Hungarian Conservative

Pilate’s Drama

Mihály Munkácsy, Christ before Pilate – Part of the Christ-Trilogy (1881)
Tibor Oláh/MTVA/MTI
Even though The Innocence of Pontius Pilate by David Lloyd Dusenbury offers no mystic resolution of Pilate’s drama, the philosophical conclusions it draws from the trial of Jesus are indeed far-reaching.

This article was written by Alexis Léonas, originally published in Vol. 13 No. 3 of Hungarian Review.

A Review of The Innocence of Pontius Pilate. How the Roman Trial of Jesus Shaped History by David Lloyd Dusenbury (London: Hurst & Co., 2021)

The title is compelling. The Innocence of Pontius Pilate brings back the sensation one always has while reading the Gospel. The spell of the narrative is such that no matter how well you know the text, no matter how well you know history and theology, you secretly hope that Pilate, after saying ‘I find no fault in this man’ (Lk 23:4, similar wording in Jn 18:38), will act upon his words… The title of David Dusenbury’s book touches this string. And even though the book offers no mystic resolution of Pilate’s drama, the philosophical conclusions it draws from the trial of Jesus are indeed far-reaching.

Dusenbury begins by highlighting the paradox embedded in the first lines of Justinian’s Codex iuris civili—the code of the Roman Law which has shaped and continues to shape the European legal space. Dusenbury notes two interesting things about the Preface to this venerable code: its first line runs ‘In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ’—closing the eyes, as it were, to the fact that this same Jesus was judged and executed by force of that very law. The author is right to see here a yawning contradiction. Buried under a thick layer of convention and habit this chasm provides a good starting point for all further investigations. As a matter of fact, the juxtaposition of the two reference systems, of the two ‘kingdoms’, runs like a hidden vein through the whole history of the European and Christian civilization and culture. Justinian’s code signals this dualism in more ways than one. The emperor’s titles, magnificent and endless though they seem, exclude one, which all the emperors of the pre-Christian era proudly bore—the title of Pontifex Maximus, the Most High Priest. That the bishop of Rome is ever since—justly or unjustly—called the Supreme Pontiff is secondary to the fact that the emperor no longer claims this title. This inaugurates a system of coordinates independent of (and complementary to) the imperial power act.

For Dusenbury, the Gospel scene between Jesus and Pilate is largely responsible for this rift within the European consciousness. This assumption triggers a whole series of case studies and reflections, where the appraisal of the Jesus–Pilate scene functions as a touchstone. The span of Dusenbury’s intellectual horizon is impressive: from Apostle Paul to Saint Augustine with digressions on Jewish and Muslim traditions; from Late Antiquity to Dante and Marsilius of Padua and then on to Hobbes and ultimately Jean-Jacques Rousseau. One thing must be said straight away: The Innocence of Pontius Pilate is a highly erudite work. It is written by an erudite and is aimed at erudites and prospective erudites (meaning those who will inadvertently become erudite upon reading). This vast learning underpins the somewhat baroque stamp of the book. The general impression is akin to that of a baroque musical piece: a suite of elaborate variations on the same theme, where the basso ostinato is provided by the Jesus before Pilate episode. A set of well-chosen illustrations—old masters for the most part—bolsters this feeling.

Christ before Pontius Pilate who is washing his hands of the guilt of the crime. SOURCE: Wikimedia Commons

The Innocence of Pontius Pilate is thought provoking both because its main tenet invites reflection and because of the way it is written. Erudite writing means that the ideas are not stated directly, but presented via the literary and cultural history of their evolution. This adds a pleasant slowness to the narrative, since each notion comes with a whole array—one could say a procession—of historical niceties. By way of example, the handling of the concept of secularism is preceded by an ample etymological inquiry into various meanings of the Latin word saeculum and its cognates (pp. 121–124). This results in something comparable to a Breughel/Bruegel landscape overflowing with minute details. At times one cannot help feeling there are too many. The learning occasionally carries the author away: speaking of Pliny the Younger’s letter exchange with Emperor Trajan, Dusenbury cannot help mentioning the ‘charming’ correspondence of Pliny with Tacitus (p. 72); the chapter dedicated to Pope Gelasius’s claiming the title of Supreme Pontiff offers a page-long digression on Dionysius Exiguus, the inventor of the Christian calendar (pp. 157–158).

