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Pontius Pilate

Julian Spriggs M.A.

Pontius Pilate was appointed by Emperor Tiberius as the fifth governor of the Roman Province of Judea, in succession to Valerius Gratus. He ruled from A.D. 26, to A.D. 37, and is primarily remembered for sentencing Jesus to death, as recorded in all four Gospels. Most Roman citizens had three names, a praenomen (first name), a nomen (family name) and a cognomen (an additional name or surname). We do not know Pilate’s praenomen. His family name, Pontius, meaning “bridge” or “fifth”, was a common name, especially in northern Italy. But his cognomen (Pilatus) is extremely rare. It is thought to mean either “armed with a javelin”, or “bald”, others have suggested it comes from the pilus, or felt cap, the emblem of a freed slave .

Pilate is remembered in history either very negatively, as a cruel man who hated Jews, or more sympathetically as a governor who had a very difficult job ruling a province with a very unsubmissive, unruly population, which easily took offense to his actions.

Status of Judea

Following the occupation of Judea by Roman forces under Pompey in 64 BC, Judea was ruled by members of the Herod family, as puppet kings submitted to Rome. After Herod the Great died in 4 BC, his kingdom was split between three of his sons. Archelaus was appointed ethnarch of Judea. This included Samaria and Idumaea, and covered approximately half of Herod the Great’s kingdom. His rule was so oppressive that both Jews and Samarians, showing unusual unity, petitioned Emperor Augustus for his removal. The Emperor finally deposed him in AD 6 to avoid a Jewish revolt , and replaced him with direct rule from Rome, through a governor. Archelaus’s brutality is alluded to in the birth narratives in Matthew’s Gospel. On their return after their flight to Egypt, Joseph was reluctant to settle in Judea because of Archelaus, and was even warned not to by an angel, so they made their home in Nazareth in Galilee, which was ruled by Herod Antipas (Matt 2:22-23).

Judea became a Roman province, ruled directly by Rome. Its official status became a third class imperial province, one considered unimportant in size and revenue, but which was a problem to rule, needing troops to control the restless population. The governor was normally appointed from the equestrian order (the middle rank in Roman nobility), and commanded auxiliary cohorts . The governor of other provinces were drawn from the higher senatorial rank of society, and commanded a whole legion of troops. Judea was under the leadership of the larger and more powerful Province of Syria, whose governor could provide extra troops when trouble arose in Judea. Judea remained a Roman Province until the Jewish Revolt of AD 66, apart from a brief rule by Herod Agrippa I (AD 41-44). However, during the most of the rule of Pilate, the governor of Syria was absent in Rome, leaving Pilate without potential military help in time of trouble.

The administrative centre of the Roman Province of Judea was Caesarea, where the governor would live, together with his small number of personal staff. However, it was the normal practice for governors to be stationed in Jerusalem during Jewish festivals, particularly the Passover, when nationalistic fervour would be at its greatest, in order to deter or contain any potential Messianic uprising.

The Job of a Roman Procurator

The duties of the procurator or governor were primarily to ensure law and order are kept, to hear legal cases, and to supervise the tax collection. He had supreme administrative power in the province.

1. Military

The maintenance of law and order through military power was the procurator’s greatest responsibility, and his greatest problem in Judea. There has been a certain level of confusion among scholars about Pilate’s official title. It is probable that his correct title was “prefectus” (or prefect), showing that he had a military position, with the responsibility of bringing a relatively recently conquered territory fully under Roman control, and keeping it at peace. The military title was retained until the rule of Agrippa I, after which, under Claudius, the title was changed to a civilian status, “procurator”. The New Testament uses a general Greek title “hegemon”, meaning governor (Matt 27:2).

As governor, Pilate would have five infantry cohorts, each commanded by a chiliarch (tribune), and one cavalry regiment, under his command, giving a total of around 5000 men. One cohort was permanently stationed in the Antonia Fortress in Jerusalem, overlooking the temple, always a potential source of trouble.

