SEJANUS, PONTIUS PILATE and JESUS
(Investigator 189, 2019 November)
When Jesus rampaged through the Temple and overturned the merchants'
tables, Roman soldiers in Fortress Antonia, which overlooked the Temple
area, did not arrest him. Days later, Pontius Pilate, who presided at
Jesus' trial and is known to history as a brutal enforcer of Roman
rule, wanted to free him!
Critics have argued that such restraint was contrary-to-policy, and
out-of-character, and demonstrates that the Gospels are fictitious.
I will argue that Pilate's leniency was a self-serving adaptation to new political realities, and is realistically portrayed.
- Lucius Aetius Sejanus
(20BC – AD31) commanded the Praetorian Guard (the Emperor's bodyguard)
for 16 years and seemed destined to become the next Emperor. In AD31 he
was made Consul of the Roman Empire, a title which only one other man,
the Emperor himself, had.
- Pontius Pilate: Procurator (the administrator of a province) of Judea and Samaria AD26-36. Appointed by Sejanus in AD26.
- Herod Antipas
(22BC - AD40): Ruled Galilee as client king of Rome. His ambition was
to become great like his father Herod the Great and be King of all
Palestine. By permission of Sejanus he married into the Jewish royal
family by marrying his half-brother's wife (Herodias).
- Emperor Tiberius:
Reigned AD14-37. In AD31 Emperor Tiberius had Sejanus executed. This
changed political dynamics throughout the Roman Empire and influenced
how Pilate treated Jesus.
Jesus' ministry lasted 3½ years — AD29-33.
Astronomer Duncan Steel writes: "Because Passover is at full moon, and
the Crucifixion was on a Friday, only certain dates are feasible, 7
April in AD30 and 3 April in AD33 being the chief candidates."
Steel opted for AD33 based on lunar eclipses. But AD33 also fits
because the ministries of John the Baptist and Jesus started "in the
fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar" (Luke 3:1-22), and
Tiberius became Emperor in AD14.
Events during Jesus' final week include:
• Palm Sunday: Five days before his crucifixion,
Jesus was welcomed by crowds waving palm fronds as he rode a donkey
• Monday: Jesus expelled the merchants from the Temple.
• Tuesday: Jesus taught in the Temple. In the
afternoon he went to the Mount of Olives where he foretold the future
of Jerusalem and the world.
• Thursday evening: Jesus met with his 12 Apostles
for the Last Supper after which he was arrested and taken to the Jewish
• Friday morning: Jesus interrogated by Pilate who
declared him innocent (John 18:38) and tried to stage-manage his
release by making the crowd choose between Jesus and a murderer. (John
Pilate's conduct doesn't ring true, critics claim, given his no-nonsense reputation for brutality.
In AD14 Emperor Tiberius appointed Sejanus as head of Rome's Praetorian
Sejanus outwardly seemed loyal — in AD26 he sheltered Tiberius
from falling rocks with his own body during an earthquake.
However, potential rivals for the throne progressively died or got
banished. In AD19, General Germanicus, the probable successor to
Tiberius, mysteriously died. Tiberius' son Drusius also died (AD23) —
Sejanus had him poisoned after seducing his wife, Livilla.
Tiberius retired to the island of Capri in AD26 leaving Sejanus in Rome
as his stand-in. For five years Sejanus controlled access to Tiberius
and controlled Rome and was in charge of the Praetorian Guard which he
increased in numbers and reorganized into a powerful branch of
Sejanus tried to marry Livilla to advance his right to the throne.
Political enemies of Sejanus lost rank or were banished and critics put
on trial, but friends got promotions, and supporters in the Senate
received public offices and governorships. Wikipedia says:
Sejanus began a series
of purge trials of senators and wealthy equestrians in the city,
removing those capable of opposing his power as well as extending the
imperial (and his own) treasury. Networks of spies and informers
brought the victims to trial with false accusations of treason, and
many chose suicide over the disgrace of being condemned and executed.
It's chronicled by Roman senator and historian Tacitus in The Annals, Book IV.
Antonia, mother of Livilla, in a secret letter informed Tiberius what
Sejanus was doing. Sejanus was arrested and executed — October 18,
Riots ensued, in which
crowds hunted and killed anyone they could link to Sejanus. Sejanus'
eldest son Strabo and four other children were executed. Livilla
committed suicide… Tiberius persecuted everyone implicated in the
schemes of Sejanus or had courted his friendship. The Senatorial ranks
were purged. The political turmoil continued for 6 years until the
death of Tiberius.
Sejanus' statues were destroyed, his name obliterated from public
records, and former supporters tortured and executed. Tacitus records
these events in The Annals, Book V as does another history writer, Suetonius, in The Lives of the First Twelve Caesars.
In Galilee and Judea Antipas and Pilate, as political beneficiaries of
Sejanus, had reason to fear and needed to tread carefully.
Furthermore, Pilate's violent anti-Jewish policies which reflected
Sejanus' own hatred of Jews contradicted the tolerant policy of
Sejanus was what today we'd call anti-Semitic. The 1st-centrury Jewish
philosopher/historian Philo compared Sejanus to Flaccus (viceroy of
Alexandria) and suggests both had "hatred and hostile designs against
the Jewish nation":
Flaccus Avillius succeeded Sejanus in his hatred and hostile designs against the Jewish nation.