Interestingly the book’s intellectual trajectory does not lead to any synoptic assessment. Dusenbury leaves it to the reader to reflect on historical, philosophical, and religious upshots of the Pilate episode and its recurrences in the European consciousness. The only occasion on which the author lets out something more of his ideas is in the fourth chapter, ‘The Unlikely Origins of Secularity’, and in the epilogue of the book. Dusenbury attributes supreme importance to the idea of secular reality being complementary to the reality of the sacred: ‘It is by the Christians’ division of sacred and secular—or rather by Christ’s [author’s italics] division of sacred and secular—that a ‘decency of both orders’ (modestia utriusque ordinis [a quote from Pope Gelasius’s letter]) can be cultivated’ (p. 166). The two orders in question are the secular and the spiritual scales of values. Dusenbury stops short of making further conclusions. Yet some ideas immediately spring to mind.

One possible conclusion is historical: we begin to see the reason for the age-old disparity between Christian civilization and the two other Abrahamic religions.

How is it that Judaism and Islam have created their own legal systems, whereas Christianity ended up adopting Roman law? In the perspective of The Innocence of Pontius Pilate, one realizes that this adoption was more than just a historical coincidence. Encoded in the Jesus before Pilate scene is the message that the dualism between the Kingdom of God and the human kingdom/s is there to stay. Neither is meant to supplant the other. Part of what is upholding this dualism seems to be the badly concealed mistrust Christendom generally has towards the law. While Judaism and Islam invested energy and learning in encapsulating the Will of God in sophisticated series of sacred algorithms, Christianity invested in what may be called the fundamental sciences. Rendering legal issues unto Caesar oriented the Christian mind towards theological and philosophical reasoning. One could find this speculation on God and the universe perfectly gratuitous, were it not the platform for modern science.

Another idea emerges as one reads The Innocence of Pontius Pilate. The book convincingly shows that the secular side of life is not an unwelcome side effect of Creation. Having in mind the overwhelmingly secular civilization of today, this is an interesting reminder. To put it more blatantly, this profane ‘order’ is at least partly programmed into the Christian religion itself. Where the fundamentalists of all denominations would see sheer demonic devastation, one can still discover, covered by mundane debris, the layout of the City of God.

There is also a psychological aspect to the issue: having two ‘homelands’, i.e. operating within two reference systems at the same time, must have made an imprint on the European psyche. Medieval as well as modern annals are full of the stories of conversions, lapses, and relapses. Suffice it to quote Thomas à Becket who from a courtier turned step by step into a saintly bishop and then into a martyr. Or, even more famously, Saint Francis, who from an utterly mundane individual became the great saint we know. This choice of spiritual versus worldly values can happen on a large and on a small scale. Every moment one can decide whether one belongs to Jesus’s Kingdom or to Pilate’s Empire. This possibility to choose may be the source of Western personalism. In other words, a society recognizing that ‘dual citizenship’ opens the way to inner freedom unheard of in other climates. By the way, this is also the point where we can see the danger the retreat of Christianity carries for Western personhood: the less Christian the society grows, the less access we have to any alternative coordinates. These reflections have taken us far away from The Innocence of Pontius Pilate, but as said above, Dusenbury’s book is thought provoking and this is merely a sample of the thoughts it inspires. All in all, one can be grateful to the author for the horizons he has opened. That it has been done in the most learned way imaginable only adds to his merit.

Going back to the historical materials, one cannot help noticing some (inevitable) gaps. The main missing link is probably the scholastic phase in the history of the Jesus before Pilate episode. Aquinas discussed the responsibility of Pilate in Summa Theologiae (ii.ii.67.1. ad 2; iii.47.3, ad 3; iii.47.6 ad 2) and was not the only scholastic philosopher to do so.1 Of course, medieval perception of the trial of Jesus largely drew on Saint Augustine, whose views are well covered in the book.

