The PBS program "The Roman Empire in the First Century" could have been worse. It made a reasonable selection of the vast amount of material available, and with more accurate and rational interpretations than usual. However, it did contain elements of special interest to an American audience, such as a lot on sex (Ovid was featured, not Vergil), and a curious interlude while talking about the times of Tiberius, which is the subject of this comment. It was a piece of religious fable sandwiched between history on either side, as if it were history of the same nature, not religion. The story was, of course, of Jesus, and could have been taken from the gospels, but, curiously, it departed significantly from that source. Since there are no other sources for these events, where did the story come from? (see below).

Let me make it clear that I do not believe that these events ever happened, but are part of religious fable. They give another testimony to the evil that belief in spirits and religion can do, if more testimony is needed. However, they are a dilemma for those who believe that the Bible speaks literal truth, and records events that happened, and people who existed. The Bible is quite specific, in Mark 14:14-24 and Matthew 27:1-25, especially the fateful 27:25, which has been the cause of overwhelming injustice and grief for two millennia. It is quite clear that Christians, especially Roman Catholics, now reject these verses, or more frequently, in the patent hypocrisy of religion, hold both views simultaneously. The Bible makes it very clear that Christ was not persecuted by the civil authorities in any way, and was found innocent of any crime. The priests as well as the rabble demanded his death. Indeed, as many seem to have forgotten, he was the chief figure in the later state religion of Rome. There is no other evidence for these events other than that presented in the Bible, and even that is not contemporaneous.

The program said that Pontius Pilate, governor of Judaea, arrested, tried and executed Jesus as a threat to Roman authority and a subversive. Now, all four gospels give an accout of these events, and say something entirely different. The references are Matthew 27, Mark 15, Luke 23 and John 18-19, and all agree in broad outlines. They say that the people, led by the high priests, accused Jesus and brought him before Pilate, demanding that he be executed. Pilate considered the case (in one account in consultation with King Herod, who actually ruled at that time) and decided that Jesus was innocent of any fault, acquitting him absolutely. This was stoutly maintained by Pilate three times against the clamor of the priests and the people, and every time they demanded the death of Jesus. A prisoner who was in fact guilty of sedition and murder was chosen by the people to be released in preference to Jesus, as a Passover boon. Pilate, in fact, did all that he could to save Jesus and was prevented. The people, then, took Jesus away to be crucified.

Of course, this is a great calumny against the Jews, which has created so much unjust persecution that there is little wonder that it has been altered (not the first example of this process). There are still Jews to be rightly offended, but no Romans to protest. However, believers have the problem that although their divinely-inspired holy books cannot be in error, here is nevertheless a clear contradiction. There is no contemporary historical record whatsoever for these events, and even the name Pontius Pilate seems chosen at random. It is not even a good Roman name, and simply means "wearing a cap," as was done by magistrates. This whole process perhaps shows how religions are created and developed, changing with time to please their adherents, and exhibiting no supernatural intervention at all. Note that all this has very little to do with the actual religious import.

The really curious thing is that this appeared in a program that was apparently about serious history, and one with British experts who sound so expert.

Mel Gibson's sadistic The Passion of The Christ of 2004 again dragged these matters before the public, as passion plays always have done, and Jews naturally took umbrage. Many of the details of this film were suggested by the visions of the nun Anne Catherine Emmerich (1774-1824), as reported in a book published in 1904 (See Reference). The accounts in the Gospels are very brief, and there is no historical evidence whatsoever for any of the events. All the traditional details were filled in at much later dates, and reflect only common views at the particular time, not any accurate knowledge of history. Few of the details are consistent with contemporary conditions, and some are contradictory.

If these events actually took place, then the soldiers would have been Herod Antipas's own Jewish troops, not Roman legionaries, who did not pull such police duties. Latin would not have been heard, but Greek, which was the lingua franca in those parts (and, of course, the local Aramaic). The condemnation of the Jews is a traditional part of Christianity. Paul said in 1 Thessalonians 2,14-15: "... who have suffered like things of your own countrymen, even as they of the Jews. Who both killed the Lord Jesus, and their own prophets, and have persecuted us; and they please not God, and are contrary to all men." Pretty strong words, in addition to those in the Gospels. However, forgiveness is not ruled out, but it does not seem to be in the nature of either Christians or Jews. A local minister displayed this refrence on his church sign. Either Christians, lacking forgiveness, have to accept this hatred, or deny their holy scriptures. However, religion is quite flexible, and with some effort, it is always possible to hold two conflicting views at the same time. Pilate, the "man in the cap," was introduced into the story only to make it quite clear that the Romans had nothing to do with the case and held Jesus innocent. Which, after all, is quite reasonable, since Christianity became the state religion and introduced religious intolerance (which is by no means dead). If Jesus had been treated in a Christian manner, he probably would have been burned alive, as the Church enjoyed doing to various individuals from its institution until relatively recently.


J. Nickell, 'Visions' Behind The Passion, Skeptical Inquirer, May/June 2004, pp. 11-13.

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Composed by J. B. Calvert
Created 19 July 2001
Last revised 30 April 2004