From  the  book " The Trial and Death of Jesus" by Haim  Cohn


Jesus was a small child when King Herod, sometimes called the Great, died (4 b.c.) . Whether or not, shortly before, he had ordered all the children "from two years old and under" in Bethlehem to be killed (Matt. 2:16), and whether or not Jesus' parents had to flee to Egypt to escape his wrath and cruelty (2:13-14)  the fact is undisputed that his death, as he had himself anticipated,1 was an occasion of immense joy and relief for the people.2 


Herod had been an absolute monarch of uninhibited viciousness, whose persecutions and murders were not confined to his real or imaginary political enemies but extended to all who were suspected of disliking or disobeying him, his own next of kin not excepted. What the Jews had resented perhaps more than his wanton savagery was his flagrant transgression of law and tradition, and his trespasses upon the competence of Jewish courts and established institutions.3 With his passing, the Jews could breathe freely again, and fugitives came back with new hopes (Matt. 2:19-21). But a bitter disappointment was in store. Herod, though of Idumean descent, had been a Jew and a Jewish king—albeit by the grace of the Roman emperor who was suzerain of Judaea. It was one thing to be ruled by a Jewish king, even though one knew perfectly well, and was reminded all too often, that he owed tribute to Rome and was its vassal, and quite another to be ruled by a heathen, an alien enemy, a ruthless foreign captor. When a quarrel for the succession erupted among Herod's sons, the emperor decided to placate each with territory to the north and east, but to Judaea itself he sent a Roman procurator, an imperial agent or commissioner, fully empowered to administer the province and governing in lieu of the emperor in person.


The province of Judaea in general and the city of Jerusalem in particular were notorious in Rome as hotbeds of insurrection and revolt. There was probably no place in the vast empire where the Romans were so deeply hated and so implacably despised as in Jerusalem. It has rightly been observed that these feelings were not based solely upon patriotic motivation: their real roots were religious.4 For the Jews, this was their holy land, and Jerusalem holier still, and the temple in Jerusalem the holiest of all: the presence and government there of the abominable pagan were a pollution and a defilement, an unforgivable insult to the invisible but ever present God who had chosen that temple for His own sanctuary. The Jews never made any secret of their affronted susceptibilities, and the emperors well knew with what kind of people they had to deal, a people who, so far from being amenable to recognition of the emperor as a god incarnate, or at least to belief in the long-standing and incontestable pantheon of Rome, clung to this invisible and illusory phantom of a God with a loyalty and persistence exclusive of even minimal allegiance to their rightful Roman lords.

When, after Herod's death, the emperor left a Roman commander in charge of the garrison in Jerusalem, the Jews thought that the time had come, with no new ruler yet appointed, "to recover the freedom of their fathers."5 They rose up against the commander, and were so desperate and bold in battle that they were on the brink of overwhelming the garrison and expelling it when some of its officers set fire to the temple; in the conflagration thousands died and the rest were forced to surrender.6 Varus, governor of Syria, brought down reinforcements to suppress further uprisings; he is reported to have ordered the crucifixion of two thousand of the instigators of the rebellion.7

Wholesale massacres of that kind were not likely to heighten local esteem of the Roman occupation forces, or of Roman rule. The people were hopeless and embittered, and the emperor could be sure that revolt might recur any day. Being vitally interested—and not only for reasons of imperial prestige—in keeping Judaea under Roman governance, and having, apparently, been unable to find, either among Herod's sons or elsewhere, a Jewish choice for a puppet kingship whom he could trust to maintain peace and order and to support and promote Roman interests, he naturally looked among his generals and administrators for a strong man to whom the control of this pernicious people could safely be assigned.


