According to the New Testament, Pontius Pilate, the prefect who governed Roman-occupied Judea, was responsible for condemning Jesus to crucifixion. But a long tradition of Christian thought seeks to exonerate him from guilt, a tradition that has had no small impact on Jewish history. Nick Spencer reviews a recent book on this tradition:
David Lloyd Dusenbury’s The Innocence of Pontius Pilate . . . traces numerous readings of the trial from its canonical origins in the gospels, and highlights the various attempts to get Pilate off the hook. The best known of these are the Christian ones, motivated by the twin desires to exonerate Rome and (further) impugn the Jews. An innocent Pilate suited those who wanted to curry favor with the authorities (in the early centuries) or demonize society’s outsiders (in the later ones).
One retelling of the trial claims that it was [the not-quite-Jewish Judean king] Herod, not Pilate, who acted as Jesus’ judge.
Pilate is also pardoned, however, in many other traditions. Pagan intellectuals remembered, or rather reinvented, him as an innocent man and a just judge. A now lost Acts of Pilate forcefully made the governor’s case and was apparently taught by Roman schoolmasters, at least according to the historian Eusebius.
This is all interesting stuff but it is really part of a bigger and more important case that Dusenbury is making. . . . Exculpating Pilate left everything he stood for intact. Pilate was the representative of Roman political power that was also, by its own lights, divine. If he was simply and correctly discharging justice in his encounter with Jesus, all of that—Pilate, Tiberius, Rome, empire—remain authoritative. But if Pilate was indeed guilty, as the gospel writers, the mainstream tradition of the Church and, most influentially, St. Augustine insist, then all this quasi-divine political authority is undermined.
Of course, the desire to exonerate Pilate gave some all the more reason to blame the Jews.