The Innocence of Pontius Pilate

by David Lloyd Dusenbury

An overview by the author, with parts adapted from the book, published with the permission of Hurst and Oxford University Press.

Ecce Homo: Pilate and Jesus in the History of Secularity

In a beautiful volume of lectures and conversations, Julia Kristeva suggests that “the ‘genius of Christianity’ has introduced and continues to diffuse radical innovations … we have not done taking the measure of, and that Christians themselves do not dare recognize or make recognizable as ‘Christian difference’.” One of the innovations that Kristeva reflects upon is what she calls the “innocence of the suffering,” which she sees as being emblazoned in the drama of the Cross. It is in some sense because of his innocence, on Kristeva’s reading of the Gospels, that Jesus is “condemned as a rebel, even as a criminal subjected to crucifixion, the most shameful of chastisements.” And she concludes: “This postulate [of suffering innocence] has so permeated Western culture that we no longer even think of referring it back to Jesus.” 

That is a striking formulation. And in The Innocence of Pontius Pilate, I have posed a further question: Could it be that the “secular” is a postulate that has so permeated Western culture that we no longer even think of referring it back to Jesus?

The lexicon of “secularity” was reconceived in the nineteenth century by post-Christian and non-Christian ideologues. It is only in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that the “secular” comes to be perceived by both Christians and non-Christians, in Europe and in the Americas, as a programmatic opposition to the Christian legacy. This is not the form or meaning of the “secular” at issue in The Innocence of Pontius Pilate. Instead, I seek to retrace a Latin Christian logic of the secular, one rooted in the canonical Passion narratives (and, more precisely, in the Roman trial of Jesus in the gospel of John), which seems to be transmitted to medieval and early modern Europe by Augustine, and by the letters of an African pope, Gelasius. This book resists a modern tendency to forget, or repress, this Christian logic of the secular. 

Augustine and Gelasius

It is significant that both Augustine and Gelasius can refer to “secular powers” (saeculares potestates), in late antiquity, in merely descriptive ways. For them, the “secular” is a Christian concept; and it is not necessarily barbed or derogatory when they call a legislator, a law, or a law-court “secular”. The “secular” is a structural term. Whatever does not fall under the jurisdiction of the churches is “secular” – and there is much, they believe, which does not fall under the jurisdiction of the churches. According to Gelasius, the “secular” is a zone of life which is rightly controlled by “the laws of the government” (leges publicas). This late-fifth-century African pope stresses that it is necessary for all Roman clerics to honor the Roman Empire’s laws in “temporal matters” (temporalium … rerum). For Gelasius, all circumstances which are rightly governed by leges publicas are “secular”. All such circumstances are rightly judged by what Augustine and Gelasius both call the saeculares potestates

In short, for Augustine and Gelasius, the Roman Empire is “secular”. This is of course not to say that, for them, the Roman Empire has no divine legitimation, or that it is – or should be – hostile to the Roman Church. 

A Lexical Note on the “Secular”

The concept of “secularity” might seem to have roots in early Christian history, but as I try to show in the book, the words “secularity” and “secularization” are not secular in origin. They belong to a pre-modern Christian lexicon.

Ultimately, they stem from pre-Christian words that refer to a space of time. Saeculum refers to “a human generation,” “a century,” or “all the future ages of the world”; saecularis means “belonging to a century,” or “to the Roman games celebrating the turn of a century.”1Oxford Latin Dictionary, ed. P. G. W. Glare (Oxford, 1996), 1676 (under saecularis and saeculum). Compare G. Goetz, Thesaurus Glossarum Emendatarum … Pars Posterior, accedit index Graecus Guilelmi Heraei (Leipzig, 1901), 222 (under saecularis and saeculum). And since the “generation” is a recurring theme in Jesus’ sayings, it is interesting to note that saeculum seems to have originally denoted a generation: M. A. C. de Vaan, Etymological Dictionary of Latin and the Other Italic Languages (Leiden, 2008), 533 (under saeculum). It is striking, though, that none of pagan Rome’s jurists felt that the term “secularity” (saecularitas) or “secularization” (saecularizatio) was necessary to describe a mode of Roman life or a sphere of legal reality.2Unlike most late modern texts on secularization, early modern treatises often begin by noting this fact. Consult E. Mauritius, De Secularisatione Bonorum Ecclesiasticorum ex Jure Divino et Humano Praestertim ... (Sine loco, 1666), chapter II, section I (no page); J. F. Rhetius, “De Secularisatione,” Disputationes Juris Publici Undecim … (Frankfurt an der Oder, 1678), 97–98; J. B. Baumgart, Dissertatio Academica, De Secularisatione … (Helmstedt: Georg-Wolfgang Hamm, 1683), 75(r).    

Could it be that the “secular” is a postulate that has so permeated Western culture that we no longer even think of referring it back to Jesus?

The word “religion” (religio) is not infrequent in the surviving sources of pre-Christian Roman law, but in the vast bulk of Justinian’s Body of Roman Law there is only one pre-Christian occurrence of the word that we now instinctively contrast with what the Romans call “religion” (religio) – namely, what we now call the “secular” (saecularis).3Vocabularium Iurisprudentiae Romanae, ex auctoritate Academiae Borussicae compositum, Tomus V, ed. B. Kübler (Berlin, 1931), 63 (under religio and religiosus), 234 (under saeculum). As if to highlight the word’s unimportance in pre-Christian law, this solitary use of saecularis is in a chapter of Justinian’s collection that covers “The Legacy of Furniture”.4 The only substantive occurrences of saecularis in the whole of Justinian’s Body of Roman Law are clustered at Cod. Just. I 3.54.2–7: R. Mayr, ed., Vocabularium Codicis Iustiniani, I. Pars Latina (Hildesheim, 1965), 2176 (under saecularis). Note that the lines are Justinianic – meaning, they are not pre-Christian. Note, too, that they pertain to marriage and monasticism: H.-W. Strätz, “Säkularisation, Säkularisierung, II. Der kanonistische und staatskirchenrechtliche Begriff”, Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe. Historisches Lexikon zur politisch-sozialen Sprache in Deutschland, ed. O. Brunner, W. Conze, and R. Koselleck (Stuttgart, 1984), 796. The word appears in a paragraph on silver-accented furnishings by a revered legal commentator, Paul (this is not the apostle, Paul of Tarsus, but Julius Paulus, a third-century pagan jurist who moved in the orbit of the Severan dynasty’s most distinguished jurist, Ulpian). As this passage shows, for Paul, the saeculum is a space of time; he only refers to “the severity of the age” (saeculi severitatem).5 Justinian, Digest 33.10.3 (from Paulus, Sabinus, book 4). The “secular” is a temporal concept, not a legal one. 

We thus have reason to pose the following questions: Who first sharpened the Roman word “secular” by giving it the forms that we now find indispensable, “secularization” and “secularity”? When did the word “secular” cease to refer to a bloc of time (as it did for the pagan lawyer, Paul), and begin to signify a legal and political concept of fundamental importance? 

Medieval “Secularity” and “Secularization”

This brings us to the unlikely origins of “secularity”. For we do not owe the word “secularity” to an eighteenth-century philosophe. It is a coinage of medieval Christian writers. When the word “secularity” (saecularitas) occurs in a history written by a twelfth-century Shropshire-born monk, Orderic Vitalis, it is sharply contrasted with the monastic form of life (conversatio monachorum). And we do not owe the word “secularization” to a nineteenth-century progressive. It is a creation of late medieval canon law. “Secularization” originally signified the protocols for laicizing a monastic in the Latin Church. It often meant no more than permitting a monk to become a secular cleric. 