During the next thirty years, governors came and went. However long or brief their tenure, all saw it their paramount duty ruthlessly to smother any possible opposition to Rome, and, more particularly, any manifestation of violent resistance or revolt. And they had one other important, if private, purpose in common: to extract from their stay in Judaea as much wealth as they possibly could.8 It is true that, in this respect, Judaea presumably did not differ from other Roman provinces, and that the gubernatorial appetite for enrichment was everywhere the same; but then the people in Judaea might have been somewhat less affluent, and hence much more sensitive to extortions. Taxation does not generally endear authority to the populace; but taxation by an alien occupier, which gives the taxpayer no tangible consideration beyond oppression and contempt, is the best way of filling him with enduring rancor. Nor were the methods of Roman taxation such as to mitigate the evil: a man could not know beforehand what he would have to pay, because there was no law or decree to determine it; if he at least knew to what use his money was going to be put, he might perhaps have taken the taxation as a normal and unavoidable incidence of government, be it ever so dictatorial and detestable. Many of the Roman governors of Judaea levied taxes in indeterminate amounts,9 and "taxation" assumed confiscatory proportions. Roman and Roman-appointed tax collectors often neglected to differentiate between the imperial fisc and their private pockets,10 exacting more "than which is appointed them" (Luke 3:13). Citizens from whom all their money had already been squeezed found themselves sued and jailed as defaulting debtors. Tax collector deservedly became synonymous with thief and blackmailer:11 no criminal wrongdoer could have been more dangerous or contemptible than these official robbers, who, enjoying governmental power and immunity, would take double and threefold revenge on their victims for hating and despising them as they did.


The Jewish attitude to tax collectors for the Romans is symptomatic. We have it on the authority of both Talmud and New Testament that they were regarded as "sinners" with whom self-respecting Jews like Pharisees would not sit at table or in any other way communicate; they are the "publicans" of whom Jesus said that they are "sick" (Matt. 9:12). A Jew who would collaborate with the Romans, for instance by gathering taxes for them, would be deemed a malefactor and an outcast, excluded from Jewish society (the "sitting at table together"), disqualified as witness in court;12 even the members of his family would be suspect if they failed to prevent him from so degrading himself as to become a lackey of Rome.13 

This kind of ostracism was enforced not only for Jewish collaborators but also, and much more rigorously, for the themselves. The story in the Gospel According to John that the Jews would not enter the palace of the Roman governor lest they defile themselves (18:28), even if, as will appear, irrelevant in the context, throws light on the prevalent Jewish aversion from entering a Roman dwelling. Elsewhere, we are told that Peter entered the home of Cornelius, a Roman captain, and though Cornelius is described as "a devout man, and one that feared God with all his house, which gave much alms to the people, and prayed to God alway"  (Acts 10:2), yet Peter said, "Ye know how that it is an unlawful thing for a man that is a Jew to keep company, or come unto one of another nation" (10:28), and felt it necessary to explain why he thought fit to break the law. It is not only that the Roman is "unclean"—the detailed and intricate laws of purification being unknown and unintelligible to him; it is that he is the living incarnation of idolatry and debauchery, of materialism and sensuality, of might and tyranny—in short, of everything repugnant to what Judaism stands for. Not only would the Jew not enter the Roman's dwelling, he would not even touch him, let alone shake hands with him. The remark of Tacitus that the Jews "confront the rest of the world with the hatred reserved enemies"14 correctly reflects their attitude to Romans; and when he goes on to say that "to the Jews all things are profane that we hold sacred,"15 he is expressing with precision the exactly converse feeling of Jews in respect of things Roman. When Tacitus wrote, all Jewish resistance had been finally overcome and nothing was left of Jewish statehood; and while their deportment toward the victors was far from friendly or conciliatory, Jews overseas would   certainly hold aloof from Romans as best they could; yet all this was negligible compared with the open revulsion with which they confronted the enemy in their own land.

It is not a simple or pleasant situation when a Roman dignitary, representing the empire in an occupied country, finds himself not only detested and despised but shunned and avoided as if stricken by a foul or contagious sickness. Officers like Cornelius, God-fearing and benevolent, must have been rare exceptions; but     even to them the "law" applied that forbade all fraternizing.       

Cornelius seems to have accepted the ban with a good grace; but in that respect, too, he must have been unique. From what we know of the Roman governors in Judaea in general, and of Pontius Pilate in particular, it must be inferred that they reacted to the insulting and offensive impertinence of barbarous natives with blind fury. And things were made worse by their awareness that this Jewish hatred and contempt was not a spontaneous retort of the vanquished to the presence and provocation of the oppressor, but a matter of law and policy, its source in an insolent superiority complex, and systematically nurtured as a requisite of true religion and personal purity. A Roman governor who could look upon this behavior with detachment would scarcely have been human, and it cannot be said of that cadre in Judaea that it was distinguished for its magnanimity.


