Pilate—the Political Ruler Who Judged the Lord
“I FIND no fault in him.” In these words Pontius Pilate expressed his judgment that Jesus was without guilt. (John 18:38; 19:4, 6) Yet, in the end, Pilate yielded to the demands of a crowd of Jesus’ fellow countrymen and sentenced him to be put to death on a stake. Who was this Pilate?
The name “Pontius Pilate” itself may give us some idea about his background. He perhaps had some relationship with C. Pontius Telesimus, a prominent general of the Samnite people in a mountainous region of southern Italy. And the family name “Pilate,” if drawn from the Latin pilum (javelin), may point to descent from a military man. On the other hand, if the name “Pilate” comes from the Latin pileus, he might have been a freed slave or the descendant of one. This is because a pileus was a cap customarily worn by slaves who had been granted their freedom.
It was in 26 C.E. that Tiberius Caesar appointed Pilate as governor of Judea. As governor, Pilate had complete control of the province and could impose death sentences. His official residence was at Caesarea, about fifty-four miles north-northwest of Jerusalem. There the main body of Roman troops was stationed. But during Jewish festival seasons, Pilate, along with Roman military reinforcements, usually stayed at Jerusalem.
The time of Pilate’s governorship was marred by troubles. This was mainly due to his offending the religious sensibilities of his subjects.
On one occasion, under the cover of darkness, Pilate had Roman soldiers bring into Jerusalem standards with images of the emperor thereon. These standards were then set up in the city. Upon discovering this, a large delegation of Jews went to Caesarea, calling for their removal. Turned down repeatedly, the Jews persisted in their request. Finally Pilate decided to frighten the petitioners by threatening them with death. However, when the Jews declared their willingness to die, Pilate granted their petition.—Antiquities of the Jews, Book XVIII, chap. III, par. 1.
Then there was the time when Pilate placed in his quarters at Jerusalem gold shields bearing his own name and that of Tiberius. The Jews appealed to the emperor, and Pilate was ordered to remove the shields.—De Legatione ad Gaium, XXXVIII.
Still another time, Pilate used money from the temple treasury to build an aqueduct that was to bring water into Jerusalem from a distance of about twenty-five miles. Tens of thousands of Jews protested against this when Pilate made a visit to the city. Some reproached him and even hurled abuses at him. When they refused to obey his order to disperse, he sent disguised soldiers into their midst. At a given signal the soldiers attacked. Many Jews fell slain; others fled wounded.
Perhaps it was in connection with this incident that Pilate ‘mixed the blood of Galileans with their sacrifices,’ as reported at Luke 13:1. Since the Galileans were subjects of Herod Antipas, this may have contributed to the enmity existing between Pilate and Herod until the time of Jesus’ trial.—Luke 23:6-12.
JUDGMENT OF JESUS
It was in the early morning of Nisan 14, 33 C.E., that Jewish leaders brought Jesus to Pilate for judgment. It being ceremonially defiling for the Jews to enter the premises of a Gentile, Pilate came out to them and asked about the charges against Jesus. On hearing their statements, he told them to judge him themselves. When advised that they regarded what Jesus did as an offense deserving of death, a sentence they could not legally enforce, Pilate took Jesus into his palace for questioning. (John 18:28-37) Returning to the accusers, Pilate stated: “I find no fault in him.” (John 18:38) Not satisfied, the Jewish leaders continued their accusations. Learning that Jesus was from Galilee, Pilate decided to send him to Herod Antipas. This gesture put an end to the previous enmity existing between Herod and Pilate. Herod could not substantiate the accusations against Jesus and, disappointed at his refusal to perform some sign, returned him to Pilate.—Luke 23:5-12.
Again Pilate summoned Jesus’ accusers and continued his efforts to avoid sentencing an innocent man to death. He tried to have Jesus released on the basis of a custom allowing a prisoner to be set free each Passover. At the instigation of the religious leaders, however, the crowd clamored for the release of Barabbas, a thief, murderer and seditionist. Pilate’s attempts to have Jesus freed only intensified the crowd’s shouting for his impalement.—Matt. 27:15-23; Luke 23:13-23.
Rather than stick to what he knew to be right, Pilate yielded to the crowd and tried to absolve himself of responsibility by washing his hands, as if cleansing them from bloodguilt. (Matt. 27:24-26) He ignored the earlier warning of his wife not to have anything to do with “that righteous man,” as she had suffered a lot in a dream (evidently of divine origin) because of him.—Matt. 27:19.
Thereafter Pilate had Jesus scourged. Again he stated his view of Jesus’ innocence and, perhaps to invite pity for him, had him appear before the crowd, dressed in royal robes and with a thorny crown on his head. In answer to Pilate’s exclamation, “Look! The man!” the crowd renewed its demand for Jesus’ impalement and brought to Pilate’s attention the charge of blasphemy. Their reference to Jesus’ making himself God’s Son caused Pilate to become superstitiously fearful. So he questioned Jesus still further. Pilate’s final efforts to have Jesus released resulted in the crowd’s warning him that he could be charged with opposing Caesar. At that Pilate took his place on the judgment seat, from where he called out to the crowd: “See! Your king!” This only increased the clamor for impalement. So Pilate handed the Son of God over for impalement.—John 19:1-16.
Pilate’s guilt was indeed great. He knew Jesus’ innocence full well and could discern the bad motivations of the accusers. (Matt. 27:18) Still, rather than risk having his position jeopardized by unfavorable reports about further disturbances in his province, Pilate sentenced an innocent man to death.
Despite his actions, Pilate did not keep his position for long. Just a few years later, his immediate superior, the Roman official Vitellius, removed him from office and ordered him to appear before Tiberius to answer for his slaughter of a number of Samaritans. While Pilate was on his way to Rome (in 37 C.E.), Tiberius died. Just what happened to Pilate is unknown. Tradition has it that he committed suicide. Clearly, the record that Pilate made for himself has little to commend him.