In the Gospel of John, Pontius Pilate poses a question to Jesus of Nazareth: “What is truth?”
It’s a question that could also be asked about Pilate’s own history. From the perspective of the New Testament of the Christian Bible, the Roman governor of Judea was a wavering judge who initially exonerated Jesus before bending to the will of the crowd and condemning him to death. By contrast, non-Biblical sources portray him as a barbarous leader who willfully defied the traditions of the Jewish people he oversaw. Which was the truth?
Pilate’s early life is a mystery.
History says little about Pilate before he served as the Roman prefect of Judea between 26 and 36 A.D. It is thought he was born into an equestrian family in Italy, but some legends claim Scotland was the land of his birth.
One of the earliest—and most scathing—accounts of Pilate comes from the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria. Writing around 50 A.D., he castigated the prefect for his “briberies, insults, robberies, outrages and wanton injuries, executions without trial, constantly repeated, ceaseless and supremely grievous cruelty.”
“Philo summarizes Pilate’s rule as corrupt and full of bribery,” says Stephen J. Patterson, an early Christianity historian at Willamette University and the author of several books including The Forgotten Creed: Christianity's Original Struggle Against Bigotry, Slavery, and Sexism. That sort of behavior wouldn’t have been all that extraordinary for a Roman ruler, but Pilate apparently did it more ruthlessly than most.”
Problem is, it’s not easy to know how historical Philo’s account actually was, says Helen Bond, head of the University of Edinburgh’s School of Divinity and author of Pontius Pilate in History and Interpretation. “Philo is a hugely dramatic writer,” she notes, and one with very clear biases: “People who uphold Jewish laws are recorded in highly positive ways, while people who do not are described in highly negative terms.”
Given Pilate’s opposition to Jewish law, Philo describes him “very harshly.”
Pilate clashed with the Jewish population in Jerusalem.
Philo also wrote that Pilate permitted a pair of gilded shields inscribed with the name of the Roman Emperor Tiberius into King Herod’s former palace in Jerusalem, in violation of Jewish customs. Writing a half-century later, the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus told a similar tale that Pilate permitted troops carrying military standards bearing the likeness of the emperor into Jerusalem, although Jewish law forbade images in the city. A great crowd traveled to the Judean capital of Caesarea in protest and lay prostrate around Pilate’s palace for five days until he relented.
“Josephus was born in Jerusalem the year Pilate left office and so would have had reasonably good information,” Bond says. “The story has the ring of a new governor seeing what he can get away with and completely underestimating the strength of local opinion when it came to graven images.” At the same time, Bond notes, the story shows his willingness to back down and respect public opinion.
In another incident—with a bloodier ending—Josephus recounted that Pilate used funds from the Temple treasury to build an aqueduct to Jerusalem. This time when protesters amassed, Pilate dispatched plain-clothed soldiers to infiltrate the crowd. On his signal, they removed clubs hidden in their garments and beat many of the protesters to death.
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The Gospels portray an indecisive Pilate.
Josephus also mentioned Pilate’s notorious role in agreeing to the execution of Jesus. According to the Gospels, the Sanhedrin, an elite council of priestly and lay elders, arrested Jesus during the Jewish festival of Passover, deeply threatened by his teachings. They dragged him before Pilate to be tried for blasphemy—for claiming, they said, to be King of the Jews. And they pressured Pilate, the only one with power to impose a death sentence, to call for his crucifixion.
Contrary to the depiction of Pilate as a merciless ruler by Philo and Josephus, all four Gospels portray him as a vacillating judge. According to the Gospel of Mark, Pilate came to the defense of Jesus before yielding to the desire of the crowd.
But Mark had an ulterior agenda, notes Patterson, since he wrote the Gospel in the midst of the failed Jewish Revolt against Roman rule between 66 and 70 A.D., while the Christian sect was undergoing a bitter break with Judaism and seeking to attract Roman converts.
“Mark’s purpose is not really historical,” Patterson says. “It’s to cast the Jewish War in a particular light. Mark blamed the Jewish rulers in Jerusalem for its destruction [during the rebellion] because the high priests and officials rejected Jesus when he had come to the city. Mark’s telling of the story of the trial of Jesus is less about Pilate and more about shifting the blame to the Jewish leaders.”
According to the Gospel of Matthew, Pilate washed his hands in front of the crowd before announcing, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.” The Jewish people shouted in response, “His blood be on us and our children.” It’s a passage that would be used for millennia to persecute the Jewish people.
“Matthew says that while the Romans actually carried out the deed, the Jews were responsible—a line of argument that has of course had disastrous consequences ever since,” Bond says. “If Jesus was causing trouble at a gathering like Passover, when the city was crowded to bursting, I don’t think Pilate would have spent much time worrying about what to do with him. It was entirely up to the governor as to how he dealt with the case, and after hearing the evidence he no doubt thought that getting rid of Jesus was the best course of action.”
Another element of the New Testament story still unsupported by historical evidence is Pilate’s offer to commute the death sentence of a criminal by popular vote—which according to the Gospel writers was an annual Passover tradition. In the Gospels, the crowd chose the criminal Barabbas over Jesus. “Scholars have looked for evidence," Patterson says, and so far "have never found anything in reference to the so-called custom of releasing a prisoner on Passover.”
Pilate disappears from history after his rule.
According to Josephus and the Roman historian Tacitus, Pilate was removed from office and sent back to Rome after using excessive force to disperse a suspected Samaritan insurrection. Once in Rome, Pilate vanished from the historical record. According to some traditions, he was executed by the Emperor Caligula or committed suicide, with his body thrown into the Tiber River. The early Christian author Tertullian even claimed that Pilate became a follower of Jesus and tried to convert the emperor to Christianity.
In 1961, archaeologists in Caesarea discovered hard evidence of Pilate’s existence. A fragment of a carved stone with Pilate’s name and title inscribed in Latin was found face down, being used as a step in an ancient theater. It’s likely the “Pilate Stone” originally served as a dedication plaque for another structure. A November 2018 article in Israel Exploration Journal announced a further discovery as advanced photography revealed Pilate’s name inscribed in Greek on a 2,000-year-old copper alloy ring excavated from Herodium.
Watch a preview of the four-week special event Jesus: His Life, premiering Monday, March 25 at 8/7c.