Pontius Pilate became governor of Judaea in the year 25. The first thing that he did was, in the words of Josephus, "to demonstrate his contempt of the Jewish laws."16 It is a fundamental precept of the Decalogue that "thou shall not make unto thee any graven image or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above or that is in the earth beneath" (Exod. 20:4; Deut. 5:8), but ancient Roman custom was to display the image of the deified emperor, graven or sculptured or limned, on monuments and buildings, on military standards and insignia. The contemptuous Pilate accordingly had the emperor's image mounted on all standards and brought into the holy city of Jerusalem. He was fully conscious of the hazard—a predictable Jewish rejoinder to a provocation so gross, and maybe it was anticipations of that contingency that had restrained his predecessors. But Pilate was guileful: he would not lay his troops open to violence from an enraged populace: the images would be introduced clandestinely at night and mounted in the streets, so that, at morn, vainglorious Jews would find their sacred capital bedecked with the profane imperial likeness, willy-nilly, and his soldiers would be safely back in barracks.17 Apart from the spitefulness of his maneuver, he might have thought that it was timely to teach these stubborn people a lesson. What was good and self-understood for the plethora of nations subject to Roman rule, which—no less than the Jews—had deities and loyalties of their own but still nolentes volentes had accepted the imperial insignia in their—no less holy—cities,18 was good and should be self-understood for the Jews. He would stand no nonsense from them. He would face them with a fait accompli which would bring home to them what the new kind of order was that would reign in their cities, and who the exalted ruler was that they would be well advised to honor and obey.


We may take it that the legionaries, back in barracks, were on the alert for a dawn outbreak. Whether it was because the Jews, realizing that the troops were ready to strike mercilessly, desired to avoid bloodshed, or whether it was because Pilate was a new governor, as yet unknown, and they wanted to give him a chance and remonstrate first before breaking off relations—the fact is that, however chagrined and outraged they were, no disorder took place. Josephus recounts that great throngs, from Jerusalem and the surrounding countryside, marched to Caesarea where the governor lived. The journey must have taken several days, and there can be little doubt that, from the towns and villages on the way, hundreds more joined the march, so that the multitudes were such in the end that room could be found for them only in the large stadium of Caesarea, and that is where, by Pilate's orders, they were herded. We are told that they implored Pilate to have the imperial insignia taken out of Jerusalem, but he refused, "because that would be an insult to the emperor." They would not take no for an answer, and for six days and six nights lay upon the ground, unmoving. On the seventh day, "Pilate ordered his troops to arm themselves and hide behind (or beneath) the platform of the stadium, and then suddenly commanded them to encircle the Jews. He then threatened the Jews that they would all be mowed down unless they departed at once. Whereupon they threw themselves down, bared their throats, and declared that they would rather die than have their wise and just laws violated.19 In another version, Pilate asked them not to depart at once, but willingly to accept the emperor's images in their cities; and they, baring their throats, cried out that "rather would they let themselves be killed than break their laws."20 The two versions seem complementary: the Jews would not depart, and would not agree to the mounting of the insignia in their cities. Though they were unarmed, and Pilate had nothing to fear from them for himself or his troops, or possibly because of that, he gave no order to carry out his threat, but bade his troops withdraw. Josephus reports that "Pilate could not but admire such constancy in the observance of law, and he gave orders for the standards to be brought back from Jerusalem to Caesarea."21

