- The Final Days of Jesus: The Thrill of Defeat, The Agony of Victory. A Classical Historian Explores Jesus' Arrest, Trial, and Execution by Mark D. Smith
Mark D. Smith explains that this book "is a work of Roman history by a historian of the Roman Empire" (5). He hopes that the book will be different from others, offering a richer and more nuanced understanding of events that transpired at the Passover of 33 CE. Biblical scholars, he suggests, would benefit from perspectives and methodologies applied by historians. Smith laments the understanding of historical Jesus scholars especially, because they complain about how late the Gospels are as sources. "This complaint is rather curious from the perspective of the ancient historian," Smith writes, "for we inhabit a scholarly world in which first generation evidence is rare and priceless" (17). Smith also regards the traditional dating of the Gospels as dubious and, for example, would date the Gospel of Mark to the late 50s or early 60s. Overall, the evidence is early, and he argues that it is difficult for legendary accretions to develop in first-generation sources. Smith has much respect for biblical scholarship, yet bypasses much "of the rigid and restrictive assumptions, methodologies and criteria employed by some historical Jesus scholars," which according to him, "will not work if we hope to approach the study of the historical Jesus like any other historical issue" (37). It would appear, therefore, that when it comes to historical reconstruction, Smith deems biblical scholars to be a peculiar breed of their own.
In chapter three, Smith investigates the infamous prefect, Pontius Pilate. He came from the equestrian class, and it is quite probable that Pilate served for a time in the Praetorian Guard and owed his nomination as prefect to its head, Sejanus, who practically ran the empire on behalf of Tiberius. It [End Page 602] was the task of regional governors to uphold the Pax Romana, with all its accompanying benefits of "Roman law, protection, infrastructure, and prosperity," as initiated already at the time of Augustus. "Roman rule was often benevolent, but it was not benign" (49). Of course, part of their mandate was collecting Roman tax revenues. Even so, Smith questions portrayals of Rome as the "consummate Evil Empire" that biblical scholars have become accustomed to. It is about getting the balance right and not whitewashing Rome as such. Rome had little sympathy for provincials who would disturb the peace, but "neither would it tolerate a client king or regional governor who acted with excessive violence" (53). Even so, more and more Jews found Roman rule intolerable.
For Smith, Pilate's position became precarious in 31 CE, when Tiberius had Sejanus executed on the charge of maiestas (high treason). But his position was already shaky within the province itself because of the way Pilate acted with regards to Jewish sensibilities. This was demonstrated by the affair of the standards, when he transferred Roman troops to Jerusalem, as well as the aqueduct riot, during which Pilate took funds from the temple treasury, but probably with permission from Caiaphas. "Pilate appears in the pages of Josephus more as an oaf than an ogre" (75). Also in the affair of the shields, where Pilate commissioned a group of special shields to honour his patron, Tiberius, his position was compromised. Pilate needed to ensure that he was not associated with Sejanus and treason; indeed, if this was his motivation. He ignored requests for them to be taken down, and when Tiberius heard about it, he "responded with a strong denunciation of Pilate's judgment and ordered him to remove the shields from Jerusalem" (77). Pilate's cultural blunders thus led to vulnerability, both to his subjects and to his emperor. Only with time did he realise that a strategic alliance with the high priest and his family was absolutely essential.
In chapter four, Smith turns his attention to the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas...