Bryan Fischer’s Reckless Comparison of John Boehner to Pontius Pilate

Apr 14 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

Bryan Fischer’s latest rant was directed at House Speaker John Boehner, whom he likens to the Roman prefect of Judaea, Pontius Pilate (the man who put Jesus to death), for compromising on Planned Parenthood. In order to avert a government shutdown, Boehner backed off on the Republican demand to defund Planned Parenthood, which provides not only abortions but contraception that can prevent abortions, and cancer screenings.

Fischer, who is Director of Issues Analysis for the American Family Association has, for his part, shown that he can and will attack anyone and anything, including Republicans. Newt Gingrich has already felt his ire; now it is Boehner’s turn. Boehner is another Pontius Pilate and his sin seemingly as great as that of the Roman prefect’s approval of Jesus’ execution (and here we thought the Jews did it!); it turns out his sin is also on a par with “protecting the Nazi regime” during the Holocaust (ouch!):

Pilate folded under politically-correct pressure, caved-in, and handed Christ over to their will. So Pilate new exactly what he was doing, he was caving-in to political pressure from his political opponents. What I think, frankly, John Boehner did on Friday night…. John Boehner blinked, rather than standing to defund Planned Parenthood and defend unborn human life, he caved, he folded, he capitulated…. One million dollars a day going to Planned Parenthood while they are butchering a population the size of Cincinnati. This is like the gas chambers, this is like Auschwitz, this is like protecting the Nazi regime while they are gassing Jews. Ladies and gentlemen it is absolutely no different in terms of the moral implications and the moral issues that are involved.

While current facts mean nothing to Christofascist rhetoric, historical evidence means even less. Why let history guide inform us when you have theology?

What people need to understand about the story of Jesus’ execution is, for starters, a bit of history – history, not theology. The story is told variously in the gospels (and not in agreement with Jewish historian Flavius Josephus) and there has consequently been a great deal of misunderstanding about the Roman governance of the province of Judaea in the first century of the Common Era. Theology (the gospels) must contend with what we know of history from other sources. Theology must often give way to fact, as it must here.

Fischer can certainly say Pontius Pilate handed Jesus over for crucifixion because the gospels do say that, but that is far from the only version of the story told in the gospels. Fischer is being disingenuous at best; dishonest at worst. He can’t say Pilate caved in to “political pressure from his political opponents” because as prefect of Judaea, Pilate had no political opponents in Judaea – he had subject peoples; this is in effect a nice way of dancing around the old Christian charge that Pilate caved into the Jews – that it was the Jews who killed Jesus. The latent anti-Semitism of the gospels is inconvenient for modern Christian fundamentalists, who like to portray themselves as pro-Jewish.

 

Fischer’s attack on Boehner rests upon the idea that Pilate was a weak-willed administrator. This claim, as New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman points out, “does not square well with the public record of his governorship.”[1] In fact, Christian portrayals of Pilate have varied widely, from brute to hero. The Jewish historian Josephus makes clear Pilate was of the brutish-type, not one given to catering to the cares of concerns of the Jewish population; in other words, he would not have asked the crowd for their opinion as to Jesus’ guilt or innocence. He did not, in fact, even have to grant Jesus a trial. The Galilean peasant was not a Roman citizen after all and could not appeal to the emperor as Paul is said to have done.  No one can know any details of Pilate’s interrogation of the accused seditionist (Jesus) since no gospel writer was present but clearly, from the manner of Jesus’ death, Pilate came away convinced of his guilt (see below).

It must be kept in mind that Josephus wrote from a Jewish perspective. Gospel writers, authoring their tracts in roughly the same time period as Josephus, had a different perspective. They were not Jewish, but Gentile, as the anti-Semitism of the Gospels prove. As historian Robert Eisenman pointedly remarks,

It should be categorically stated…that a Jewish document can be sectarian, that is, anti-Pharisee or even anti-Sadducee, as the Dead Sea Scrolls most certainly are and the Gospels at their most authentic sometimes are, but it cannot be anti-Semitic. This would be a contradiction in terms.[2]

All Pilate cared about was the charge of sedition. Religion was not the issue for a Roman governor except to the extent that it lent itself to acts of disloyalty to the state and threatened the “quies provinciae” or “peace of the province” for which any Roman administrator was held accountable. Jesus was a threat to that peace; he was executed.

