Some Thoughts On Jerry Bowyer’s Essay On The Panic of 33AD

Recently I came across an article by a fellow I do not know named Jerry Bowyer and I thought the article was interesting enough to comment at some length about.  I would like to state at the outset that I tend not to get involved if at all possible with disputes about historical chronology, for though I consider the matter important [1], I tend to feel as if it is difficult to be dogmatic about such matters given the fragmentary nature of so much of our evidence, for I do not believe we can be more detailed about matters of chronology than our source material is.  One of my friends, though, posits a 34AD crucifixion year for Jesus Christ, and when I read this article I thought that he would appreciate the additional historical evidence for his particular ideas.  Be that as it may, even for those who do not wish to speculate on the matter of what year Christ died and was resurrected, the article itself is noteworthy for plenty of reasons.

For one, I found it deeply striking that the author felt a need to defend his historical examination about the panic of AD 33 in the first place.  The author points out, and I think he is wide to do so, that a great many people believe that looking at matters of economic and political history serve as a replacement for a belief in divine providence, so that if anyone spends a great deal of time and effort looking at the human element in history relating to scripture that they do so as a way of finding a secular replacement for a view of history that places God and his plans for mankind at the very center of history.  As someone who is both a historian and a person who takes my religious beliefs quite seriously, I am rather predisposed to take the author’s view that a look at matters of history and politics and economics only deepens our appreciation of God’s workings through history and does not replace a view of God’s ultimate sovereignty in human affairs.  While the author’s look at the Creed of Chalcedon is not one that would be authoritative for me personally or for many of the people who read my reflections, there need be no contradiction or dispute between a use of our God given talents for historical investigation and reasoning and to have faith in God’s control over the matters that we are investigating and inquiring into.

One of the fascinating mysteries of the Gospels is Pilate’s vulnerability.  The Gospels themselves note that Pilate was not a gentle or timid ruler, and the Gospels (as well as nonbiblical historical sources like the writings of Josephus) make it plain that Pilate was not afraid to commit atrocities in order to preserve Roman rule and his own dignity as governor.  Yet John 19:12-15 reveals this interesting exchange:  “From then on Pilate sought to release Him, but the Jews cried out, saying, “If you let this Man go, you are not Caesar’s friend. Whoever makes himself a king speaks against Caesar.”  When Pilate therefore heard that saying, he brought Jesus out and sat down in the judgment seat in a place that is called The Pavement, but in Hebrew, Gabbatha.  Now it was the Preparation Day of the Passover, and about the sixth hour. And he said to the Jews, “Behold your King!”  But they cried out, “Away with Him, away with Him! Crucify Him!”  Pilate said to them, “Shall I crucify your King?”  The chief priests answered, “We have no king but Caesar!””  There are several conclusions we can draw from this passage.  For one, Pilate was certainly shrewd in drawing out from the assembled audience that sought Jesus’ death a blasphemous declaration that they had no king but Caesar and that they rejected being ruled by God or by His Son.  Yet this passage also demonstrates Pilate as being shrewd from a place of weakness, and this is somewhat puzzling to those who view Pilate as being a swaggering bully in his dealings with the Jews and Samaritans during his time as governor of Judea.

This is where I think the author’s historical investigation is particularly brilliant.  If we view Pilate as being weakened through the judgment and death of his patron Sejannus and by the economic weakness as a result of a financial crisis during this period, then we could see how the normally swaggering Pilate would be vulnerable to the blackmailing of the Jewish religious leadership that clearly wanted Jesus dead.  Even if Pilate wanted, in some sort of wishy washy or superstitious sense, to free Jesus, he clearly lacked the moral fiber to stand up for his convictions, such as they were, in the face of pressure from the Jewish leadership.  Moreover, the charge of the leaders of the Jews that someone who was a friend of Jesus was not a friend of the Emperor was one that had a decidedly fierce sting given that Sejannus was executed on charges of treason for having not been a friend of Caesar but for having sought his own corrupt benefit.  For Pilate to have been tarred with the same accusation of disloyalty in the scapegoat seeking political and economic environment at the time in Rome would likely have been fatal, and Pilate was not a decent and honorable enough man to put himself at risk of dying a horrible death for the sake of an innocent man.  Ultimately, like Caiaphas he agreed that it was expedient for one man to die for the sake of the nation, and so he put Jesus Christ to death despite knowing that he was not a political threat on the level of the notorious insurrectionist Barabbas.

What we can see, therefore, is that God’s control over history is not limited to a direct influence over specific actions, but also influence over the context of those actions.  The timing of political events or economic distress can influence people to seek certain kinds of leaders or certain responses to find scapegoats to appease the wrath of certain powerful interests.  Did does not therefore need to influence the behavior of people directly, but can indirectly shape people and their responses according to His will through controlling their environment and the context of their decision-making.  To be sure, there may be some people who will reply to calamity or threat through seeking for God’s mercy and aid, but there will be far more who will respond based on that environment without an awareness that they are being shaped in such a fashion, thus preserving their own free will and personal responsibility even as they are being manipulated through events as God wishes to accomplish His will.  Even in spite of ourselves we will act according to God’s plans, whether we realize it or not.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Bible, Biblical History, Christianity, History, Musings and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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