Pilate and Jesus

Pilate and Jesus


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Pontius Pilate is one of the most enigmatic figures in Christian theology. The only non-Christian to be named in the Nicene Creed, he is presented as a cruel colonial overseer in secular accounts, as a conflicted judge convinced of Jesus's innocence in the Gospels, and as either a pious Christian or a virtual demon in later Christian writings. This book takes Pilate's role in the trial of Jesus as a starting point for investigating the function of legal judgment in Western society and the ways that such judgment requires us to adjudicate the competing claims of the eternal and the historical. Coming just as Agamben is bringing his decades-long Homo Sacer project to an end, Pilate and Jesus sheds considerable light on what is at stake in that series as a whole. At the same time, it stands on its own, perhaps more than any of the author's recent works. It thus serves as a perfect starting place for readers who are curious about Agamben's approach but do not know where to begin.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780804794541
Publisher: Stanford University Press
Publication date: 02/04/2015
Series: Meridian: Crossing Aesthetics Series
Pages: 84
Sales rank: 1,182,567
Product dimensions: 4.50(w) x 6.80(h) x 0.40(d)

About the Author

Giorgio Agamben is a contemporary Italian philosopher and political theorist whose works have been translated into numerous languages. His most recent title with Stanford University Press is Opus Dei (2013).

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Pilate and Jesus

By Giorgio Agamben, Adam Kotsko


Copyright © 2013 Nottetempo
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8047-9458-9



The symbolon, the "creed" in which Christians summarize their faith, contains, alongside those of the "Lord Jesus Christ" and the "Virgin Mary," a single proper name, completely extraneous—at least in appearance—to its theological context. What is more, this man is a pagan, Pontius Pilate: staurothenta te huper hemon epi Pontiou Pilatou, "crucified for our sake under Pontius Pilate." The "creed" that the Fathers had formulated at Nicea in 325 did not include this name. It was added in 381 by the Council of Constantinople, by all evidence in order to also fix the historical character of Jesus's passion chronologically. "The Christian Credo," it has been observed, "speaks of historical events. Pontius Pilate belongs there essentially. He is not just a pitiful creature who oddly ended up there" (Schmitt, 930/170).

That Christianity is a historical religion, that the "mysteries" of which it speaks are also and above all historical facts, is taken for granted. If it is true that the incarnation of Christ is "a historical event of infinite, non-appropriable, non-occupiable singularity" (ibid.), the trial of Jesus is therefore one of the key moments of human history, in which eternity has crossed into history at a decisive point. All the more urgent, then, is the task of understanding how and why this crossing between the temporal and the eternal and between the divine and the human assumed precisely the form of a krisis, that is, of a juridical trial.


Why precisely Pilate? A formula of the type Tiberiou kaesaros—which one reads on the money coined by Pilate and which has in its favor the authority of Luke, who so dates John's preaching (Luke 3:1)—or sub Tiberio (as Dante has Virgil say: "born sub Iulio," Inferno 1.70) would certainly have been more in keeping with common usage. If the Fathers assembled at Constantinople preferred Pilate to Tiberius, the prefect—or, as Tacitus preferred to call him (Annals XV, 44), in one of the few extrabiblical testimonies that mention his name, "the procurator" of Judea—to Caesar, it is possible that over their undoubted chronographic intention there prevailed the importance that the figure of Pilate has in the narrative of the Gospels. In the punctilious attention with which John above all, but also Mark, Luke, and Matthew describe his hesitations, his evasions and changing opinion, literally relating his words, which are at times decidedly enigmatic, the evangelists reveal perhaps for the first time something like the intention to construct a character, with his own psychology and idiosyncrasies. It is the vividness of this portrait that caused Lavater to exclaim in a 1781 letter to Goethe: "I find everything in him: heaven, earth, and hell, virtue, vice, wisdom, folly, destiny, liberty: he is the symbol of all in all." One can say, in this sense, that Pilate is perhaps the only true "character" of the Gospels (Nietzsche defined him in The Antichrist as "the only figure—Figur—of the New Testament who merits respect," §46), a man of whom we know the passions ("he was greatly amazed," Matthew 27:14; Mark 15:5; "he was more afraid than ever," John 19:8), the resentment and skittishness (as when he shouts at Jesus, who is not responding to him: "Do you refuse to speak to me [emoi ou laleis Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?"), the irony (at least according to some, in the notorious reply to Jesus: "What is truth?" John 18:38), the hypocritical scruples (testimony of which is found in the raising of a question of competency with Herod as much as in the ritual washing of his hands, with which he believes he can purify himself of the blood of the just man he has condemned), and the anger (the peremptory "what I have written, I have written" to the priests who ask him to change the inscription on the cross, John 19:22). We even make a fleeting acquaintance with his wife, who during the trial sends word to him not to condemn Jesus, "for today I have suffered a great deal because of a dream about him" (Matthew 27:19).