It has with good reason been noted that this passage in Josephus is much obscured by apologetics: he sought to place both the Roman governor and his own—the Jewish—people in the most favorable light before his Roman readers.22 It is surprising that the Jews, who would not normally refrain from violent and spontaneous outbursts if their religious feelings were hurt, should deliberately organize a well-marshaled and well-behaved mass demonstration, and that myriads should march to faraway Caesarea in peaceful protest and to parley with the governor. And no less surprising that Pilate, having gone the lengths of planning a nocturnal intrusion of the insignia and dispatching standards and soldiery to Jerusalem, and after seeing his plan succeed, should suddenly be overwhelmed by a spectacle of "the constancy" in observance of Jewish law and give in lamely to the Jews' demands: it was this very "constancy," dubbed "stubborn obstinacy," which had first prompted him to teach them a lesson. It could be nothing new to him now; and it does not stand to reason that he should, all of a sudden, be so charitably impressed by it. It may well be that Josephus did not give us the full story: perhaps there were disturbances in Jerusalem and the Roman troops fared badly; perhaps, reporting to Rome and asking for instructions, Pilate was told not, for the time being, to let clashes with the natives over their ancestral religion go to extremes. At all events, the fact that the first real encounter between the new governor and the Jews ended with his defeat and their victory could only have exacerbated Pilate's aversion to them, with dislike now deepened by a sense of frustration and fury.

As far as the Jews were concerned, the organizers of the march to Caesarea would certainly have known that it might entail grave dangers and even be regarded as outright and officially sponsored rebellion. In the issue, they were proven sound in their surmise that in the first months of his governorship Pilate would probably not involve himself in embarrassing massacres of peaceful demonstrators or would get instructions from Rome to curb himself. One may guess that the demonstrators were no less astonished at the swift, fortuitous turn of events than their leaders in Jerusalem, and the success is likely to have inspired the adoption of similar methods in a comparable predicament fifteen years later,23 again with eventual effect. That the Jews found themselves in this kind of trouble under subsequent governors only shows that Pilate's individual failure did not deter his successors from trying again, not only with the imperial insignia mounted in the streets or on the walls of the city, but even with the emperor's bust in the very temple.24 Some ancient Christian sources aver that Pilate himself had placed a bust of Caesar in the temple,25 but the statements are uncorroborated and evidently based on "inaccurate reminiscence."26


When Pilate decided to provide Jerusalem with an extra supply of water and looked about for its financing, he turned, as a matter of course, to the temple treasury—not by negotiating with the wardens of it for voluntary or quasi-voluntary contributions or votes, but by peremptory sequester. Needless to say, the Jews rebelled— or, in the delicate language of Josephus, were somewhat "displeased"; and "thousands of people ran together and, loudly shouting, demanded that he should abstain." Pilate thereupon "sent a strong detachment of soldiers, disguised as Jews, with clubs hidden beneath their clothes, to a place where they could easily encircle the Jews." When the Jews refused to disperse and piled abuse on the Romans, Pilate "gave the soldiers a prearranged sign, and they descended upon peaceful citizens as well as upon insurgents, much more savagely than Pilate had intended. But the Jews would not give up their stubbornness, and as they were unarmed, they could not defend themselves against the armed soldiers, and many of them were killed, many others were carried away wounded. Thus this rebellion was suppressed."27 Josephus reports that "the shock at the horrible fate of the casualties brought the people to silence."28

Josephus does not enlighten us on why Pilate chose that his soldiers mingle in disguise with the people, not suppress the rising openly and straightforwardly. There is the hint that he had not intended such savage manhandling, and the theory has been propounded that by arming the troops with clubs, not swords, he may have intended police rather than army action and wished no bloodletting.29 I am inclined to think that his plan was purely strategic: in an open encounter with a crowd of thousands, a much larger repressive force would be required than if there was surprise from within, and the sequel proved him right. It is noteworthy that he had to garb his men as Jews: for a Roman, as such, to mix among the Jews was perilous indeed. But even that subterfuge, shameful though it was for a Roman procurator, was a welcome means in his eyes, if thereby he might only achieve his purpose of putting down the rebellion firmly and finally, and suffer no Roman losses.


Of a third major clash between Pilate and the Jews, also linked with the temple, we have some scant evidence in the Gospels. When Jesus was in Jerusalem, "there were present at that season some that told him of the Galilaeans, whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices" (Luke 13:1). It appears that Pilate had decreed a slaughter of Galileans who had come to Jerusalem for the festival offerings; but there is no indication what his reason was. It would be logical to assume that these Galileans were rebellious zealots, and, indeed, in later Christian sources we find "Galilean" as a synonym for zealot:30 there may have been an uprising in Jerusalem during the festival, which Pilate decided to quell by surprising the worshipers at their prayers in the temple and massacring them on the spot.31

