One of the most arresting moments of the Passion narratives must surely be Jesus’s confrontation with Pontius Pilate—a standoff between the representative of imperial Rome and a Galilean carpenter who claims a kingdom “not of this world.” Pilate clearly knows that whoever Jesus is, He is no common criminal or insurrectionist like Barabbas. And yet at the utmost, he hands Him over to be crucified. Left ringing in the reader’s ears is Pilate’s haunting quip “What is truth?”—a remark that can be read either as sincere or nihilistic. And so for centuries after, Pilate has figured prominently in both the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, rooting the life of Jesus firmly within recorded history.
The enigmatic figure of Pilate sits at the center of David Lloyd Dusenbury’s sprawling study The Innocence of Pontius Pilate: How the Roman Trial of Jesus Shaped History. Dusenbury’s volume is, on its face, a historical survey of the long history of contested interpretations of Jesus’s trial before Pilate. And as its title indicates, its central interest is the tangled web of attempts across time to cast Pilate as a fundamentally “innocent,” or at the very least tragic, figure. He examines various non-Christian (especially Roman) characterizations of Jesus as a dangerous revolutionary whom Pilate justly put to death, as well as the long and sordid history of the “blood libel”—the imputation of responsibility for “Christ-killing” to the Jewish people as a whole. For some medieval writers, after all, exculpating Pilate was a way of justifying antisemitic policies by ascribing blood-guilt to the Jewish population.
In many ways, then, the struggle over Pilate’s innocence amounts to a long-running struggle over the interpretation of Christian history, which then serves as the basis of defining ingroups and outgroups. But Dusenbury is not content to leave the matter there; rather, halfway through the book, The Innocence of Pontius Pilate shifts gears to become a provocative work of political philosophy.
Dusenbury outlines an alternative “genealogy of secularity” that finds the kerygma of modernity—a distinction between the sacred and the secular—already latent in the very words of Christ. To support that claim, he draws on Marsilius of Padua’s fourteenth-century argument that Jesus’s trial before Pilate must be understood through the lens of kenosis, or self-emptying—a moment in which God Himself declines to exercise temporal jurisdiction directly, and thereby affirms the reigning temporal power’s legitimacy (in an admittedly derivative sense) by submitting to its authority. Or in Marsilius’s far more elegant phrasing, “Christ willed himself to lack authority in this world-age.”
That act of self-limitation, he argues, was politically revelatory: specifically, it was an outright rejection of the pagan ideal of hierocratic kingship. The pharaohs and Caesars of the ancient world were, of course, treated as essentially divine, with no gap existing between their edicts and the religious demands of the sacred order. Temporal and spiritual authority, on this conception, were united in a single human monarch. But Jesus’s claims in John’s Gospel necessarily shatter that theo-political unity. Christ’s declaration that the kingdom of God is not embodied in the imperium of Rome is—from the vantage point of the eternal—a relativization of Pilate’s authority, yet also an affirmation that Pilate’s office enjoys legitimacy within certain boundaries.
And so, Dusenbury reasons,
What we call the “secular” can first be glimpsed in the gospels—and, most clearly, in the Roman trial of Jesus in John. For that is where . . . Jesus splits the archaic temple-state and ascribes different logics or codes to all the polities of this world-age, and to the divine polity of a world-age to come.
Dusenbury even goes so far as to connect this argument to Pope Gelasius I’s doctrine of the “two swords”—directly against the medieval Catholic thinkers who were keen to enlist Gelasius as a theorist of universal papal jurisdiction. What if, Dusenbury invites the reader to consider, properly understood “Gelasian dyarchy” is not actually “integralist” at all? Indeed, while Dusenbury doesn’t make much of the point, a crucial implication of his argument is that the political theology of the “two kingdoms”—often characterized as a “Reformational” doctrine—is not something alien to the Christian tradition, but rather one of its founding distinctives.
Viewed through this lens, The Innocence of Pontius Pilate poses a profound theoretical challenge to a number of contemporary “postliberal” thinkers. Ubiquitous among religiously-inclined critics of modernity is the sense that secularization has gone too far and that the sacred has been forgotten. And usually, this sense manifests in an open longing to return, whether politically or epistemically or by some other method, to a time of greater integration and harmony, where the political sphere did not feel quite so godless. But if Dusenbury is right, then the inner logic of that longing presses in the direction of a distinctively pagan, not Christian, political theology, one in which the temporal power collapses more and more into the spiritual and the figure of the “sacred king” comes more and more into view. Dusenbury’s argument thus implies that the idea of undoing modernity by blurring the line between temporal and spiritual authority is a fundamentally un-Christian move.
None of this is to deny that the “temporal” political sphere is always informed, at some level, by theological views that might be either true or false. And as Luther repeatedly observed, of course wise and faithful leaders are to be preferred over violent or dissolute ones. But these claims can be pressed without reverting to a political theology that is more Roman, metaphysically speaking, than Christian. Perhaps the problem of temporal and spiritual authority can never be perfectly resolved this side of eternity. From an academic standpoint, The Innocence of Pontius Pilate is a colossal scholarly achievement, drawing on a vast number of primary sources across hundreds of years. It is not an easy or straightforward read—Dusenbury’s arguments are sprawling, ambitious, and sometimes digressive—but it is an intensely rich and suggestive book, with the potential to dramatically reframe contemporary debates about political theology and the future of the West. Highly recommended for those interested in modernity, secularity, and the history of Christian politics.
John Ehrett is editor in chief of Conciliar Post, an online publication dedicated to cultivating meaningful dialogue across Christian traditions, and a Patheos columnist writing at Between Two Kingdoms. He is a graduate of Yale Law School and is currently pursuing a Master of Arts in Religion at the Institute of Lutheran Theology.