Mikhail Bulgakov, in the marvelous stories about Pilate that the devil recounts in The Master and Margarita, and Alexander Lernet-Holenia, in the grandiose theological farce inserted in The Count of Saint-Germain, both recall this vocation to become a character. But early on there is testimony, in the texts that we persist in calling New Testament "apocrypha" (the term, which has come to mean "false, nonauthentic," in truth simply means "hidden"), to the presence of a true and proper Pilate cycle. This begins first of all in the Gospel of Nicodemus, in which the trial of Jesus is staged in a much more detailed way than in the synoptic gospels. When Jesus is introduced by Pilate, the banners that the standard bearers are holding in their hands miraculously bow down before him. In the trial twelve proselytes also intervene who testify—against the accusation that Jesus was "a son of fornication"—that Joseph and Mary entered into a legal marriage, along with Nicodemus, who also testified in favor of Jesus. In general the whole trial is dramatically rendered here as a debate between the Jewish accusers, who are named one by one ("Annas and Caiaphas, Semes, Dathaes and Gamaliel, Judas, Levi, and Nephthalim, Alexander and Jairus"; Elliott, 170) and Pilate, who often appears to be beside himself and is almost openly on Jesus's side, also because his wife "is pious and prefers to practice Judaism with the Jews" (Elliott, 172). The dialogue with Jesus on truth, which in the canonical gospels ends abruptly with Pilate's question, here, as we will see, continues and acquires a completely different significance. It is all the more unexpected when Pilate finally yields to the insistence of the Jews and, struck by a sudden fear, orders that Christ be flogged and crucified.


The legend of Pilate (the so-called Acta or Gesta Pilati) is constituted according to two divergent lines. First there is a "white" legend, attested by the pseudepigraphal letters to Tiberius and by the Paradosis, according to which Pilate, together with his wife Procla, had comprehended Jesus's divinity and had only yielded to the insistence of the Jews through weakness. Tertullian testifies to this legend when he writes that Pilate had been forced to have Jesus crucified by the violent pressure of the Jews (violentia suffragiorum in crucem dedi sibi extorserint), but "now in fact a Christian in his own convictions (pro sua conscientia christianus )," he had informed the emperor with a letter about Jesus's miracles and resurrection (Apology XXI, 18–24). The Paradosis (something like the "handing over," but also the "tradition") of Pilate presupposes the writing of this letter (of which there exist numerous versions, obviously all false) and begins precisely with Tiberius's indignation after reading the message (Elliott, 208–11). He has Pilate taken to Rome in chains and asks him how he could have crucified a man whom he knew to be the author of such great wonders. Pilate justifies himself by accusing the Jews and declares himself persuaded that Jesus "is greater than all the gods whom we worship" (Elliott, 210). The white legend of Pilate thus presents him, paradoxically, in some way as a secret champion of Christianity against the Jews and the pagans. Testimony of this is found in the apology that Pilate addresses to Jesus when Tiberius decides to punish him with decapitation:

