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Archaeology and the Land Support the Word of Truth
A study of archaeological discoveries and of ancient records of secular history definitively corroborate the Bible record. So, let’s first take a look at archaeological evidence that supports the historicity of Pontius Pilate before we delve into the person himself.
Archaeology and Minted Coins
A single inscription by Pilate has survived in Caesarea, on the so-called “Pilate Stone”. The (partially reconstructed) inscription is as follows:
Vardaman “freely” translates it as follows: “Tiberium [?of the Caesareans?] Pontius Pilate, Prefect of Judea [ .. has given?].” The fragmentary nature of the inscription has led to some disagreement about the correct reconstruction, so that “apart from Pilate’s name and title the inscription is unclear.” Originally, the inscription would have included an abbreviated letter for Pilate’s praenomen (e.g., T. for Titus or M. for Marcus). The stone attests Pilate’s title of prefect and the inscription appears to refer to some kind of building called a Tiberieum, a word otherwise unattested but following a pattern of naming buildings about Roman emperors. Bond argues that we cannot be sure what kind of building this referred to. G. Alföldy argued that it was some sort of secular building, namely a lighthouse, while Joan Taylor and Jerry Vardaman argue that it was a temple dedicated to Tiberius.
A second inscription, which has since been lost, has historically been associated with Pontius Pilate. It was a fragmentary, undated inscription on a large piece of marble recorded in Ameria, a village in Umbria, Italy. The inscription read as follows:
The only clear items of text are the names “Pilate” and the title quattuorvir (“IIII VIR”), a type of local city official responsible for conducting a census every five years. The inscription was formerly found outside the church of St. Secundus, where it had been copied from a presumed original. At the turn of the twentieth century, it was generally held to be fake, a forgery in support of a local legend that Pontius Pilate died in exile in Ameria. The more recent scholars Alexander Demandt and Henry MacAdam both believe that the inscription is genuine, but attests to a person who simply had the same cognomen as Pontius Pilate. MacAdam argues that “[i]t is far easier to believe that this very fragmentary inscription prompted the legend of Pontius Pilate’s association with the Italian village of Ameria […] than it is to posit someone forging the inscription two centuries ago—quite creatively, it would seem—to provide substance for the legend.”
As governor, Pilate was responsible for minting coins in the province: he appears to have struck them in 29/30, 30/31, and 31/32, thus the fourth, fifth, and sixth years of his governorship. The coins belong to a type called a “perutah”, measured between 13.5 and 17mm, were minted in Jerusalem, and are fairly crudely made. Earlier coins read ΙΟΥΛΙΑ ΚΑΙΣΑΡΟΣ on the obverse and ΤΙΒΕΡΙΟΥ ΚΑΙΣΑΡΟΣ on the reverse, referring to the emperor Tiberius and his mother Livia (Julia Augusta). Following Livia’s death, the coins only read ΤΙΒΕΡΙΟΥ ΚΑΙΣΑΡΟΣ. As was typical of Roman coins struck in Judaea, they did not have a portrait of the emperor, though they included some pagan designs.
Attempts to identify the aqueduct that is attributed to Pilate in Josephus date to the nineteenth century. In the mid-twentieth century, A. Mazar tentatively identified the aqueduct as the Arrub aqueduct that brought water from Solomon’s Pools to Jerusalem, an identification supported in 2000 by Kenneth Lönnqvist. Lönnqvist notes that the Talmud (Lamentations Rabbah 4.4) records the destruction of an aqueduct from Solomon’s Pools by the Sicarii, a group of fanatical religious Zealots, during the First Jewish-Roman War (66-73); he suggests that if the aqueduct had been funded by the temple treasury as recorded in Josephus, this might explain the Sicarii’s targeting of this particular aqueduct.
In 2018, an inscription on a thin copper-alloy sealing ring that had been discovered at Herodium was uncovered using modern scanning techniques. The inscription reads ΠΙΛΑΤΟ(Υ) (Pilato(u)), meaning “of Pilate.” The name Pilatus is rare, so the ring could be associated with Pontius Pilate; however, given the cheap material, it is unlikely that he would have owned it. It is possible that the ring belonged to another individual named Pilate, or that it belonged to someone who worked for Pontius Pilate.
Who Was Pontius Pilate?
Little is known of Pontius Pilate’s personal history. The only period of his life to receive historical notice is his Judean governorship. The one inscription known bearing his name was found in 1961 at Caesarea. It also refers to the “Tiberieum,” a building Pilate dedicated in honor of Tiberius.