A “secular cleric”? This might look like a contradiction in terms – and a remark by John of Salisbury suggests that it may have been jarring to twelfth-century Europeans, too. Nevertheless, many priests would have been called “seculars” in the high medieval period. This meant only that “seculars,” unlike monastics, were not committed to a comprehensive rule of life (regula vitae) like those that governed the religious houses, hour by hour, minute by minute. A secular priest would not be subject to the forms of “continuous control,” in Michel Foucault’s phrase, that monastic institutions came to express.

Crucially, it is not pagan but Christian law, not civil but canon law, not modern but medieval law that first innovates on the Latin word saecularis to give us saecularizatio.6 This, too, is noted in Rhetius, “De Secularisatione,” Disputationes (1678), 98–101; and Baumgart, De Secularisatione … (1683), 75(r–v). Originally, “secularization” designated a judicial process that returns a Latin cleric or monastic to the saeculum, to “the world” (which means different things in different contexts). We can therefore read in a medieval English text of a former deacon who “lived secularly” – as a Christian, but not as a deacon – “off church revenues.” 

“Secularization” and the Protestant Revolutions

Although “secularization” (saecularizatio) is a creation of medieval canon law, it only becomes a regime-defining term in seventeenth-century Europe. It is not hard to identify the reason for this. In early modern Europe, “secularization” described the expropriation of monastic estates (and other church holdings), as the Protestant revolutions led to a mass expropriation of monastic estates (and other church holdings) in northern and central Europe. It is because of the Protestant revolutions that a minor process of medieval canon law – “secularization” – became a revolutionary, continent-shaping technique of early modern civil law. 

Samuel Pufendorf cites a northern European rhyme that had become a cliché by the end of the seventeenth century: “Whoever governs the region decides the religion.” (In Pufendorf’s Latin: cuius est regio, illius et est religio.) The idea is that any “state-holder” may decide whether their state will cut ties to the old Roman church and become allied with one of the new Protestant communions. Wherever a “state-holder” went with the Lutherans or Calvinists, “secularization” occurred. Emblematic of this was Henry VIII, who “destroyed” the great monastic houses of England, as Simon Grimm puts it in his 1687 dissertation On the Profanation of Sacred Things, which Is Called in the Vernacular, ‘Secularization’.7 S. Grimm, De Profanatione Rei Sacrae, Vulgo Secularisirung Geistlicher Güter (Giessen, 1687), 5. 

For Augustine and Gelasius, the Roman Empire is “secular”. This is not to say that, for them, the Roman Empire has no divine legitimation, or that it is – or should be – hostile to the Roman Church. 

Note Grimm’s title: On the Profanation of Sacred Things. He leads with “profanation” (profanatio), a pre-Christian term for the seizure of temples, altars, and consecrated vessels. And it is common for seventeenth-century jurists to signal that saecularizatio is a dubious term.8 J. F. Rhetius, “De Secularisatione”, Disputationes Juris Publici Undecim … (Frankfurt an der Oder, 1678), 97–98. It is a “barbarism,” says the jurist Johann Rhetz (meaning, a medieval term), and “according to those who write in a more elegant Latin, it should not be used.” In a 1683 dissertation titled On Secularization, Johann Baumgart states that saecularizatio is “not really” a Latin concept at all, since it never occurs in Justinian’s Body of Roman Law (as we have just seen). But Baumgart concedes that saecularizatio seems to have “usurped” a place in modern European politics and law – one that, mutatis mutandis, it holds to this day. 

And what, for Baumgart, is the meaning of the pseudo-Latin term, saecularizatio? It is “to make something that belongs to the church into something that belongs to the age” (ex ecclesiastico facere aliquid seculare). In the first instance, modern “secularization” is a form of expropriation. It is worth remembering that it is a form of expropriation – as one young jurist notes – which cancels out “the last will and intention” of numberless Christians who left their lands to the church, wishing them to be “perpetual holdings of the church.”9 B. H. Pagendarm, De Bonorum Secularisatorum Natura (Halle, 1748), 21–22. That Pagendarm deflects this objection does not lessen its historical, and legal, interest.