2. Judicial

The governor had ultimate judicial authority in the province, with imperial power over life and death. There is great debate over the issue of whether the Jewish Sanhedrin had authority to inflict the death penalty. According the Gospels, the reason Jesus was brought before Pilate was because they were not permitted to put anyone to death (John 18:31). This tradition is confirmed by the Jerusalem Talmud, which says that forty years before the destruction of the temple the right to inflict the death penalty was taken away from Israel. Josephus also states that Archelaus was removed and replaced by procurator who had the power of life and death put into his hands by Caesar (War 2:8:1). Arguments against this view are based on the stoning of Stephen (Acts 7), and of James (Ant 20:9:1), both of which happened when the Jews took the law into their own hands, without submission to Rome. However it could be argued that Stephen was accused of speaking against the temple (Acts 6:13), and Jews were allowed to execute those who violated the sanctity of the temple (War 6:2:4).

3. Collection of tax

It was the responsibility of the procurator to supervise the collection of tax for the Roman government from the province. He would use a large number of local tax-collectors, like Matthew (Matt 9:9), and Zacchaeus (Luke 19:2), who were hated by the local population, partly because they were considered traitors because they collected tax for the Roman oppressors, and partly because many were dishonest (Luke 19:8). To count the people liable to pay tax, the governor ordered a census. The first was in A.D. 6, ordered by Quirinius, which inspired the uprising led by Judas the Galilean (Acts 5:37).

4. Administration of the province

It was the normal Roman practice to leave most of the running of the government to local leaders. In Judea, this was the Sanhedrin, dominated by the Sadducees, and ruled by the High Priest. In return for their support for Roman rule, the Sadducees kept their wealth and privileged position secure. By the first century, the high priesthood had become a political appointment by the Roman governor. In contrast to Gratus, the previous governor, who changed the high priest four times in eleven years, Pilate kept Caiaphas as high priest throughout his period of rule, probably because of his loyalty to Rome. To show Roman control over the high priesthood, the governor kept the vestments of the high priest in the Fortress of Antonia, and only allowed them to be used for festivals, when he was in residence. He also controlled the finances of the temple.

Evidence of Pilate from Archaeology

The historicity of Pilate was confirmed by the discovery in 1961 of an incomplete inscription on a block of limestone from the theatre in Caesarea. Although much of the inscription is damaged and unreadable, it clearly names Pontius Pilate and Emperor Tiberius, and gives Pilate the rank of Prefectus of Judea.

Coins issued by Pilate have also been discovered. Each of these has a Jewish design on one side, and pagan symbols on the other. This blending of Jewish and pagan designs may have been an attempt to integrate the Jews into the empire. There is no record of these coins being offensive to the Jews.

Pilate’s Early Life

Pilate would have been a Roman citizen, probably born in Italy, at an unknown date. There is no information about his early life and career, before he was appointed to Judea. We know he was married and had taken his wife to Judea with him. This was following a change of policy of the Roman Senate in AD 21. Previously, women were not allowed to be taken to provinces by governors . His wife warned him about a disturbing dream she had about Jesus (Matt 27:19). An equestrian official such as Pilate would normally serve as a military tribune or staff officer in a Roman legion before being appointed as governor of a province. To gain promotion to public office, it was necessary to have an influential patron in Rome. Philo implies that Pilate’s patron was Sejanus, who as prefect of the praetorian guard, was the second most powerful man in Rome (LG 159). Pilate was probably appointed because the influence of Sejanus with the emperor. Sejanus was strongly anti-Jewish, and may have encouraged Pilate to introduce anti-Jewish policies. Eusebius describes Philo’s record that Sejanus attempted to destroy the whole Jewish nation (HE 2:5). Sejanus finally fell from favour in A.D. 31, and was executed.

In contrast to earlier governors, who only ruled for between two and four years, before being replaced, Pilate ruled for eleven years, probably in accordance to Tiberius’s policy of keeping governors in office for longer periods of time (Ant 18:6:5).

Accounts of Pilate from Historical Sources

Apart from the accounts of the trial of Jesus in all four Gospels, Pilate is mentioned in several historical writings, particularly in Josephus’s Antiquities of the Jews, and the Jewish War. These are considered to be more reliable than the other main source: Philo of Alexandria, in his Legation to Gaius, who was more strongly prejudiced against Pilate. There is a brief mention in Tacitus’ Annals of Imperial Rome, describing the origin of “the notoriously depraved Christians”, whose originator, Christ, had been executed by the governor of Judea, Pontius Pilatus (Annals 2:14:45). This is the only mention of Pilate in pagan Latin writing. Because of his role in Jesus’ death, Pilate is also mentioned in writings of the early church, as well as in the Christian Creeds. Both the Apostles’ Creed, and the Nicene Creed state that Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate.