Lord, do not destroy me with the wicked Hebrews, for had it not been because of the nation of the lawless Jews, I would not have raised my hand against you, because they plotted a revolt against me. You know that I acted in ignorance. Therefore do not destroy me because of this sin, but pardon me, Lord, and your servant Procla, who stands with me in this hour of my death, whom you taught to prophesy that you must be nailed to the cross. Do not condemn her also because of my sin, but pardon us and number us among your righteous ones. (Elliott, 210–11)

And when a Pilate who is by this time Christianized finishes his supplication, we hear a voice from heaven that announces his salvation:

All generations and families of the Gentiles shall call you blessed, because in your governorship everything was fulfilled which the prophets foretold about me. And you yourself shall appear as my witness at my second coming, when I shall judge the twelve tribes of Israel and those who have not confessed my name. (Elliott, 211)

At this point Pilate is decapitated, but an angel picks up his chopped-off head. Procla, at the sight of the angel who bears the head into heaven, "was filled with joy, and immediately gave up the ghost and was buried with her husband" (ibid.).

The Christianization of Pilate reaches its peak in the Gospel of Gamaliel, preserved in an Ethiopian recension. Here we read that

Pilate and his wife loved Jesus as themselves. He had him flogged to satisfy the wicked Jews, so that their hearts would be more favorably disposed and they would let him go without condemning him to death. (Moraldi, 662)

The Jews had in fact deceived him, making him believe that, if he had him punished in that way, they would let him go. For this reason, after the crucifixion, Jesus appears to Pilate in a dream ("his splendor was greater than that of the sun and the whole city was illuminated by it, with the exception of the synagogue of the Jews") and consoles him, saying, "Pilate, are you by any chance weeping because you flogged Jesus? Have no fear! What was written of him has in fact been fulfilled" (ibid., 673).

It has been observed that the justification of Pilate on the part of the Christians aimed to win the favor of the Romans and for this reason ceased with the end of the persecutions. What is certain, in any case, is that the absolution of Pilate in the legend coincides with the intention to attribute the responsibility for the crucifixion exclusively to the Jews. It is not surprising, therefore, that Pilate ends up becoming a saint in the Ethiopian Church and that his wife is celebrated in the Greek Church on October 26.


The white legend of Pilate contrasts with much of what the extrabiblical sources hand down to us about him. Philo, who speaks of him in the Legatio ad Gaium (Embassy to Gaius, §§ 299–305) in relation to an action that the Jews felt to be sacrilege (he had set up in the palace of Herod some gilded shields dedicated to Tiberius), describes him as an "inflexible, obstinate, and cruel (akamptos, authades, ameiliktos)" man. A little further down, in a scene in which Pilate seems to be prey to fears and hesitations similar to those described in the Gospels, he is defined by "vindictiveness and furious temper." It is a character of this type who is made into the protagonist in the dark legend of Pilate, which curiously intersects with that of the Veronica. According to this legend, in which both Jesus and the Veronica are notable for their thaumaturgical power, an ill Tiberius comes to learn that in Jerusalem there is a doctor by the name of Jesus, who cures all diseases with his word alone (Bulgakov must have known this version, because in his account Pilate persistently addresses Jesus as a doctor). He therefore sends one of his agents, Volusian, to Pilate with the orders to find Jesus and have him sent to Rome. When Volusian, having arrived at Jerusalem, explains to him the emperor's request, Pilate, "very much afraid, knowing that through envy he had caused him to be put to death," responds to him that that man was an evildoer, and for that reason he had him crucified (Walker, 234). Volusian, returning to the inn, runs into a woman by the name of Veronica, asks her about Jesus, and explains the reasons for his mission:

And she began to weep, saying: "Ah, me! My lord, my God and my Lord, whom Pilate for envy delivered, condemned, and ordered to be crucified." Then he, being exceedingly grieved, said: "I am vehemently grieved that I am unable to accomplish that for which my lord had sent me." And Veronica said to him: "When my Lord was going about preaching, and I, much against my will, was deprived of his presence, I wished his picture to be painted for me, in order that, while I was deprived of his presence, the figure of his picture might at least afford me consolation. And when I was carrying the canvas to the painter to be painted, my Lord met me, and asked whither I was going. And when I disclosed to him the cause of my journey, he asked me for the cloth, and gave it back to me impressed with the image of his venerable face. Therefore, if thy lord will devoutly gaze upon his face, he shall obtain forthwith the benefit of health." And he said to her: "Is a picture of such sort procurable by gold or silver?" She said to him: "No; but by the pious influence of devotion. I shall therefore set out with you, and shall carry the picture to be seen by Caesar, and shall come back again." (Walker, 234–35)

Volusian then returns to Rome with Veronica and tells the emperor Tiberius that the doctor Jesus hadbeen handed over by Pilate and the Jews, out of envy, to an unjust death:

"There has therefore come with me a certain matron, bringing a picture of Jesus himself; and if you will devoutly look upon it, you shall immediately obtain the benefit of health." Caesar therefore ordered the way to be strewn with silk cloths, and the picture to be presented to him: and as soon as he had looked upon it, he regained his former health. (Walker, 235)

Tiberius therefore orders that Pilate be arrested and taken to Rome. But at the moment when he appears before the furious emperor, Pilate, whom the legend always presents as a scoundrel, puts on the "seamless tunic" of Jesus (Walker, 235), which he had brought with him (it is the tunica inconsutilis or "seamless garment" of John 19:23, and the legend does not relate how it had come into his hands). Immediately Tiberius's rage disappears, and he cannot manage to formulate his accusations. The scene is repeated many times, to general amazement: the man who, while he is absent, appears as a savage criminal, seems to him when present to be pious and meek. Finally, through divine inspiration or, perhaps, thanks to the counsel of some Christian, Tiberius orders that Pilate be stripped of the tunic. Immediately the incantation disappears and the emperor, regaining control of himself, has Pilate imprisoned and condemns him to a shameful death. Having heard the sentence, Pilate kills himself by stabbing himself with a knife. His body is then tied to an enormous rock and thrown into the Tiber, but

malignant and filthy spirits in his malignant and filthy body, all rejoicing together, kept moving themselves in the waters, and in a terrible manner brought lightnings and tempests, thunders and hail-storms, in the air, so that everyone was kept in horrible fear. (Walker, 236)

The legend of Pilate becomes jumbled at this point with that of the migration of his demon-possessed body from grave to grave. The Romans extract the body from the Tiber and, as a sign of contempt, transport it to Vienne in order to throw it into the Rhone: "For Vienne is called, as it were, the way of Gehenna [Via Gehennae], because it was then a cursed place." But here also the evil spirits throng, causing the same disorder. The body is then transferred to Lausanne, where, after the usual witch's Sabbath, it is finally carried into the mountains and lowered into a deep well, from which, as the legend relates, "certain diabolical machinations are said to bubble up" (Walker, 236).


The evangelists, who certainly could not have been present at the trial, do not concern themselves with indicating the sources of their narrative and precisely this lack of philological scruples confers on the account its incomparable epic tone. The letters and the legends, with their dark or glorious outcome, were presumably invented to furnish a documentation for the trial and, at the same time, to account for Pilate's behavior. They explain both why the prefect of Judea sought in every way to avoid the condemnation of Jesus (he knows, as it emerges from the letter to Tiberius, that Jesus not only was innocent but worked miracles like a god), as well as his sudden yielding to the Jews (he was, in reality, envious and cowardly). In any case Pilate's behavior during the judgment needed to appear enigmatic; moreover, the fact that a judgment before the prefect had taken place was, for some reason, essential.


Excerpted from Pilate and Jesus by Giorgio Agamben, Adam Kotsko. Copyright © 2013 Nottetempo. Excerpted by permission of STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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