by Paul L. Maier
We recite his name every Sunday in the creeds, because he was the one who sent Jesus to the cross. For this he has been hated by Christians, condemned from the pulpit, jeered by theologians for not having the courage of his conviction that Jesus was innocent, or misinterpreted by other theologians as the one who really wanted Jesus dead. Even the very existence of Pontius Pilate has been denied.
Yet the Early Church looked far more favorably on him than was the case later on, for his was the one voice on Good Friday trying to defend Jesus. The Eastern Orthodox Church made his wife, Procula, a saint, while the Ethiopian Church canonized both, even though “St. Pontius Pilate” has quite a peculiar ring in Western ears! Saint or sinner, the Roman governor of Judea did indeed change history because of his decision on Good Friday.
Pilate is also a very valuable bridge for shunting information back and forth between the secular and sacred sources of information on the world of the New Testament. Through him we can check on the reliability of the biblical record, amplify that record, and understand more fully the politics behind Jesus’ crucifixion. Pilate is mentioned in all four Gospels, by the Jewish historian Josephus, the Jewish philosopher Philo, the Roman historian Tacitus, and even on a cornerstone discovered at Caesarea-on-the-Sea in 1961. All these sources will serve us well in understanding the man who sentenced Jesus to death.
The very name “Pontius Pilate” sheds important clues. The family name, the clan of the Pontii, was well known among the Samnites, a tribe that lived along the mountain spine of southern Italy. They fought several bitter wars with the Romans, one commanded by Gaius Pontius, who could well have been Pilate’s ancestor. His army defeated the Romans by wielding the pilum, a javelin six-feet long: half wooden handle, half-barbed, iron shaft. The Romans quickly copied the weapon, and military historians claim that the pilum made the Roman Empire possible. Interestingly enough, Pilate’s personal name, Pilatus, means “armed with a pilum.”
A member of the Roman middle-class Equestrians, Pilate was sent by Emperor Tiberius to govern Judea in the year A.D. 26, just before the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. He would remain in that post for the next ten and a half years, the second-longest tenure of any Roman governor in Palestine. This fact alone disproves the traditional belief, born of poorly researched biblical novels, that Pilate was a cruel, incompetent administrator who had been banished from Rome to the boondocks of Judea. Tiberius was very concerned that Roman provinces be well administered, and he recalled and punished those who failed to govern properly.
He would never have allowed Pilate so long a tenure if he were a political hack.
On the other hand, Pilate did make some mistakes in Judea. All Roman governors did, since for Jews it was heretical that a Gentile should ever govern them in view of the famous passage in Deut. 17:15: “Do not place a foreigner over you, one who is not a brother Israelite.” Accordingly, Roman governors could blunder, however unintentionally, when it came to Jewish religious sensitivities. (Some later governors, however, turned out to be wretches who intentionally rode roughshod over the Jews and provoked them to rebellion in A.D. 66.)
Soon after Pilate arrived with his wife in Judea, he rotated the five cohorts of 600 troops each that he commanded, sending one of them into Jerusalem with regimental standards that included images of Tiberius. Since the Roman barracks were in the Tower Antonia at the northwestern corner of the Temple enclave, this provoked a riot among Jewish worshippers as a direct violation of the Second Commandment against engraved images. They sent a delegation to Caesarea, where Pilate lived in Herod’s palace most of the year, and pleaded with him to remove the standards.
Since conceding would be a show of weakness so early in his administration, Pilate refused. On the sixth day, he even threatened death to the demonstrators if they did not cease and return to Jerusalem. The Jews simply bent over and bared their necks, easily calling Pilate’s bluff.
Avoiding any bloodbath, Pilate replaced the Jerusalem cohort with another that didn’t fly the offensive standards.
Often, the man could not win for losing. In another episode reported by Josephus, Pilate tried to improve Jerusalem’s water supply by building an aqueduct that extended from the so-called Pools of Solomon near Bethlehem to the great cisterns under the Jerusalem Temple. Since these constituted the virtual “water tower” of Jerusalem, Caiaphas and the priestly authorities helped subsidize the effort from funds in the Temple treasury.
But the public got it wrong, and spread the rumor that Pilate had “stolen” the funds from the Temple, a total impossibility. A riot ensued in which Pilate cautioned his troops not to use swords for crowd control, yet they did anyway, with casualties and loss of life.
From the Jewish viewpoint, Pilate had two strikes against him, and a third would follow shortly. As best we can calculate, it was about a year before Good Friday that the so-called “Episode of the Golden Roman Shields” took place in Jerusalem, this one reported by Philo.