Josephus also includes an account of the Crucifixion of Jesus (Ant 18:3:3). Josephus says that the Jewish leadership brought Jesus before Pilate for trial, who condemned him to be crucified. His account does not add any information to the Gospel accounts. However, some scholars consider that the text has been tampered with by later Christian interpreters.

Josephus tells of three incidents during Pilate’s governorship, which are not included in the Biblical account. These demonstrate the hostile relationship between him and the Jews, and the difficulty he had in ruling the unruly province.

1. The Standards (War 2:9:2-3, Ant 18:3:1)

The first incident was soon after Pilate took office in AD 26, when he sent a military cohort to take up duty in Jerusalem. The local Jewish population was offended when they saw that they were carrying standards portraying images of the emperor, who was considered to be divine. Later Christian commentators exaggerated the story to say that this included a statue of the emperor. This was contrary to previous Roman practice when they removed the images from the standards, because Jews would consider them offensive and idolatrous. Josephus understood Pilate’s action to be a deliberate provocation to offend the Jews, because he smuggled the images in at night. Pilate refused to listen to the protestors who came to Caesarea, pleading for five days that he remove the images. On the sixth day, Pilate ordered soldiers to kill the protestors, but they all bared their necks. When he saw they were not afraid to die, he finally gave in and ordered the removal of the images, in order to avoid a national uprising. Pilate’s action has been said to reveal poor judgement, stubbornness and finally weakness. This incident made a bad beginning to his rule of Judea.

2. Water supply for Jerusalem (War 2:9:4, Ant 18:3:2)

The second incident happened at an unknown date, when Pilate seized money from the temple treasury (The Corbanas) to finance the building of a twenty-five mile aqueduct to bring water into the city of Jerusalem from the hills south of the city. Jews considered this use of the sacred money dedicated to God to be sacrilegious, and reacted violently when Pilate visited the building works. Pilate ordered his soldiers to mingle with the crowd, dressed in civilian clothes, but armed with clubs. When the protest increased, the soldiers drew their clubs, beating the protestors and killing many. The protest was crushed, but Jewish hatred for Pilate increased. Pilate had planned the aqueduct to be a way of pleasing the Jews, and would have been a great benefit to the inhabitants of the city, but his plan unfortunately backfired.

This incident may be the one referred to in a question to Jesus in Luke 13:1, when Pilate had mingled the blood of Galileans with their sacrifices. Otherwise, the occasion of this incident is unknown.

3. The Samaritan Uprising and Recall to the Emperor (Ant 18:4:1-2)

The third incident, in AD 36, led to his removal from the governorship and his recall to Rome. A false prophet in Samaria promised to show his followers the sacred vessels, which according to Samaritan tradition, had been buried by Moses on Mt. Gerizim. When a group of armed men gathered at the bottom of the mountain, Pilate blocked their route with foot soldiers and cavalry. Many were killed in the battle that followed, and some prisoners taken by Pilate were later executed. Because Pilate had killed so many people, the Samaritan leadership complained to Vitellius, the governor of Syria, about Pilate’s harsh treatment of a group of innocent pilgrims. He sent Marcellus to replace Pilate, who was ordered to report to the Emperor in Rome, but arrived there after the death of Tiberius in AD 37. Some writers suggest that as the men ascending Mt. Gerizim were armed, Pilate was only doing his duty as the Roman prefect to quell any potential uprising. Others say that Pilate must have over-reacted to an incident which was no real threat to Roman rule. We do not know what happened when Pilate appeared before the new Emperor Gaius (Caligula). He may have either been dismissed and disgraced, which led to the suicide described by Eusebius (HE 2:7), or given another appointment after his eleven years in Judea.

Philo's account of the shields

Another account of an incident during Pilate’s rule over Judea is described by the Jewish Philosopher Philo of Alexandria in his Legation to Gaius (LG 299-305). He reproduces a letter from Agrippa I to Caligula, probably written towards the end of Pilate’s governorship .

Pilate set up shields dedicated to the emperor, containing his name, but no image, on the walls of his palace in Jerusalem, the former palace of Herod. This is a different and less serious incident from the military standards described by Josephus. Philo said that he did it not to please the emperor, but to annoy the Jews (LG 299). The absence of any image on the shields may have been an attempt not to offend the Jews, showing he wanted to honour the emperor without antagonising the people.

