Herod the Great (you know, that guy in the Bible who killed all those babies, but didn’t really) was a procurator. (WTF is a procurator? Don’t worry, I’ll get to that.) In fact, Herod wasn’t just any procurator. He was the chief procurator of the entire Roman province of Syria. Holy crap! That’s amazing! Er…or totally, fantastically irrelevant and boring. One or the other, I’m sure. (Right?)
Who cares? Hardly anyone really. Why am I writing about this? Well, to be honest, because I had to at some point, and now is as good a time as any (more on that later). But kind of, also, because it’s really interesting to ancient history geeks. And, strangely, Christian apologists. Why? Because they can argue from “Herod was the procurator of Syria” to “Luke and Matthew don’t contradict each other on the year of Christ’s birth, contrary to what all you mean atheist harpies keep saying.” Yeah. It takes some twists and turns. But they make a good effort to get from A to B. Strangely, this point also connects to the debate over the existence of Jesus. No shit. Lotta twists and cul-de-sacs, but A gets to B on that one, too.
Even given that context (“Ooo! Christian apologetics? Now it’s getting interesting!”), this is one of the most jaw-droppingly uninteresting bits of trivia you’ve probably come across on FtB in months. Or ever. I mean, there are mighty battles being fought elsewhere here over very important issues. Sexism, slander, dumbassery, political murder, bad science, the Republican primaries, soda mice. (Among all of which you will learn that a new spell has been added to the Harry Potter lexicon: wave your wand and utter the words Rebecca Watson and a hoard of nitwitted sexist trolls are summoned; unfortunately they immediately attack the spellcaster so it’s kind of a shit spell really.)
But here’s the backstory. For my Master of Philosophy at Columbia University (aka M.Phil., a graduate degree between M.A. and Ph.D., sort of like what everyone else calls ABD) I completed a thesis in preparation for working up a prospectus for my dissertation. That thesis was never published, mainly because, though it is more thorough and meticulous than anything on its topic, someone I’d never heard of beat me to publication with their own paper arguing the same thesis (albeit a lot less comprehensively and in a more wishy washy way, but nevertheless, journals won’t publish my work now because “it’s already been done,” as one editor directly told me). It’s a mind-numbingly boring thesis. But I worked really hard on it and I’m sure someone will find it useful someday. So I updated it (even citing and incorporating that other paper, as well as all the revisions asked for by my peer reviewers) and published it on my website for anyone crazy enough to read it: Herod the Procurator: Was Herod the Great a Roman Governor of Syria? (PDF)
It does have one interesting vibe to it. If you read it all through (you have to be kind of a little crazy to do that, but that can be in a good way; why, hey, it’s “only” 36 pages long), one thing you will learn, especially if you are not a professional historian, is how incredibly complicated doing history really is, and why expertise and training is so important for it. My thesis details all the actual steps that are involved in coming to a conclusion on any question (even one so seemingly simple as “Was Herod the Great really the procurator of Roman Syria?”), showing you all the sorts of things you have to know about and research, the process of reasoning and analysis you have to go through, and all that jazz. Usually you just see the end result, maybe a paragraph summary, and don’t see all the messy, crazy shit that went on to produce that paragraph. Now you get to see Oz working the controls. Batshit crazy controls.
