Updated: May 5, 2021
What do we know about Pontius Pilate?
He is famous for crucifying the Christ, and many dramatic interpretations have tried to discern what sort of a man he was. Why would he cave to demands to crucify a man he had proclaimed innocent? What sort of a ruler was he generally? What happened to him after his biblical appearance? Read on and learn more about this key figure in the crucifixion narrative.
What was Pilate's position?
Pilate served as governor of Judea from AD 26 until 36, or early 37. (1) The Greek word for his title in the Bible is hēgemṓn (Matthew 27:2, Luke 3:1), which comes from the Greek root word that means “to lead”. Hēgemṓn can refer to a leader, chief, commander, governor, etc, and the word can serve in function as the Greek position of prefect or procurator.
Generally, prefect is a military title, and procurator is one associated with financial rule. However, the office of prefect could manage both the financial and military aspects of ruling, including presiding as judge over local disputes—which seems to fit with the gospel account of Pilate.
Pilate's name has been found on an incomplete tablet, now in a museum in Israel, which historians say names Pontius Pilate as prefect of Judea. The tablet appears to be crediting Pilate with a restoration project in Caesarea, perhaps of the theater or harbor. Undertaking projects to improve their territories was typical of governors of the era. (2)
The Roman base for governing Judea was not Jerusalem, but the coastal city of Caesarea Maritima on the Mediterranean Sea. (3)
This beautiful city of white stone was built by Herod the Great in impressive Roman style. It had a carefully planned grid of paved streets, water and sewage systems, public baths, a theatre, palaces, and an impressive harbor. The differences between this modern, coastal city and the distinctly Jewish city of Jerusalem—ancient, entrenched in tradition, suspicious of outsiders, and averse to change—would be stark to a man like Pilate.
Where can we read about Pilate in the Bible?
Pilate is mentioned in no less than six books in the Bible:
Matthew 27:1-2, 11-26
Luke 23:1-7, 13-25
Acts 3:13, 4:27, 13:28
1 Timothy 6:13
All of these accounts place him squarely in the middle of the passion accounts.
What was Pilate's history before the trial of Jesus?
Before his participation in the crucifixion of Jesus, Pilate had at least two scuffles with the Jewish people, according to the ancient historian Josephus.
You can read about Pilate in Josephus' Jewish Antiquities book 18, Chapters 2 and 3. Here are my summaries of his records:
Pilate brings effigies into Jerusalem in the dead of night
Soon after he took power, Pilate sent his army into Jerusalem, bringing effigies into the city. These were perhaps statues or banners that had the image of the Roman Emperor and/or text that were highly offensive to the Jewish people. We know that Jewish coins did not include images of people or animals, nor were they portrayed in artwork. This was to avoid the accusation of creating graven images. Josephus, a Jew, states “our law forbids us the very making of images”.
Josephus also states that the previous procurators were more considerate of what images they brought into the city, which sounds as if Josephus is blaming Pilate for what happened next.
Pilate cannot be excused with ignorance either. He surely knew how these effigies would affect the people, because he has them set them up during the night. When discovered, the Jewish people protest, going to Pilates home in Caesarea. Pilate is on the cusp of ordering his soldiers to attack the protesters when he is swayed by their willingness to die for what they believe in. He has the images removed from Jerusalem and brought back to Caesarea.
It's a win for the people of Jerusalem, but they don't celebrate long.
Pilate takes money from the temple treasury
Another offense was when Pilate took money from the temple treasury to fund the building of an aqueduct. The Jewish people were upset at where he diverted the water from, and with his theft of holy money. A large, angry mob gathered to protest, “and abused the man, as crowds of such people usually do.”
Pilate sent out plain-dressed soldiers with concealed daggers to surround the crowd. When the crowd refused to break up, he gave the signal and the soldiers attacked the people. The soldiers “gave much greater blows than Pilate had commanded them, and equally punished the those that were disorderly and those that were not”. A great number of Jewish citizens were killed and many others were wounded.
Pilate carried his point this time, but at what cost?
Pilate displays golden shields with his and the emperor's name
Philo records another time Pilate infuriated the Jews. Pilate set up at his residence golden shields that were inscribed with his name and the name of the emperor Tiberius, likely with the emperor's royal title as 'son of God'. The Jewish people, including the sons of Herod the Great, wrote to Tiberius to complain. The emperor wrote back, chasitized Pilate, and ordered the shields to be sent to the temple of Augustus in Caesarea. (4) It is very likely that this caused Pontius Pilate anger, embarrassment, and concern for his position.
Pilate's prior fumbles likely influenced his treatment of Jesus
We can see from Josephus and Philo that Pilate's rule was violent, usually arising from either political fumbles or a stubborn desire to force Roman ideals on the Jewish population. Considering Pilate's disastrous encounters with the Jewish people, it is not very surprising that he caves to their demands to execute Jesus when he sees a riot starting. He was probably eager to salvage what was left of his reputation with the emperor Tiberius. He hands Jesus over to die to prevent violent riots from breaking out in the city (Matthew 27:24)
and saves himself some personal embarrassment.
When reading the gospel story, the fact that a man like Pilate, who had no real consideration of Jews, was willing to let Jesus go free, stands in sharp contrast to the Jewish rulers who handed their own messiah over to their enemies.
Pilate misreads a Samaritan gathering as a rebellion
If Pilate was sorry for crucifying the Christ, as some traditions suggest, it didn't soften him in any noticeable way. After the crucifixion of Jesus, Pilate had one more violent encounter as governor of Judea, and this one proved to be his downfall.
A group of Samaritans was gathered on Mount Gerizim (where the Samaritan temple had stood before it was destroyed by the Maccabees). They had come in huge numbers because one of their countrymen promised to show them the sacred vessels of Moses that were supposedly hidden there. Pilate, assuming they were gathering in rebellion, sent soldiers to block their way, and many Samaritans were killed. The Samaritans protested Pilate's actions to the governor of Syria, who outranked Pilate. The governor of Syria removed Pilate from office and sent him to Tiberius for the emperor's judgment, but Tiberius died before Pilate arrived.
After this, Pilate disappears from the historical record. (5)
Pilate's Personal Life
We don't know where Pilate was born, or where he died, though there are many traditions and suggestions. We also don't know if he had children. We do know he had a wife, who is mentioned in the gospel of Matthew. She calls Jesus a righteous man, and tells her husband that she had suffered greatly in a dream because of Jesus. She warns Pilate to have nothing to do with him. (Matthew 27:19)
Her name, by some traditions, was Claudia Procula, which was a fairly common name in that era. Apocryphal writings (books or testimonies written after the New Testament and with questionable origins or content) say Pilate's wife's name was Procle (Greek) or Procula (Latin). It is possible that she had two or three names, which was normal at the time.
In conclusion, Pilate, no matter how he felt personally about ordering the execution of Jesus, had a history of confrontation with the Jewish people, a tendacy to settle conflicts with violence, and little to no respect for those he ruled. After ten years of a man like this, the Jewish people were no doubt praying for a time when a descendant of David would ascend the throne as God had promised.
Meanwhile, as Pilate is boarding a ship back to Rome in disgrace, the early church is declaring that the longed-for son of David has already arrived, and many Jews are joyfully pledging their allegiance to him: the one Pilate crucified, Jesus Christ.
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Dictionary of New Testament Background page 176-177
Backgrounds of Early Christianity page 417-418
Josephus Antiquities Book 18 Chapter 4 and Backgrounds of Early Christianity pages 417-418