The presence of the shields upset the Jewish leadership, who appointed four Herodian princes to appeal to Pilate to remove the shields. When he refused, they made petitions directly to Emperor Tiberius, who ordered Pilate to remove the shields to the temple of Augustus in Caesarea. This access to the emperor was probably made possible following the execution of Sejanus in AD 31 and the reversal of his anti-Jewish policies. The date of this incident may have been during one of the festivals in AD 32, perhaps the Feast of Tabernacles, when the sons of Herod would be in Jerusalem. It is possible that following the death of Sejanus, Pilate was wanting to please the emperor by setting up the shields with the emperors name, but the plan back-fired, annoying Tiberius instead of pleasing him.

Character of Pilate from Historical Sources

Josephus was critical of Pilate, but not violently hostile to him. He accused Pilate of deliberately doing things to annoy and offend the Jews. He called the introduction of the standards “a bold step in subversion of the Jewish practices” (Ant 18:3:1). In some other places, he gives the impression that Pilate genuinely found the Jews impossible to understand. Later in the incident with the standards, Josephus said that Pilate was “overcome with astonishment” at their intense religious zeal (War 2:9:3).

Philo was the most outspoken writer against Pilate, accusing him of being “a man of a very inflexible disposition, very merciless as well as very obstinate” (LG 301). He describes “his habit of insulting people, and his cruelty, and his continual murders of people untried and uncondemned” (LG 302). He dismisses Pilate as “a man of most ferocious passions” (LG 303). Most scholars consider that Philo’s assessment of Pilate was overly exaggerated, especially as Tiberius kept Pilate in office in Judea for the surprisingly long period of ten years.

John’s Account of the Trial before Pilate

When compared with the accounts in the synoptic Gospels, John gives a far greater emphasis to the Roman role in Jesus’ trial and death, giving us our main source for this trial, possibly observed by John himself . In the synoptic accounts, the emphasis is on the Jewish role, with only very brief descriptions of his appearance before Pilate. Luke alone includes Pilate referring Jesus to Herod Antipas (Lk 23:6-12), and only Matthew recalls the warning from Pilate’s wife, after her disturbing dream (Mt 27:19).

John’s dramatic account of the trial before Pilate is carefully structured with seven scenes, alternating between Pilate going out to the Jews outside, and returning inside his headquarters to speak to Jesus. The basic issue is Jesus’ kingship. Pilate begins his interrogation by asking Jesus “Are you the King of the Jews?”, wanting to know whether Jesus was pleading guilty or not guilty to their charges. Typical of John, the conversation progresses on two levels. Jesus is talking about an eternal kingship, while Pilate can only think in terms of an earthly kingdom, trying to assess whether Jesus is any threat to Roman rule, while the Jews would be thinking of king as their Messiah . Pilate clearly realises that the idea of Jesus being a king irritates the Jews, and so frequently calls Jesus king of the Jews, just to annoy them (19:14,15). He continued to provoke them by his choice of the inscription on the cross, and refused to change it (19:19ff).

There some differences between Pilate’s reputation from history from the account in John’s Gospel. Both Josephus and especially Philo say that Pilate deliberately annoyed Jews, but in the trial of Jesus, we do see that Pilate was willing to accommodate the scruples of the Jews by going outside his house to hear their accusations against Jesus .

Through the trial, Pilate made several unsuccessful attempts to avoid responsibility for deciding about Jesus. First, he told the Jews to try their own legal cases (18:31). Secondly, he tried to release him, as his custom was to release a prisoner at Passover (18:39). And thirdly, he tried to compromises by having Jesus flogged, presumably hoping that this lesser punishment would satisfy the Jews. After this he had Jesus dressed up in kingly clothes and presented to them as their king, in an attempt to make him look a ridiculous sight to appeal to the pity of the crowd, and show that he was obviously no threat to Rome (19:1ff). Three times he declared Jesus innocent (18:38, 19:4,6). It was only when the Jews questioned his loyalty to the emperor, that he agreed to crucify Jesus (19:12,15).

