By Derek Tovey

Many Christians regularly recite the following words, found in a statement of belief called the Apostles' Creed: "suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried…". The words refer to Jesus of Nazareth, a man who lived over 2000 years ago.

That Jesus was tried by Pontius Pilate is, according to a classical historian, "one of the most probable events in all of ancient history".

Mark Smith, a classical historian, has recently published a book called The Final Days of Jesus. In it he examines the evidence for the trial and death of Jesus on the authority of Pontius Pilate. He makes his case on evidence drawn both from Christian and non-Christian sources, and based on his understanding of Roman law at the time, and the realpolitik of events and conditions in first-century Roman Palestine.

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During his tenure as the Roman "prefect", or governor, of Palestine, Pontius Pilate had made a number of misjudgements in his rule of the province of Judea. Two incidents saw Pilate allow objects (military standards and shields honouring the Emperor Tiberius) to enter Jerusalem that bore words and symbols the Jewish population considered blasphemous. Both incidents ended badly for Pilate.

A third incident involved an attempt by Pilate to fund the building of an aqueduct into Jerusalem using money from the Temple treasury. Smith judges that Pilate most probably sought and gained the tacit support of the Jewish political-religious leadership vested mainly in the family of one Chanin ben Seth. When, however, his actions raised the ire of the Jewish populous, he found the Jewish hierarchy remained silent.

Smith points out that the main players in this trial were insignificant historical figures ... Yet he dubs the trial of Jesus before Pilate, "the trial of the millennium".

The family of Chanin ben Seth, called Annas in the New Testament, was very influential in the religious and political affairs of Jerusalem and especially the Temple. In particular it controlled, and made its wealth from, the Temple tax and the currency exchange system required in order for worshippers to purchase animals for sacrifice.

Caiaphas, Annas' son-in-law, was high priest when Jesus was crucified. An elite family who made its wealth from the poorer classes, it was not particularly liked. Indeed, a sectarian group who had a community at Qumran, with whom the Dead Sea Scrolls have been linked, regarded the high priests of Jerusalem as corrupt and illegitimate.

The family was upset by some of the preaching of Jesus. The last straw was a protest action he took in the Temple when he overturned the tables of money changers and drove out those selling animals, declaring that the Temple had been turned into a "den of robbers".

As Jesus had made quite a name for himself, and had much support amongst the people, the family wanted to deal with him unobtrusively. A night-time gathering of the family and some supporters held an "inquest" to determine what charges they could place before the governor.

A careful, diplomatic dance between Pilate and the Jewish political-religious hierarchy took place when they presented Jesus to Pilate. Pilate wanted to make sure that, given the popularity of Jesus amongst the populace, this time the Jewish leaders would support his action. He also wanted to avoid doing anything that might cause him trouble back in Rome. The Jewish leadership simply wanted Jesus put to death.

The Gospel of John captures nicely the nature of this dance. The charge laid against Jesus is that he claims to be "King of the Jews". This puts him in direct competition with Roman imperial rule in Judea.

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Pilate accedes to the Jewish religious leaders' desire for a guilty verdict when they remind him, though no reminder is needed, that releasing Jesus would place him in a difficult position with the emperor.

Smith points out that the main players in this trial were insignificant historical figures in the wider scheme of things, even at that time. Yet he dubs the trial of Jesus before Pilate, "the trial of the millennium". A minor Roman official has become a famous (or infamous) historical figure. Why?

The answer lies in what happened after the death of Jesus. Within two months of his death, Jesus' followers were claiming that he had been raised from the dead. This had happened on the third day after his burial.

God had raised Jesus, they claimed: this meant that he was God's Messiah (an agent through whom God would establish the kingdom of God). Moreover, on account of Jesus' death, people could have their sins forgiven, and be put right with God.

Despite the best efforts of the authorities the movement grew and spread. Soon it spilled over beyond the bounds of the ethnic Jewish community. A minor footnote in history became part of statements of faith recited for centuries and around the world.

• Derek Tovey, an Anglican priest, is a retired lecturer in New Testament at St John's Theological College and the University of Auckland.