculous cures by Jesus] would be laughable if they did not carry a dark undercurrent: the determination of early Christian writers in every branch of the church, whether Greek, Coptic or western, to shift the blame for the crucifixion from Pilate to the Jews. This could reach grotesque levels, as when Origen in his commentaries on Matthew and John simply pronounces Pilate innocent, and ascribes to the Jews all the cruelties that were clearly inflicted on Christ by the Romans. Once the gospel-embroiderers had lost sight of the fact that crucifixion was a uniquely Roman punishment, uniquely in Pilate's power, they could take Jewish 'responsibility' to absurd lengths: even, in the Coptic apocrypha, causing the Jews to crucify Pilate himself as a loathesome 'Egyptian'.

The reason for these inventions, at least at first, was not simply to hurt the Jews. For at least three centuries after Christ's death, as the new religion struggled to establish itself, it was vital to have a Roman official who would say, repeatedly, that Jesus posed no threat to the empire. Pilate had to be Christ's advocate, even his friend, and this made the Jews the villains. As Christianity became accepted and official - starting with the Edict of Milan in 312, when Constantine recognised it as a religio licita throughout the empire - Pilate's fortunes fell into steep decline, and he became a villain in his own right. The Nicene Creed of 381 could state unequivocally that Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate, with no mention of the Jews.

Nonetheless, medieval anti-Semitism was still based squarely on the notion that the Jews had killed Christ. Pilate - who has always been used as men want to use him - became a witness to their supposed intractability, their emotionalism, their capacity to sow evil in the world. Although there was probably a core of truth in Pilate's reluctance to kill Jesus - for whatever reason - it was expanded and embroidered. Even the most tyrannical Pilate put the Jews in a bad light. In invented story after invented story he complained that they had misled him, made him do what he had never wanted to do. He had tried every subterfuge to save Jesus, but they had insisted on his death'

- Ann Wroe, Pilate, London, 1999, p.315-6.

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