Busted (4):  Did Luke Screw Up Pilate’s Job Title?

Busted 1In a previous article, we explored how critics falsely accuse Luke of gross inaccuracy in Luke 3:1.  Here, we return to the same verse to explore another alleged mistake.  Let’s review the relevant part of the passage, from the English Standard Version:

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea,…

Some critics have pointed out that Luke refers to Pontius Pilate as the governor or “hegemon” (ἡγεμών) of Judea, rather than by his actual title, which was prefect (νομάρχης).  If, the critics say, Luke was wrong about something that simple, then he surely was wrong about other things, too.

It is important to note that before 44 A.D. the technical term that Romans used for Pilate’s role was “prefect,” not “governor.”  However, “governor” (ἡγεμών) was a general term that was in broad usage during the time of Luke’s writing.  Other highly respected historians also used it—as well as similar terms—to refer to Pontius Pilate.

For example, Josephus, the great Jewish historian, repeatedly uses ἡγεμών to describe Pilate, as well as his predecessors in the same position.  See Antiquities 18.3.1, 18.6.5, etc.

Tacitus, the Roman historian, describes Pontius Pilate as a “procurator” (rather than a “prefect”) in Annals, 15.44, when talking about Jesus:

Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus,…

“Procurator” would also be a technically incorrect term for the pre-44 time period.  But, that doesn’t mean that Tacitus was an incompetent historian.

Some scholars have noted that Luke’s term, ἡγεμών, was a generic and more commonly used “catch-all” term that was synonymous with “prefect” and “procurator.”1  It appears that use of the technically exact title for such things was not a rigid thing.  For example, Josephus refers to Cuspius Fadus both as “prefect” and as “procurator.”2  Philo uses yet another term, commonly translated as “procurator,” to refer to a number of different types of Roman official, including a prefect, a proconsul, and a legate.3  All of these different titles would have been—and were—appropriately described by the catch-all term that Luke used.

So, did Luke screw up?  No.  He, like other great historians at the time, simply employed a general, commonly used term, rather than an official title, to refer to a Roman official.  Critics who use this to impugn Luke’s accuracy as a historian are inappropriately “splitting hairs” in this case.  Those same critics would also have to impugn Josephus, Philo, and Tacitus.

Notes:

  1. McGrew, Timothy (Professor and Director of Graduate Teaching, Western Michigan University),Alleged Historical Errors in the Gospels: Luke and John, Presentation to St. Michael Lutheran Church, MI, 11 June 2012, slide 24, accessed 28 April 2015:http://www.apologetics315.com/2012/06/alleged-historical-errors-in-gospels.html
  2. Feldman, Louis, Flavius Josephus Revisited in Aufstieg Und Niedergang Der Roemischen Welt, Part 2 edited by Hildegard Temporini and Wolfgang Haase 1984, page 818
  3. Carter, Warren, Matthew and Empire: Initial Explorations, T&T Clark, 2001, page 215
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