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Riddles and Secrets-Pontius Pilate

Updated on April 26, 2011

Who Killed Jesus?

Sometimes I watch a documentary that denies the historicity of the Bible and am surprised just how much support it provides for that historicity. A recent example is National Geographic’s “Secrets of the Cross - Who Killed Jesus?” Despite the clear pronouncements that the Bible is wrong about it’s portrayal of the trial and crucifixion of Jesus, the experts interviewed were clear that Jesus was a real person and that he was crucified. Two out of three isn’t bad. The third item, Pontius Pilate, the program says that the Bible got him all wrong.

Pontius Pilate was the Roman procurator of Judea during the ministry of Jesus. Very little is known about him, most of the history we have concerning him is in relation either to the Jews or to Jesus. Josephus records his treatment of the Jews when they opposed the bringing in of the Imperial ensigns to Jerusalem, Pilate relented. He also records a riot that occurred when Pilate used the Corban (money in the Temple treasury) to build an aqueduct, Pilate did not relent and many Jews died. He is also mentioned by Philo, and a few Roman historians record that he was the governor of Judea who crucified Christ.

The question posed by the program was, Does the historical Pilate match the biblical portrait of Pilate? The answer was no, the Bible is not history, but theology with a slim base of history. Let’s examine what we know of history.

There are six Roman governors known to us from the Bible, Quirinius, governor of Syria, 4B.C. -1 A.D. 6-10 A.D., Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea, 26-36, Sergius Paulus, proconsul of Cyprus, Gallio, proconsul of Achaia, Felix, procurator of Judea, 52-60, and Festus, procurator of Judea, 60-62.

Only four of these governors are of interest to us, Pontius Pilate, Gallio, Felix, and Festus. It should be noted that until 1961 there were scholars who thought that Pilate was a Gospel fiction as there was no archaeological evidence for his existence. In 1961 a stone was discovered that had a Latin inscription on it containing the name of Pilate. On the TV program Pilate is pronounced as the only archaeologically verified character in the crucifixion (the Caiaphas ossuary was not yet discovered although one of the archaeologists being interviewed was excavating Caiaphas’ palace). Each of these governors within the New Testament narrative is sitting in judgment on charges brought by the Jews. A comparison of their actions may help us to understand the character of Roman justice and whether or not Pilate’s actions recorded in the Gospels are consistent with his fellow governors.

Our first meeting with Pontius Pilate in the New Testament is in Luke 13:1, “There were present at that season some who told Him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices,…”. From this passage we would learn that Pilate has little regard for the religious customs of the Jews. When Jesus is brought before Pilate he knows one thing for certain, Jesus was not arrested by the Roman garrison for insurrection, rather he was arrested by the Temple guard under orders of the High Priest. Pilate’s declaration of Jesus’ innocence may therefore be a political jab at the High Priests, a recognition that Jesus is in fact innocent but also that the opinion of the High Priests carries little weight with Rome, or at least the present governor.

What Josephus tells us of Pilate is much the same. Pilate brings Imperial Ensigns into the city which offend the religious sensibilities of the Jews, only after a demonstration of non-violence did Pilate decide to remove the ensigns. Subsequently, Pilate used money gifted to the Temple treasury to pay for aqueducts. This time his soldiers were ordered to beat the protesters and many died in the subsequent affray. It would appear that Pilate had little fear of the Jewish religious authorities.

Pilate had probably heard of Jesus before this, the triumphal entry into Jerusalem (Matthew 21) can hardly have gone unnoticed, what Pilate would have noticed is the lack of public rhetoric that accompanied it. It is not unlikely that he would have had observers and spies tracking Jesus if he was thought a threat. He already knew of the lack of Jesus guilt simply by the warning or lack of warnings that the commander of the Jerusalem garrison had made regarding Jesus. Pilate seems then to have understood that the accusations against Jesus were being made primarily for religious reasons, cf. Matthew 27:18.

When Paul was at Corinth he was brought before the Roman governor Gallio (Acts 18:12-17). At that time Gallio refused to even consider the charges which were to him solely a question of religion. The beating the Jews received following his dismissal of them also did not concern him, but then Gallio was a personal friend of the Emperor.

Pontius Pilate could claim no such friendship. He was an equestrian, a lower order of the Roman aristocracy. The Gospel of John (ch. 19)tells us that Pilate was prepared to release Jesus until the time the High Priests declared “If you let this Man go, you are not Caesar’s friend, Whoever makes himself a king speaks against Caesar” (v.12). In the context of the times this was important. In A.D. 26, the Emperor Tiberius essentially turned over the practical affairs of the Empire to Sejanus, a trusted aide, while Tiberius remained nominal Emperor. In A.D. 31 Sejanus was accused and executed for plotting against Tiberius. This is significant because Luke 3:1 tells us that Jesus began his ministry in the fifteenth year of Tiberius, as Tiberius became Emperor in A.D. 14 his fifteenth year began in A.D. 28-29, with the execution of Sejanus and the crucifixion occurring in A.D. 31-32. The threat of the High Priests was that they would implicate Pilate in the treason of Sejanus.