In the same context, Jesus speaks of "those eighteen, upon whom the tower in Siloam fell, and slew them" (Luke 13:4), enigmatic words which have been taken to refer to the construction of the aqueduct for the water supply, when such an accident may have happened;32 it has even been contended that the incident is identical with the rebellion reported in Josephus over that project,33 but the theory appears untenable in view not only of the enormous disparity in the numbers of the victims but also of the difference of localities. Nor is there ground enough to dismiss the Gospel account as having mistaken Pilate for another governor in whose time there may have been a similar accident.34 It is much more plausible that the words, read in their context, refer to another brutal attack by orders of Pilate in which, again, innocent people were wantonly killed.35

Finally, Pilate and the Jews seem to have collided on a minor scale when on the former palace of Herod in Jerusalem he set up "some guilded shields," bearing no image of the emperor but only a brief inscription recording his name and that of the person who had vowed the shields to him. One might have supposed that such objects would be deemed innocuous even by the most pedantic of Jewish legalists. But apparently it was not so, and a Jewish delegation, led by four Herodian princes, petitioned Pilate to remove them, on the plea that they infringed native customs which other kings and emperors had respected. When Pilate is obdurate, the Jews are represented 

as torn between their loyalty to the emperor and obedience to their religion. They call on Pilate not to cause a revolt, nor break the peace, nor use Tiberius as an excuse for insulting their nation. They challenge Pilate to produce the authority for his action, and threaten to appeal to the emperor, whom they significantly call their master. This threat is stated to have disturbed Pilate most profoundly, because he feared that his maladministration would thus become known to Tiberius, who would not tolerate such action.36

In contradistinction to his alleged indulgence in the matter of the imperial insignia, Pilate is said not to have yielded. The Jews did complain to the emperor, and Tiberius is described as "moved by excessive anger" on receipt of their complaint, and to have written to Pilate condemning him "for his rash innovation in the most uncompromising manner."37 It is highly improbable that the emperor would thus interfere with his provincial governor's discretion in a matter of such unimportance, and the whole story - said to have been told in a letter from the Jewish prince Agrippa to the Emperor Gaius—appears to have been transmitted for the sake of the concluding remark: "that in this signal manner the traditional [Roman] policy towards Jerusalem had been main-tained."38 Gaius was the adopted son and successor of Tiberius, and it would only be natural for a vassal-prince to pen flattery of that emperor to him; and Agrippa was, of course, interested in establishing that "the traditional Roman policy toward Jerusalem" was generous and indulgent, however implacable and oppressive this or the other governor may have been. Not that Roman policy was as generous and indulgent as all that; but neither did Pilate's conduct in this particular affair show any unusual or insulting highhandedness. The Herodian palace in Jerusalem was a secular building, with no religious association at all; after Herod's death it served the Roman governors as their Jerusalem residence, and there was no ostensible reason why a governor should not exhibit such harmless, though typically Roman, embellishments on it. As a matter of fact, the objection would not, and cannot, have come either from Jewish religious authorities or from the Jewish public: neither could have been pained by the setting up of the shields any more than by the governor's residence as such. That the "delegation" to Pilate was "headed by four Herodian princes" suggests the clue: it was the Herodian clan which must have resented the interference with the beautiful facade of its palace, and, to induce the governor to leave it intact, resorted to arguments of Jewish laws and customs: to such, or so the clan thought, the governor must be amenable, and besides, he would be unable to check their accuracy. What the governor did know was that, of all the Jews, it was only the Herodian princes who had access to, and influence in, the emperor's court; if, nevertheless, he refused their petition, he must have had a healthy dislike for them, as is, indeed, borne out by the "enmity" reported in Luke 23:12.