You’ll also learn (especially if you read the most boring part) how translations, even by total bona fide experts, can screw up the original meaning of a text, and how beholden laymen are to what are really often very subjective translations hiding all manner of assumptions and agendas of the translator. Not just the Bible has this problem; all ancient books do. You’ll also learn a bit about how determining what the original text said from existing manuscripts is no simple matter, either. And you’ll learn some stuff about various languages, Roman provincial administration, and how Herod the Great and Emperor Augustus were such party buds I’d bet a sawbuck they high-fived over a shared a hooker or two. (Not literally, of course; sure, everyone knows double-teaming hookers was invented in 1891 B.C., but the high-five is a 20th century invention; so, whatever the ancient Roman equivalent was. Yeah, I’d risk a tenner on that. Stranger shit has supposedly happened. Story is, emperor-to-be Titus banged two hookers over an open Torah scroll on the sacred sacrificial altar of the Jewish Temple just to flip the bird at the nutty superstitious Jews he’d just wasted several years of his life putting down a rebellion of. I remember the first thing I thought when I read that, “I hope those girls were paid well.” Probably. Everyone says Titus was a real mensch. Anyway…)
So Back to the Christian Thing…
Okay, quick summary:
Matthew says Jesus was born a year or so before Herod the Great died, which was 4 B.C.; Luke says Jesus was born when the Roman senator Quirinius became governor of Syria and conducted the first ever Roman census of Judea, which was 6 A.D.; the contradiction (a ten year miss, even) proves the New Testament is, uhem, errant (oh, and BTW, notice that neither says it was 1 A.D.; and in fact that date is entirely impossible on either of their accounts…oops); “Oh, shit!” Christians say to themselves (probably not out loud, because that might anger their storm god); Christian apologists scramble for some way to fix this fiasco; they come up with a wild pile of bullshit; if you rummage around in that shit pile (like I did), you’ll find this gem:
“Well, see, Quirinius must have been governor of Syria twice somehow (even though no one ever was a governor of the same province twice and we have zero evidence Quirinius was or even could have been), and there must have been some other, earlier census of Judea, conducted by Herod (even though that is illogical and impossible on every known fact of the matter), and since the evidence says other guys were governing Syria at the time, not only was Quirinius twice governor, but he must have been co-governor with someone else (even though no such thing as a co-governorship of a province existed in the Roman administrative system and in fact it would have been illogical and absurd).”
When mean atheists like me point out the parenthetical points (put in italics above), Christians scramble for damage control, generally by making shit up or pretending at being historians, doing some embarrassingly incompetent amateur hatchet job with “facts” they tweeze out of modern translations of ancient books (unlike Muslims, who everywhere insist on Arabic fluency and thus actually know how to read their scripture, most Christians never actually learn Greek and generally couldn’t give a shit what the actual words in their inspired scriptures are) and/or antiquated, long-superseded scholarship (because when Christians can’t find what they want in up-to-date scholarship they dig around for something written in the 19th century, back in those golden days before that Darwin dickwad ruined everything; because surely any history done then must be superior and more reliable than any done now…and they’re, like, totally right).
Case in point: Josephus (and an occasional stone inscription) repeatedly says there were two governors of Syria. So there! Except he doesn’t (nor do any inscriptions). Ah, those pesky translations. You see, what Josephus (and every other source from then) says is that every Syrian governor had a lieutenant, and they often hung out and did shit together. “But that’s the same thing, right?” Uh, no. Because ancient Roman society didn’t work like our modern American “classless” society. Technically we do have classes (lower, middle, and upper) demarcated by access to wealth, but in classical times classes were official matters of law, and one couldn’t cross from one to the other just by getting rich. You had to be officially recognized as of that class; and it took some hoodow to make that happen. And in the meantime, your career options were limited by what class you were in.
Intro to Roman Social History
It breaks down like this: the unwashed masses (actually, the Roman masses were often very well washed) were just “ordinary people” and couldn’t hold any significant political or military office (didn’t even qualify; couldn’t even buy their way in…unless they bought their way into a higher social order); next in rank were the equestrians (literally “horsemen,” so sometimes called “knights”; the term originally designated someone rich enough to buy and keep a horse, although that was an antiquated notion by then…even the poorest Roman equestrian could buy and keep a small shitload of horses), who (unlike those below them) qualified for appointed administrative positions and could serve as something like NCOs in the military (or perhaps more analogously, low ranking officers, depending on what point of comparison you start with), but couldn’t run for elected office and couldn’t be a staff officer…unless they were at least 30 years old and met the multi-million-dollar entry requirement for the next class: the senators. To enter the senatorial class you had to prove you had millions of dollars in property and then (to be elligible to hold any office) you had to get elected to the entry-level position of quaestor (“treasurer”; yep, the bottom-ranking gig even then), which got you permanently into the Roman Senate, and from there you could run for higher offices (but always by ranks, i.e. you couldn’t skip straight to Lord of All I Survey, you had to serve as quaestor, then praetor, then consul, and your social rank would always be based on how high you’d gotten, e.g. a consular senator outranked a praetorian senator, big time). Of course, kids of senators were automatically of the senatorial class, although they still had to get elected (or, if we set aside the Doublespeak, given the real nature of politics under the emperors, appointed) to a quaestorship to enter the Senate itself (and yes, that meant daughters could be of senatorial rank, but sadly, as they could never hold any office, they never became Senators).