Pilate now sits down and passes judgment on Jesus. In doing so he is also able to wring a confession of loyalty to the Roman Emperor from them, “We have no king but Caesar!”. The portrayal of Pilate in the Gospels is not that of a weak governor, but of a governor strong enough not to bow before the demands of the local aristocracy, smart enough to give in to the people when it did not affect his authority and just might avert an uprising, but still pliable to the threats of Imperial politics. I think the Bible got Pilate just right.

The governors that followed Pilate showed the same disdain for the religious concerns of the Jews as did Pilate. Felix, who would attempt to try Paul before the Sanhedrin to please the Jews, also sought personal monetary gain. The governors afterwards were worse until finally the Jews revolted.

So who killed Jesus? Acts 2:23 tells us, “Him, being delivered by the determined purpose and foreknowledge of God, you have taken by lawless hands, have crucified, and put to death;”. It was God’s plan, but the High Priests volunteered to be the executors of the plan (Woe to the world because of offenses! For offenses must come, but woe to that man by whom the offense comes! Matt. 18:7). Culturally the Jews of Jerusalem in A.D. 31 delivered up Jesus to be crucified, culturally the Jews crucified Jesus. Historically the Roman Empire used its legal authority to crucify Jesus, therefore, historically the Romans crucified Jesus. Theologically Jesus was a sacrifice for our sins (Romans 4:25), we crucified Jesus.


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    • barrydan profile image

      barrydan 6 years ago from Calgary, Alberta, Canada

      Thank you for the comment Eddie. The quote is interesting but apparently unverified. It does provide food for thought, although the scholars I am familiar with would disagree with it.

    • profile image

      Eddie 6 years ago


      I thought your article was very interesting and verified some of the information I read in a book titled "The Search--A Historian's Search for Historical Jesus" written by Dr. Ron Charles.

      In his book, Chapter XX-page 508, he noted something very interesting that I have never heard anyone mention, teach on, etc. For your benefit, I have extracted this portion for your consideration.

      Nothing more is recorded about the continuation of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, until Tuesday, March 13, when he made his first (Matthew 21:1-11; Mark 11:1-10; Luke 19:29-44) of two (John 12:12-19) triumphant entries into Jerusalem.

      It was while I was researching at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas that I discovered a thin bound volume, edited in 1829 by Dr. Wilkins Boothe. The book was entitled Letters from the Cedron. It was a compilation and translation into English and Spanish of 15 letters written in Latin by a Cappadocia born monk, who simply went by the name, Sabas. The letters were written in about the year 485, when Sabas was in seclusion in a cliff cave overlooking a gorge of the Cedron, in what became known as Palestine. Later, in 499, Sabas built a hospice in Jericho.

      The letters that Sabas wrote were letters of clarification and instruction that were distributed to and read by the 150 or so monks, who were also living in seclusion in the cliff caves of that area.

      Dr. Boothe began by writing, “According to tradition, these 15 letters are but a fraction of the hundreds of letters of instruction that Sabas wrote as teaching lessons to the Cedron monks. Apparently from about 470 until about 492, neither he nor the community of monks said a word, except in vespers at prayer. All instructions and teachings were in writing. Eventually, against his will, Sabas became recognized as the priest and religious authority of the cave seclusion community.

      “These 15 surviving letters are teachings that dealt with the last couple of weeks before Jesus was crucified. They specifically covered Jesus’ first and second triumphal entries into Jerusalem.”

      At this point I paused and re-read what Dr. Boothe had written. “First and second triumphant entries That was the first time that I had ever heard or read of a first and a second triumphant entry. The only thing I had ever heard was Jesus’ one triumphant entry into Jerusalem; the day that we celebrate today as Palm Sunday. However, if there, in fact, were two entries, it would certainly explain the conflicting accounts given by the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke and the one given by the Gospel of John. With two entries, there is no conflict.

      I continued reading Dr. Boothe’s compilation, “I (Dr. Boothe) have compiled all of the letters, as if they were a single document. I will not separate them into individual letters. However, there appears to be a letter or two missing between the aftermath of Jesus’ first entry, to the beginning of his second entry in that one letter begins to describe the events of Jesus’ second Temple cleansing and then the description stops abruptly. The next page picks up as a completely new letter, and describes the second entry.