The quasi-permanent tug-of-war between the Papacy and the Empire (and the other European monarchies) gave rise to a whole literature on the divide between the secular and the spiritual powers,2 which would be relevant to David Dusenbury’s discussion. Furthermore, the binary opposition of Christian versus secular, which is the reality in the world of today, operated in the Middle Ages as a ternary structure (secular life—Christian life—consecrated [monastic] life). Mid-thirteenth century Paris had witnessed a bitter conflict between the mendicant friars and the ‘secular’ common priesthood.3 This complexity resulted in intense reflection and debate, ranging over a whole set of topics and probing the very nature of Jesus’s teaching. The juxtaposition of precept and advice (Jesus being identified as advice-giving Friend rather than law-enforcing king)4 was widely discussed in scholastic circles and would have been an important asset to the enquiry that Dusenbury is pursuing. Besides theological speculation, scholastic thinking developed an elaborate political theory, which paved the way for political and legal developments of the pre-modern and modern epochs and which is also sadly left out of the scope of this work.5

Skipping many centuries, another absentee one regrets is Johann Caspar Lavater, Goethe’s friend and mentor, whose Pontius Pilatus, oder die Bibel im Kleinen und der Mensch im Großen (4 vols) came out in 1782–1785—just in time to fit into the book’s time-frame. But of course, the subject is so vast that one cannot hope to exhaust it. Mystically minded readers will certainly miss the Pilate of the Catholic visionaries Anna Katharina Emmerich and Maria Valtorta. Similarly, French readers would have liked more on Roger Caillois (mentioned en passant on p. 112). And, needless to say, Eastern European readers will regret the lack of discussion of Mikhail Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita (mentioned once only in passing).

Last but not least, a few minor factual errors (clearly unavoidable in a work of this span) do stick out: Toledot Yeshu does not mean ‘Life of Jesus’ (repeated several times, pp. 86–89), but ‘genealogy’ or by extension ‘story of Jesus’; καινὸς φόνος aptly quoted from Melito of Sardis cannot mean ‘unheard-of’ but ‘new’, ‘novel’ murder (p. 139); Daniel Hartnaccius’s name is actually Daniel Hartnack (1642– 1708), although it is a pleasure to see it in the Latinized form (pp. 233–235, 237–238), and Christian Thomasius was not a Pietist6 (as stated on p. 238).


1 One can mention for instance Ockham, who discussed Pilate in several works. Cf. William of
Ockham: ‘A Letter to the Friars Minor’ and Other Writings, A. S. McGrade and J. Kilcullen (eds)
(Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought, 1995), 73–112; also in a political perspective,
see Eight Questions on the Power of the Pope, I. 6. (ET by Jonathan Robinson is available online: For a general picture, see Takashi Shogimen, Ockham and Political Discourse in the Late Middle Ages (Cambridge Studies in
Medieval Life and Thought, 2007).

2 Cf. G. Briguglia (ed.), Giovanni Quidort di Parigi – Egidio Romano, Il potere del re e il potere del papa.
Due trattati medievali (Genua-Milan, 2009); G. Tavolaro, ‘“Opus nature est opus Dei”. Potestas
regalis et potestas sacerdotalis nella riflessione di Giacomo da Viterbo,’ Archives d’histoire doctrinale et
littéraire du Moyen Âge
, 81 (2014), 39–98.

3 See Yves Congar, ‘Aspects ecclésiologiques de la querelle entre mendiants et séculiers dans la
seconde moitié du XIIIe siècle et le début du XIVe’, Archives d’histoire doctrinale et littéraire du Moyen
, 36 (1961), 35–151.

4 S. Pinckaers OP, ‘Les Conseils évangéliques et la morale chrétienne’, in L’Évangile et la morale
(Fribourg–Paris, 1990), 175–183; V. H. Deák OP, Consilia sapientis amici. Saint Thomas Aquinas on the
Foundation of the Evangelical Counsels in Theological Anthropology
(Rome: Tesi Gregoriana, 207, 2014).

5 Overview in Alain Boureau, La Religion de l’État: La construction de la République étatique dans le
discours théologique de l’Occident médiéval (1250–1350)
(Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2006).

6 See Rudolf Kayser, Christian Thomasius und der Pietismus (Hamburg, 1900).

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Even though The Innocence of Pontius Pilate by David Lloyd Dusenbury offers no mystic resolution of Pilate’s drama, the philosophical conclusions it draws from the trial of Jesus are indeed far-reaching.