“I FIND no fault in him.” In these words, Pontius Pilate expressed his judgment that Jesus was without guilt. (John 18:38; 19:4, 6) Yet, in the end, Pilate yielded to the demands of a crowd of Jesus’ fellow countrymen and sentenced him to be executed. Who was this Pilate?
The name “Pontius Pilate” itself may give us some idea about his background. He perhaps had some relationship with C. Pontius Telesimus, a prominent general of the Samnite people in a mountainous region of southern Italy. And the family name “Pilate,” if drawn from the Latin pilum (javelin), may point to descent from a military man. On the other hand, if the name “Pilate” comes from the Latin pileus, he might have been a freed slave or the descendant of one. This is because a pileus was a cap customarily worn by slaves who had been granted their freedom. (Easton 1996, c1897)
It was in 26 C.E. that Tiberius Caesar appointed Pilate as governor of Judea. (Wars 2.9.2 ) As governor, Pilate had complete control of the province and could impose death sentences. His official residence was at Caesarea, about fifty-four miles north-northwest of Jerusalem. There the main body of Roman troops was stationed. However, during Jewish festival seasons, Pilate, along with Roman military reinforcements, usually stayed at Jerusalem.
The time of Pilate’s governorship was marred by troubles. This was mainly due to his offending the religious sensibilities of his subjects. On one occasion, under the cover of darkness, Pilate had Roman soldiers bring into Jerusalem standards with images of the emperor thereon. These standards were then set up in the city. Upon discovering this, a large delegation of Jews went to Caesarea, calling for their removal. Turned down repeatedly, the Jews persisted in their request. Finally, Pilate decided to frighten the petitioners by threatening them with death. (Elwell, 1694) However, when the Jews declared their willingness to die, Pilate granted their petition.—War 2.9.2; Antiquities 18.3.1; cf. Eusebius’s Histories 2.6.
Then there was the time when Pilate placed in his quarters at Jerusalem gold shields bearing his own name and that of Tiberius. (Elwell, 1694) The Jews appealed to the emperor, and Pilate was ordered to remove the shields.—Leg. to Caius 299–305.
Still another time, Pilate used money from the temple treasury to build an aqueduct that was to bring water into Jerusalem from a distance of about twenty-five miles. (Elwell, 1694) Tens of thousands of Jews protested against this when Pilate made a visit to the city. Some reproached him and even hurled abuses at him. When they refused to obey his order to disperse, he sent disguised soldiers into their midst. At a given signal, the soldiers attacked. Many Jews fell slain; others fled wounded.—War 2.9.4; Antiquities 18.3.2.
Perhaps it was in connection with this incident that Pilate ‘mixed the blood of Galileans with their sacrifices,’ as reported at Luke 13:1. (Elwell, 1694) Since the Galileans were subjects of Herod Antipas, this may have contributed to the enmity existing between Pilate and Herod until the time of Jesus’ trial.—Luke 23:6-12.
Position, Duties, and Power
As mentioned in the above, Roman Emperor Tiberius appointed Pilate governor of the province of Judaea in 26 C.E. Such prefects were men of the so-called equestrian order—the lower nobility, as opposed to aristocrats of senatorial status. Pilate likely joined the army as a military tribune, or junior commander; passed through the ranks during successive tours of duty, and was appointed governor before he was 30 years old.
When in uniform, Pilate would have worn a leather tunic and metal breastplate. His public clothing was a white toga with a purple border. He would have had short hair and have been clean-shaven. Although some believe that he came from Spain, his name suggests that he belonged to the tribe of the Pontii—Samnite nobles from southern Italy.
Prefects of Pilate’s rank were usually sent to barbarous territories. The Romans considered Judaea to be such a place. In addition to maintaining order, Pilate oversaw the collection of indirect taxes and the poll tax. Day-to-day administration of justice was a concern of the Jewish courts, but cases requiring the death penalty were evidently referred to the governor, who was the supreme judicial authority.
With a small staff of scribes, companions, and messengers, Pilate and his wife lived in the port city of Caesarea. Pilate commanded five infantry cohorts of from 500 to 1,000 men each as well as a cavalry regiment likely consisting of 500. His soldiers routinely impaled lawbreakers. In peacetime, executions followed summary hearings, but during an uprising, rebels were put to death on the spot and en masse. For example, the Romans impaled 6,000 slaves to crush the revolt led by Spartacus. If trouble threatened in Judaea, the governor could normally turn to the imperial legate in Syria, who commanded legions. During much of Pilate’s tenure, however, the legate was absent, and Pilate had to end disorders quickly.