That Roman policy toward Jerusalem during the reign of Tiberius was anything but generous or tolerant, and that there was no love lost between the emperor and the Jews, we know from Roman sources. Tiberius abolished "the Jewish cult," and forced all citizens embracing this "superstitious faith" to burn their religious vestments and other accessories. Jews of military age were removed to unhealthy regions, on the pretext of drafting them into the army; those too old or too young to serve were expelled from the city and threatened with slavery if they defied the order.39 How this squared with the emperor's character and general thinking is evidenced by the pronouncement of the same or similar decrees against other foreign cults and against astrologers; the Jews were in no wise singled out. A complaint to Tiberius of the governor's disregard of Jewish customs by parading Roman decorations on his official residence, so far from moving Tiberius to "excessive anger" against Pilate, would probably have ended in his confiscating the Herodian palace for the governor and divesting the complainants of their title. For that is how "leading Spanish, Gallic, Syrian and Greek provincials" fared when they offered him the slightest pretext, the "most trivial and absurd" cause, to enrich himself by seizing their properties.40 If Tiberius was conspicuous in any one branch of law enforcement, it was crimen laesae maiestatis, where his own honor was involved: "for criticizing anything the emperor had ever said or done," a man would be put to death; to wear robes resembling the emperor's was also a capital offense; to carry a ring or coin bearing his image "into a privy or a brothel," likewise; and "the climax came when a man died merely for letting an honor be voted to him by his native town council on the same day that honors had once been voted" to the emperor.41 His motto was: Let them hate me, so long as they fear me!42 and he succeeded amazingly well in his twin objectives. Pontius Pilate was a loyal servant of his emperor, and the imperial policies were no secret to him. We have it on the authority of Philo, as reported by Eusebius, that Sejanus, the all-powerful minister at the emperor's court, had taken "energetic steps to exterminate the whole Jewish race":43 it is assumed that, with this purpose in mind, he had prevailed upon Tiberius, or his predecessor, to send Pilate as governor to Judaea44—he was strong-minded, ruthless, and dependable enough to be entrusted with a mission of that nature. Quite apart from the imperial policy toward the Jews and Judaism, Pilate faithfully pursued the policy of Tiberius respecting crimen maiestatis; if we have no records of legal absurdities as extravagant as are reported of his master in person, it may safely be assumed that Pilate would in no case and in no circumstances make light of a charge smacking of contempt of him or of actual or planned rebellion against him. There was ample precedent, express and implied sanction, to give the relevant statutes the widest possible interpretation;45 and if the emperor in Rome saw fit, and considered it necessary, to enforce the law of crimen maiestatis with the utmost rigor and severity, his agent in a faraway province, with inhabitants notoriously defiant of Roman rule and contemptuous of the emperor, must have all the more reason, and feel all the more constrained, to proceed remorselessly against provincials suspected of that effrontery.


For this kind of job Pilate was eminently right. Philo makes Agrippa, in the letter to Gaius, portray Pilate's character thus: he was "naturally inflexible and stubbornly relentless"; he committed "acts of corruption, insults, rapine, outrages on the people, arrogance, repeated murders of innocent victims, and constant and   most galling savagery."46 We may accept the view that Philo's testimony as to Pilate's character is the most trustworthy we posses.

In the first place, as a contemporary of Pilate, Philo was in a  better position than any of the latter writers to come to an accurate assessment; in the second place, Philo's judgment was not in any way influenced by the part Pilate played in the condemnation of Jesus—indeed, he does not seem to have been aware of the existence of Jesus."47 We have, then, the arrogant and ruthless emperor represented in Judaea by a governor no less ruthless and arrogant: each excelled in "outrages on the people" and "constant and most galling savagery," and the emperor's aversion to the Jewish cult as well as to its followers was shared by Pilate to the full. If ever there was a dedicated servant carrying out his master's instructions in the spirit in which they were given, performing his odious duties in the fashion in which his master would wish them performed, it was Pontius Pilate; and the corruption, rapine, and murders of innocents, of which Pilate, is said to have been guilty, were also wholly in the style and true to the form of his emperor and employer.

