Pontius Pilate was the fifth governor of the Roman province of Judaea, serving under Emperor Tiberius from the year 26/27 to 36/37. He is best known today for being the official who presided over the trial of Jesus and ordered his crucifixion. Pilate’s importance in modern Christianity is underscored by his prominent place in the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds. Due to the Gospels’ portrayal of Pilate as reluctant to execute Jesus, the Ethiopian Church believes that Pilate became a Christian and venerates him as a martyr and saint, a belief historically shared by the Coptic Church.
Few Historical Sources About Pontius Pilate
Although Pilate is the best-attested governor of Judaea, few sources on his rule have survived. He appears to have belonged to the well-attested Pontii family of Samnite origin, but nothing is known for certain about his life before he became governor of Judaea, nor of the circumstances that led to his appointment to the governorship. A single inscription from Pilate’s governorship has survived; the so-called Pilate stone, as have coins that he minted. The Jewish historian Josephus and Philo of Alexandria both mention incidents of tension and violence between the Jewish population and Pilate’s administration.
Many of these involve Pilate acting in ways that offended the religious sensibilities of the Jews. The Christian Gospels record that Pilate ordered the crucifixion of Jesus at some point during his time in office; Josephus and the Roman historian Tacitus also appear to have recorded this information.
According to Josephus, Pilate’s removal from office occurred because he violently suppressed an armed Samaritan movement at Mount Gerizim. He was sent back to Rome by the legate of Syria to answer for this before Tiberius, who, however, had died before he arrived. Nothing is known for certain about what happened to him after this. On the basis of a mention in the second-century pagan philosopher Celsus and Christian apologist Origen, most modern historians believe that Pilate simply retired after his dismissal.
Modern historians have differing assessments of Pilate as an effective ruler; while some believe he was a particularly brutal and ineffective governor, others argue that his long time in office means he must have been reasonably competent. According to one prominent post-war theory, Pilate was motivated by antisemitism in his treatment of the Jews, but this theory has been mostly abandoned.
The Crucial Historical Sources
The historical sources on Pontius Pilate are scarce, although modern scholars know more about him than about other Roman governors of Judaea. The most important sources are the Embassy to Gaius (after the year 41) by contemporary Jewish writer Philo of Alexandria, the Jewish Wars (c. 74) and Antiquities of the Jews (c. 94) by the Jewish historian Josephus, as well as the four canonical Christian Gospels, Mark (composed between 66 and 70), Luke (composed between 85 and 90), Matthew (composed between 85 and 90), and John (composed between 90 and 110).
Ignatius of Antioch mentions him in his epistles to the Trallians, Magnesians, and Smyrnaeans (composed between 105 and 110). He is also briefly mentioned in Annals of the Roman historian Tacitus (early 2nd c.), who simply says that he put Jesus to death. Two additional chapters of Tacitus’s Annals that might have mentioned Pilate have been lost.
Besides these texts, coins minted by Pilate have survived, as well as a short fragmentary inscription that names Pilate; known as the Pilate Stone, the only inscription about a Roman governor of Judaea predating the Roman-Jewish Wars to survive. The written sources provide only limited information, and each has its own biases, with the gospels, in particular, providing a theological rather than historical perspective on Pilate.
The Historical Sources Give Even Less Info About His Early Life
The sources give no indication of Pilate’s life prior to his becoming governor of Judaea. His praenomen (first name) is unknown; his cognomen Pilatus might mean “skilled with the javelin (pilum),” but it could also refer to the pileus or Phrygian cap, possibly indicating that one of Pilate’s ancestors was a freedman. If it means “skilled with the javelin,” it is possible that Pilate won the cognomen for himself while serving in the Roman military; it is also possible that his father acquired the cognomen through military skill.
In the Gospels of Mark and John, Pilate is only called by his cognomen, which Marie-Joseph Ollivier takes to mean that this was the name by which he was generally known in common speech. The name Pontius indicates that he belonged to the Pontii family, a well-known family of Samnite origin that produced a number of important individuals in the late Republic and early Empire.
Like all but one other governor of Judaea, Pilate was of the equestrian order, a middle rank of the Roman nobility. As one of the attested Pontii, Pontius Aquila, an assassin of Julius Caesar, was a Tribune of the Plebs, the family must have originally been of Plebeian origin. They became ennobled as equestrians.
Pilate was likely educated, somewhat wealthy, and well-connected politically and socially. He was probably married, but the only extant reference to his wife, in which she tells him not to interact with Jesus after she has had a disturbing dream (Matthew 27:19), is generally dismissed as legendary. According to the cursus honorum established by Augustus for office holders of equestrian rank, Pilate would have had a military command before becoming prefect of Judaea.
His Role as Governor of Judaea
Pilate was the fifth governor of the Roman province of Judaea during the reign of the emperor Tiberius. The post of governor of Judaea was of relatively low prestige, and nothing is known of how Pilate obtained the office. Josephus states that Pilate governed for 10 years (Antiquities of the Jews 18.4.2), and these are traditionally dated from 26 to 36/37, making him one of the two longest-serving governors of the province.
Pilate’s title of Prefect implies that his duties were primarily military; however, Pilate’s troops were meant more as police than a military force, and Pilate’s duties extended beyond military matters. As Roman governor, he was head of the judicial system. He had the power to inflict capital punishment and was responsible for collecting tributes and taxes and for disbursing funds, including the minting of coins. Because the Romans allowed a certain degree of local control, Pilate shared a limited amount of civil and religious power with the Jewish Sanhedrin.