Governors regularly communicated with the emperor. Matters involving his dignity or any threats to Roman authority required reports and resulted in imperial orders. A governor might be anxious to give the emperor his own version of events in his province before others could complain. With trouble brewing in Judaea, such concerns were very real to Pilate.
Aside from the Gospel accounts, the historians Flavius Josephus and Philo are the main sources of information on Pilate. Roman historian Tacitus also states that Pilate executed Christus, from whom Christians took their name.
We have no certain knowledge of Pilate except in connection with his time of rule in Judea. We know nothing of his birth, his origin, or his earlier years. Tacitus, when speaking of the cruel punishments inflicted by Nero upon the Christians, tells us that Christ, from whom the name “Christian” was derived, was put to death when Tiberius was emperor by the procurator Pontius Pilate (Annals xv.44). Apart from this reference and what is told us in the New Testament, all our knowledge of him is derived from two Jewish writers, Josephus the historian and Philo of Alexandria.
Pilate was procurator of Judea, in succession to Gratus, and he held office for 10 years. Josephus tells (Ant., XVIII, iv, 2) that he ruled for 10 years; that he was removed from office by Vitellius, the legate of Syria, and traveled in haste to Rome to defend himself before Tiberius against certain complaints. Before he reached Rome the emperor had passed away. Josephus adds that Vitellius came in the year 36 AD to Judea to be present at Jerusalem at the time of the Passover. It has been assumed by most authorities (so HDB and EB) that Pilate had departed before this visit of Vitellius. They accordingly date the procuratorship of Pilate as lasting from 26 to 36 AD. As against this view, yon Dobschutx points out (RE under the word “Pilate”) that by this reckoning Pilate must have taken at least a year to get to Rome; for Tiberius died on March. 16, 37 AD. Such delay is inconceivable in view of the circumstances; hence, von Dobschutz rightly dates the period of his procuratorship 27-37 AD. The procurator of Judea had no easy task, nor did Pilate make the task easier by his actions. He was not careful to conciliate the religious prejudices of the Jews, and at times this attitude of his led to violent collisions between ruler and ruled.
On one occasion, when the soldiers under his command came to Jerusalem, he caused them to bring with them their ensigns, upon which were the usual images of the emperor. The ensigns were brought in privily by night, put their presence was soon discovered. Immediately multitudes of excited Jews hastened to Caesarea to petition him for the removal of the obnoxious ensigns. For five days he refused to hear them, but on the sixth he took his place on the judgment seat, and when the Jews were admitted he had them surrounded with soldiers and threatened them with instant death unless they ceased to trouble him with the matter. The Jews thereupon flung themselves on the ground and bared their necks, declaring that they preferred death to the violation of their laws. Pilate, unwilling to slay so many, yielded the point and removed the ensigns (Josephus, Ant, XVIII, iii, 1; BJ, II, ix, 2, 3).
At another time he used the sacred treasure of the temple, called corban (qorban), to pay for bringing water into Jerusalem by an aqueduct. A crowd came together and clamored against him; but he had caused soldiers dressed as civilians to mingle with the multitude, and at a given signal they fell upon the rioters and beat them so severely with staves that the riot was quelled (Josephus, Ant, XVIII, iii, 2; BJ, II, ix, 4).
Philo tells us (Legatio ad Caium, xxxviii) that on other occasion he dedicated some gilt shields in the palace of Herod in honor of the emperor. On these shields there was no representation of any forbidden thing, but simply an inscription of the name of the donor and of him in whose honor they were set up. The Jews petitioned him to have them removed; when he refused, they appealed to Tiberius, who sent an order that they should be removed to Caesarea.
Of the incident, mentioned in Lu 13:1, of the Galileans whose blood Pilate mingled with their sacrifices, nothing further is known.
