I have been responding to Dr. Richard Carrier’s interaction with the argument from undesigned coincidences in the gospels (please see part 1, part 2, and part 3). In part 4, I review Carrier’s claim that “redaction is usually the better hypothesis.” He writes,
Case in point. The McGrews are amazed that the early Gospels (Mark, Matthew, and Luke) don’t really explain why Pilate declares Jesus innocent, and lo and behold, John comes along and explains it by presenting a whole conversation between Pilate and Jesus no one had ever heard of before. McGrew calls this an undesigned coincidence. But there are two problems with this.
The point is that, in Luke’s gospel, the sequence of events is rather odd. Here is the account in Luke 23:1-5:
Then the whole company of them arose and brought him before Pilate. 2 And they began to accuse him, saying, “We found this man misleading our nation and forbidding us to give tribute to Caesar, and saying that he himself is Christ, a king.” 3 And Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” And he answered him, “You have said so.” 4 Then Pilate said to the chief priests and the crowds, “I find no guilt in this man.” 5 But they were urgent, saying, “He stirs up the people, teaching throughout all Judea, from Galilee even to this place.”
According to Luke’s account, Jesus is asked directly “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus pleads guilty to the charge, and Pilate immediately declares him to be innocent. This is a very strange sequence. However, we receive some illumination when we turn over to John 18:33-38, we read,
33 So Pilate entered his headquarters again and called Jesus and said to him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” 34 Jesus answered, “Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?” 35 Pilate answered, “Am I a Jew? Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered you over to me. What have you done?” 36 Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” 37 Then Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” 38 Pilate said to him, “What is truth?” After he had said this, he went back outside to the Jews and told them, “I find no guilt in him. [emphasis added]
John fills us in with a crucial detail, namely, that Jesus specified that His kingdom was not of this world, that is, His kingdom is a spiritual kingdom, not a physical one. Pilate apparently then writes him off as a harmless religious fanatic who can be safely ignored. John, on the other hand, does not report Jesus’ plea of guilty that is recorded in the synoptic gospels. These interlocking details between Luke and John, therefore, suggest verisimilitude.
Unfortunately, Carrier goes on to fabricate data again. He writes,
First, not merely is no such conversation known to any prior author, but all previous authors outright tell us no such conversation occurred: they all say Jesus agreed with Pilate calling him king (rather than correcting Pilate on the point) and said nothing else (Mark 15:2-5; Matthew 27:11-14; Luke 23:1-25), which John deliberately, completely reverses—which John does a lot to the stories he is rewriting (I give several examples in Chapter 10.7 of On the Historicity of Jesus). Known and established redaction tendencies of the authors thus explain what is happening here.
The fact that no such conversation is reported by the synoptics is the whole point the argument is driving at. All three synoptic gospels, as Carrier states, say that Jesus agreed with Pilate calling him king. But where do the synoptic evangelists, as Carrier claims, “outright tell us no such conversation occurred”? Omission is not the same thing as denial.
Second, we know no such thing ever happened. Because there is no possible way Pilate ever did this. That Pilate, the man who actually did execute Jesus for claiming to be a king (and thus, clearly, didn’t find Jesus innocent—if any of this happened at all we can be sure it was that), is being “whitewashed” in these fictional narratives as not responsible, and the guilt is shifted onto the Jews, through a completely implausible story about Barabbas and a non-existent and impossible custom of the ruthless Pontius Pilate releasing any insurgent the rabble demanded on a Holiday. (That this is nonsense top to bottom, and obvious fiction, scholars have demonstrated repeatedly under peer review; I cite and summarize the literature in OHJ, index, “Barabbas”)
The claim that the gospels become progressively anti-semitic, transferring the blame from the Romans to the Jews is a popular claim, also made in Dr. Bart Ehrman’s popular book, Jesus Interrupted. For example, Ehrman observes that in Mark “it’s basically Pilate and the Jewish leaders pretty much agreeing that this needs to be done,” whereas in Matthew we read the cry of the Jews, “His blood be on us and our children!” (Matthew 27:25). In Luke, according to Ehrman, “the innocence of Pilate is being heightened” by Pilate’s stating on three occasions that he finds no guilt in Jesus and by his sending Jesus to Herod Antipas. Ehrman further observes that, in John, “when the Jewish priests insist that Pilate crucify him, the Greek text says, ‘So Pilate handed him over to them to be crucified.’ The antecedent there are the Jewish priests. They’re the ones who crucify Jesus in the gospel of John.”
