The Innocence of Pontius Pilate

How the Roman Trial of Jesus Shaped History

April 2021 9781787382176 456pp


The gospels and ancient 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 twenty-first—would have been radically different.


‘David L. Dusenbury’s The Innocence of Pontius Pilate is a model of intelligent, accessible and persuasive scholarship.’ — The Spectator

‘An original, compelling contribution that brims with erudition. A work of real sweep and ambition.’ — Paul du Plessis, Professor of Roman Law, University of Edinburgh

‘A quite exceptional study, showing in exemplary detail how the narrative of Jesus’ trial generates an entirely new vision of the politics of human power and divine justice, and of the very nature of law. A unique contribution to political theology and biblical interpretation—learned, impassioned and nuanced.’ — Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury

‘At breathtaking pace, Dusenbury takes us through a dazzling gallery of European theologians, philosophers and legal theorists, from St Paul to Rousseau and beyond. The boldness and brilliance of his argument are matched by his astonishing, Borgesian erudition. A masterpiece.’ — Guy Stroumsa, Professor Emeritus of the Study of the Abrahamic Religions, University of Oxford, and Martin Buber Professor Emeritus of Comparative Religion, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem

‘A fascinating treatment of how interpretations of the trial of Jesus have greatly informed Western understanding of law, of religion and of the secular.’ — John Milbank, Emeritus Professor of Theology and Religious Studies, University of Nottingham


David Lloyd Dusenbury is a research fellow at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is the author of Platonic Legislations: An Essay on Legal Critique in Ancient Greece, and The Space of Time: A Sensualist Interpretation of Time in Augustine.  

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