Our premise, then, is that Pilate was chosen for the procurator-ship of Judaea, presumably by Sejanus, because of his character qualifications. But there are those who think—and there is no evidence to the contrary—that he acquired his evil ways only after he came to Judaea. He was certainly not an ideal governor, Eduard Meyer writes, "but if even their own rulers could never cope with the Jews, and each measure they took provoked immediate criticism and fanatical resistance—a normal Roman officer must have been driven by them to utter despair. . . . Add thereto the never ending acts of violence of the bandits, always covered up by religio-political motives. That the governors then occasionally grew wild and attacked blindly, ought only too well to be understood."48 The immense difficulty of governing Jews against their will should not be underrated, but it is submitted that his wild wrath and insensate onslaughts afford an illustration of Pilate's character rather than of his Jewish victims: and this is in the knowledge that there always are—and particularly where persecution of Jews is concerned there always were—men only too eager and willing to incriminate not the murderer but the murdered. Th truth, there may have been, here, an interplay of cause and effect: the more oppressive the Roman governor, the more mutinous and unyielding the Jews; the more stiff-necked and insurgent the Jews, the less scruple and mercy in the governor. At the time of which we write, Pilate had been in Judaea for five years, amply long enough to become thoroughly acquainted with the kind of people whom he had to govern, and all his evil ways presumably had been afforded frequent opportunity to develop and emerge.


His last act as governor of Judaea, so Josephus tells, was to intercept with cavalry and foot soldiers a procession of Samaritans to their holy place, the Mount of Gerizim, killing many, taking many prisoners, putting the rest to flight.49 Of the prisoners, all of influence and eminence were put to death. Whereupon the "high council of the Samaritans" complained to the governor of Syria, protesting loyalty to Rome but charging Pilate with injustice and cruelty. The governor of Syria sent another procurator to Judaea and instructed Pilate to return to Rome and answer before the emperor to the charges. Pilate "did not dare to disobey the instruction received," Judaea being regarded, within the empire, as part of Syria, but by the time that he reached Rome, Tiberius was alive no longer.50 It seems that with the demise of his erstwhile sponsor and great model—and Sejanus had been liquidated six years earlier for his part in a conspiracy against the throne51— Pilate fell into disgrace, and there are pointers that he did not die a natural death.52

It has been said that Pilate would always refuse what the Jews desired of him, and always do what they implored him not to.53 This generalization is plainly disproved by the Gospel reports that the crucifixion of Jesus was but a concession which he made to the Jews, however reluctantly he is depicted as making it. The Johannine version that the Jews threatened Pilate, "If thou let this man go, thou art not Caesar's friend" (John 19:12), is possibly an attempt at reconciling an original rejection of the Jewish demand with an eventual compliance; but all that we know of Pilate and his emperor attests the certainty that any Jew who dared to remind the governor of his duty toward the emperor, or to hint at more fervid patriotism and stouter loyalty to the emperor than of the governor himself, would not be let live another hour. Not only would the governor rightly regard such insolence as a gross contempt of himself and his court, but considering the notorious hostility of the Jews to Rome and its emperor, and their persistent flouting of Roman rule and suzerainty, for them to remind the governor of his duties as a Roman imperial officer and judge surely amounted to contempt of the emperor, too, and, as such, meant the death penalty. The last thing that a Jew would venture, or need, to do would be gratuitously to counsel a Roman governor that it was incumbent upon him to punish "whosoever . . . speaketh against Caesar" (John 19:12). All Jews spoke against Caesar—that was well known and undeniable—so that any such innuendo would be a clear invitation to have themselves punished, too, and in the first place. It is sometimes argued that the Jews who were present and active at the trial of Jesus were collaborators with Rome; but such Jews were exceedingly rare, a very small minority ostracized and shunned by the Jewish community at large, whereas the Gospels paint the Jews at the trial as most representative "multitudes," with priests, elders, and scribes among them. The Synoptic Gospels do not place this species of "patriotic" argument on Jewish lips, and that the author of the Gospel of John finds it meet to do so points as well to his embarrassment at the unexplained contradiction between Pilate's alleged intentions and his eventual action as to his ingenuousness in ignoring the practical impossibility of subject people thus addressing their accredited governor or complaining of him to the emperor.54


The only other Gospel reference to the Jewish attitude to the Romans is to be found, perhaps, in the interchange of question and answer on the payment of tribute. Certain "Pharisees and Herodians" are said to have been sent to Jesus, "to catch him in his words." To trap him, they asked him: "Is it lawful to give tribute to Caesar or not? Shall we give, or shall we not give?" And Jesus, shown the coin with Caesar's image and superscription, gave his celebrated answer: "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's" (Mark 12:13-17; similarly Matt. 22:15-22; Luke 20:22-26). 