It is interesting to see that the same questioning of his loyalty happened in the case described by Philo (LG 302), when he feared that the Jews might go on an embassy to the emperor. Pilate was in a very difficult position. He was hated by the Jews, because they hated being ruled by the Romans, so he could do nothing that would satisfy them. Some previous attempts to please the Jews, like building them an aqueduct, had instead caused further conflict. On the other hand, he had to show his loyalty to the emperor and satisfy him that he was keeping the province at peace, preventing any Jewish uprising, using force if necessary. In his account of the shields, Philo said that Pilate was in great perplexity, knowing the firmness of Tiberius (LG 303). Bruce notes that Tiberius was known to be naturally distrustful and morbidly suspicious . Pilate would be most afraid of how Tiberius would react if he released Jesus, if he was accused of plotting against Rome.

In the end, Pilate had to decide whether to preserve his own job and reputation, looking after his own self-interest, or whether he would do what was right, and release Jesus. Finally he decided to condemn an innocent person to death, and so made a conscious decision against Jesus.

Pilate’s attitude towards Jesus changes during the progress of the trial. He probably initially thought that Jesus was some crazy Jewish prophet who had upset the authorities, and wanted to dismiss the case. But he found what Jesus said disturbed him (19:8), especially after Jesus spoke about his kingdom not being of this world (18:36), and the Jews said he claimed to be the Son of God (19:7). Clearly he considered Jesus as no political threat, but did not know what to do with him. Perhaps under the hard exterior of a Roman official, there was a rich vein of superstition, which was now exposed, leaving Pilate vulnerable and indecisive. Tasker suggests that it was the mention of “Son of God” that caused Pilate to fear that he was in the presence of a supernatural figure, even though he may have looked quite the opposite.

In Josephus’ accounts of the standards, Pilate gave in to the demands of the Jews when he saw their religious zeal and devotion to their laws (War 2:9:3, Ant 18:3:1). This shows a similar capitulation as in the trial of Jesus. He began with a show of strength and cynicism, but ended both with weakness and a show of superstition. Edersheim describes Pilate’s attitude towards Jesus as a mixture of contempt, cynicism and awe. It is possible to see a progression in this, moving from contempt at the beginning, cynicism when he asked “What is truth?”, to awe, when Jesus spoke his greater authority (19:11).

In John’s account Pilate is portrayed as a weak character, who finally gave in to the demands of the Jews, going against his own statements and belief that Jesus was innocent. His obstinacy and insensitivity were tokens of weakness, not of strength. Pilate knew that the charges against Jesus were all lies, but was not a strong enough leader to dismiss the case, as it deserved.

Bibliography:

W. Barclay. The Daily Study Bible. The Gospel of John. St. Andrew’s Press 1975. Volume 2
Helen Bond. Pontius Pilate. The Ecole Initiative 1996.
http://cedar.evansville.edu/~ecoleweb/articles/pilate.html
F.F. Bruce. New Testament History. Paternoster 1969.
F.F. Bruce. The Gospel of John. Eerdmans 1983.
A. Edersheim. The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. Hendrickson 1993.
H.W. Hoehner: Pontius Pilate in Dictionary of Jesus & the Gospels. ed. J.B. Green, S. McKnight, I.H. Marshall. IVP 1992.
L. Morris. The Gospel According to John (NICNT). Eerdmans 1995.
Emil Schurer. The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ. T & T Clark ltd., Edinburgh 1973. Volume 1.
A.N. Sherwin-White: Pilate, Pontius in International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia (ISBE). ed. G.W. Bromiley. Eerdmans 1986.
R.V.G. Tasker. John. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries. IVP 1960.
J.G Vos: Pilate, Pontius in Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopaedia of the Bible. ed. M.C. Tenney Zondervan 1975.
D.H. Wheaton: Pilate in The Illustrated Bible Dictionary. ed. J.D. Douglas. IVP 1980.

Historical sources:

Bettenson. Documents of the Christian Church. OUP 1943.
Eusebius. Ecclesiastical History (HE). Baker Book House 1991.
Philo. Legation to Gaius (LG). www.geocities/paris/leftbank/5210/gaiustoc.htm
Josephus. trans. William Whiston. The Works of Josephus. Hendrickson 1987. Antiquities of the Jews (Ant). Wars of the Jews (War)
Tacitus. trans. Michael Grant. The Annals of Imperial Rome (Annals). Penguin Classics 1956.


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