Okay. So? Well, because of the Roman constitution at the time, no one could govern a province who was not a consular senator. This is because the provinces were officially governed by the emperor (who had consular rank) or the senatorial consuls, and “governors” were just their stand-ins, but in an official government capacity, which meant they had to be of the same rank. Thus a praetorian senator was not of sufficient rank to govern a province and thus could not act in any other governor’s stead. You had to appoint a senator who had served as a consul at some prior time and thus achieved consular rank. (There were a handful of weird provinces, called senatorial provinces, that didn’t precisely fall under this rule, but Syria wasn’t one of them so they’re irrelevant for our purposes; one of the constitutionally relevant differences, BTW, was that senatorial provinces usually never had legions in them.)
Notice that not even lower ranking senators could govern a province, much less lowly equestrians, who couldn’t even hold a real political office at all, much less govern a province. They weren’t even senators. It would have been scandalously offensive (and indeed risked outright assassination or civil war) if an emperor were to openly flout the constitution and insult every upper class senatorial man in the empire by appointing a lowly equestrian to govern a province (case in point: Caligula is said to have almost appointed his horse, and they promptly killed him…and tried to damn his memory–literally: the senate proposed [and may have eventually passed] an official decree of damnatio memoriae; yeah, they had those). And certainly such a remarkable curiosity would make every history book of the time, as the weirdest thing to happen since someone discovered water could be turned into a white powder. Conversely, no senator (much less of mighty consular rank) would disgrace himself or his whole family’s honor by ever deigning to lower himself to work in an equestrian post. That would be more unbelievable than a U.S. President becoming a fry cook at McDonald’s.
Now, governors of imperial provinces, who were always consular senators, and officially were high-ranking military officers, commanders of legions, obviously had a whole chain of command working under them, of lower ranking senatorial line and staff officers, as well as equestrian field officers and NCOs and bureaucrats. Thus, a governor could divide up his provincial command and appoint lower ranking officers to take care of business there, principally taking charge of any troops and enforcing the law. These were typically equestrians (because Roman paranoia prevented entrusting major provincial and troop commands to senators, who might have ambitions; whereas equestrians were generally locked in their low status and thus no threat, and in fact for that reason typically more loyal). These officers were called “prefects,” literally “guys placed in front,” in other words “dudes in charge.” Prefects were always equestrians; senatorial officers had other ranks (namely, quaestor or praetor).
Now that you have all that background (and notice how there is no way a layman is likely to know any of this; there’s a reason you need a Ph.D. to draw correct conclusions about the ancient world), you can get the punchline: Whenever we see mentions of governors and their lieutenants (as in Josephus, for example), it’s always a consular senator and his equestrian prefect. Men who are not even of the same social class. You might already see where this is going. Quirinius is well established to have been a consular senator as of 12 B.C. We know all the consular governors of Syria from 12 to 3 B.C. He therefore cannot have been any of their “lieutenants,” because those lieutenants were always prefects of the equestrian class, and he was way the hell higher ranking than an equestrian, in fact he held the highest possible social rank in the whole Roman empire: a consular senator. So much for the co-governor idea.
Intro to Christian Logic
Okay. Now that you are as bored as you possibly can be, it gets even more boring. Enter Herod the Procurator. The Christian’s logic goes like this (and I’ve had versions of this argument sent to me in email over the years by a half dozen D-list Christian apologists). Pontius Pilate was the “governor” of Judea. Pontius Pilate was a procurator. Therefore a “procurator” is a “governor.” Herod the Great was the Procurator of Syria. Therefore, Herod the Great (a foreigner) was the “governor” of Syria. Therefore the Romans played fast and loose with their constitution when it came to provincial government. Therefore they could well have had double governors or something. In fact when Herod was “governor” of Syria, we know another consular senator was governor of Syria, so bingo, there we have it, there were two governors of Syria!
