Many people will concede that Jesus Christ existed while holding that he was not, in fact, divine, merely a “moral teacher” who preached love of tax collectors and forgiveness of wayward sons. Still others hold that Jesus never existed, that he was a sweet allegorical myth made up by a few illiterate fishermen, a campfire tale that—whoops!—a few billion people took hook, line, and sinker. But nobody—nobody serious, anyway—denies that Pontius Pilate existed, that he was a real person who really presided as prefect of Judea at the time that the Gospels say he did. And it strikes me that Pilate’s reality—a reality which no mildly literate person can contest—poses some problems for the skeptics who doubt not only Jesus’s existence but also his divinity.
To acknowledge the reality of Pilate—which one must do, at least if one is to accept the historical record, which includes not only the Gospels but also Josephus and Philo and the Pilate Stone and the Nicene Creed, the composers of the lattermost of whom we might assume knew of what they wrote and spoke—is, quite inescapably, to acknowledge at least the historical reality of Jesus Christ, for reasons that will be made clear below. But why should we concede that Pilate was in fact real? Because to argue otherwise is to make a deeply improbable assertion: that the authors of the Gospels invented a relatively high-ranking Roman bureaucrat out of whole cloth, not merely as a bit player in a larger drama but as a central character in the greatest drama ever told—and then we would have to assume that later historians were not only duped by this fake mystery man but that, in the cases of Philo and Josephus, they made up other historical facts about him: Josephus, for one, relates a nasty little trick Pilate pulled on a crowd of Jews using Roman soldiers, a story found nowhere in the New Testament. Perhaps more pointedly, there is no record anywhere, at any time, of any Roman politician, citizen or soldier, of any stripe or variety, ever speaking up and saying, “Uh, this Pontius Pilate guy never existed.”
So—unless we are to believe that the writers of the Gospels pulled off perhaps the most improbable and unlikely socio-historical dupe in recorded history—we must reckon with the reality of Pontius Pilate, which means we must reckon with the reality of Christ, and for all of the same reasons. All four Gospels hold that Pilate oversaw the sentencing of Jesus Christ, that, harried and confused and wanting only to placate a baffling mob of angry Hebrews, he handed Christ over to death. There is no real reason to doubt that this happened. If Pilate’s role in the passion were fabricated by the authors of the Gospels, after all, then Pilate himself would have no doubt publicly denied it—it was in his interest as the governor of a volatile backwater province to quash what must surely have seemed like a powder keg of a Jewish rebellion. All he would have had to say is, “I did not take any part in the conviction of this man Jesus. Nobody named Christ was crucified under my watch. These people are liars.”
Yet there is no account—not an historical whisper, not even a shred of apocryphal papyrus—that has Pilate, or Marcellus and Marullus, the prefects who proceeded him shortly after Christ’s execution, or any higher authorities in Rome, denying that Pilate really oversaw the sentencing of a real man named Jesus. Nor do any Jewish sources deny it, and the Jews more than even Pilate would have reason to unravel the Christian story in any way they could, as Matthew points out they tried to do with that bit about the stone and the seal.
From these reasonable conclusions—that Pilate existed, and that so too did Jesus—it does not necessarily follow that Christ was the Son of God Who died and rose from the dead: the Roman bureaucrat and the Jewish preacher might be true, but the True God from True God bit is another thing entirely. This is an accurate tack—but also a strangely mercurial one, insofar as doubting the Gospels requires one to engage in a similar kind of historical denialism as does doubting the reality of Pilate. If we acknowledge that Christ really lived and, at the very least, really died, then we must also grapple with the claims of the Gospels, which assert unambiguously that He really rose from the dead. If Pilate actually ordered the execution of Christ, after all, then the end result of that execution was a dead body—one that no skeptic, no Sanhedrin, no Roman authority, nobody, anywhere, at any time, was able to produce. All that was needed to squash the claims of the Apostles was to parade around the flayed, beaten, scoured, stabbed, crucified, rotting body of the executed criminal: nobody could have denied the false claims of Easter Sunday after laying eyes on that.
That nobody ever produced such a body, or even mentioned seeing it, or even mentioned knowing someone that had seen it, suggests two things: either Jesus Christ never existed, or…something else. Since it’s fairly obvious he did exist, we are left with…well, something else.
So, Pontius Pilate was real, and so was Jesus, and the former ordered the execution of the latter, and the latter was executed. And then what happened?