I am preparing my fourth message in the series Eye Witness. The message is entitled “Questions” and centers on the representation of Pontius Pilate in the Gospel of John. I have spoken on Pilate several times, but always from the other gospels. This time I decided to give him a really thorough treatment, so I started doing a little research.
We really know very little about him. We don’t know who he was other than possibly a descendant of a Samnite general G. Pontius (c. 320 BCE). He appears in no known secular records. The only literary references to him are in the New Testament, the works of Flavius Josephus and the later works of Tacitus.
- The New Testament records are fairly well known (Matthew 27, Mark 15, Luke 23, John 18-19 and a couple of references in Acts and 1 Timothy).
- Josephus makes two direct references to Pilate. We see him succeeding Valerus Gratus in Judea, dealing with Jesus plots and judging Christ and suppressing a Samaritan revolt (Antiquities 18.various, Wars 2.9)
- Tacitus’ reference is only in passing when writing about Jesus. He wrote: auctor nominis eius Christus Tiberio imperitante per procuratorem Pontium Pilatum supplicio adfectus erat. Literally translated as, “The source of the name [Christian] is Christ who, during the imperium of Tiberius by the procurator Pontius Pilate, suffered the ultimate penalty.)
It is generally concluded that any later references to Pilate draw from these three sources, and even Tacitus may have simply been an expansion of Josephus.
One additional resource has come to light in recent times. In 1961, a block of limestone was discovered in Caesarea that features and inscription in Latin.
- [DIS AUGUSTI]S TIBERIEUM
- [PO]NTIUS PILATUS
- [PRAEF]ECTUS IUDA[EA]E
- [FECIT D]E[DICAVIT]
(letters in brackets are conjectured)
The inscription is short, but it does give us one vital clue about Pilate’s career. He is called a prefect in the inscription. This is different from Tacitus, who called him a prelate. Although the two positions were similar, a prelate was a man of senatorial rank while a prefect was equestrian. This will matter in a little bit, so just file it away for now.
The limited resources we have available keep us from having a better idea of the kind of man Pilate was. He was almost certainly not a senator. He was probably a member of the equestrian class, which was the lower of the two aristocratic classes of Roman citizen. This meant he was probably from one of the old families, but probably not one with the ear of the senatorial families. As mentioned before, he might have been a descendant of G. Pontius.
As an equestrian, Pilate could not hope for any of the truly powerful offices like consul. At best he could attain power as a silent partner in one of the many power deals that took place in the early imperium. Unfortunately it appears that Pilate did not have the proper connections and was left to rot in a distant, troubled province.
Prefect of Iudaea
Josephus tells us that he replaced Valerus Gratus as prefect of Iudaea in 26 CE and ruled there for ten years. The prefecture itself was a recent consolidation of Judea, Idumea and Samaria, completed in 6 CE after the abortive rule of Herod Archelaus. It was one of the few official provinces ruled by a prefect instead of a legate.
This was primarily because it had been formed from some of the remnants of Herod the Great’s kingdom. The other part, Galilee, was still ruled by Herod’s son Antipas. The Romans attempted to institute home rule several times in the first century but eventually converted the entire region to a prelature.
The prefect was a sort of auxiliary governor to the legate. While Pilate was personally appointed by the emperor, just like a legate, he did not have the same powers as a legate and would have had to draw all of his military might from the legate’s legions.
Instead of the three legions available to the legate of Syria, Pilate had only six cohorts (about 3,000 men). Two were permanently stationed at the provincial capital, Caesarea, and two were in Jerusalem. The other two moved around quite a bit, so at any given time, Pilate had no more than 1,000 troops to call upon and none of them were front line soldiers.
The year 26 CE is significant because that was the year that Tiberius Caesar essentially exiled himself from Rome. His son had died in 23 CE, and Tiberius never recovered. Pliny the Elder called him tristissimus hominus, “the gloomiest man.” Tiberius left the imperial administration to his Praetorian Prefects – Lucius Aelius Sejanus and Quintus Naevius Sutorius Macro. It is very likely that these men had recalled Gratus and sent Pilate to Iudaea.
Unfortunately, the increasingly petulant Tiberius had refused to allow the Syrian legate, the respected senator Lucius Aelius Lamia and relative of Lucius Aelius Sejanus, to go to his province. As a consequence, Pontius Pilate went to Iudaea without the power to command a legion or a superior to request a legion from.
Necessity Breeds Destruction
With so little power to enforce his control of a troubled province, it is not surprising that Pilate managed so badly. We know that he was forced to move quite frequently between his capital at Caesarea and the Jewish religious center in Jerusalem. Quite simply, he was spread too thin.
There were a number of Jewish revolts throughout the rule of V. Gratus and P. Pilate. The constant nuisance of putting down rebellions seems to have worn on Pilate. When he heard of a rebel of the Samaritans, he overstepped his authority and called the Roman cavalry into action. They swept down on Mount Gerazim and massacred the Samaritans.
When L. Aelius Lamia’s replacement, Lucius Vitellius, finally made it to Syria in 36 CE, he found Pilate was overreaching to maintain any kind of order in the provinces. Vitellius immediately dismissed him and replaced him with his friend Marcellus.
Pilate journeyed to Rome to present his case, but Tiberius died while Pilate was in transit. We do not know if Pilate ever presented his case before Caligula, but it is safe to assume that even if he was heard, his appeal was not heeded. Shortly thereafter Caligula appointed his childhood friend, Herod Agrippa, as the King of the Jews and temporarily suspended the Roman prelature. The region was more or less under self rule until they rebelled against Rome and the Roman general Vespasian put down the rebellion. Vespasian’s work was completed with his son Titus’ destruction of the Temple in AD 70. All of Judea was incorporated into the province of Palestine and then Syria-Palestine during the reign of Hadrian.
His Place in the Jesus Story
Pilate’s exchange with Jesus in John 18-19 shows us a lot about who Pilate was. He was clearly intelligent and perceptive. He was also at a tremendous disadvantage when dealing with a troublesome people who wanted Roman protection but not Roman rule.
His own place was precarious, so when he was confronted with this man – Jesus – who he knew had been hailed by the Jews only a few days before, he did his best to manipulate the situation and free Jesus. Unfortunately, Pilate seems to have been a poor politician. He chose to appease the Jews in order to mock them, and his actions (both with Jesus and the later incident with the Samaritans) probably aided in the destabilization of Roman rule in the region.
To John, who provides the most detail about the exchange between Pilate and Jesus, Pilate represents all Gentiles. He asks questions of Jesus while the Jews and Herod Antipas demand things of him. To the Gentile church, Pilate is a symbol of Gentile openness to Jesus’ claims. The Ethiopian church even made him a saint!
More than anything, Pilate is an example of the trap the early believers found themselves in. They were torn in the tension of Judaism, Roman culture, the teaching of Jesus and their own thoughts and ideas. Through Pilate’s interrogation, Jesus remained other – not Jewish or Roman, not rebel or subject. It shows Jesus’ distinction from these powerful influences.