We see this in Erich Mauritius’s 1666 book On the Secularization of Church Holdings, one of the first modern legal treatments of the topic. “Incorporation of church holdings,” Mauritius writes, is “a different way of saying secularization.” In other words, the early modern term “incorporation” reminds us that there is a cui-bono question to be asked wherever “secularization” is occurring. One blood-curdling exemplum in a seventeenth-century treatise, On Justice and Right, by an illustrious Flemish theologian-jurist, Leonard Lessius, illustrates the high stakes of a period in which a single adverse judgement could lead to a religious house being seized and asset-stripped. “Calumniators [might] succeed in falsely accusing an entire monastery,” as Wim Decock recounts Lessius’ exemplum, “with a capital crime, such as treason [or] idolatry.”10 I stress that this is an exemplum which illustrates for us the stakes involved in early modern ‘secularization’. This is not Lessius’ direct concern in the passage, where he is rather insisting that no one (in Decock’s words) “would dare to say … that those monks must suffer punishment by burning at the stake or quartering, if the judge knew that those monks were innocent.” W. Decock, “The Judge’s Conscience and the Protection of the Criminal Defendant: Moral Safeguards against Judicial Arbitrariness,” From the Judge’s Arbitrium to the Legality Principle: Legislation as a Source of Law in Criminal Trials, ed. G. Martyn, A. Musson, and H. Pihlajamäki (Berlin, 2013), 90–91. Incorporatio is a forgotten term which signals the benefits that can accrue, justly or not, to a secular order as the result of saecularizatio. However that may be, “secularization” is the term that has lasted – not “profanation,” and not “incorporation”. 

The novelty of early modern “secularization” is not only terminological. Antecedents for the mass seizure of basilicas, bishops’ palaces, and consecrated houses – by Christians – were hard to come by. Mauritius comments that Julian the Apostate, a “bitter persecutor of the Christian name,” had seized all the “ecclesiastical holdings that Constantine had granted.”

For Mauritius, of course, Julian’s “profanation” of Christian properties in the fourth century CE is not a legitimating history. And the histories that Mauritius and other seventeenth-century Protestants could not foresee are not, perhaps, legitimating either. In the wake of the Protestant revolution, the real breakers of secularization that razed Europe’s thousand-year monastic estates came with the Jacobins in the eighteenth century, Bonapartists in the nineteenth century, Nazis and Bolsheviks in the twentieth century – and now, late capitalism (or neoliberalism) in the twenty-first century.

Augustine on Pilate and Jesus

But how is this continent-shaping, centuries-long history tied to the drama of Pilate and Jesus? This question returns us to Augustine’s world-historical reflection on the Roman trial of Jesus in the gospel of John. Augustine asserts, with astonishing force and colour, an early Christian concept of the saeculum in his Homilies on the Gospel of John. In the same text, the bishop of Hippo rejects the early Christian myth of a Judaean crucifixion. “It is clear,” he concludes in Homily 118, that Roman troops “obeyed the governor in crucifying Jesus.” It is this recognition that Jesus’s death is ordered by Pilate that permits Augustine’s contrastive logic of church and empire to come to the fore in Homilies 115 and 116, which become stock texts (loci classici) in certain late medieval circles – and, in that way, will come to figure decisively in the history of secularity.

It is of decisive importance, for The Innocence of Pontius Pilate, that Augustine insists on the guilt of Pontius Pilate. He thematizes Pilate’s hand in Jesus’s death even before the Roman meets the Galilean on the day of his death. In Homily 112, on Jesus’s arrest in a “garden” (uniquely in John), Augustine stresses that the mention of a “cohort” coming out to seize Jesus (also uniquely in John), means that he must have been taken by Roman troops on the night before his death:

The cohort was not of Judaeans (non Iudaeorum), but of [Roman] troops. Therefore, let the cohort be understood to have been received [by the Judaeans] from the governor [Pilate], as though for arresting a criminal, so that, since the order of legitimate jurisdiction was observed … no one might dare to resist those making the arrest (112.2). 