Pontius Pilate Rules From Caesarea
Pilate was subordinate to the legate of Syria; however, for the first six years in which he held office, Syria lacked a legate, something which Helen Bond believes may have presented difficulties to Pilate. He seems to have been free to govern the province as he wished, with intervention by the legate of Syria only coming at the end of his tenure. Like other Roman governors of Judaea, Pilate made his primary residence in Caesarea, going to Jerusalem mainly for major feasts in order to maintain order. He also would have toured around the province in order to hear cases and administer justice.
As governor, Pilate had the right to appoint the Jewish High Priest and also officially controlled the vestiments of the High Priest in the Antonia Fortress. Unlike his predecessor, Valerius Gratus, Pilate retained the same high priest, Caiaphas, for his entire tenure. Caiaphas would be removed following Pilate’s own removal from the governorship. This indicates that Caiaphas and the priests of the Sadducee sect were reliable allies to Pilate.
Pontius Pilate: Incidents with the Jews
According to Josephus in his book ‘the Jewish War’ (2.9.2) and ‘Antiquities of the Jews’ (18.3.1), Pilate offended the Jews by moving imperial standards with the image of Caesar into Jerusalem. This resulted in a crowd of Jews surrounding Pilate’s house in Caesarea for five days. Pilate then summoned them to an arena, where the Roman soldiers drew their swords. But the Jews showed so little fear of death that Pilate relented and removed the standards.
According to Philo of Alexandria, Pilate offended against Jewish law by bringing golden shields into Jerusalem and placing them on Herod’s Palace.
The sons of Herod the Great petitioned him to remove the shields. But Pilate refused. Herod’s sons then threatened to petition the emperor, an action which Pilate feared would expose the crimes he had committed in office. He did not prevent their petition. Tiberius received the petition and angrily reprimanded Pilate, ordering him to remove the shields.
In another incident recorded in both the Jewish Wars (2.9.4) and the Antiquities of the Jews (18.3.2), Josephus relates that Pilate offended the Jews by using up the temple treasury to pay for a new aqueduct to Jerusalem. When a mob formed while Pilate was visiting Jerusalem; Pilate ordered his troops to beat them with clubs; many perished from the blows or from being trampled by horses, and the mob was dispersed.
Trial and Execution of Jesus
At the Passover of most likely 30 or 33, Pontius Pilate condemned Jesus of Nazareth to death by crucifixion in Jerusalem. The main sources on the crucifixion are the four canonical Christian Gospels, the accounts of which vary. Pilate’s role in condemning Jesus to death is also attested by the Roman historian Tacitus, who, when explaining Nero’s persecution of the Christians, explains:
“Christus, the founder of the name, had undergone the death penalty in the reign of Tiberius, by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilate, and the pernicious superstition was checked for a moment…”(Tacitus, Annals 15.44)
The authenticity of this passage has been disputed, and it is possible that Tacitus received this information from Christian informants. Josephus also appears to have mentioned Jesus’s execution by Pilate at the request of prominent Jews (Antiquities of the Jews 18.3.3). However, the original text has been greatly altered by later Christian interpretation so that it is impossible to know what Josephus may have originally said. It is generally assumed, based on the unanimous testimony of the gospels, that the crime for which Jesus was brought to Pilate and executed was sedition, founded on his claim to be king of the Jews.
Removal and Later Life
According to Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews (18.4.1–2), Pilate’s removal as governor occurred after Pilate slaughtered a group of armed Samaritans at a village called Tirathana near Mount Gerizim; where they hoped to find artifacts that had been buried there by Moses. Alexander Demandt suggests that the leader of this movement may have been Dositheos, a messiah-like figure among the Samaritans who were known to have been active around this time.
The Samaritans, claiming not to have been armed, complained to Lucius Vitellius the Elder, the governor of Syria (term 35–39), who had Pilate recalled to Rome to be judged by Tiberius. Tiberius, however, had died before his arrival. This dates the end of Pilate’s governorship to 36/37. Tiberius died in Misenum on 16 March 37, in his seventy-eighth year (Tacitus, Annals VI.50, VI.51).
Following Tiberius’s death, Pilate’s hearing would have been handled by the new emperor Gaius Caligula: it is unclear whether any hearing took place, as new emperors often dismissed outstanding legal matters from previous reigns. The only sure outcome of Pilate’s return to Rome is that he was not reinstated as governor of Judaea, either because the hearing went badly or because Pilate did not wish to return.
Archaeology and Minted Coins
A single inscription by Pilate has survived in Caesarea; on the so-called “Pilate Stone.” The (partially reconstructed) inscription is as follows:
Scholars “freely” translate it to:
“Tiberium [?of the Caesareans?] Pontius Pilate, Prefect of Judea [ .. has given?]”.
The fragmentary nature of the inscription has led to some disagreement about the correct reconstruction. So that “apart from Pilate’s name and title, the inscription is unclear.” Originally, the inscription would have included an abbreviated letter for Pilate’s praenomen (e.g., T. for Titus or M. for Marcus). The stone attests to Pilate’s title of prefect, and the inscription appears to refer to some kind of building called a Tiberium, a word otherwise unattested but following a pattern of naming buildings about Roman emperors. Some argue that we cannot be sure what kind of building this refers to. While others argue that it was some sort of secular building, namely a lighthouse, while two other scholars argue that it was a temple dedicated to Tiberius.
As governor, Pilate was responsible for minting coins in the province: The coins belong to a type called a “prutah,” which were minted in Jerusalem and are fairly crudely made. Earlier coins referred to the emperor Tiberius and his mother, Livia. As was typical of Roman coins struck in Judaea, they did not have a portrait of the emperor, though they included some pagan designs.