The next clue comes from a surprising source: a dark tale of intrigue, hidden violence and vicious revenge in Rome. We go to the Imperial court…
By the time Tiberius Caesar (42 BC – 37 AD) reached his mid-sixties, he had wearied of daily Imperial duties. He entered semi-retirement on the Island of Capri in 26 AD. There, out of the public eye, he embraced a life of unmentionable depravity and cruelty. Still, even for a degraded and absentee emperor there were the problems of government.
As his personal conduit for management of Rome from Capri, Tiberius left a regent in the capitol. This was Aelius Sejanus, who had been captain of the Praetorian Guard. Sejanus had shown himself to be politically capable and apparently loyal to Tiberius, but he was a cunning and ruthless man.
During the 5 years that Sejanus administered the Empire, he artfully engineered the banishment, imprisonment, suicide or other elimination of many of his own opponents and Tiberius’ potential successors. As chronicled extensively by the Roman senator and historian Publius Cornelius Tacitus (1), Sejanus apparently expected that he might one day plot and murder his way to the throne. He very nearly did.
Unfortunately for Sejanus, Tiberius had a trusted sister-in-law, Antonia. She was not a political player, which gave her opinions a certain weight. While nearly all communication from Rome filtered through Sejanus, Antonia managed to place a secret letter before Tiberius in which she described Sejanus’ web of plots in convincing detail.
Tiberius responded by plotting his own surprise. He sent an emissary with a lengthy letter to be read before the Roman Senate with Sejanus present. In the turnabout ending of the missive, Tiberius loosed a scathing denunciation of Sejanus and demanded his arrest. The shocked mastermind was dragged out and executed the same day: October 18, 31 AD.
Why does this date matter?
Because Roman and Biblical history intersect. During his glory days, Sejanus first influenced and then himself made appointments of many Imperial officials, including one Pontius Pilate. Pilate was made Prefect of Judea about the time that Tiberius gave up Rome for Capri. Sejanus was a notorious anti-Semite (2), and Pilate followed his benefactor’s anti-Jewish policies as he governed Judea. A few examples will illustrate Pilate’s treatment of the Jews.
The Romans were well aware that the Jews shunned all graven images. Tacitus, though himself disdainful of Jewry (3), accurately comments in The Histories, Book V:
…the Jews have purely mental conceptions of Deity, as one in essence. They call those profane who make representations of God in human shape out of perishable materials. They believe that Being to be supreme and eternal, neither capable of representation, nor of decay. They therefore do not allow any images to stand in their cities, much less in their temples.”
Of course, this rejection of graven images comes from the Ten Commandments, recorded in the Book of Exodus, Chapter 20:
4 “You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. 5 You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God…”
Knowing this, Pilate proceeded to install images of Tiberius in the Jewish temple at Jerusalem, a massive offense. From Josephus, Wars, Book II, Chapter 9:
Now Pilate, who was sent as procurator into Judea by Tiberius, sent by night those images of Caesar that are called ensigns into Jerusalem. This excited a very great tumult among the Jews when it was day; for those that were near them were astonished at the sight of them, as indications that their laws were trodden under foot; for those laws do not permit any sort of image to be brought into the city. Nay, besides the indignation which the citizens had themselves at this procedure, a vast number of people came running out of the country. These came zealously to Pilate to Cesarea, and besought him to carry those ensigns out of Jerusalem, and to preserve them their ancient laws inviolable; but upon Pilate’s denial of their request, they fell down prostrate upon the ground, and continued immovable in that posture for five days and as many nights.
On the next day Pilate sat upon his tribunal, in the open market-place, and called to him the multitude, as desirous to give them an answer; and then gave a signal to the soldiers, that they should all by agreement at once encompass the Jews with their weapons; so the band of soldiers stood round about the Jews in three ranks. The Jews were under the utmost consternation at that unexpected sight. Pilate also said to them that they should be cut in pieces, unless they would admit of Caesar’s images, and gave intimation to the soldiers to draw their naked swords. Hereupon the Jews, as it were at one signal, fell down in vast numbers together, and exposed their necks bare, and cried out that they were sooner ready to be slain, than that their law should be transgressed.”
Other examples of Pilate’s intentional mistreatment of the Jews have come down to us in ancient histories. Philo reports that Pilate also proposed to set up a colossal idol in the holy of holies itself, the most sacred part of the temple at Jerusalem (4).
Josephus reports that Pilate seized religious offerings made by worshiping Jews to pay for Roman work projects (5).
The Book of Luke tells us that Pilate killed Jewish worshipers, mingling his victims’ blood with that of their religious sacrifices, a hideous desecration (6). And at the crucifixion, Pilate posted a notice on Christ’s cross which declared him “The King of the Jews,” thereby mocking the Jewish leadership even as he gave them their way (7).
But all this raises a large question about the execution of Jesus. Pilate’s pattern was to avoid doing “anything which could be acceptable to his subjects” the Jews (8). So, why would he now give in to the clamor against Jesus? Why not release Jesus, if only to irritate the priests who called for his death? The Biblical record does reflect Pilate’s intention to release Jesus, and that he almost did. But something had changed. Something made Pilate respond to the Jewish leaders, grudgingly, rather than treat them with his customary vicious disdain.
What had changed was Sejanus
Sejanus was dead. Even worse for Pilate, after the surprise execution in the Fall of 31 AD, Tiberius began to root out Sejanus’s appointees and allies. Many were tried, tortured at length and executed in ways designed to maximize terror. In De Vita Caesarum: Tiberius, Suetonius describes treatment of Sejanus’ allies with tortures unmentionable here. One of the milder descriptions from LXII:
“At Capri they still point out the scene of his executions, from which he used to order that those who had been condemned after long and exquisite tortures be cast headlong into the sea before his eyes, while a band of marines waited below for the bodies and broke their bones with boathooks and oars, to prevent any breath of life from remaining in them.”
Tacitus records in The Annals, Book V:
“Executions were now a stimulus to [Tiberius’] fury, and he ordered the death of all who were lying in prison under accusation of complicity with Sejanus. There lay, singly or in heaps, the unnumbered dead, of every age and sex, the illustrious with the obscure. Kinsfolk and friends were not allowed to be near them, to weep over them, or even to gaze on them too long. Spies were set round them, who noted the sorrow of each mourner and followed the rotting corpses, till they were dragged to the Tiber, where, floating or driven on the bank, no one dared to burn or to touch them. The force of terror had utterly extinguished the sense of human fellowship, and, with the growth of cruelty, pity was thrust aside.”
Tiberius also issued countermands to Sejanus’ orders and policies, including his anti-Semitic policies. The new official line was to “let the Jews alone” (9). But this was not a casual change of direction. The new mandate arrived amidst the vigorous extermination of many officials Sejanus had put in place. Officials like Pilate.
After October 18, 31 AD, Pilate lived in a lethal political context. If Jesus’ “trial” happened after this date, Pilate’s strange ambivalence toward Jesus and the Jewish leadership is not strange after all—at this moment of history, his prejudices could cost him his life. Knowing this context, we can also understand why Pilate would genuinely dread the chant of those Jews who demanded Christ’s execution. The Book of John, Chapter 19 records:
12 From then on, Pilate tried to set Jesus free, but the Jews kept shouting, “If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar. “