Pontius Pilate was a prefect of Rome and governor of Judea from about 26-36 AD. Despite being identified in the Bible and several other documents in ancient literature, his existence was not accepted by secular historians until 1961 when a limestone inscription was found bearing his name and relating him to the reign of Tiberius who was Caesar from 14-37 AD.
As governor, Pontius Pilate had supreme judicial authority over the region, but his military resources were slight. Any serious disturbance would bring the attention—and the army—of the governor of Syria upon him. Judea was a Roman territory; hence the majority of the management of Judea was left to the priesthood and aristocracy, while the prefect ensured Rome’s interests were seen to. For the first six years of Pilate’s term, Syria’s legate ruled from Rome, and Pilate had no way to request military support. Pilate had to become very skilled at protecting Rome’s interests while keeping the local population appeased.
He showed this characteristic early in his term in a confrontation described by the historian Josephus. Apparently a new cohort of guards was assigned to Jerusalem, bearing a standard of undefined design that was sacrilegious to the Jews. When a group of Jews surrounded Pilate’s residence, insisting they’d rather die than allow the offence to remain, Pilate relented and removed the standards.
Pilate was less understanding during the events surrounding the building of the Jerusalem aqueduct. Apparently he abused temple money for the project. The people rioted and many were killed.
Tradition says that Pilate’s reign was unusually long (a characteristic of governors under Tiberius’s policy), and that he was only removed from office after killing some Samaritan pilgrims, then executing their leaders. He was recalled to Rome, but there is no conclusive evidence of his fate. There are rumors that he was exiled and/or committed suicide.
It is unknown if secular writings on Pilate were objective or politically motivated. Josephus painted him in a poor light, as he did anyone who threatened the Jewish nation. Philo of Alexandria described him as cruel, corrupt, and unnecessarily violent—but this may have been an exaggeration used to protect the Jews from subsequent rulers.
Both Josephus and Tacitus mention Pilate’s involvement in the crucifixion of Jesus. Tacitus reports, “Christus, from whom the name had its origin [Christianity], suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus…” Josephus wrote, “…Pilate had condemned him [Jesus] to a cross…”
That, of course, is how most of us have come to know Pontius Pilate. Pilate was the governor of Judea who bowed to pressure from the chief priests and agreed to have Jesus crucified. Pilate did not want to execute Jesus. He questioned the chief priests, tried to give Jesus a pardon, and washed his hands, ceremonially showing he did not take responsibility for the sentence (Matthew 27:17-24). Even his wife begged him not to go forward with the chief priests’ plans (Matthew 27:19). But he still authorized the crucifixion.
Why? The Bible doesn’t say, but it was probably for peace. The high priests, Herodians, and Pharisees had worked the people into a frenzy. The Jews had already shown their zeal for defending their religion against heresy. Pilate knew that the priests wanted Jesus out of the way for their own self-interest (Matthew 27:18), but he also knew he couldn’t control the crowds (verse 20). As governor, it was his duty to keep the peace so that Rome would profit. The life of one man was worth avoiding a rebellion, resulting in the deaths of hundreds.
Pontius Pilate was a shrewd politician, an opportunist, and a man well-versed in philosophy and familiar with ethics. His position and his well-being depended on keeping the peace with those around him. In doing so, he sided himself against peace with God.