If we disregard for a moment the alleged motivation of the questioning, it appears that it was not a matter of course, and by no means so self-understood as to preclude all doubts, that the Jews ought to comply with Roman tax laws. It was not merely a political but also a religious issue. The resistance fighters "upbraided the people as cowards for consenting to pay tribute to Rome and tolerate mortal masters, after having God for their lord,"55 and seemingly not without success: many joined the zealots and, to escape the Roman tax collectors, hid in caves;56 many went to live abroad.57 The question whether one ought to pay taxes or not was, therefore, neither unreasonable nor untimely, and it might have been asked in perfectly good faith of Jesus, that master and rabbi who was true and cared for no man (Mark 12:14). But let us take it that the question was put with fraudulent intent, to beguile Jesus into furnishing his interlocutors with evidence of his disloyalty to Rome. That would only mean that they expected him, with good reason, to affirm what everybody wanted to hear, that a good and God-fearing Jew would not pay taxes to the Romans. Only if the answer were as they anticipated that it would be could it justify his allegedly desired denunciation to the Romans. They "marvelled" at his answer (Mark 12:17): it was as simple and straightforward as it was harmless and incontestable. It could supply no evidence of disloyalty to Rome; there was no vestige in it of disavowal of the Jewish anti-Roman attitude. In fact, it left open the further question, what was God's and what was Caesar's; and it could well be interpreted as endorsing the zealots' proclamation, and as meaning that, since everything was God's, nothing could be Caesar's.58 But even if construed to signify: "Better pay your taxes to the Romans; anyway you only give them their own coins back," it would be good practical advice, and we find it tendered not by Jesus alone, but also by talmudic scholars.59 For that reason, apart from others, the theory cannot be sustained that it was this pro-Roman opinion of his which thenceforth cost Jesus Jewish popular support:60 opinions appear to have been divided, and his was as good as the next. What his answer does bring out clearly is the antithesis between God and Caesar: Roman belief in the divinity of Caesar is implicitly but unmistakably rejected. And the positive injunction plainly entails the negative: Do not render unto Caesar what is God's; and nothing that you render unto Caesar can discharge you from your duty toward God.


There is, then, nothing in the Gospels to show that Jesus' attitude to the Romans differed from that of the Jewish generality. Indeed, his messianic prophecies of the kingdom of God were only an answer to the sighs and yearnings of a long-suffering people, under the yoke of enemy occupation and colonial oppression. There was no sight so revolting as that of Roman officers, Roman soldiers, Roman tax collectors;61 and the way in which Roman governors rode persistently roughshod over Jewish customs and traditions and privileges "goaded the people to absolute frenzy."62 This testimony of the fourth-century Christian historian truly delineates the frame of mind of the Jews in Jerusalem at that time: it was not just righteous anger, not just indignation at never-ceasing affronts and indignities, but such a tremulous and ireful agitation, such an "absolute frenzy," as would render any cooperation with the detested rulers well nigh inconceivable. Add to this the disgust and disdain which the Jews aroused in the Roman governor and his entourage, and the picture of absolute mutual rejection and dissociation will be complete.

Even the provision of public utilities, such as the water aqueduct, could do nothing to reconcile the Jews with their Roman tormentors. A talmudic story goes that God asked the Romans: What did you do during your administration of My Land? And the Romans replied: Master of the World, we established market places, we built many bathhouses, we multiplied gold and silver, and everything we did, we did for the sake of Israel, that they may be free to study their law. Said God Almighty: Imbeciles! Everything that you did, you did only for your own good. You established market places to have your brothels, you built bathhouses to give pleasure to your bodies, and the gold and silver you stole from Me, for so it is written, the silver is Mine and the gold is Mine, saith the Lord of hosts (Hag. 2:8). Whereupon the Romans went away dumfounded. 63

In an apocryphal Jewish book known as the Sybilline Oracles, written perhaps a generation or two before Jesus time, we find an elaborate prayer for the destruction of Rome, which reflects the contemporaneous Jewish thought: "A holy king will come and reign over all the world - and then his wrath will fall on the people of Latium, and Rome will be destroyed to the ground. O God, send a stream of fire from heaven, and let the Romans perish, each in his own house! O poor and desolate me! When will the day come, the judgment day of the eternal God, of the great king?"