Josephus (Ant., XVIII, iv, 1, 2) gives an account of the incident which led to Pilate’s downfall. A religious pretender arose in Samaria who promised the Samaritans that if they would assemble at Mt. Gerizim, he would show them the sacred vessels which Moses had hidden there. A great multitude assembled in readiness to ascend the mountain, but before they could accomplish their aim they were attacked by Pilate’s cavalry, and many of them were slain. The Samaritans thereupon sent an embassy to Vitellius, the legate of Syria, to accuse Pilate of the murder of those who had been slain. Vitellius, who desired to stand well with the Jews, deposed Pilate from office, appointed Marcellus in his place, and ordered Pilate to go to Rome and answer the charges made against him before the emperor. Pilate set out for Rome, but, before he could reach it, Tiberius had died; and it is probable that, in the confusion which followed, Pilate escaped the inquisition with which he was threatened. From this point onward history knows nothing more of Pilate.
Jewish Ire Inflamed
Josephus says that out of regard for Jewish scruples over the making of images, Roman governors had avoided taking into Jerusalem military standards bearing effigies of the emperor. Because Pilate showed no such restraint, outraged Jews rushed to Caesarea to complain. Pilate did nothing for five days. On the sixth day, he ordered his soldiers to surround the protesters and threaten to execute them if they did not disperse. When the Jews said that they would rather die than see their Law transgressed, Pilate relented and ordered that the images be removed. (Green, McKnight and Marshall, 615)
Pilate was capable of using force. In an incident recorded by Josephus, the prefect began work on an aqueduct to bring water into Jerusalem and used funds from the temple treasury to finance the project. Pilate did not simply seize the money, for he knew that plundering the temple was sacrilege and would have caused angry Jews to ask Tiberius to recall him. Therefore, it seems that Pilate had the cooperation of the temple authorities. (Green, McKnight and Marshall, 615) Dedicated funds, termed “corban,” could legitimately be used for public works to benefit the city. However, thousands of Jews gathered to express their indignation.
Pilate had troops mingle with the crowd with orders not to use swords but to beat the protesters with clubs. He apparently wanted to control the mob without provoking a massacre. This seems to have paid off, though some did die. Certain ones who reported to Jesus that Pilate had mixed the blood of Galileans with their sacrifices may have been referring to this incident.—Luke 13:1.
Pilate and Jesus Christ
The shortest and simplest account of Pilate’s dealings with Jesus Christ is given in the Gospel of Mark. There we are told that Jesus was delivered to Pilate; that Pilate asked Him if He was the king of the Jews, receiving an affirmative answer; that, to Pilate’s surprise, Jesus answered nothing to the accusations of the chief priests; that Pilate tried to release Jesus according to an ancient custom; that the multitude, in spite of the protest of Pilate, demanded the release of Barabbas, and cried out that Jesus should be crucified; that Pilate scourged Jesus and delivered Him to be crucified; and that Jesus when He had been scourged and mocked, was led away to be crucified. Mark tells further how Joseph of Arimathea begged of Pilate the body of Jesus. Pilate was surprised that Jesus died so quickly and questioned the centurion about it. Pilate’s surprise and question are peculiar to Mark. Being satisfied on this point, Pilate granted the body to Joseph. Matthew adds the dream and message of Pilate’s wife (27:19); it also tells how Pilate washed his hands before the people, disclaiming responsibility for the death of Jesus, and how the people accepted the responsibility (27:24 f); also how Pilate granted a guard for the tomb (27:62-66). Luke alone narrates the sending of Jesus to Herod (23:6-12), and reports Pilate’s three times repeated asseveration that he found no fault in Jesus (23:4,14,22). John gives by far the fullest narrative, which forms a framework into which the more fragmentary accounts of the Synoptics can be fitted with perfect ease. Some critics, holding that Mark alone is trustworthy, dismiss the additional incidents given in Matthew and Luke as apologetic amplifications; and many dismiss the narrative of Jn as wholly unworthy of credence. Such theories are based on preconceived opinions as to the date, authorship, and reliability of the various Gospels. The reader who holds all the Gospels to be, in the main, authentic, and trustworthy narratives will have no difficulty in perceiving that all four narratives, when taken together, present a story consistent in all its details and free from all difficulty. It should be noted that John evidently had special opportunities of obtaining exacter knowledge than that possessed by the others, as he was present at every stage of the trial; and that his narrative makes clear what is obscure in the accounts of the Synoptics.
