Easter. The Passion of Jesus XVI. Pontius Pilate and the Genesis of Roman Rule in Judea. Why did people dislike Jesus?

Part 17, here.
Part 15, here.

You can read the whole series here.

Pontius Pilate. Genesis of Roman Rule in Judea. Why did people dislike Jesus?

Pilate lived at Caesarea, the Roman capital on the coast, and there are inscriptions with his name there. When he came to Jerusalem, he probably stayed at the Palace of the Herods built about 23BC, it’s a strategic spot, the highest in the city. In the second century BC, the Maccabees were fighting Antiochus Epiphanes. Desperate for help, they wrote letters to Rome. The Romans wrote back with encouragement, they would rather deal with the Jews than the Syrians at that point, but sent no army. Much later, Pompeii invaded Palestine, to fix conflict there. The competing Jewish priest/kings were fighting and killing each other, and Pompeii came in and set things in order, in fact this begins the uncomfortable interplay of international politics and religion in Jerusalem: the Romans start picking the High Priest, and they change them now and then to show who’s in charge.

Eventually, at the request of the Jews, Augustus gets rid of the kingship of Herod the Great and puts in a Roman governor. The Jews had their own king as a favor from Julius Caesar, who they fiercely supported in his rise to power. There were downsides to a Roman governor, but it was a relief considering Herod’s last years and his insanely murderous disposition (it’s this Herod who tried to murder baby Jesus as narrated in the Gospel of Matthew).

After Pilate, the Romans brought back a Jewish king. The Herodian family more or less lived in Rome and Herod Agrippa was a close friend of Caligula who was successor to Tiberius (Tiberius or possibly his sly executive Sejanus, appointed Pilate in the first place—Tiberius, afraid of intrigue, moved to an island, Capri, and left things in the hands of this Sejanus—who then plotted against him and had fun in his absence). Herod Agrippa was also a close friend of Claudius. The army killed the insane Caligula and it was Herod who pushed (with others) to get Claudius as emperor. Claudius rewarded him with a kingdom, and that’s how an Agrippa comes on the scene with Paul. Agrippa died in 44AD and governors came back. It was a disaster. In this period the governors were uniformly bad, dishonest, and offensive to Jews. It’s at this point when Jewish revolts really get going, terminating in the war that destroys Jerusalem (70AD).

Pilate was not of this later ilk, he was by and large honest and not terribly offensive though perhaps stubborn and not subtle. He works with the locals, though he’s not very sensitive at times. Things were relatively calm compared to what happened after Agrippa. Philo, who was a friend of Agrippa and wanted to support the restored monarchy, had nothing good to say about any of the preceding governors, and this included Pilate. Josephus has a somewhat different take. Pilate gives some offense over Roman iconography, but he backs down when the Jews show how offended they are by it. Pilate did use some of the taxes for the temple to construct an aqueduct. It’s for the public good, but he offended people by the use of those funds though technically it was public money. He’s not the devil, but he does make blunders and one of these finally gets him recalled to Rome in 36AD. (At the Roman trial of Jesus—recall that there are two trials, one by the Sanhedrin, one by Pilate—Jews threaten Pilate with the epithet, “you’re not the friend of Caesar” something no governor wanted to hear.)

Jesus is not really a figure who starts a new religion. He’s part of Israelite religion. He’s an insider in many ways, and this is reflected in the behavior of the disciples in Acts. Jesus’ essential message is to repent. The Greek word is metanoein. It means “change your mind” in effect. This kind of message was a threat. The sinner castes of Palestine don’t seem threatened by Jesus. They knew there were problems in their lives. But if you are a religious man or woman, you think you have some knowledge of God and what He expects or does, and that kind of message can seem very threatening. Let’s say some speaker stands up in your LDS sacrament meeting and starts out telling people you better change your mind. Your mindset is wrong and God is going to do something marvelous and you have to be ready. What you’ve been doing, thinking, believing needs serious change. This is threatening, and people are generally unwilling to entertain the idea that they have been wrong all this time, it can generate a heated response. We want to believe that at least institutionally, we are doing exactly what Jesus expects at the present time.

But what would happen if, Brothers Karamazov-like, Jesus paid a visit out in the open, but without the movie glow? He’s not going to be anti-temple, or anti-general conference or the like. He just wants a different attitude, an extension. “Don’t kill your neighbors, right. But don’t even hate them.” All systems take from the social order that surrounds them, and in turn modify those structures, at least internally. So let’s say Jesus comes along and says, look, your institutions, your liturgy, your doctrine, need to discard some things, things that it’s carried along from its past that are now destructive, unhelpful. Would there be people, maybe a lot of people, who would be threatened by that? I don’t think it would be defined solely by rank. Anyway, how do you keep this sense of challenge, not for the sake of challenge, but real improvement, and yet keep from destroying the institution. Maybe you can’t, but I think the idea of a Joseph Smith is all about reclamation. And sometimes we may be too comfortable with the institution that flowed out of that reclamation. You can make a similar critique of the Christianity that flowed from Jesus’ attempt to reclaim the “house of Israel,” and Jesus made that critique of the religion that flowed from Moses and the exile.



  1. Amanda in Paris says:

    I’m loving this series.

    This is good stuff on why Jesus was so disliked. My husband and I often wonder whether we would follow a figure like Jesus or Abinadi who, as you say, stand up in Sacrament and tell us that we need to change. I like to think so, but the pull of the institution and tradition is very strong.

    Thanks for this

  2. Thanks, Amanda in Paris. Doing the thought experiment is a good thing I think.

  3. Clark Goble says:

    We probably should add that there were two movements within the pharasee movement. One was fairly radicalized and truly wanted to throw off Roman rule and re-establish an Israeli kingdom like Solomon. I like the way N. T. Wright sometimes compares them to Al Queda or ISIS. There’s a lot of truth there. And it’s these more radicalized groups (like Paul) who see Jesus as the biggest threat for a wide variety of reasons, much like ISIS is so antagonistic towards any religion not part of their vision of religion.

  4. Leonard R says:

    Finally catching up on the series after a week away. Great stuff all, and amazed at how much I feel I am learning about something I thought I knew quite well.

    But like Amanda I really appreciate the reflection you’ve made on Christ’s call to repentance and the tension with community and continuity.

    Great work.

  5. Thanks, Leonard R.

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