The Innocence of Pontius Pilate
How the Roman Trial of Jesus Shaped History
How have Christianity and Empire been shaped by perceptions of Pilate’s role in the Crucifixion?
The gospels and the first-century historians agree: Jesus was sentenced to death by Pontius Pilate, the Roman imperial prefect in Jerusalem. To this day, Christians of all churches confess that Jesus died ‘under Pontius Pilate’. But what exactly does that mean?
Within decades of Jesus’ death, Christians began suggesting that it was the Judaean authorities who had crucified Jesus—a notion later echoed in the Qur’an. In the third century, one philosopher raised the notion that, although Pilate had condemned Jesus, he’d done so justly; this idea survives in one of the main strands of modern New Testament criticism. So what is the truth of the matter? And what is the history of that truth?
David Lloyd Dusenbury reveals Pilate’s ‘innocence’ as not only a neglected theological question, but a recurring theme in the history of European political thought. He argues that Jesus’ interrogation by Pilate, and Augustine of Hippo’s North African sermon on that trial, led to the concept of secularity and the logic of tolerance emerging in early modern Europe. Without the Roman trial of Jesus, and the arguments over Pilate’s innocence, the history of empire—from the first century to the twentyfirst—would have been radically different.
David Lloyd Dusenbury is a visiting lecturer at Loyola University Maryland. He is the author of Platonic Legislations: An Essay on Legal Critique in Ancient Greece, and of scholarly articles on the legal thought of Carl Schmitt and Giorgio Agamben. He lives in Washington, DC.