Who Was Pontius Pilate in the Bible?

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

Mark 15:1-15

Luke 23:1-7, 13-25

John 18:28-19:16

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