The parts may be fitted together thus: Jesus is brought to Pilate (Mt 27:2; Mr 15:1; Lu 23:1; Joh 18:28). Pilate asks for a specific accusation (Joh 18:29-32). Pilate enters the praetorium, questions Jesus about His alleged kingship, and receives the answer that He rules over the kingdom of truth, and over the hearts of men who acknowledge the truth. Pilate asks: “What is truth?” (reported briefly in Mt 27:11; Mr 15:2; Lu 23:3, and with more detail Joh 18:33-38). Pilate brings Him forth (this is the only detail that needs to be supplied in order to make the harmony complete, and in itself it is probable enough), and many accusations are made against Him, to which, to Pilate’s surprise, He makes no reply (Mt 27:12-14; Mr 15:3-5). Pilate affirms His innocence, but the charges are repeated (Lu 23:4 f). Pilate sends Him to Herod, who in mockery clothes Him in shining raiment, and sends Him back (Lu 23:6-12). Pilate declares that neither Herod or himself can find any fault in Him and offers to scourge Him and let Him go (Lu 23:13-16; Joh 18:3Joh 8:1-59b). Pilate offers to release Jesus in accordance with an ancient custom (Mt 27:15-18; Mr 15:6-10; Joh 18:39). Pilate’s wife sends him a message warning him not to harm Jesus because she has suffered many things in a dream because of Him (Mt 27:19). The people, persuaded thereto by the chief priests and elders, choose Barabbas, and, in spite of the repeated protests of Pilate, demand that Jesus shall be crucified (Mt 27:20-23; Mr 15:11-14; Lu 23:18-23; Joh 18:40). Pilate washes his hands before the people, and they take the guilt of the deed upon themselves and their children (Mt 27:24 f). Pilate releases Barabbas and orders Jesus to be scourged (Mt 27:26; Mr 15:15; Lu 23:24 f). Jesus is scourged and mocked, buffered and spit upon (Mt 27:3-27Mt 1:1-25a; Mr 15:2-160a; Joh 19:1-3). Pilate again declares the innocence of Jesus, brings Him out, and says: “Behold the man!” The chief priests and officers cry out: “Crucify him!” They accuse Him of making Himself the Son of God. Pilate, becoming more afraid at this saying, once more interviews the prisoner in the praetorium. He again tries to release Him but is accused of treachery to the emperor. Overborne by this, Pilate sits on the judgment seat, and says: “Behold your King!” Again the cry goes up: “Away with him, crucify him!” Pilate says: “ShallI crucify your King?” The chief priests answered with a final renunciation of all that God had given them, saying: “We have no king but Caesar” (Joh 19:4-15). Pilate sentences Jesus and gives Him up to be crucified, and He is led away (Mt 27:3Mt 1:1-25b; Mr 15:20b; Lu 23:2Lu 6:1-49a; Joh 19:16). Pilate writes a title for the cross, and refuses to alter it (Joh 19:19-22). The Jews ask of Pilate that the legs of the three who were crucified might be broken (Joh 19:31). Joseph of Arimathea begs the body of Jesus from Pilate (Mt 27:57,5Mt 8:1-34a; Mr 15:42 f; Lu 23:50-52; Joh 19:3Joh 8:1-59a). Pilate is surprised that Jesus has died so soon, and questions the centurion (Mr 15:44). He gives up to Joseph the body of Jesus (Mt 27:5Mt 8:1-34b; Mr 15:45; Joh 19:3Joh 8:1-59b). The chief priests and the Pharisees obtain permission from Pilate to take precautions against any theft of the body of Jesus (Mt 27:62-66).
Pilate is mentioned three times in Acts: in a speech of Peter (3:13), in a thanksgiving of the church (4:27), and in a speech of Paul (13:28). He is also mentioned in 1 Timothy (6:13) as the one before whom Christ Jesus witnessed the good confession.
“What Is Truth?”
What makes Pilate infamous is his investigation of charges made by the Jewish chief priests and older men that Jesus was presenting himself as King. On hearing of Jesus’ mission to bear witness to the truth, Pilate saw that the prisoner presented no threat to Rome. “What is truth?” he asked, evidently thinking that truth was too elusive a concept to merit much attention. His conclusion? “I find no crime in this man.”—John 18:37, 38; Luke 23:4.
That should have been the end of Jesus’ trial, but the Jews insisted that he was subverting the nation. Envy was the chief priests’ reason for turning Jesus over, and Pilate knew it. He also knew that releasing Jesus would cause trouble, something he wanted to avoid. There had been enough of that already, for Barabbas and others were in custody for sedition and murder. (Mark 15:7, 10; Luke 23:2) Moreover, previous disputes with the Jews had tarnished Pilate’s reputation with Tiberius, who was notorious for dealing severely with bad governors. Yet, to give in to the Jews would be a sign of weakness. Therefore, Pilate faced a dilemma.