Most of us are probably brought up to believe it was the Jewish authorities who arrested Jesus (Mark 14:43). But this claim is not really believable in light of Jesus’ fate. After all, he was executed by the Romans and for a political, not a religious crime. For example, there is a hint at John 18:3 that it was not the Jewish Temple Guard that arrested Jesus in the Garden of Gesthemane but Roman soldiers, which would fit Jesus’ execution in Roman fashion. John calls the arresting party a “band” of soldiers, using the Greek word for a Roman cohort (of which one was stationed in Jerusalem at all times, with reinforcements brought in for Passover), and the word he uses for their leader is the Greek word for “Tribune”.[3] It is unlikely the Romans needed the Jewish priesthood to make them aware of Jesus at this point; the episode in the Temple (Mark 11:17; John 2:16) would have been compelling, as would his perceived threat against the Temple itself (Mark 24-25; Mark 13; Luke 21) though they may well have received worried updates about his activities from the pro-Roman priesthood.

And remember, the gospels tell us Barabbas was arrested in Jerusalem for his role in an insurrection that apparently occurred during Passover, the same time frame in which Jesus was present in Jerusalem. The Roman authorities would have been on high alert for trouble-makers. Barabbas is described in the gospels as a lestes, the same term used by Josephus to describe Zealots. Furthermore, as we have seen, the two men crucified with Jesus are described by Mark (15.27; cf. Matt. 27.38, 44) as lestai, the term Josephus uses to describe nationalist guerrillas or freedom fighters, which would seem to indicate that these men were not common robbers and must have participated in the same insurrection in which Barabbas was captured.

There are a number of problems with Jesus’ supposed trial before the Sanhedrin. While calling oneself the messiah was not illegal in Jewish law,[4] it was certainly a red flag for a Roman governor. Jesus was hardly the first Jew to be proclaimed messiah, after all. As far as Pontius Pilate was concerned, he was only the latest in a long line of wannabe kings of the Jews. Bart Ehrman also observes that scholars have noted that Jesus’ trial before the Jewish priests “appears to be illegal on a large number of counts” when compared to descriptions in the Mishnah of how the Sanhedrin was supposed to have functioned (for example, no night-time trials, no trials during festivals).[5] And obviously, if Roman soldiers arrested him, he may not have appeared before the Sanhedrin, but would have gone directly to the Roman authorities. This would resolve a number of problems with the presentation of Jesus’ trial in the gospels.

So who crucified Jesus? The Romans or the Jews? In the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) it is clearly Pilate who ordered Jesus to be crucified, for instance Mark 15.16-20, though in all three cases blame is made to rest with the Jews. But in John 19.16 we are told outright that, “Then he [Pilate] handed him [Jesus] to them [the Jews] to be crucified.” Mark says that “he [Pilate] delivered him to be crucified” (15.15) which Brandon feels could be “due to Mark’s reluctance to admit that Pilate actually ordered the execution of Jesus”[6] but the episode which follows at 16.20  and the mention of the centurion commanding the detail in both Mark and Matthew (Matthew 27.54; Mark 15.39) demonstrate that it was indeed Pilate who ordered it and the Romans who carried it out. In fact the greatest contradiction is within John itself, where Pilate tells Jesus that he has the power to free him or crucify him and Jesus acknowledges this (John 19.10)  yet John portrays Pilate as having no power at all, making such power lie with the Jewish people who decide his fate. A final contradiction in John is that it is Pilate who places the titulus on the cross (John 19.19), indicating the sentence, which is odd indeed if the Jews crucified him as John asserts.

In other words, it would be as honest to compare Boehner to Pilate if he had stood firm against compromise. Either way, compromiser or rigid ideologue, he could be compared to Pilate because that is how varied early Christian belief was on the subject. But from a historical, not a theological perspective, Fischer’s charge is ridiculous and unsupported by the facts. Pilate was known for his ruthlessness, not his waffling. And Pilate did not “hand over” Jesus to his “political enemies” (i.e. Jews) but ordered Jesus executed on his own authority and by his own soldiers, acting on his authority as the Roman governor of the province.

This is not a defense of John Boehner; this is a defense of history.


[1] Bart D. Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, Third Edition (Oxford University Press, 2004), 116.

[2] Robert Eisenman, James the Brother of Jesus: The Key to Unlocking the Secrets of Early Christianity and the Dead Sea Scrolls (Penguin Books, 1997), 59.

[3] Robin Lane Fox, The Unauthorized Version: Truth and Fiction in the Bible (NY: Vintage Books, 1991), 290.

[4] A century later, for example, Rabbi Akiba proclaimed Simon bar Kosiba messiah without anyone being accused of blasphemy

[5] Bart D. Ehrman, Jesus: Apocalypti Prophet of the New Millennium ((Oxford University Press, 1999), 221.

[6] S.G.F. Brandon, The Trial of Jesus of Nazareth (1968), 191, n. 124.

 

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