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Pilate’s Dilemma — ‘Gospel Truth’ or Historical Lie?

04/02/2021 | Comments

Had Sejanus not lusted after Livilla, the wife of Drusus, Jesus would not have been crucified — a rather sweeping statement, I realize. It nonetheless explains much about the public career of Pontius Pilate, including his activities on Friday, April 3 of the year 33 A.D.

Crowning two years of noisy controversy, in early 2004, a slew of theologians made the rounds of TV news and talk shows, belittling the soon-to-be released film “The Passion of the Christ.” They especially targeted its “too literal” depiction of Pilate as a thoughtful administrator trying to free Christ. A Pilate with scruples, they cautioned, was a pious fabrication invented to curry favor with Rome, totally at odds with the historical portrayal of Pilate as a pitiless, Jew-hating oppressor, as vividly described by first century writers Philo of Alexandria and Flavius Josephus.

Television commentators and talk show hosts defended these assertions, cautioning believers against accepting the Gospels as real history.

Well, my parents, God rest their souls, sacrificed too much time, effort and money putting me through 12 years of Catholic schooling. Too many nuns and friars spent too many hours knocking Scripture and history into my head for me to accept this prevailing academic myth, so I did my own investigation into the life of this much-maligned figure.

The Second Vatican Council states the Catholic position on the historicity of the Gospel ac-counts in its dogmatic constitution, “Dei Verbum”:

§19. Holy Mother Church has firmly and with absolute constancy held, and continues to hold, that the four Gospels . . .  whose historical character the Church unhesitatingly asserts, faithfully hand on what Jesus Christ, while living among men, really did and taught for their eternal salvation . . . .

The true story begins when Tiberius Cæsar retired to Capri in 26 A.D., leaving the cares of empire to his regent, the ambitious Ælius Sejanus, Prefect of the Pretorian Guards. Sejanus immediately turned Rome into a police state, earning cordial detestation from patricians and plebeians alike.

That same year, solidifying his power in the provinces, Sejanus appointed various governors in Cæsar’s name —but loyal to him. Among them, a military leader of the equestrian class, Lucius Pontius Pilatus, was assigned the prefecture of Judæa.

Sejanus engaged in an adulterous affair with Livilla, renowned for her beauty. More importantly, she belonged to the ruling Julio-Claudian family. She was also married to Drusus the Younger, son of Tiberius, who was being groomed to succeed his father as emperor but died in 23 A.D. Gossip had Livilla assisting Sejanus in poisoning him.

Hoping to secure a place in the imperial succession, Sejanus petitioned Tiberius for permission to marry Livilla. The emperor resisted his pleas. 

Sejanus despised anything Jewish. Philo writes that, through his provincial governors, Sejanus encouraged “hatred of and hostile designs against” Jews throughout the empire.

Upon his arrival in Judæa, mirroring the policy of his patron, Pilatus baited the Jews, hanging votive shields devoted to the emperor on the walls of Jerusalem’s Fortress Antonia, facing the Temple of God. Philo and Josephus disagree as to whether these shields bore inscriptions honoring Tiberius, or the Emperor’s actual image.

Seen as an insult to God, the shields precipitated a hostile reaction. Confronting Pilatus in Jerusalem, the Jews also sent a legation to Capri, protesting directly to Tiberius. The Emperor’s rescript applauded Pilatus’ devotion — but ordered the shields removed. No need to poke a hornets’ nest.

Pilatus later began building an aqueduct to bring much needed water to Jerusalem.  When the Sanhedrin, the Jewish legislature, refused financial backing, he promptly confiscated a portion of the Temple treasure.  Again, the Jews complained. Again, Tiberius took their part — reprimanding Pilatus for his highhanded seizure — but construction of the aqueduct continued. Cæsar was satisfied. 

Wisely, Tiberius avoided provincial confrontations. Unrest breeds rebellion, and rebellion prevented taxes from reaching Rome.

Justifiably, the Jews resented subjugation but internecine wars ended under Roman rule. An era of prosperity and stability unknown since the time of Solomon settled on Israel.

I don’t mean to paint a picture of perfect tranquility. Pilatus showed no hesitation in keeping the Pax Romana, ruthlessly stifling any resistance. Luke reports, “At that time some of those present told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices” (13:1).

