The Gospels, we're told, paint Pilate as an "indecisive and weak" ruler bullied into crucifying Jesus by the Jewish people and their Chief Priests. History suggests otherwise and that the 2000 years of Christian anti-Semitism which followed as a result were based on a piece of spin by the gospel writers.
Of course the premise is a little too black and white. The historical evidence carries a good deal of weight - Philo and Josephus both criticise Pilate's brutality; Roman soldiers were battle hardened such that one man's death would be highly unlikely to trouble someone such as Pilate; and crucifixion was incredibly commonplace, particularly around religious festivals - but the evidence the programme omits polarises "what the Bible says" and "what history says" unnecessarily. After all the Bible itself records an example of Pilate's viciousness. Luke 13:1 tells us about the "Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices". And the Nicene Creed holds Pilate, rather than any of his Jewish counterparts, responsible for Jesus's death.
The historical case is presented very strongly here. Starting off in the Caesarean amphitheatre with the stone carrying an engraving of Pilate's name which was discovered in 1961, the programme quickly moves on to Rome to trace his background in the context of the empire's politics. He would have nepotised his way to an army commission and ended up being sent to Judea in 26 AD as its prefect. His 3000 troops were based at Caesarea and had to keep the peace amongst perhaps 160,000 natives desperate to throw off their Roman oppressors. His response was to rule with such brutality that ultimately he was recalled to Rome in disgrace.Whilst academics may quibble with some of the details, as they do with each other's arguments whenever they engage in serious discussion, it's a detailed presentation of the facts and leading interpretations that's fairly unexpected for a documentary on Channel 5. There were a number of things which, I am semi-embarrassed to admit, were new to me, even if the thrust of the overall argument was very much familiar.
This is down, in part, to the strength of the team of experts that Channel 5 assembled to tell their story. 3-4 years ago this documentary would have found Mark Goodacre popping up with insightful contributions. This time around we get Helen Bond, James Tabor, Yosef Porath, Alexander Yakobson, and biographer Anne Wroe. Even Shimon Gibson pops up having seemingly got lost on his way back from the Jesus Tomb feature. The emphasis is clearly more on archaeologists than textual scholars, but when three of a documentary's team of experts have been involved in excavating key Judean locations it gives it real credibility.
There's also some good use of location shooting. Whilst documentaries cannot match the depth that a book can provide they can illustrate things more powerfully in a single shot than a written work can ever hope to achieve. As there's a good deal of archaeology being discussed it helps to see the locations in question. Twice, James Tabor is able to turn and use the topography in the background to make his point. And the shot from the top of a watchtower in Jerusalem perfectly illustrates the way Pilate's men would have been able to keep an eye on the city during busy periods.
The film's other strength is its desire to remain level headed. There's the odd spurious claim ("extraordinarily there's no hard evidence any of it happened"), but generally it lets the experts speak and resists the temptation to crank things up into a scandal.
That said, many will disagree with the film's conclusions, not least in evangelical circles. Whilst most accept that the gospels recontextualise the story to appeal to their specific audiences, the suggestion that they did it out of a desire to appeal to Rome and distance themselves from the Jews will be too much for some. Likewise with the suggestion that the passover amnesty was simply a "literary device". To a certain extent they have my sympathy, but the problem is that failing to read the gospels in this context has led to centuries of anti-Semitism culminating in the Holocaust. While it's uncomfortable for some to wrestle with the issue of the historicity of the gospels, it's an essential task. It's simply not good enough to say that the perpetrators of anti-Semitism over the years were just not following Jesus's example.