On hearing where Jesus was from, Pilate tried to pass the case on to Herod Antipas, district ruler of Galilee. When that failed, Pilate attempted to get those gathered outside his palace to ask for Jesus’ release, in accord with the custom of freeing a prisoner at Passover. The crowd clamored for Barabbas.—Luke 23:5-19.
Pilate may have wanted to do what was right, but he also desired to save himself and please the crowd. Finally, he put his career ahead of conscience and justice. Calling for water, he washed his hands and claimed innocence in the death he now sanctioned. Though he believed that Jesus was innocent, Pilate had him scourged and allowed soldiers to mock, strike, and spit upon him.—Matthew 27:24-31.
Pilate made a final attempt to free Jesus, but the crowd shouted that if he did so, he was no friend of Caesar. (John 19:12) At that, Pilate caved in. One scholar said this about Pilate’s decision: “The solution was easy: execute the man. All that was to be lost was the life of one apparently insignificant Jew; it would be foolish to let trouble develop over him.”
Pilate After Christ―What Happened?
The last recorded incident in Pilate’s career was another conflict. Josephus says that a multitude of armed Samaritans gathered on Mount Gerizim in hopes of uncovering treasures that Moses had supposedly buried there. Pilate intervened, and his troops slew a number of the crowd. The Samaritans complained to Pilate’s superior, Lucius Vitellius, governor of Syria. Whether Vitellius thought that Pilate had gone too far is not stated. In any case, he ordered Pilate to Rome to answer to the emperor for his actions. Before he arrived, however, Tiberius died. Antiquities 18.4.1–2.
“At that point,” says one source, “Pilate passes out of history into legend.” But many have tried to supply missing details. It has been claimed that Pilate became a Christian. Ethiopian “Christians” made him a “saint.” Eusebius, who wrote in the late third and early fourth centuries, was the first of many to say that Pilate, like Judas Iscariot, committed suicide. (History 2.7) However, just what became of Pilate is a matter of speculation.
Pilate in Tradition and Legend
Eusebius, who lived in the 4th century, tells us (Historia Ecclesiastica, II) on the authority of certain Greek historians that Pilate fell into such calamities that he committed suicide. Various apocryphal writings have come down to us, written from the 3rd to the 5th centuries, with others of a later date, in which legendary details are given about Pilate. In all these a favorable view is taken of his character; hence, the Coptic church came to believe that he became a Christian and enrolled him among the number of its saints. His wife, to whom tradition gives the name of Claudia Procula, or Procla, is said to have been a Jewish proselyte at the time of the death of Jesus, and afterward to have become a Christian. Her name is honored along with Pilate’s in the Coptic church, and in the calendar of saints honored by the Greek church her name is found against the date October 27.
We find not unkindly references to Pilate in the recently discovered fragment of the Gospel of Peter, which was composed in the 2nd century. In the so-called Gospel of Nicodemus, which belongs to the 4th or 5th century, we find in the first part, called the Acts of Pilate, a long account of the trial of Jesus. It tells how the standards in the hall of judgment bowed down before Jesus, in spite of the efforts of the standard-bearers, and others who attempted it, to hold them erect. It tells also how many of those who had been healed by Jesus bore testimony to Him at the trial. There has also come down to us, in various forms (e.g. in the Acts of Peter and Paul), a letter, supposed to be the report of Pilate to Tiberius, narrating the proceedings of the trial, and speaking of Jesus in the highest terms of praise. Eusebius, when he mentions this letter, avers that Tiberius, on perusing it, was incensed against the Jews who had sought the death of Jesus (Historia Ecclesiastica, II, 2). Elsewhere (Historia Ecclesiastica, IX, 5) he recounts that under Maximin forged Acts of Pilate, containing blasphemies against Christ, were circulated with the consent of the emperor. None of these, if they ever existed, have come down to us. In the Paradosis Pilati we read that Caesar, being angry with Pilate for what he had done, brought him to Rome as a prisoner, and examined him. When the Christ was named, all the gods in the senate-chamber fell down and were broken. Caesar ordered war to be made on the Jews, and Pilate, after praying to Jesus, was beheaded. The head was taken away by an angel, and Procla, seeing this, died of joy. Another narrative, of late date, recounts that Pilate, at his trial, wore the seamless robe of Jesus; for this reason, Caesar, though filled with anger, could not so much as say a harsh word to Pilate; but when the robe was taken off, he condemned Pilate to death. On hearing this, Pilate committed suicide. The body was sunk in the Tiber, but such storms were raised by demons on account of this that it was taken up and sunk in the Rhone at Vienne. The same trouble recurred there, and the body was finally buried in the territory of Losania (Lausanne). Tradition connects Mt. Pilatus with his name, although it is probable that the derivation is from pileatus, i.e. the mountain with a cloud-cap.
