Category: Pontius Pilate

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.

Pontius Pilate was  the Roman governor of Judea from A.D. 26-36, serving under Emperor Tiberius. He  is most known for his involvement in condemning Jesus to death on a  cross.

Outside of the four Gospels, Pilate is mentioned by Pliny the  Younger, Philo, and Josephus. In addition, the “Pilate Stone,” discovered in  1961 and dated c. A.D. 30, includes a description of Pilate and mentions him as  “prefect” of Judea. Pilate is also mentioned in the apocryphal writings, but  these were all written at much later dates.

In the Bible, Pilate is  mentioned solely in connection with the trials and crucifixion of Jesus. The  Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) portray Pilate as reluctant to  crucify Jesus. Pilate calls the charges against Jesus “baseless” (Luke 23:14) and several times declares Jesus to be not  guilty: “What crime has this man committed? I have found in him no grounds for  the death penalty” (Luke  23:22).

Pilate’s conscience was already bothering him when his wife  sent him an urgent message concerning Jesus. The note begged him, “Don’t have  anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in  a dream because of him” (Matthew  27:19).

John’s Gospel offers some more detail of the trial,  including an additional conversation between Pilate and Jesus. Jesus  acknowledges Himself as a king and claims to speak directly for the truth.  Pilate responds with the famous question, “What is truth?” (John 18:38). The question intentionally communicated  multiple meanings. Here was a situation in which truth was compromised in order  to condemn an innocent man. Pilate, who is supposedly seeking the truth, asks  the question of the One who is Himself “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). A human judge,  confused about the truth, was about to condemn the Righteous Judge of the  world.

In the end, Pilate sought a compromise. Knowing Jesus had been  handed over by the religious leaders out of envy, he appealed to the crowds at  the Passover, asking which “criminal” should be set free, Jesus or Barabbas? The  leaders convinced the crowd to cry out for Barabbas (Matthew 27:22-24).  Giving in to political pressure, Pilate authorized both the flogging and  crucifixion of Jesus: “Wanting to satisfy the crowd, Pilate released Barabbas to  them. He had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified” (Mark 15:15).

Pilate had the charge against Jesus  posted on the cross above Jesus’ head: “THIS IS JESUS, THE KING OF THE JEWS” (Matthew 27:37). As soon as  Jesus died, Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body of Jesus in order to  bury Him, and Pilate granted the request (Mark  15:53-54). The last glimpse we have of Pontius Pilate is when he assigns  guards for Jesus’ tomb (Matthew  27:64-66).

Pilate’s brief appearance in Scripture is full of  tragedy. He ignored his conscience, he disregarded the good advice of his wife,  he chose political expediency over public rectitude, and he failed to recognize  the truth even when Truth was standing right in front of him. When given an  opportunity to evaluate the claims of Jesus, what will we decide? Will we accept  His claim to be the King, or will we follow the voice of the crowd?