      “The first of Jesus’ two triumphal entries took place on what would be our; Tuesday, March 13, AD 31. The incident is recorded in the Gospels of Matthew 21:2-8; Mark 11:2-10; and Luke 19:30-40. The second triumphal entry took place ten days later on what would be our Friday, March 23, AD 31. This one is recorded in the Gospel of John 12:12-19.

      “Sabas began his letters by saying that in this particular year (AD 31), because of a well justified fear of rebellion in the Galilee and in the state of Judea, Pilate had declared in January, AD 31, that the Jewish celebrations of the Feast of Tabernacles, Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), and the Feast of Dedication were not to be held in the city of Jerusalem or in all of the Galilee.

      “To counter this unjust infringement upon Jewish religious traditions, the Sadducees in Jerusalem decided to incorporate the celebrations of the Feast of Tabernacles, Yom Kippur, and the Feast of Dedication, into an expanded Passover celebration—a celebration that would last for 17 days, rather than the typical seven days of unleavened bread. When the proposal was submitted to Pilate for approval, he willingly approved it in order to discourage any kind of rebellion. So, for the first and only time in the history of the Jewish people, four Jewish celebrations were combined into one national celebration—one that was approved by the Roman authorities. So, on Tuesday, March 13 of the year AD 31, Jesus found himself approaching the city of Jerusalem, at the time that the Feast of Tabernacles portion of the 17-day celebration was about to begin.

      “As Jesus and his disciples approached the city of Jerusalem’s municipal customs post or customs station, Jesus sent two of his disciples on ahead into the little village that had grown up around the custom’s station. The name of the village was Bethphage, meaning, district customs house. The disciples who were sent into the village were to secure a donkey on which Jesus could ride into the city of Jerusalem.

      “It is at this point,” Dr. Boothe interjected with a personal comment, “That the author of Matthew’s Gospel quoted what he said was a portion of Zechariah.

      Actually, what he quoted came from Zechariah 9:9. It was in reality a prophecy that related to a deliverer who would come and who would deliver the children and descendants of Abraham from the yoke of Persia.

      Nonetheless, the writer of Matthew used it to describe this event.

      “One of the primary traditional celebrations associated with the Feast of Tabernacles,” Dr. Boothe said as he returned to Sabas’ letters, “Recorded in Leviticus 23:40, began at sunup, and was carried out on both the first day and the last day of the celebration. The people would gather at the Pool of Siloam where a chief priest gave them green tree branches. They then would slowly walk to the Temple while waving the branches. As they walked and waved the branches they lamented, mourned, and cried, begging for the Messiah to come and to save them. This was called the Great Hosanna. The Great Hosanna literally meant, ‘Save us; we beseech you.

      “It was not a shout of joy or celebration, but rather, a loud lamenting beseechment accompanied with crying and wailing, as if a loved one had just died.”

      This was another surprise to me. I had always been taught that Hosanna was praise and a shout of joy and exultation. Now, I find out that Hosanna was a lamentation and a cry for mercy. How could the word, Hosanna, make a 180° change in definition from that time until today?

      I then returned to Dr. Boothe’s evaluation of Sabas’ letters. “While the lamenting celebrates were making their way from the Pool of Siloam to the Temple, Jesus and his followers were moving toward the Eastern Gate of the city, which exited into the Temple compound.

      “As Jesus and his followers began their descent from the Mount of Olives toward the Eastern Gate, his disciples and followers began to spontaneously spread their clothes in front of the donkey that he rode, and began to shout praises to him.

      “Upon entering the Eastern Gate, Jesus and his disciples, who were shouting praises to Jesus, met the lamenting Feast of Tabernacles participants. As the two groups joined, they became a huge lamenting and praising throng. The disciples then joined the participants in shouting the Great Hosanna, however, they directed it to Jesus, indicating that they recognized him as that great delivering Messiah. Eventually, the outer court of the Temple was filled with the massive crowd, crying and shouting and directing the Great Hosanna to Jesus.

      “Jesus allowed this adoration to continue for quite some time. He did not try to stop it.

      To the Sadducees, this was blasphemy. Some years previous, this same Galilean rabboni, this Jesus, had caused a stir in the Temple when he drove some merchants and moneychangers out of the Temple compound with a small whip. This had attracted the negative notice of some of the more powerful Sadducees. Since that time, there had been no other incident wi

    • barrydan profile image

      barrydan 7 years ago from Calgary, Alberta, Canada

      Thanks feenix, looks like your hubs are interesting too.

    • feenix profile image

      feenix 7 years ago

      BARRYDAN, I am relatively new to HubPages and after reading your hub, I am even more convinced than I was before that I joined a terrific site for writers. This is a great piece of writing and the conclusion of the work is ... well, awesome.