Character of Pilate
Philo (Legatio ad Caium, xxxviii) speaks of Pilate in terms of the severest condemnation. According to him, Pilate was a man of a very inflexible disposition, and very merciless as well as obstinate. Philo calls him a man of most ferocious passions and speaks of his corruption, his acts of insolence, his rapine, his habit of insulting people, his cruelty, his continual murders of people untried and uncondemned, and his never-ending and most grievous inhumanity. This is very highly colored and probably much exaggerated; certainly, the instances given do not bear out this description of the man. Much of what he says of Pilate is in direct opposition to what we learn of him in the Gospels. There he appears to us as a man who, in spite of many undoubted faults, tries hard to conduct the trial with fairness. Pilate had the ethics of his class and obviously tried to act up to the standard which he had formed. There was in him, however, no deep moral basis of character, as is shown by the utter skepticism of his question, “What is truth?” When he found that the doing of strict justice threatened to endanger his position, he reluctantly and with a great deal of shame gave way to the demands of the Jews. He sent Jesus to the cross, but not before he had exhausted every expedient for saving Him, except the simple and straightforward one of dismissing the case. He had the haughtiness of the dominant race and a profound contempt for the people over which he ruled. This contempt, as we have seen, continually brought him into trouble. He felt deeply humiliated at having to give way to those whom he utterly despised, and, in the manner of a small mind, revenged himself on them by calling Christ their king, and by refusing to alter the mocking inscription on the cross. It is certain that Pilate, in condemning Jesus, acted, and knew that he acted against his conscience. He knew what was right, but for selfish and cowardly reasons refused to do it. He was faced by a great moral emergency, and he failed. We rest on the judgment of our Lord, that he was guilty, but not so guilty as the leaders of the chosen people.
Pilate could be stubborn, dismissive, and oppressive. However, most of the other Judean prefects had short terms; Pilate was able to hold the office for ten years. Therefore, the Romans would have rated Pilate as a proficient ruler. Many have seen Pilate as nothing but a coward who shamefully and shocking had Jesus tortured and killed, looking out for his own self-interests. Actually, some have seen that Pilate had gone to great lengths on behalf of Jesus, and they lay the blame for Jesus’ horrendous death at the feet of the Jewish religious leaders. Some have concluded that Pilate’s job was about peace, not the pursuit of justice. The first time reader of the Gospels, who has not been prejudiced, is likely to come away with a Roman Governor who had been placed in a most difficult situation, and actually attempted to release Jesus numerous times.
We must keep in mind that Pilate and the setting he lived in 2,000 years ago is far different from 2010. While we may empathize with Pilate’s circumstance, no righteous judge could condemn a man that he knew to be innocent. If it were not for this one man, whom Pilate judged, he would have never been known to the world, ”what is Truth.”
by Edward D. Andrews & J. Macartney Wilson
- Cruse, C. F. Eusebius’ Eccliatical History. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1998.
- Easton, M. G. Easton’s Bible Dictionary. Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, 1996, c1897.
- Elwell, Walter A. Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1988.
- Elwell, Walter A, and Philip Wesley Comfort. Tyndale Bible Dictionary. Wheaton, Ill: Tyndale House Publishers, 2001.
- Green, Joel B, Scot McKnight, and Howard Marshall. Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992.
- Hastings, James, John A Selbie, and John C Lambert. A Dictionary of Christ and the Gospels. New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1907.
- Maier, Paul L. Pontius Pilate. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 1968.
Whiston, William. The Works of Josephus. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1987.
- Yonge, C. D. The Works of Philo. Grand Rapids, MI: Hendrickson, 1993.
 Hand washing was a Jewish, not a Roman, way of expressing nonparticipation in bloodshed.—Deuteronomy 21:6, 7.
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