Pontius Pilate (Latin: Pontius Pilatus—Greek: Pontios Pilatos) was born in c. AD 5 (3765–3766 in the Hebrew calendar) in the Roman province of Italy. He came from the well-known Pontii family, who were Italian plebes of Samnite origin. The Samnites were a tribe from Southern Italy who spoke the Oscan language, which is now extinct. After the Samnite Wars (341–290 BC), the Pontii family moved to Rome along with the other Samnites. Therefore, the Pontii last name derives from the Samnite first name Pontius, which is Quintus ("Fifth") in Latin and corresponds to pons, the Latin word for "bridge." Pilate was an equestrian, a knight of mid-level Roman nobility. He served as the prefect of Judea province from c. AD 26 to 36, appointed by the emperor Tiberius (42 BC–AD 37).
In 1961, the Italian archaeologist Antonio Frova (1914–2007) found a piece of limestone partly inscribed with Pontius Pilate’s name and title during an excavation in Caesarea Maritima. It reads, "To the Divine Augustis [this] Tiberium, Pontius Pilate, Prefect of Judea, has dedicated" (Latin: Dis Augustis Tiberiéum, Pontius Pilatus, Praefectus Iudaeae, fecit dedicavit). This makes sense, given that Caesarea Maritima was the Roman administrative capital of Judea while the Jews kept their headquarters in Jerusalem. This artifact reveals that Pilate built a Tiberium, a pagan temple to honor the emperor Tiberius.
Pilate in History: Out for Blood
Both the Apostles' Creed and the Nicene Creed include statements that Pontius Pilate crucified Jesus (see "Confessions of Faith"). This shows the early church believed it was important to bridge their faith with the "historical Jesus." It was Pilate who ruled over Jesus' trial and then ordered his crucifixion. However, this was not his first run-in with the Jews. There were two incidents before Jesus' ministry in which Pilate angered the Jews over their religious customs. Around AD 26, Pilate reassigned his soldiers from Caesarea Maritima to Jerusalem for the winter. When the Roman army marched into the city, they carried military standards with Tiberius' image on them (Josephus, Jew. War 2.9.2-3; Ant. 18.3.1; Philo, Emb. Gaius 40.38)—a deliberate violation of the Law of Moses' ban on graven images (cf. Exod. 20:4). The Jews protested in Caesarea Maritima's stadium. Pilate responded by having his soldiers cordon off the venue and threatened to massacre all of them with swords. However, Pilate withdrew his troops when the Jewish protesters obstinately showed no fear of death. Philo of Alexandria (c. 15 BC–c. AD 50) described Pilate this way:
When Pilate, who was a man of inflexible, stubborn and cruel disposition, obstinately refused, they shouted: "Do not cause a revolt! Do not cause a war! Do not break the peace! Disrespect done to our ancient laws brings no honor to the emperor. Do not make Tiberius an excuse for insulting our nation. He does not want any of our traditions done away with. If you say that he does, show us some decree or letter or something of the sort, so that we may cease troubling you and appeal to our master by means of an embassy."
This last remark exasperated Pilate most of all, for he was afraid that if they really sent an embassy, they would bring accusations against the rest of his administration as well, specifying in detail his venality, his violence, his thefts, his assaults, his abusive behavior, his frequent executions of untried prisoners, and his endless savage ferocity (Emb. Gaius 40.38).
In the second incident around AD 28, Pilate used funds from the temple treasury to build an aqueduct into Jerusalem—another sacrilege of the Law (cf. Exod. 30:11-16). The local Jewish residents protested this abuse of sacred money in pagan hands at the Praetorium palace. In response, Pilate had his soldiers wear civilian clothes to blend in with the Jewish protesters. Once he ordered the gates to be locked, the soldiers killed nearly all of them with their weapons (Jew. War 2.9.4; Ant. 18.3.2). These two episodes showed the unbridled cruelty and violence of Pilate.
Lucius Vitellius (c. 5 BC–c. AD 51), the legate of Syria province, removed Pilate from office and sent him back to Rome after he violently crushed a Samaritan insurgency at Mount Gerizim. Pilate was supposed to stand before Tiberius to answer this crime. However, Tiberius died before his return (Ant. 18.4-2).
Pilate in the Bible: Washing His Hands
In his gospel account, Luke mentioned, "At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices" (13:1). However, many churchgoers view Pontius Pilate with more sympathy when reading the gospels. When he tried Jesus, Pilate had him flogged thirty-nine times with rods over his naked body (Luke 23:16, 22; John 19:1). Though this was in line with the Law of Moses (cf. Deut. 25:3), the Roman soldiers added their own forms of punishment and mockery. They ridiculed Jesus as the "King of the Jews," giving him a crown of thorns and the purple robe of Roman nobility (Matt. 27:29; Mark 15:18; John 19:2-4). Oftentimes, we only consider the wicked deeds of the Sanhedrin—the supreme court of Israel for all religious and sociopolitical matters—targeted Jesus. Yet, the Roman governor Pontius Pilate and his array of bloodthirsty Roman troops were just as responsible for Jesus' death as the Jews were. In truth, all of us humans—both Jew and gentile—are rebel sinners who share legal culpability for the crucifixion (Rom. 3:22-23). When we use antisemitic talking points in saying "the Jews killed Christ," we totally contradict God's will to save us from sin and death through Jesus' atonement.
Here is the passage that gives our Jewish brethren the most heartache: "So when Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, 'I am innocent of this man's blood; see to it yourselves.' Then the people as a whole answered, 'His blood be on us and on our children!'" (Matt. 27:24-25). Throughout our church history, many people claiming the name of Jesus—himself a Jew—have used this exchange to justify their verbal abuse of Jews as "Christ-killers." Even when the American director Mel Gibson (b. 1956) filmed The Passion of the Christ (2004), many Jewish anti-defamation groups asked him to remove this line. However, Gibson kept it in the Aramaic soundtrack but removed it from the subtitle translation. In the New Testament context, the crowd was willing to face the national consequence of defying the Roman governor Pilate, not the spiritual consequence of opposing God. About forty years later in AD 70, the Romans did come, laying siege to Jerusalem and destroying the temple (cf. Matt. 24:1-2; Mark 13:1-2; Luke 21:5-6). Caiaphas, the High Priest of Israel, also felt this sentiment: "You know nothing at all! You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man [Jesus] die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed" (John 11:49c-50; cf. 18:14). Simply put, the Jerusalem crowd was willing to take responsibility for the death of Jesus in contrast to Pilate's shirking of it. Matthew's point was to make this contrast, not to imply some generational curse on all Jews for all time (see "Auschwitz & Biblical Scholarship").
To be sure, even the Romans knew Pilate was culpable for Jesus' death. The Roman historian Tacitus (AD 56–c. 120), who was certainly no friend of Christianity, wrote:
Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilate, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their center and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against humankind (Ann. 15.44).
Blessed are you, LORD our God, King of the universe, you passed over your firstborn and delivered us from death. You led us in the pillar of cloud, but we have led you into the judgment hall of Pilate. You struck down kings for our sake; you gave us a royal inheritance, but we have crowned your head with thorns. You opened the rock and gave us to drink from the water of life, but we have opened your side with a spear. You lifted us with great power, but we have lifted you on the cross. We, your people—both Jew and gentile alike—have done this to you. We have wearied you. We have testified against you. Almighty God, the Ancient of Days, have mercy upon us. Amen.
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