The problem is that such conclusions rely on a heavy cherry-picking of the gospel texts. For example, Mark (like the three other gospels) describes the plot of the Jewish leaders and high priests to execute Jesus; records the plot by the high priests and the bribe given to Judas to turn over Jesus; and tells us that those who arrested Jesus in Gethsemane were sent from the high priests. He tells us that Jesus’ trial was before the high priests; that the Jewish leaders delivered him to Pilate. In fact, in Mark 15:9 and 15:14, Pilate attempts to get the Jewish crowd to allow him to release Jesus.
Matthew doesn’t fit into this paradigm either. As previously noted, Matthew 27:25 reports the cry of the Jews, “His blood be on us and our children.” But Matthew is thought to come before Luke and John, which do not contain this statement or anything like it.
Luke also doesn’t fit the paradigm. Luke doesn’t report the hand washing scene found in Matthew where Pilate declares himself innocent of Jesus’ blood (Matthew 27:24). Luke 23:27 reports that there was a great crowd of Jews weeping and mourning as Jesus was led to his execution site.
John also fails to fit the paradigm. John also doesn’t report the hand-washing scene found in Matthew, and furthermore lacks the description of the awed Roman centurion found in all three of the synoptic gospels (Matthew 27:54; Mark 15:39; Luke 23:47). Furthermore, Mark and Matthew both report the Jewish leaders mocking Jesus on the cross (Mark 15:29-32; Matthew 27:40-44).
Carrier alleges that the custom of releasing one prisoner at the Passover feast was a non-existent custom. But he has no argument for establishing this, beside the argument from silence (which is a weak argument in historiography). It is true that we have no independent direct documentary confirmation for such a custom, but the absence of evidence isn’t necessarily evidence of absence, since much of the first century literature from Palestine has been lost, and furthermore there are other events that are recorded in only single sources that we nonetheless have good reason to believe happened. For example, Josephus and Philo both omit to mention the expulsion of the Jews from Rome under Claudius, an event that is documented by the second-century historian Seutonius (Life of Claudius 25.4) and by one first century source, as it happens Acts 18:2 from the New Testament. For more on the weakness of the argument from silence, I refer readers to this peer-reviewed paper from 2014 by Dr. Timothy McGrew, published in Acta Analytica (29:215-228).
Furthermore, there is evidence to indicate that the release of select prisoners at festival times was a common and widespread practice in the ancient world, and it is not implausible that such a custom was Pilate’s way of maintaining good will with the people. Moreover, the Misnhah says that “they may slaughter [the Passover lamb] for one…whom they have promised to bring out of prison” on the Passover (m. Pesahim 8:6). It is striking that the promised release from prison is for the purpose of participating in the observance of Passover.
This is fiction. If any of this happened, Pilate convicted Jesus of the crime of insurgency. The Gospels then invented the false claim that Pilate didn’t do this, that in some implausible way he acquitted Jesus but executed him anyway because the Jewish elite cowed him (cowed Pontius Pilate!) into it. That’s the least plausible account of the data. Only the extraordinarily gullible, or profoundly deluded, would think the Gospel narratives are at all faithful here to what Pilate actually did and said. These authors want Pilate to have said this (or else their sources did, if they are recording any oral lore at all), in order to get the Romans off the hook, and shift blame onto the Jewish elite. And they invent various stories to accomplish this, riffing on and building on each other over time. So there is no sense in trying to explain “why” Pilate said this—because he didn’t. Nothing about this story is plausible. So that Pilate acquitting Jesus on no evidence is also implausible is just more of the same, not some oddity that begs explanation.