This is all so fucked up it makes me want to cry. Okay. First. Judea was not a province. Thus Pilate was not “the [provincial] governor” of Judea. The governor of Syria was. Judea was then a district of the Roman province of Syria. Pilate was just the prefect assigned to govern that district. By the governor of Syria. And as you’d expect, Pilate was of equestrian rank. Thus no argument can proceed by analogy from the government of Judea to the government of Syria. Second. A procurator is not a prefect. To identify Pilate as “governor of Judea” is to identify him as a prefect, not a procurator. A procurator is not an administrative or military office. It’s a private occupation. It means “business manager” (literally, “one given care of stuff,” e.g. an agent, a manager, etc.). Thus in no sense does procurator ever mean “governor.” Thus in no sense at all was Herod the Great ever “the governor of Syria.” So, no playing fast and loose here. The Romans stuck to their constitution, or as near as could pass as plausible (in an Orwellian sense, if one examines how the emperors invented the entire office of emperor without actually, literally changing the constitution, which never mentioned any such office per se, by cleverly exploiting various loopholes in that constitution, but that’s a whole other story, not relevant here).
So despite trying to rescue the big gaping historical error in the Gospels, the attempt to get from “Herod the Great was Procurator of Syria” to “the Bible is inerrant” is built on a pile of the hack mistakes of presumptuous Christian apologists who don’t know their Roman social history for shit. What does any of this long boring digression have to do with my thesis paper on Herod the Procurator? Well, among other things (like analyzing the evidence for Herod being a procurator of Syria at all), I document in it all the evidence and scholarship laying out the distinction between prefects and procurators. Which has another use, for those following the “did Jesus really exist?” debate…
So Was Pontius Pilate a Prefect or a Procurator?
A prominent defender of the thesis that Jesus is a mythical person (more now in the agnostic camp, but still) is G.A. Wells. And one argument he made, against the authenticity of a passage attesting to the existence of Jesus in the Roman historian Tacitus (writing around 117 A.D.), is that Tacitus there calls Pilate a “procurator” when in fact we know, from logic (given the above) and an actual stone inscription cut at Pilate’s own direction, that Pilate was a prefect, not a procurator, which isn’t even a government office. “Surely” Tacitus would not make that mistake (so the passage is a forgery) or “surely” Tacitus would not make that mistake if he was working from government documents (so he must be relying on an unreliable source, like a Gospel-reading Christian informant). Therefore the information is bogus. Therefore (given various other conclusions) Jesus didn’t exist. Now, like many an unsound argument, the primary conclusion is true (Tacitus is almost certainly relying on a Gospel-reading Christian informant, and not any kind of government records), but the argument for it is not.
Tacitus almost certainly got this information from his good friend Pliny the Younger, who would have gotten it from his strong-arm interrogation of a Christian deaconess in 110 A.D. (when Tacitus and Pliny were governing adjacent provinces in what is now Turkey, and carrying on a regular correspondence in which Tacitus evinces asking Pliny for information to include in the history books he was then writing). And she would certainly have gotten the information from the Gospels, many of which were being read in the churches of the time. So yes, Tacitus is in fact giving us useless evidence, since it is not independent of the Gospels (that’s why his account contains nothing not in them, yet that would have been in an official government record, like Jesus’ full name and crime). But Wells’ argument to that same conclusion is incorrect, due to another oddity about the ancient Roman system that non-experts don’t know about (and that even many experts don’t know about, not having specifically studied the matter of imperial administration and economics).
In actual fact, Pilate was both a prefect and a procurator. An imperial procurator, to be precise. In fact this was true of all the prefects of Judea, and many other regional prefects, such as the prefect of Egypt who governed that whole province directly for the emperor (Egypt never had a senatorial governor, its governorship was always officially held by the emperor himself, who never shared it, because Egypt was the breadbasket of the empire at the time and thus any senator allowed to govern it would be tempted to do the obvious…and they wouldn’t have that uppity, smartypants Cleopatra gumming up their game, either). It was actually commonplace for prefects to also be procurators. Why? Well, I explain in my thesis (for those who only care about this topic, you can skip directly to the section on “The Procurator in the Time of Augustus,” starting on page 29, but also hyperlinked in the table of contents on page 2 of Was Herod the Great a Roman Governor of Syria?).