Because Pilate’s political patron in Rome, Lucius Aelius Sejanus, had been unmasked as a conspirator against the throne, Tiberius had him executed. That put Pilate in a precarious position. To demonstrate his loyalty to the emperor, Pilate hung up golden shields of dedication to Tiberius in Herod’s Jerusalem palace, where Roman governors always resided when they came to the Holy City each year at Passover for purposes of crowd control.
But Herod Antipas, the ruler in Galilee who executed John the Baptist, appeared with his brothers at the palace and demanded that Pilate remove the shields as an insult to Judaism. They were, of course, nothing of the sort, so Pilate left them hanging. Behind his back, however, Antipas and his brothers sent a nasty letter to Rome, complaining about Pilate. Without even hearing Pilate’s side of the matter, Tiberius sent a scorching letter to Pilate, demanding that he take down the shields and henceforth respect all Jewish sensitivities in matters religious.
With this political background, the events at Jesus’ trial and crucifixion come into sharper focus. Despite the fact that he would have had every reason not to oppose the crowds crying “Crucify!” on Good Friday lest they cause further unpleasantness for him, Pilate tries to do the right thing as judge and give Jesus a fair trial.
Early on, he senses that Jesus is not a political insurrectionary, as the prosecution claimed, and therefore seeks to acquit him. In all four Gospels, he nearly acts as Jesus’ lawyer, since Jesus was making no defense for Himself. Pilate finds Him innocent and wants to release Him. He tries a change of venue in remanding Him over to the jurisdiction of Herod Antipas, who was also in Jerusalem on that fateful day. He tries the Passover amnesty custom in giving the crowd the choice of having Jesus or Barabbas released. Even the cruel scourging of Jesus was a last-ditch attempt at winning sympathy for the man rather than death.
Why, then, didn’t Pilate simply declare Jesus “Not guilty” and release Him? Pilate was going to do just that when Caiaphas and the prosecution played out their trump card: “If you release this man, you are not Caesar’s friend. For whoever makes himself a king speaks treason against Caesar” (John 19:12).
This was the end of the trial, and Pilate knew it. He was extremely vulnerable to any further complaints regarding his administration, and at this point it was either Jesus or himself as the victim. Without any great surprise, Pilate opted for Number One.
Pilate and the critics
This is not to make any “hero” of Pontius Pilate. But it is a response to the horde of New Testament critics who find it so fashionable to accuse the Gospels of anti-Semitism for “whitewashing” Pilate, a man who really wanted to see Jesus on the cross, so they claim, and transferring the “guilt” to the Jewish authorities instead. This is the sort of criticism that breaks out every ten years with the Oberammergau Passion Play and its presumed anti-Semitism, as well as the brouhaha against Mel Gibson for basically following the biblical roadmap in his movie, The Passion of the Christ.
Quite on the contrary. The trial of Jesus, as recorded in the New Testament, is not only reliable, but accords perfectly with everything we know of the political and legal circumstances surrounding the trial of Jesus. Almost every stage of that trial can be footnoted with parallel instances from Roman jurisprudence, and Pilate’s actions in particular relate exactly to what we know about him from purely secular sources.
The biblical information is sometimes more accurate and detailed than the secular. For many years, Bible dictionaries and general encyclopedias have called Pilate the “procurator” of Judea, based on mistaken anachronisms in both Tacitus and Josephus. But this mistake was recognized when Italian archaeologists discovered the cornerstone of a structure Pilate had erected in honor of the Emperor Tiberius at Caesarea. In two-inch Latin lettering, the translated inscription reads:
To the People of Caesarea
Prefect of Judea
has given the Tiberieum
Earlier first-century Roman governors in Judea were called “prefects,” while later governors after the time of Claudius (who ruled from A.D. 41 to his death in 54) were termed “procurators.” (The former designation had more military connotation, while the latter more civil.) The Gospels, however, do not make the mistake of calling Pilate “procurator” but “governor,” which best translates the Latin “prefect.”
Pontius Pilate was recalled to Rome when a police action against rebel Samaritans on Mount Gerizim went wrong. Since it was late in the year 36, he doubtless took the long overland route back to Rome, since the Mediterranean was closed to shipping from November to March 10 each year. But this lengthy journey served Pilate well. When he was about to defend himself before Tiberius, word came that the emperor had just died. Tiberius’s successor, Gaius Caligula, threw out all cases remaining from Tiberius’s administration, and since Gaius had not yet gone mad, we may safely assume that Pilate lived out the rest of his life, probably in retirement. Later rumors of his supposed suicide can be proven false.
Nowhere does the New Testament impinge on secular history in more detail than in the circumstances involving Pontius Pilate. As a “test” for the reliability of the Passion account, give the Gospels high marks indeed!