Flaccus being chosen by Tiberius Caesar … after the
death of Sejanus, who had been lieutenant-governor in Egypt, was
appointed viceroy of Alexandria… (Philo, p. 725)
Pilate seemed to provoke conflict with Jews as a matter of policy.
Jewish historian, Josephus, for example, says that Pilate installed
images of Tiberius in the Jewish Temple, and confiscated Temple
donations to finance Roman aqueducts. Luke 13:1 says Pilate "mingled"
the blood of Galileans "with sacrifices".
The first Roman Emperor, Augustus, in contrast had a positive attitude toward the Jews. Philo writes:
(157) But he [Augustus]
never removed them [the Jews] from Rome, nor did he deprive them of
their rights as Roman citizens, because he had a great regard for Judea
… but he behaved with such piety towards our countrymen, and with
respect to all our customs, that he, I may almost say, with his house,
adorned our temple with many costly and magnificent offerings… (p. 771)
This policy was continued by Tiberius but undermined by Sejanus:
(159) Therefore, all
people in every country, even if they were not naturally well inclined
towards the Jewish nation, took great care not to violate or attack any
of the Jewish customs of laws. And in the reign of Tiberius things went
on in the same manner, although at the time things in Italy were thrown
in a great deal of confusion when Sejanus was preparing to make his
attempt against our nation; for [Tiberius] knew immediately after his
[Sejanus’] death that the accusations which had been brought against
the Jews who were dwelling in Rome were false calumnies, inventions of
Sejanus, who was desirous to destroy our nation... (p. 772)
In AD32, the year after Sejanus' execution, Tiberius
ordered that Roman governors not disturb Jewish religion and reserve
Roman punishments for people who break Roman laws. Philo writes:
(161) And he [Tiberius] sent commands to all the
governors of provinces in every country to comfort those of our nation
in their respective cities, as the punishment intended to be inflicted
was not meant to be inflicted upon all, but only on the guilty; and
they were but few. And he ordered them to change none of the existing
customs, but to look upon them as pledges, since the men were peaceful
in their dispositions and natural characters, and their laws trained
them and disposed them to quiet and stability. (p. 772)
Some critics have claimed that palm branches were unavailable at
Passover (March-April) and were only plentiful during the Festival of
Tabernacles, September/October, when the Israelites lived for a week in
"booths" (shelters) made from: "branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy
trees, and willows of the brook…" (Leviticus 23:40)
However, palm trees are evergreen and palm fronds available all year. 1
Maccabees 14:51 (in the Apocrypha) says: "On the twenty-third day of
the second month … the Jews entered it [Jerusalem] with praise and palm
That Jesus was greeted with palm branches is mentioned only in the
Gospel of John. Matthew and Mark refer to branches cut from "trees";
Luke doesn't mention branches at all, only "cloaks" thrown on the road.
Differences in details are not contradictions if the details can be
coherently stitched together. Another difference is that Mark and Luke
mention a "colt" on which Jesus rode, John a "donkey's colt", and
Matthew says that Jesus, "mounted on a donkey and on a colt, the foal
of a donkey". Jesus perhaps rode the adult animal initially and
switched to the colt for the ceremony. It's also possible that Jesus
rode into Jerusalem twice. (See References list)
Pilate as Sejanus' protégé adopted his benefactor's
anti-Semitism but then had to distance himself and avoid bringing
attention to his governorship when Sejanus was executed.
This also explains why the Temple guards did not arrest Jesus. He was
probably surrounded by supporters and a massacre would have been
reported to Tiberias and interpreted as violating the edict against
interfering in Jewish issues.
Roman unwillingness to take action against Jesus explains why the chief
priests and scribes "kept looking for a way to kill him." (Mark 11:18)
If the Romans didn't take action, the matter required thought and
John 19 records: "Pilate tried to set Jesus free, but the Jews kept
shouting, “If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar." (John
19:12) This statement, in a political context where disloyalty to
Tiberius could be lethal, indirectly threatened Pilate's life.
I'll finish now by raising another issue: Jesus cleansed the Temple of
merchants twice, the first time in the first year of his ministry.
(John 2:13-22) Why wasn't he arrested on the first occasion when
Sejanus was still in power?
Magnussen, M. (Editor) 1990 Chambers Biographical Dictionary, Chambers Ltd.
Steele, D. 1999 Eclipse, Headline Book Publishing
Tacitus: The Annals
The Companion Bible… 1972, Appendix 153 — The Two Entries Into Jerusalem, Bagster and Sons
Whiston, W. (Translator) 1960 Josephus Complete Works, Antiquities Book XVIII, Chapters 3 & 4, Kregel
Yonge, C.D. (Translator) 1993 The Works of Philo Complete and Unabridged — Flacum I (1), p. 725; On the Embassy of Gaius XXIII (157) and XXIV (159), pp 771-772; Hendrickson Publishers