Knowing all this, would Pilatus try to free Christ?  He would in a heartbeat, if he paid any attention to the unrest in Galilee dogging Herod Antipas. The tetrarch had idiotically touched off a powder keg by executing John the Baptist:

For John had said to Herod [Antipas], “It is not lawful for thee to have your brother’s wife”  . . . Herod feared John, knowing he was a just and holy man.”   (Mark 6:18, 20)

Josephus agrees, noting the outcome of war between Antipas and Aretas, king of Persia:

[S]ome Jews thought that the destruction of Herod’s army came from God, a just punishment for Herod’s slaying John, called the Baptist, a good man who commanded Jews to exercise virtue. (“Antiquities of the Jews,” book 18, chapter 5)

Historians thinking Pilatus would ignore John’s murder make him a cardboard character living in a vacuum tube. 

Back to Sejanus. 

In 31 A.D., Tiberius discovered that the pretorian’s desire to marry into the imperial family was a scheme to seize power. Tiberius denounced Sejanus before the Senate, charging him with treason. Sejanus’ swift execution ignited a bloodbath of family and followers lasting for months. Not one of his many statues survived the Romans’ fury.

In 32 A.D., Tiberius rescinded all anti-Jewish policies.  Wrote Philo: “Therefore everyone everywhere, even if he was not naturally well disposed toward the Jews, was afraid.”

Now under suspicion as Sejanus’ protégé, Pilatus was walking on eggs a year later, when Jesus of Nazareth came to trial.  To Pilatus, remembering the Baptist, Jesus was merely an impractical visionary. Yet he had many followers — who might petition Cæsar. Pilatus attempted to solve his dilemma by fobbing Jesus off on Antipas, who was smart enough to pass.

Jesus had overthrown the concessions in the Temple area — buyers, sellers, and moneychangers — all franchised by Annas and his son-in-law, Caiaphas the high priest. Josephus bitterly denounces their chicanery. A delegation from them could mean trouble in Capri, so Pilatus had Jesus scourged to satisfy the priests.

As collaborationists aware of the Empire’s might, Annas and Caiaphas were in no hurry to have a messiah upset their applecart. Fearing Jesus might continue fomenting umbrage against their greed, the rabble, instigated by the priests, screamed, “Crucify him!”

Not giving up, Pilatus attempted to appeal to the crowd’s pity. Could the bloody, comically thorn-crowned Jesus be a threat?  “Ecce Homo!” “Look at the man!” Pilatus exclaimed.

Perfectly aware of Pilatus’ connection to Sejanus, Caiaphas was ready:

“If you release this man, you are no ‘Friend of Cæsar’; for everyone who makes himself a king sets himself against Cæsar.” (John 19:12) 

“Friend of Cæsar”— Amicus Cæsaris — was no mere honorific. The Prefect wore a ring, recognized by officials throughout the empire, identifying him as a member of an exclusive circle of select senators, patricians, knights and administrators favored by the emperor. With Sejanus dead and disgraced, Pilatus was stopped cold. Still, he made a final, albeit sarcastic, appeal: “Shall I crucify your king?”  

Caiaphas deftly played his ace: “We have no king but Cæsar!’

Pilatus’ bluff was called.  He folded his cards. Jesus was led to the cross. 

Intent on saving face, Pilatus specified that the crime for which Jesus was dying appear on the “titulus damnationis,” the death warrant displayed atop the cross:


The truth of this sardonic message enflamed the Sanhedrin’s patriotism. Caiaphas couldn’t let Jesus be executed as the Davidic Messiah.  “Not ‘King of the Jews’,” Caiaphas insisted, “but, ‘He said, I am King of the Jews’.”

The Prefect’s spiteful retort, “What I have written, I have written,” was the merest of petty triumphs.

Pilatus had saved his job, but at what cost? Billions of Christians over thousands of years have intoned the affirmation:

“For our sake He was crucified under Pontius Pilate.”

The Gospels square with the histories of Philo and Josephus. Regard contrary opinions with a healthy dose of skepticism.

The Gospels are real —accept substitutes at your peril.

Sean M. Wright is an Emmy-nominated writer and a Master Catechist for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. He is part of the RCIA team at Our Lady of Perpetual Help parish in Santa Clarita, CA and welcomes comments sent him at

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