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The Innocence of Pontius Pilate:
How the Roman Trial of Jesus Shaped History

by david lloyd dusenbury
oxford, 272 pages, $39.95

What David Dusenbury calls “the innocence of Pontius Pilate” takes shape in three recurring myths. The first is that Pilate’s reluctance to condemn Jesus exonerates him. On the contrary, Dusenbury observes, “That Pilate declares Jesus innocent deepens his guilt.” The second myth is that Pilate never passed sentence on Jesus, but merely handed him over to the Jews for execution. Not so: Luke states explicitly, “Pilate pronounced sentence” (Luke 23:24; Gr. epekrinen), and John records that Pilate sat in the judgment seat (John 19:13). The corollary of Pilate’s innocence, thirdly, is the guilt of the Judeans, who supposedly bullied the hapless Roman governor until he gave them the victim they wanted. That myth cannot be sustained either. According to John, Roman soldiers, not Jews, crucified Jesus (John 19:23), and Peter preached that Jesus was killed by “those outside the law” (Acts 2:23; Gr. anomon).

Despite its thin evidentiary basis, Pilate’s innocence has been a persistent theme in Western theology and philosophy, though Dusenbury is the first to trace this idea through ancient thought. Pagan writers acquit Pilate, sometimes by citing sources like the apocryphal Memoirs of Pilate, which apparently claimed that Jesus was a brigand who deserved crucifixion. The Christian Lactantius insists that “Pilate did not himself utter a sentence, but handed him over to the Judeans.” Some ancient Jewish sources accept Jewish responsibility for the death of Jesus but insist Jesus was rightly executed as a heretic and false prophet, and Islamic sources maintain that a body double, not Jesus, died on the cross. Modern writers repeat the myth. The Lactantian position reappears in long-forgotten seventeenth-century treatises and has recently been revived by the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben.

There’s a counter-tradition from Africa, of which Augustine is the primary representative. Following the New Testament, which condemns Pilate and the Jews for killing Jesus but softens the indictment by highlighting their ignorance of Jesus’s identity as the Christ (e.g., 1 Cor 2:8), Augustine treats Jesus’s trial, in Dusenbury’s words, as a “thoroughly Roman affair.” Roman soldiers arrest Jesus in Gethsemane, the Jews formally deny their right to put anyone to death, and the Roman judge Pilate sentences Jesus to death. Dante elaborates the Augustinian interpretation in his Monarchia. Jesus can bear the punishment for our sins only if he’s actually punished, and for Dante, punishment is “a penalty imposed on the wrongdoer by one who has the authority to punish him.” If Pilate never passed sentence, Jesus was never properly punished; if that’s true, then we are still in our sins.

Dusenbury’s book would be worth a careful reading if it were no more than a monograph on a debate that flows, all but unnoticed, beneath the surface of European intellectual history. His range of reference is astounding (“Borgesian,” according to Guy Stroumsa’s back cover blurb), his exegesis illuminating.  

But The Innocence of Pontius Pilate is much more than a monograph. Dusenbury argues that debates about the Roman trial of Jesus are crucial factors in the formation of secular order. To make this case, Dusenbury shifts focus from the actions of Pilate to the words Jesus speaks during his trial. Augustine again formulates the crucial point in his Homilies on the Gospel of John. In saying his kingdom is not “of this world,” Augustine explains, Jesus declares to all human rulers, “I obstruct not your dominion in this world.” Dusenbury traces the permutations of Jesus’s “great refusal” of coercive earthly power through late medieval anti-Papalists like Dante and Marsilius to early modern theorists like Hobbes and Pufendorf. In contrast to Hobbes, who absorbs religious authority into Leviathan, Pufendorf concludes that “Truth is not subject to human empire,” which simultaneously preserves the church’s independence as a “Kingdom of Truth” and provides a biblical-theological justification for religious toleration. Despite their differences, each writer works out his political-religious views by expounding on the “spiritual,” “mystical,” or “angelic” kingdom of Jesus.

Dusenbury thinks they’re right to do so. As he explains it, Jesus shattered millennia of political imagination and political practice in a few enigmatic statements. Ancient societies were “temple states” that merged religious and political power. In the canonical-Augustinian view, Jesus’s opposition to the “first-century ‘Mosaic’ regime” is “a moment of legal critique within the archaic temple-state,” and his innocence is the basis for “his claim to be a herald, and a legislator, of a new type of kingdom.” Jesus “splits” the temple state. After Jesus, the church is a temple but not a state, while state is confined to an order of “this age” or “this world.” The eruption of Jesus’s kingdom constitutes the state, as well as marriage, economic exchange, and property, as institutions of the saeculum. Jesus’s great refusal before Pilate is thus the Christian origin of secularity.

Brilliant as it is, Dusenbury’s narrative minimizes important discontinuities. True, Paul and Augustine talked about the saeculum, but they didn't mean what we mean by the term. “Secular” now refers to a zone of raw power and profit that is impervious to religious authority; but for Paul and Augustine, saeculum referred to the pre-eschatological age that state and church share. While Augustine and Marsilius agree that Christ’s kingdom is not a kingdom of this world, Augustine wouldn’t affirm Marsilius’s gloss, “Christ willed himself to lack authority in this world-age.” Augustine’s position turns on the difference between “of” and “in.” Jesus’s kingdom is here, even though it’s not from here. As a “foreigner in the world,” Jesus’s kingdom doesn’t exercise coercive power, but it’s not impotent. Nor do Paul or Augustine leave the saeculum to its own devices. Marriage and household management are matters of “this age,” yet that doesn’t prevent Paul and Augustine from giving authoritative instruction about them. Indeed, for Paul, the saints’ authority in the age to come authorizes them to pass judgment on matters of this life (1 Cor 6:1-6). Simply by asserting its independence from the state, the church sets a boundary to the state’s jurisdiction, and the church exercises another kind of power by its suffering witness when the state breaches the boundary. 

In answer to Pilate’s cynical question, “What is truth?” Christians confess Jesus as the Way, Truth, and Life. For the church, the question isn’t merely, as Pufendorf says, whether the Kingdom of Truth is subject to human empires. It’s not, but the more crucial question is whether human empires should be subject to Truth.

Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.

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