Home > Christianity, Historical Christianity, Jesus > Ehrman & Carrier: the historical Jesus (7)

Ehrman & Carrier: the historical Jesus (7)

This post continues from the original post in this series.

Pilate: prefect, procurator, or both?

Carrier claims Ehrman was wrong to say Roman historian Tacitus committed an error by referring to Pontius Pilate as a procurator, instead of a prefect”:

Richard Carrier: This betrays ignorance of the fact that provincial prefects were often also imperial procurators, and from his treatment of the scandal of this fact throughout the Annals Tacitus has a particular motive to emphasize that fact here (see my discussion in Herod the Procurator, particularly the section “So Was Pontius Pilate a Prefect or a Procurator?”). In other words, Pontius Pilate was both a procurator and a prefect. And the recent literature on the subject confirms this, as would any consultation with an expert in Tacitus or Roman imperial administration.

In Carrier’s paper (to which he linked), there is a single brief section covering a few pages (pages 33-36), in which he discusses whether procurators could be appointed prefects simultaneously. This does not address directly the question of whether or not Pilate was a prefect who was also appointed procurator.

Responding to Ehrman, Carrier claimed ‘The view that Claudius changed the title of Judaean governors from prefect to procurator has long since been refuted (most conclusively by the work of Fergus Millar’. Reading Carrier’s paper, we find reference to two papers by Millar, one published in 1964, the other published in 1965. Did Millar indeed refuted conclusively the view that Claudius changed the title of Judaean governors from ‘prefect’ to ‘procurator’, as Carrier claims?

One commentator has examined Carrier’s claim by reading Millar’s work. He concludes that Carrier has misread Millar:

In Millar 1964, he says plainly on p. 181:

“It is clear that such procurators [sc. governing small provinces], originally called praefecti, exercised a criminal and civil jurisdiction in their areas, which was equivalent to that of senatorial governors, except in that it was only in special cases that they possessed the ius gladii.” (Millar 1964: 181).

He is clear that procurators who were governors of minor provinces were originally called prefects (praefecti in Latin), and Millar (1964: 181, n. 9) cites A. H. M. Jones’s Studies in Roman Government and Law (Oxford, 1960), and does not engage in any refutation of this idea. The rest of the article is an interpretation of Tacitus, Annales 12.60, and Millar argues that it refers to Claudius’s granting of increased jurisdictional power to those procurators who managed imperial properties, a different type of procurator from the type who governed small provinces.

In addition, Millar (1965) simply adds more evidence to the case that Tacitus, Annales 12.60 refers to the authority of procurators of imperial properties: there is no refutation of the view that Claudius changed the official titles of the minor equestrian or freedmen provincial governors from prefect to procurator.

Not only does Carrier fail to demonstrate that Millar refuted conclusively the view that Claudius changed the title of Judaean governors from ‘prefect’ to ‘procurator’, he has failed to realise that Millar never says anything against the view. On the contrary, Millar states specifically that the procurators to which he refers were ‘originally called praefecti‘, and attributes the change of authority to Claudius, the very opposite of what Carrier says.

Carrier’s statement that ‘view that Claudius changed the title of Judaean governors from prefect to procurator has long since been refuted’ rests on his citation of a single author writing over 50 years ago (Millar), who did not say what Carrier claims; in fact Millar said the opposite.

When this evidence from Millar’s own work was presented to Carrier on his blog, he gave the following enigmatic reply:

Richard Carrier: Millar 1965, pp. 364-65: “The legal evidence shows clearly that procurators never had a recognised right to exercise criminal jurisdiction.”

See also P. A. Brunt, “Procuratorial Jurisdiction,” Latomus 25.3 (July-September 1966): 461-89, with my analysis in Herod, pp. 34-35 (and in context, pp. 29-36.

This fails completely to address any of the points raised; it certainly presents no evidence that Millar conclusively refuted the ‘view that Claudius changed the title of Judaean governors from prefect to procurator’.

In response to Carrier, Ehrman commented that he had subsequently consulted a scholar of Roman history who indicated that Carrier was wrong, quoting ‘Prosopography of the Roman Empire‘ as evidence (‘PP’ in the following quotation refers to ‘Pontius Pilate’):

PP could just as well have had the title procurator, but evidently he didn’t … PIR (ed. 2, 1998) P 815 sums it up neatly: “praeses Iudaeae ordinis equestris usque ad Claudii tempora non procurator, sed praefectus fuit….” [This comes from the Prosopographia Imperii Romani (i.e., The Prosopography of the Roman Empire); I translate the Latin as follows: “Up until the time of Claudius [i.e., 41-54 CE], the provincial governor of Judea, a man of the equestrian order, was not a procurator but a prefect.

Carrier replied with the assertion that this source was outdated:

Richard Carrier: …contrary to what Ehrman’s quotation might seem to suggest, the PIR his colleague translates the Latin of on this point is a modern source, not an ancient one, and thus represents an outdated scholarly assumption and not what anyone in antiquity actually said…

The commentator I quoted previously corrects Carrier on this point:

The most recent edition of Prosopographia Imperii Romani saec. I. II. III. (2nd edn. part 6; eds. Leiva Petersen and Klaus Wachtel; De Gruyter, Berlin, 1998), revised in the 1990s, is quite clear that Pilate carried the title praefectus (PIR [2nd ed.] part. 6, no. 815, p. 348), on the basis of the Pilate inscription (see Année Epigraphique 1963 no. 104).

This source is not “outdated,” but represents the opinion of scholars from the 1990s, who had updated an earlier edition of the work.