Photo by marek kizer on Unsplash

On Augustine’s reading, the passion of Jesus ends on a Roman cross, and begins with a Roman arrest. This is crucial. And it is crucial, too, to note the care with which Augustine states that “the order of legitimate jurisdiction was observed” on the night before Jesus’s death. This emphasis on the legal validity of the proceedings will influence later, legally attuned reconstructions of Jesus’s passion – the exemplary case is Dante Alighieri’s treatise Monarchy (which I read in chapter 15 of the book). For Augustine, the “legitimacy” of Pilate’s proceedings is an institutional (but not a moral) fact.

At the close of Homily 113, when Augustine moves from Jesus’s high-priestly interrogations in the gospel of John to “the things done concerning the Lord before the governor, Pontius Pilate,” he notes that Pilate is “a foreign judge” (alienigenae iudicis). His stress, here, falls on the brotherhood of Jesus and his accusers. The refusal of the Temple elites to cross the threshold of Pilate’s court (unique to John) invites this gloss:

They were afraid to be contaminated by the praetorium of a foreign judge and were not afraid to be contaminated by the blood of an innocent brother (fratris innocentis) – to say only this, for the time being, in which the conscience of evil men was held guilty (ubi rea malorum conscientia tenebatur). For that he was also the Lord who was being led to death by their impiety, and that the Giver of Life was being killed, should not be imputed to their conscience, but to ignorance (non eorum conscientiae, sed ignorantiae deputetur) (114.2).

Augustine, in these lines, rejects the cruel Christian myth of “Christ-killers” (which I deconstruct in chapter 12 of the book), and his borrowings from the book of Acts in this gloss are unmistakable (2:22-23, 3:13-15). It is not coincidental that Augustine sees Christian laws as protecting late-antique Judaeans (22). Nor is it coincidental that the myth of Judaean blood-guilt is rejected in the medieval European church precisely where Augustine’s influence is the strongest (14-15, 19-22) (1-37). 

Augustine is more keenly aware than most exegetes – ancient or modern – that Jesus is killed as an enemy of his city, Jerusalem, and of his empire, Rome.

For Augustine, unlike for much of the Christian tradition (from Aristides in the second century to Giorgio Agamben in the twenty-first), it is Pontius Pilate who sentences Jesus to death. And who is Pilate? “Pilate was a Roman,” says Augustine, “and the Romans had sent him to Judaea as governor (114.5)”. 

This means that the sentence under which Jesus dies is a Roman sentence. The Augustinian Passion is legally (though not morally) a thoroughly Roman affair: Jesus is arrested by the Romans, and it is a “Roman judge” (iudex Romanus) who ultimately sentences Jesus to death. Paul Winter is right to conclude, in his “Marginal Notes on the Trial of Jesus,” that Augustine reads the Johannine trial narrative “more carefully” than other early Christian writers (242, note 98).

In contrast to much of the Christian tradition, Augustine accepts that it is the Roman imperium which most brutally tortures, condemns, and kills Jesus. In his Harmony of the Gospels, Augustine assigns the crucifixion to “John’s narrative of what was done by Pilate.” And this is how he concludes his reading of the Roman trial in the Homilies on the Gospel of John: “Pilate, seated on his dais, judged and condemned Jesus” (iudicante atque damnante Pilato pro tribunali). And though he notes the vagueness of some of the Gospels’ language, Augustine denies that there is any juridical uncertainty in the canonical Passion narratives. Only Roman troops could have crucified Jesus (116.9). 

