Pontius Pilate—Roman Politician
IN 1961, at the site of the ancient coastal city of Caesarea, situated about fifty-four miles north-northwest of Jerusalem, a partially damaged inscription was found. This inscription bears the name “[Pon]tius Pilatus.” It was before this Pontius Pilate that Jewish leaders falsely accused Jesus Christ of subversion, of advocating nonpayment of taxes and making himself a king rivaling Caesar. But who was this man that finally yielded to their demands for Jesus to be impaled? Why did he do so?
Tiberius Caesar appointed Pilate as governor of Judea in 26 C.E. According to the historian Josephus, Pilate offended his subjects. One night he sent Roman soldiers into Jerusalem with standards bearing images of the emperor. Subsequently a delegation of Jews traveled to Caesarea to protest the presence of the standards and call for their removal. After five days of discussion, Pilate sought to frighten the petitioners with the threat of execution by his soldiers, but their determined refusal to yield caused him to accede to their request. (Antiquities of the Jews, Book XVIII, chap. III, par. 1) Philo, a Jewish writer of the first century C.E. in Alexandria, Egypt, describes a somewhat similar act by Pilate that involved gold shields bearing the names of Pilate and Tiberius.—De Legatione ad Gaium, XXXVIII.
Josephus records still another disturbance. To construct an aqueduct to bring water into Jerusalem for a distance of about twenty-five miles, Pilate used money from the temple treasury at Jerusalem. When he made a visit to the city, large crowds clamored against this act. Pilate then sent disguised soldiers to mingle among the multitude and, at a signal, to attack the Jews. (Antiquities of the Jews, Book XVIII, chap. III, par. 2; Wars of the Jews, Book II, chap. IX, par. 4) If Luke 13:1 does not refer to another incident, it may have been at this time that Pilate ‘mixed the blood of Galileans with their sacrifices.’ This seems to imply that he had them slain right in the temple area. Since the Galileans were subjects of Herod Antipas, the district ruler of Galilee, this slaughter may have been at least a contributing factor in the enmity existing between Pilate and Herod up until the time of Jesus’ trial.—Luke 23:6-12.
On Nisan 14, 33 C.E., at dawn, Jesus was brought by the Jewish leaders to Pilate. Told to take Jesus and judge him themselves, the accusers replied that it was not lawful for them to execute anyone. Pilate then took Jesus into the palace and questioned him concerning the charges. It was evident that Jesus was innocent. However, repeated attempts by Pilate to free the accused brought only an increase in the shouting for Jesus’ impalement. Fearing a riot and seeking to placate the crowd, Pilate acceded to their wishes, washing his hands as though cleansing himself from bloodguilt.
Pilate now had Jesus whipped and the soldiers placed a crown of thorns on Jesus’ head and dressed him with royal robes. But again Pilate appeared before the crowd, making known that he found no fault in Jesus. The leaders of the people continued to shout for Jesus’ impalement, now revealing for the first time their charge of blasphemy. Their reference to Jesus as making himself “God’s son” added to Pilate’s apprehension, and he took Jesus inside for further questioning. Final efforts at releasing him brought the warning by the Jewish opposers that Pilate was becoming vulnerable to the charge of opposing Caesar. After hearing this threat, Pilate seated himself on the judgment seat. When the chief priests again rejected Jesus as king and declared, “We have no king but Caesar,” Pilate handed Jesus over to them to be impaled.—Matt. 27:1-31; Mark 15:1-20; Luke 23:1-25; John 18:28-40; 19:1-16.
The foregoing illustrates that Pilate was a typical Roman ruler. Though obviously not the condescending type, Pilate displayed lack of integrity. He was primarily concerned about his position, about what his superiors would say if they heard of further disturbances in his province. He was fearful of appearing to be overly lenient toward those accused of sedition. Pilate recognized Jesus’ innocence and the envy that motivated his accusers. Nevertheless, rather than risking damage to his political career, he gave in to the crowd and had an innocent man put to death.
Josephus reports that Pilate’s later removal from office resulted from complaints lodged by the Samaritans with Pilate’s superior, the governor of Syria. The historian Eusebius claims that Pilate died a suicide.