Who Was Pontius Pilate?
“MOCKING, skeptical Pilate is a historical figure who haunts our imagination. For some he is a saint, for others the embodiment of human weakness, an archetypal politician willing to sacrifice one man for the sake of stability.”—Pontius Pilate, by Ann Wroe.
Whether you share any of those views or not, Pontius Pilate did make a name for himself because of the way he treated Jesus Christ. Who was Pilate? What is known about him? A better grasp of his position will enhance our understanding of the most important events ever to unfold on the earth.
Position, Duties, and Power
Roman Emperor Tiberius appointed Pilate governor of the province of Judaea in 26 C.E. Such prefects were men of the so-called equestrian order—the lower nobility, as opposed to aristocrats of senatorial status. Pilate likely joined the army as a military tribune, or junior commander; passed through the ranks during successive tours of duty; and was appointed governor before he was 30 years old.
When in uniform, Pilate would have worn a leather tunic and metal breastplate. His public clothing was a white toga with a purple border. He would have had short hair and have been clean-shaven. Although some believe that he came from Spain, his name suggests that he belonged to the tribe of the Pontii—Samnite nobles from southern Italy.
Prefects of Pilate’s rank were usually sent to barbarous territories. The Romans considered Judaea to be such a place. In addition to maintaining order, Pilate oversaw the collection of indirect taxes and the poll tax. Day-to-day administration of justice was a concern of the Jewish courts, but cases requiring the death penalty were evidently referred to the governor, who was the supreme judicial authority.
With a small staff of scribes, companions, and messengers, Pilate and his wife lived in the port city of Caesarea. Pilate commanded five infantry cohorts of from 500 to 1,000 men each as well as a cavalry regiment likely consisting of 500. His soldiers routinely impaled lawbreakers. In peacetime, executions followed summary hearings, but during an uprising, rebels were put to death on the spot and en masse. For example, the Romans impaled 6,000 slaves to crush the revolt led by Spartacus. If trouble threatened in Judaea, the governor could normally turn to the imperial legate in Syria, who commanded legions. During much of Pilate’s tenure, however, the legate was absent, and Pilate had to end disorders quickly.
Governors regularly communicated with the emperor. Matters involving his dignity or any threats to Roman authority required reports and resulted in imperial orders. A governor might be anxious to give the emperor his own version of events in his province before others could complain. With trouble brewing in Judaea, such concerns were very real to Pilate.
Aside from the Gospel accounts, the historians Flavius Josephus and Philo are the main sources of information on Pilate. Roman historian Tacitus also states that Pilate executed Christus, from whom Christians took their name.
Jewish Outrage Provoked
Josephus says that out of regard for Jewish scruples over the making of images, Roman governors had avoided taking into Jerusalem military standards bearing effigies of the emperor. Because Pilate showed no such restraint, outraged Jews rushed to Caesarea to complain. Pilate did nothing for five days. On the sixth day, he ordered his soldiers to surround the protesters and threaten to execute them if they did not disperse. When the Jews said that they would rather die than see their Law transgressed, Pilate relented and ordered that the images be removed.
Pilate was capable of using force. In an incident recorded by Josephus, the prefect began work on an aqueduct to bring water into Jerusalem and used funds from the temple treasury to finance the project. Pilate did not simply seize the money, for he knew that plundering the temple was sacrilege and would have caused angry Jews to ask Tiberius to recall him. So it seems that Pilate had the cooperation of the temple authorities. Dedicated funds, termed “corban,” could legitimately be used for public works to benefit the city. But thousands of Jews gathered to express their indignation.
Pilate had troops mingle with the crowd with orders not to use swords but to beat the protesters with clubs. He apparently wanted to control the mob without provoking a massacre. This seems to have paid off, though some did die. Certain ones who reported to Jesus that Pilate had mixed the blood of Galileans with their sacrifices may have been referring to this incident.—Luke 13:1.
“What Is Truth?”
What makes Pilate infamous is his investigation of charges made by the Jewish chief priests and older men that Jesus was presenting himself as King. On hearing of Jesus’ mission to bear witness to the truth, Pilate saw that the prisoner presented no threat to Rome. “What is truth?” he asked, evidently thinking that truth was too elusive a concept to merit much attention. His conclusion? “I find no crime in this man.”—John 18:37, 38; Luke 23:4.
That should have been the end of Jesus’ trial, but the Jews insisted that he was subverting the nation. Envy was the chief priests’ reason for turning Jesus over, and Pilate knew it. He also knew that releasing Jesus would cause trouble, something he wanted to avoid. There had been enough of that already, for Barabbas and others were in custody for sedition and murder. (Mark 15:7, 10; Luke 23:2) Moreover, previous disputes with the Jews had tarnished Pilate’s reputation with Tiberius, who was notorious for dealing severely with bad governors. Yet, to give in to the Jews would be a sign of weakness. So Pilate faced a dilemma.
On hearing where Jesus was from, Pilate tried to pass the case on to Herod Antipas, district ruler of Galilee. When that failed, Pilate attempted to get those gathered outside his palace to ask for Jesus’ release, in accord with the custom of freeing a prisoner at Passover. The crowd clamored for Barabbas.—Luke 23:5-19.
Pilate may have wanted to do what was right, but he also desired to save himself and please the crowd. Finally, he put his career ahead of conscience and justice. Calling for water, he washed his hands and claimed innocence in the death he now sanctioned.* Though he believed that Jesus was innocent, Pilate had him scourged and allowed soldiers to mock, strike, and spit upon him.—Matthew 27:24-31.
Pilate made a final attempt to free Jesus, but the crowd shouted that if he did so, he was no friend of Caesar. (John 19:12) At that, Pilate caved in. One scholar said this about Pilate’s decision: “The solution was easy: execute the man. All that was to be lost was the life of one apparently insignificant Jew; it would be foolish to let trouble develop over him.”
What Happened to Pilate?
The last recorded incident in Pilate’s career was another conflict. Josephus says that a multitude of armed Samaritans gathered on Mount Gerizim in hopes of uncovering treasures that Moses had supposedly buried there. Pilate intervened, and his troops slew a number of the crowd. The Samaritans complained to Pilate’s superior, Lucius Vitellius, governor of Syria. Whether Vitellius thought that Pilate had gone too far is not stated. In any case, he ordered Pilate to Rome to answer to the emperor for his actions. Before he arrived, however, Tiberius died.
“At that point,” says one source, “Pilate passes out of history into legend.” But many have tried to supply missing details. It has been claimed that Pilate became a Christian. Ethiopian “Christians” made him a “saint.” Eusebius, who wrote in the late third and early fourth centuries, was the first of many to say that Pilate, like Judas Iscariot, committed suicide. However, just what became of Pilate is a matter of speculation.
Pilate could be obstinate, flippant, and heavy-handed. But he remained in office for ten years, whereas most prefects of Judaea had much shorter tenures. From a Roman viewpoint, therefore, Pilate was competent. He has been called a coward who reprehensibly had Jesus tortured and killed to protect himself. Others argue that Pilate’s duty was not so much to uphold justice as it was to promote peace and Roman interests.
Pilate’s times were very different from our own. Yet, no judge could justly condemn a man he considered innocent. Had it not been for his encounter with Jesus, Pontius Pilate might be just another name in the history books.
Hand washing was a Jewish, not a Roman, way of expressing nonparticipation in bloodshed.—Deuteronomy 21:6, 7.
[Picture on page 11]
This inscription identifying Pontius Pilate as prefect of Judaea was found at Caesarea