I have long found the argument from variety of character portrayal between different sources against the historicity of a particular episode, such as the brutality and mercilessness of Pilate in ancient sources compared with his portrayal in the gospels, to be quite weak evidence against veracity. This argument is especially non-compelling when (as in our present case) we are only seeing a snapshot of Pontius Pilate in the incident of Jesus’ death. Indeed, one can rather easily imagine the same individual fulfilling both descriptions.
That being said, I do think the story recounted in the gospels is quite plausible. Of note, John 19:12 says,
From then on Pilate sought to release him, but the Jews cried out, “If you release this man, you are not Caesar’s friend. Everyone who makes himself a king opposes Caesar.”
Interestingly, this recalls a previous episode in Pilate’s career reported by Philo of Alexandria (book 40, On the Embassy to Gaius) concerning Pilate’s erection of some Roman shields in Jerusalem, which made the Jews unhappy because of the violation of the second commandment prohibiting graven images. Pilate refused a request to have the shields removed, and so the Jews wrote to the emperor Tiberius to ask him to intervene. Philo reports,
And those who were in power in our nation, seeing this and perceiving that he was inclined to change his mind as to what he had done, but that he was not willing to be thought to do so, wrote a most supplicatory letter to Tiberius. And he, when he had read it, what did he say of Pilate, and what threats did he utter against him! But it is beside our purpose to present to relate to you how very angry he was, although he was not very liable to sudden anger; since the facts speak for themselves; for immediately, without putting any thing off till the next day, he wrote a letter, reproaching and reviling him in the most bitter manner for his act of unprecedented audacity and wickedness, and commanding him immediately to take down the shields… [emphasis added]
It seems, therefore, that the Jews in John 19:12 put their finger on a sore spot for Pilate, and perhaps Pilate was afraid of them writing once again to Tiberius.
Furthermore, in the gospel narratives Pilate is being pushed by the Jewish leaders to crucify Jesus. He was being used as an instrument of their jealousy. One can easily imagine a Roman authority feeling some disdain for this, in particular if he didn’t care much for the Jewish people to begin with (which is the sense one gleans from the gospels and other ancient sources). They brought Jesus to Pilate early in the morning and were trying to pressure Pilate into crucifying Jesus, someone whom Pilate had found to be a harmless religious fanatic. Consistent with the portrayal in other sources, Pilate seems to be quite merciless in the gospels as well — for instance, he is sufficiently callous to order Jesus to be flogged, even though he believes Jesus to be innocent.
Carrier goes on to quote a passage from Robert Gundry’s A Survey of the New Testament (p. 272),
John’s linking the feeding of the five thousand to the Passover combines with Jesus’ comments about eating his flesh and drinking his blood to make the bread with which he feeds the crowd symbolic of his sacrificial death as the true Passover lamb. The locale on a mountain reinforces the symbolism by recalling Moses on Mount Sinai. As God incarnate, Jesus takes the initiative and exhibits his omniscience. The specification of barley bread recalls attention to the Passover symbolism, for Passover coincides with the barley harvest.
There are at least two problems with this argument. First, setting up the hypothesis of historicism against the hypothesis of symbolism is to create a false dichotomy. Events can have symbolic significance, and be historically true. For a detailed description of several examples, please see my article here. To give just one example, there is significant theological import to Jesus’ death happening to fall on the day of Passover, Nisan 15th, given Jesus’ role in Christian theology as the Passover lamb (1 Corinthians 5:7). But nonetheless, the event is well established by the evidence. Similarly, Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem five days before the Passover of His death has symbolic significance given that the Jews were to select their Passover lamb five days before Passover (Exodus 12:3), but is nonetheless historically true (as I demonstrate in the linked article).
Second, there is a mistake in pressing too hard for symbolic meaning, since clearly not every occurrence in the gospels has symbolic significance. For example, the connection between the mountain alluded to in John 6:3 and mount Sinai seems to me to be less than obvious.
In part 5 of this series, I will discuss Carrier’s dismissal of coincidences involving the gospels and external secular sources, and his dismissal of undesigned coincidences in the book of Acts.