Augustine on Church and Empire

Augustine is more keenly aware than most exegetes – ancient or modern – that Jesus is killed as an enemy of his city, Jerusalem, and of his empire, Rome. The charge of Jesus’s enmity to Jerusalem is voiced by his Judaean accusers; and the charge of his enmity to Rome is stated on the titulus pinned to his cross (composed by Pilate). Because Augustine sees this with singular clarity, and is a passionate believer in Jesus’s innocence, he is led to theorize the reign of God and the kingship of Jesus in a way that radically contrasts them with the “reign” of any human empire and the “kingship” of any human sovereign. In this way, he is led to separate the jurisdiction of Jesus’s mystical body, the church, from that of any human polity in antiquity – which is to say, from any coercive polity, any “domination” (dominatio). 

For what does Jesus say to Pilate, in John 18? “My kingdom is not of this world.” Augustine hears, in this, Jesus’s legal defence. But he also hears Jesus’s delineation of a novel form of jurisdiction which renders all other forms of jurisdiction worldly. This is how Augustine opens Homily 115: 

“My kingdom is not of this world.” … This is what the good teacher (bonus magister) wanted us to know. But first, the vain human opinion about his kingdom had to be pointed out, whether that of the gentiles or the Judaeans (from whom Pilate had heard it). As if Jesus had to be punished with death because he had laid claim to an illicit kingdom (illicitum … regnum). For those who are ruling are usually jealous of those who rule and, of course, care had to be taken that his kingdom should not be opposed (adversum) either to the Romans or the Judaeans (115.1).    

Augustine suggests that there is only one “human opinion” (opinio hominum) concerning Jesus’s kingdom, regardless of whether we turn to Gentiles or Judaeans. New kings are a threat to human kingdoms, and Jesus is held to be a threat, because the Romans and Judaeans share the one human opinion regarding kings and kingdoms. It is because this opinion is shared by Jesus’s Judaean accusers and his Roman judge that they eye each other – and not only him – with jealousy (invidentia). To my mind, this is a commendably hard-headed reading of the Johannine text – and of the politics of law. 

But if Augustine is right, what Jesus “wanted us to know” (scire nos voluit) is that his Roman judge and his Judaean accusers are unenlightened. The “human opinion” about kingdoms which the Roman and Jerusalem elites share is – on Augustine’s reading – “vain”. But it is only “vain” because Jesus – the accused – is a king. Augustine is so convinced of this that he impersonates Jesus in a striking passage that comes to influence the history of European legal thought: “Hear, Judaeans and gentiles! … Hear, all human dominions! I obstruct not your dominion in this world. ‘My kingdom is not of this world.’ … What more do you want? Come to the kingdom which is not of this world; come by believing … (115.2)”. 

The question this “Jesus” poses to the rulers of the age is as peremptory in Latin as it is in English: “What more do you want?” (quid vultis amplius?). The medieval opponents of papal monarchy are right to sense that this patristic question – which is ascribed, rhetorically, to Jesus – is one that the high-medieval popes could never pose to the non-clerical rulers of Europe. It is precisely secular rule that the first theorists of European secularity, quoting this sermon, will later assert. It is ultimately Jesus’s dictum, however, that his “kingdom is not of this world,” which seems to serve the first theorists of secularity as the original postulate of non-ecclesiastical rule. In this way, the Roman trial of Jesus helps to account for the rise of a conception of governance which “has so permeated Western culture,” in Kristeva’s words, “that we no longer even think of referring it back to Jesus.”11 J. Kristeva, This Incredible Need to Believe, trans. B. B. Brahic (New York, 2009), 84, 88, 90 (typography lightly modified). For a fuller sketch of that history (and much more), the reader is referred to The Innocence of Pontius Pilate. ♦

David Lloyd Dusenbury is currently a Visiting Fellow at the Danube Institute in Budapest, Hungary, and a Visiting Scholar at Eötvös Loránd University. His most recent book is Nemesius of Emesa on Human Nature: A Cosmopolitan Anthropology from Roman Syria (Oxford, 2021).

Recommended Citation

Dusenbury, David Lloyd. “Ecce Homo: Pilate and Jesus in the History of Secularity.” Canopy Forum, October 1, 2021.