The Innocence of Pontius Pilate: How the Roman Trial of Jesus Shaped History
David Lloyd Dusenbury
C Hurst & Co, £25, 272 pages
The Innocence of Pontius Pilate is not a work of theology, its author stresses. He presents it as the first book to “retrace the brute fact of Jesus’ trial and death as a legal fact of epoch-defining significance”. This legal fact, the author asserts, has shaped the legal and political culture of Europe and the Americas. Rich in the variety of evidence it brings in support for its claims, the book covers the history of competing understandings of the prosecution and sentencing of Jesus, the precise role of Pontius Pilate in Jesus’ condemnation, and the extent of his guilt or innocence.
That is just for starters. Important as it might be, there is much more to the ambition of this book than to provide a compilation of interpretations of that decisive event in human history, of who thought Herod, Pilate, Jesus and anyone else guilty or guiltless, of who condemned whom for what, and of who stood by neither entirely culpable nor blameless.
Insofar as it offers a catalogue of versions of the trial of Jesus, its range is nothing short of extraordinary. From Matthew, Mark and Luke, the Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin and the Qur’an, David Lloyd Dusenbury takes the reader to a variety of texts from well and lesser-known Roman, medieval, Renaissance and early modern authors, and on to such philosophical figures as Voltaire, Rousseau and Nietzsche as well as 20th-century constitutional lawyers such as Carl Schmitt and Hans Kelsen. Dusenbury tells us that his book originated from an aborted review of the 2015 English translation of Giorgio Agamben’s Pilate and Jesus (2013). The Innocence of Pontius Pilate is that review completed. It is the book of an article published in 2017 in the Journal of Law and Religion. In it, Dusenbury judged the Italian Agamben (he of the critique of the “techno-medical despotism” of Covid quarantines and closings) and found him wanting. In Agamben’s view, Pilate did not formally condemn Jesus. There was no trial, only the semblance of one. Given the absence of judicial procedure, Jesus was not punished, rather, strictly speaking, he was (mortally) “injured”. In his article, Dusenbury conducted a philological critique of Agamben’s Pilate and Jesus’s philological arguments. Now in the book under review, Dusenbury extends this critique and adds a line-up of theological, literary and philosophical authorities in support of the counter-thesis: there was a trial, there was due process, Pilate was a legitimate Roman authority to deliver a judgement, which he did. He condemned Jesus to death by crucifi xion. But he did not kill Christ. He could not have done so, if only because he did not know what he was doing. One could therefore say that Pilate was innocent, but not because he washed his hands of Jesus’ trial. Then again, one could side with St Augustine and find Pilate guilty, since he condemned an innocent man.
Among the sources on which Dusenbury draws is Dante’s Divine Comedy, especially the first part of its author’s journey, the Inferno. While Dusenbury does so following Agamben’s own attention to the epic, his analysis of Dante’s stance on Jesus’ trial reads, intentionally no doubt, like a detective story. For fear of risking a spoiler, I will not say more on this, but must mention other significant readings Dusenbury offers in relation to his subject besides those of St Augustine and Dante, namely, of Marsilius of Padua, Thomas Hobbes, Samuel Pufendorf and Christian Thomasius. These contribute to a very interesting history of our disputed and entangled conceptions of secular power and spiritual kingdom, these worldly and otherworldly empires, the relationship between state and Church, and the nature and location of political sovereignty.
The seriousness of its subject matter and its display of erudition do not make it a dry tome. This is partly due to its many asides, the illustrations and thought-provoking throwaways, eg, “It is no coincidence that the decline of Latin culture in the long 19th century is mirrored by the rise of nationalism in Europe”, and each of its chapters’ crisp conclusions. One of Dusenbury’s aims was to resist the forgetting or repressing of the Latin Christian logic of the secular, which he sees beginning in the 18th century. He has succeeded in that and much else besides.
Sylvana Tomaselli is an historian. Her most recent book is Wollstonecraft: Philosophy, Passion, and Politics
This article appears in the May issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe now.