Who Was Pontius Pilate?
There is a man in the Bible that is forever associated with one event. A mere mention of his name will denote the image of a Toga clad prefect condemning a battered man to death before a raving crowd. In fact, at some places his name became synonymous to anyone who convicts unjustly or flaunts power and authority to the weak. His actions of washing his hand, to free himself of the burden of putting a man to death earned him lasting notoriety. And until now, people who never took responsibility for their actions are likened to this man. Christians know him well. The man who put Jesus Christ to death by crucifixion, Pontius Pilate.
People’s views on him are mixed. His infamous role in the Passion and Death of Christ earned him both contempt, and even pity. At some point, people view him as cruel and cowardice. He was a type of despot that will cling into power, at the expense of an innocent life. Others show sympathy at this Roman Prefect by pointing out that Christ’s crucifixion was never his idea. He was just a flawed character pushed by a mob. But despite being well known to the believers, his life as a person outside the Bible is pretty much unknown. And below, we will put together the historical profile of the man whose actions triggered a chain of events that will change the world forever.
Pilate in the Bible
Again, he was well known in the Christian traditions due to his portrayals in the Bible. His name was mentioned in all four gospels, and the Book of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John tells on how he played a major role in the crucifixion of Christ. Though the accounts varied, all four books agreed on one thing. Pilate reluctantly agreed to execute Jesus. Jesus was accused of blasphemy at that time. Yet Pilate felt that his offence was not deserving of death, and rather he suggested having him scourged instead before being released. But the crowd demanded crucifixion, with the chief priests among them. Eventually he gave in to the pressure of the crowd and put Jesus to death, all against his will.
The Gospel of Matthew even presented an infamous scene. Whereas after Pilate failed to enforce his judgement, he washed his hands to show how he was not guilty of the Christ’s blood, and the crowd will now answer for the death (Matthew 27:24). Hence basically, he refused to claim responsibility for Jesus’s death.
We are also introduced to a man named Barabbas, the leader of a violent rebellion. As what was told, Pilate gave the crowd a choice between him and Jesus. And in the end Barabbas was freed and Christ was put to death, as what the crowd demanded.
Do note that in early Christian traditions, Pilate is portrayed more positively. This view will change when Christianity became legalized in the Roman Empire by the Edict of Milan. As Ann Wroe (an English author) wrote, legalization of Christianity meant that it was no longer necessary to deflect criticism of Pilate, who was part of the Roman Empire. Yet in Eastern Christianity, particularly in Egypt and Ethiopia, Pilate is still viewed in a more positive light. While more negative portrayals of Pilate are predominant in Byzantine and Western Christianity.
The Christian apocryphal texts of the New Testament seem to lift the burden of Pilate’s guilt for the death of Christ, as what the Gospel of Peter shows; Pilate washed his hands in guilt, unlike the Jews and Herod. Other apocryphal gospel (Book of Cock) tells of his and his family’s conversion to Christianity after Christ healed his daughter. In the Greek Paradosis Pilati, he was arrested and became a martyr of Christ.
As what will be discussed later, little is known about Pilate’s death. But his death was mentioned in the Martyrium Pilati (a possible medieval origin), whereas he and his family were crucified for his faith. But in Cura sanitates Taberii (5th to 7th century) Pilate was said to be forced to commit suicide after being captured by the Emperor Nero.
Historical Accounts and Artefacts
With little mention outside the Bible, Pilate’s life is the stuff of apocryphal gospels and legends. Yet there is an actual historical record of a Roman Prefect going by the name Pontius Pilate. The Jewish writer Philo of Alexandria mentioned Pilate in his work Embassy to Gaius (after 41 CE) and by the historian Josephus. In the Annals, Tacitus made a brief mention of Pilate by stating how he put Jesus to death. There are also a lot of surviving coins minted by Pilate and some short inscriptions (Pilate Stone).
In short, Pilate really existed.
His name Pilate, which translates to Pilatus in Latin meant “skilled with the Pilum.” Pilum is a Roman javelin, hence it is also translatable to “skilled with the javelin.” It could be possible that Pilate won his name due to his military service, or his father’s military skills, where the javelin is a weapon. The name Pontius meant he belonged to the Ponti family, a well-known family with Samnite origin. In terms of Roman nobility, he was a middle rank equestrian order.
Prior to his becoming of governor of Judea, Pilate would have commanded a military unit being an equestrian according to the Cursus Honorum established by Augustus.
Pilate served during the reign of Tiberius, and he was the fifth Roman governor of Judea. Now serving such office was of a low prestige. And that explains why there were little account of Pilate. He served for 10 years according to Josephus (from 26 to 37 CE). With a title of prefect and governor, he was the head of the judicial system and commanded a military unit for police work. His responsibilities include collecting taxes and disbursing funds (which explains the coins he minted). And yes, he had the power to inflict capital punishment. Yet the Sanhedrin exercise more civil and religious power since the Romans allowed local control.
Incidents with the Jews
His reign in Judea was by no means peaceful. He had brushes with the Jewish population, and one incident involved the Imperial Standard. Pilate had a policy of promoting the Imperial Cult, and according to Josephus in his Jewish War, Pilate moved the imperial standard with the image of Caesar into Jerusalem. It offended the Jews, and they surrounded his house for five days. He tried intimidating them by summoning them in the arena with his soldier’s swords drawn. It failed and Pilate removed the standard in the end.
In other case, he brought golden shields into Jerusalem, which violated Jewish laws. The sons of Herod the Great did tried to petition him to remove the shields. Pilate never listened and they brought the case to the emperor, which angrily reprimanded Pilate to remove the shields.
And when Pilate once again offended the Jews by using the temple treasury to pay for the aqueduct, he was faced with a mob on his visit to Jerusalem. It didn’t end well for the Jewish mob after they got clubbed by his soldiers.
Execution of Jesus and Later Life
The accounts of Pilate’s encounter with Christ was largely from the gospels, but there are known outside sources. His role on Christ’s crucifixion was attested by the Roman Historian Tacitus, as well as Josephus. Based on unanimous sources, Jesus was tried for the crime of sedition due to his said claim to be the King of the Jews. As Josephus noted, he alone was the one who condemned Christ to the cross.
Yet his encounter with Jesus did nothing to soften the man. He was later removed from office after his slaughter of armed Samaritans. His hearing would have been handled by Gaius Caligula, following the death of Tiberius, yet he was never sent back to Judea afterwards.
There are various accounts of his death. The church historian Eusebius claimed that Pilate committed suicide due to disgrace. There was no evidence that Pilate committed suicide, and possibly the man only retired in his later years.
1. Kevin Butcher. (March 25, 2016). "The Strange Afterlife of Pontius Pilate." History Today.
2. Spencer Alexander. (August 7, 2019). "Was Pontius Pilate a Historical Figure? Yes." Fourth Symposium on Mesozoic Terrestrial Ecosystems.