Then they led Jesus from the house of Caiaphas to the governor’s headquarters. It was early morning. They themselves did not enter the governor’s headquarters, so that they would not be defiled, but could eat the Passover. So Pilate went outside to them and said, “What accusation do you bring against this man?” (John 18:28-29)
Who exactly was Pontius Pilate? Today we will endeavor to provide a profile of this infamous and historical character. We will be drawing from information provided by the Tyndale Bible Dictionary.
The Roman Emperor Tiberius Caesar (42 B.C. – 37 A.D.) appointed Pontius Pilate (? – 36 A.D.) as the fifth prefect, or governor, of Judea, Pilate served in that capacity from AD 26–36. He not only prominently appears in the trial narratives of the biblical gospels as the Roman governor who authorized Jesus’ crucifixion, but is also mentioned in a variety of extra-biblical sources as a dispassionate and relentless administrator who pursued Roman authority in Judea.
Tacitus (Annals 15.44) mentions Pilate in connection with the crucifixion of Jesus but adds little to the biblical account. Josephus, on the other hand, provides three narratives.
First, he describes Pilate’s arrival as the new prefect (War 2.9.2; Antiquities 18.3.1; cf. Eusebius’s Histories 2.6). Offending Jewish law, Pilate brought ensigns (pennants) into Jerusalem that bore the image of Caesar. A large gathering of Jews then came to Caesarea in protest, fasting there for five days. Pilate called in troops to dismiss them, but he learned his first lesson about Jewish intransigence. The Jews were ready to die rather than tolerate the ensigns. Soon thereafter Pilate relented.
Josephus records a second incident which occurred when Pilate appropriated temple funds in order to construct a 35-mile (56.3-kilometer) aqueduct for Jerusalem (War 2.9.4; Antiquities 18.3.2). Again, there was a major protest. Pilate ordered his soldiers to dress in tunics and infiltrate the crowds in disguise. At his command, the troops used clubs to beat the offenders. Many Jews were killed. Josephus records the horror with which Jerusalem perceived the affair.
Finally, Josephus records the story of Pilate’s dismissal (Antiquities 18.4.1–2). In ad 36 a Samaritan false prophet (pretending to be the Taheb, or Samaritan messiah) promised to show his followers sacred vessels hidden by Moses on Mt Gerizim. Pilate sent a heavily armed contingent of footmen and cavalry who intercepted the pilgrims and slaughtered most of them. The Samaritans complained to Vitellius, the prefect of Syria, whereupon Pilate was ordered to report to the emperor Tiberius. Another prefect, Marcellus, was then sent by Rome as Pilate’s replacement.
The historian Philo records yet another event (Leg. to Caius 299–305). While extolling the liberal policies of Tiberius toward Judaism, he cites a negative example in Pontius Pilate. The prefect had erected gilded shields in Herod’s former palace in Jerusalem that bore the name of the emperor. Refusing to hear Jewish complaints, the sons of Herod appealed to Tiberius, who ordered Pilate to transfer the shields to the temple of Augustus in Caesarea. The similarities with the parallel story in Josephus have led many scholars to believe that Philo is merely recounting another version of the same event.
The Gospel of Luke mentions a minor incident that contributes to this same portrait of Pilate. In Luke 13:1 some Jews tell Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. While this story is not corroborated by any other witness, it conforms to the impressions of Pilate’s character given by Philo and Josephus. In fact, Luke adds another detail of interest in his trial narrative. In Luke 23:12 he says that prior to the crucifixion of Jesus, Herod Antipas (in Galilee) and Pilate had been at enmity with each other. This may have stemmed not simply from Pilate’s usual antagonism but particularly from the Galilean incident.
Pilate’s role in the death of Jesus is recorded in each Gospel (Matthew 27:2; Mark 15:1; Luke 23:1; John 18:29) and was remembered as a historical fact in the preaching of the apostles (Acts 3:13; 4:27; 13:28; 1 Timothy 6:13). In order to secure the conviction and death of Jesus, Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin brought their charges to Pilate. While the accusations took on a political flavor to evoke the governor’s interest, he still could find no grounds for condemnation. In the end, Pilate unexpectedly accommodates the Jewish leaders and has Jesus crucified.
All four gospels, and particularly the Gospel of John, show Pilate’s repeated verdict of Jesus’ innocence. According to Matthew 27:19, Pilate’s wife had an ominous dream about Jesus’ conviction, and she warned her husband. Pilate tried to have Jesus released, but the crowd cried for Barabbas. Matthew even records that Pilate washed his hands (27:24–25), declaring his own innocence in this. And finally, John says that Pilate refused to alter the title over the cross (John 19:19–22). These accounts, therefore, take the full blame for Jesus’ death from Pilate and place it on the Jewish leaders of the Sanhedrin making them ultimately responsible.
The Tyndale Bible Dictionary states, “But why would Pilate act in behalf of the Sanhedrin? Two answers are possible. First, there may have been collusion between Caiaphas and Pilate that stemmed from a long-standing relationship and coterminous reign. Ten of Caiaphas’s eighteen years in power were under Pilate, and when the prefect was dismissed in ad 36, Caiaphas was simultaneously removed. Second, if Jesus’ trial occurred in ad 33, Pilate may have been concerned about his impeachment. He had originally been appointed by Sejanus (prefect of the praetorians in Rome who had appointed men to colonial office under Tiberius), but in the autumn of ad 31 Sejanus died. This explains why a Jewish delegation could report directly to Tiberius during the votive shield incident. Hence, the charge recorded in John 19:12 (“If you release this man, you are not Caesar’s friend”) would have had genuine power over Pilate. Pilate perceived his jeopardy and was anxious to pacify the Jews and please the emperor.”
The history of Pilate after his dismissal in ad 36 is unknown. Eusebius reports that Pilate ultimately committed suicide during the reign of the emperor Caligula, ad 37–41 (History 2.7).
In his sermon on the Day of Pentecost, the Apostle Peter says, “Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know— this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.” (Acts 2:22-24).
The Bible includes and describes Pontius Pilate as a lawless man. So also were we until the Holy Spirit regenerated our dead souls (John 3:1-8; Ephesians 2:1-10). Take time today to thank God for His saving work.
May God’s truth and grace reside here.
Soli deo Gloria!