Indeed, scholarly works written as recently as 2008 say either Tacitus made a mistake, or he was speaking proleptically.[1] [2] [3] [4] As the commentator quoted previously notes, this does not appear to be an outdated view ‘long since refuted’ as Carrier claimed:

In short, I see no evidence at all that the “view that Claudius changed the title of Judaean governors from prefect to procurator has long since been refuted.”

Rather, the view that, from the reign of Claudius, the equestrian governors who were called prefects (or praefecti in Latin) were now called procurators appears to be the common opinion: it is held by Syme (1962: 92), Jones (1960: 124), Weaver (1972: 267-268), Garnsey and Saller (1987: 23), B. Levick (Levick 2001: 48) in her biography of the emperor Claudius, and Schäfer (2003: 105).

In his paper, Carrier makes the argument that Tacitus didn’t make a mistake, but that Pilate was a procurator as well as a prefect. In support, Carrier cites Philo and Josephus referring to Pilate as a procurator (neither of them refer to him as a prefect).

However, standard scholarship on the subject understands Philo, Josephus, and Tacitus as adopting the new terminology established during the reign of Claudius after 41 CE, since all of them were writing after this date and since the only epigraphical evidence for Pilate (dated no later than 36 CE, before Claudius), identifies him as a prefect, but not as a procurator.[5] [6]

Carrier does not mention any of this scholarship. Nor does he cite any scholars saying that Tacitus didn’t make a mistake and wasn’t writing proleptically, except for himself.


[1] ‘Certain minor imperial provinces had equestrian governors, who were known first as prefects but from the time of Claudius as procurators (e.g., Pontius Pilate in Judaea; 15.44.3). Claudius evidently assigned certain judicial functions too to procurators, but T.’s report is unclear (12.60).’, Woodman, ‘The Annals’, pp. 359-360 (2004).

[2] ‘Pilate was appointed under Tiberius, and an inscription from Caesarea mentions his activities in regard to a Tiberieion (or imperial cult sanctuary to Tiberius). The text also gives his correct title as praefectus rather than procurator.’, Galinsky, ‘The Cambridge Companion To The Age Of Augustus’, p. 378 (2005).

[3] ‘Since Coponius was apparently dispatched as a prefect (praefectus, eparxos), Josephus’ nomenclature here seems incorrect, though the same problem is found in Tacitus (e.g. Ann. 15.44 on Pilate).’, Mason & Chapman, ‘Flavius Josephus: Translation and Commentary. Judean war’, p. 80 (2008).

[4] ‘Pilate actually held the lesser rank of prefect in Judea, something that Tacitus, who had access to the official records at Rome’s Tabularium and frequently quoted from them in his Annals, should have known.’, Dando-Collins, ‘The Great Fire of Rome: The Fall of the Emperor Nero and His City’, p. 8 (2010).

[5] ‘However, a fragment of a Latin inscription found in Caesarea gives Pilate the title “prefect”. This supports the deduction made from other evidence, most of it epigraphic, that up to the reign of Claudius, though the terminology was still fluid, the normal title for an equestrian provincial governor was “prefect”, and “procurator” must now be reserved for the governors of Judaea after 44.’, Smallwood, ‘The Jews Under Roman Rule: From Pompey to Diocletian : A Study in Political Relations’, p. 145 (2001).

[6] ‘This change in title under Claudius goes a long way in explaining the confusion of the principal literary texts here. Philo, Josephus, the NT and Tacitus refer to various governors as eparxos (praefectus), epitropos (procurator), and hegemwn (governor), apparently indiscriminately.’, Bond, ‘Pontius Pilate In History And Interpretation’, p. 12 (2004).

  1. May 25, 2012 at 9:37 pm

    Thanks for citing me. I am the author of the blog post you cite here:


    I must agree that Carrier has not refuted anything and certainly has not demonstrated that Ehrman was wrong to say Tacitus made an error in using “procurator” of Pilate.

    Another short post of mine on this subject here:


    As I say here, Tacitus’s use of “procurator” at Annales 15.44 is either (1) just an anachronism or (2) perhaps even conscious use of the contemporary term, so that his readers would not be confused by the obsolete term “prefect” (why would Tacitus have bothered to use obsolete terminology from over 70 years before his own time anyway?)

    I am planning a further post on this, but need to make a trip to the library first.

    • Fortigurn
      May 26, 2012 at 3:24 am

      You’re welcome, and thank you for the detailed post, which I found highly informative. I was very surprised that Carrier’s confident assertion of deep research and complete accuracy on this point was so completely misplaced; it seems that a number of his key arguments seem conclusive only on the surface, and crumble when probed by people with the time, resources, and inclination to examine them. I did expect better from Carrier on this point however, and even actually assumed he was right at first. However, by the time I had finished reading the relevant section of his paper, it was clear he was making exaggerated statements on the basis of a single paper from nearly 50 years ago, which didn’t even say what he claimed it said.

  2. J.P.
    October 24, 2012 at 4:08 am

    Thanks for this post.

    I know that I am too late for this discussion, but I thought you’d like to know that Fergus Millar, in 1993, stated that “when Agrippa died […] the whole area reverted to being a province, with an equestrian official, now with the title procurator, to govern it”, meanwhile the “wide area ruled by Archelaus […] became provincial territory […] and governed by a praefectus of equestrian rank.

    See Fergus Millar, The Roman Near East, 31 B.C.-A.D. 337, Harvard University Press, 1993, pp. 61 and 44-48.



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