Procurators were private agents. So, for example, if you were some rich guy and owned lands in several provinces, you obviously couldn’t personally oversee their management, so you would hire someone as your procurator to go act as landlord for you. Pretty much any business, or property, or account of money that you had somewhere needed someone to manage it on your behalf. That someone was a procurator. The wealthy elite had armies of them in their employ. And the emperor was the wealthiest man in the Western hemisphere. Another little known fact is that the emperors often compelled their vanquished opponents to sign treaties not with the Roman people (SPQR) but with the emperor himself and his private family estate. Annual tribute was then owed not to the Roman government, but directly to the Roman emperor’s family estate. And in such cases lands seized were not the public property of Rome, but the private property of the emperor, taken as spoils (or as bribes, or simply bought outright, and just as often inherited, from people wanting to get their surviving family on the emperor’s good side). This meant the emperor had tons of lands he needed to manage privately (not officially as a Roman statesman) and tons of cash that had to be collected every year and held in his name and managed at a profit, or delivered to him across regions and seas. And that meant the emperor had to employ thousands of procurators to act as his business managers for all this.
Well, who would make the best procurator? Or rather, the best chief procurator, who would look over and keep in line all the other procurators who were actually managing the individual landholdings, and collections, and stashes of banked cash? Why, who best to hire for that job than the chief of police? The very guy who governs the district and has charge of the courts and the law and cohorts of infantry and cavalry to enforce his will. Brilliant, eh? And so it was. Every prefect of Judea was also the emperor’s privately hired business manager, who ensured all the imperial procurators in their district behaved and did their jobs, and everyone who owed the emperor money (or had the temerity to sue him) was dealt with. In our modern democracy this would be perfectly appalling. It would be obvious corruption if the President hired the Secretary of the Interior to manage all of his private lands, and the Secretary of Commerce to run all of his private companies and businesses, and hired Superior Court Judges to manage the very private estates they passed judgments on in court (imagine suing someone and finding out that the judge deciding the case is the property manager of the very estate you are suing!). But the Roman empire had no such moral notions, and no laws on the books against it. To them it was just convenient.
But there were complaints. Although not necessarily of the kind you’d expect. One of the persistent drums Tacitus beats throughout his entire Annals is that it was shocking (why, just shocking!) that lowly equestrians were being given the official powers of senators. As business managers, procurators were only ever equestrians, or often even commoners or slaves; no senator would disgrace himself by taking such a servile job (again, imagine the President of the United States taking a job as a “common” real estate agent). But Tacitus was annoyed even by the idea of prefects running things. Procurators were just an even bigger insult. Since an imperial procurator was the legal agent of the emperor, he literally had power of attorney to represent the emperor in court and contracts. Which meant that in practice, lowly procurators could tell mighty consular senators what for. It’s not like a senatorial governor is going to cross the emperor. Thus procurators often wielded in effect imperial scale power. And that pissed off consular senators like Tacitus. His Annals is full of morality tales illustrating how so really disastrous and awful this was.
Which gets us back to that passage in the Annals where Tacitus says Christ was executed by Pontius Pilate “the procurator.” Tacitus was a consular senator who had held many imperial provincial governorships and nearly every other office in the land. He knew full well that Pilate was a prefect. He would not have had to check any records to know that. He also knew full well that Pilate, like all district prefects, was the private business manager of the emperor, a lowly money collector and landlord, a filthy procurator. He clearly chose to call Pilate a procurator and not a prefect in this passage as a double insult: on the one hand, his aim was to paint the Christians as pathetically as possible, and having their leader executed by a petty business manager was about as low as you could get (and Tacitus would never turn down a good juicy snipe like that); and on the other hand, he was always keen to remind the reader of his persistent protest against granting equestrians real powers, and thus calling Pilate here a procurator does that, by reminding the reader that the chief of police who executes criminals in Judea is a “fucking business manager” (“and what the hell is he doing with judicial powers?”). The fact that Pilate was also a prefect and thus had real constitutional authority is the sort of honest detail that would screw up Tacitus’ point. So he doesn’t take the trouble to mention it.
Okay. Right. Here we are now. Anyone who has actually read this blog post all the way to this point (I commend you, sir and/or ma’am!) will now be able to guess the conclusion of my thesis: Herod the Great was appointed by his good buddy Augustus to be his principal business manager in Syria. Wow. Amazing, right? That conclusion is going to haunt you for days. Life changing stuff. Just simply life changing. And so that you will have it with you always, I have now posted my old M.Phil. thesis on Herod the Syrian procurator, which has sections on all this stuff (so if you want to cite evidence and scholarship at anyone in defense of these points, like about Pilate being both procurator and prefect, that’s the paper for you), and other stuff besides (as I babbled on about in the earlier half of this blog).
Enjoy. Or not. Anyway, it’s there now if you need it.