We know little about Pontius Pilate other than that he served under the emperor Tiberius, as governor of Judaea, for about ten years until around 37 AD. A decade’s service would suggest he performed this task ably, although it seems his recall to Rome followed an unpopular heavy-handed response to troublesome Samaritans. A damaged piece of limestone bearing his name was discovered in 1961 at the Mediterranean coastal centre of Caesarea (one hundred kilometres from Jerusalem). This, as well as some crudely minted bronze coins, are the only physical evidence of his time in Judaea.
This essay appears in the latest Quadrant.
Click here to subscribe
He is mentioned by his contemporary, the Jewish non-Romanised philosopher Philo of Alexandria and he also features in a few paragraphs written some forty years after his recall to Rome by the Romanised Jewish historian Flavius Josephus. The Roman historian and traveller Cornelius Tacitus grants him a single, though memorable sentence, although it is feasible that he figured prominently in that writer’s Annals for the years 30 and 31, both of which have been lost. The sentence reads:
Christus, the founder of the name [Christians], had undergone the death penalty in the reign of Tiberius, by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilatus, and the pernicious superstition was checked for a moment, only to break out once more, not merely in Judaea, the home of the disease, but in the capital itself, where all things horrible or shameful in the world collect and find a vogue.
By the time Pilate had returned to Rome, Tiberius had died. It is not known whether he had to account for himself (to Caligula), or if so, how he fared. Did he simply retire from service? The most lurid of the many suggested ends for Pilate comes from the twelfth-century Byzantine chronicler George Kedronos, who has it that the ex-governor was condemned by Caligula and left to die in the sun. In this story he was enclosed in the skin of a freshly killed cow with a chicken, a snake and a monkey for company.
The most realistic approximation of Pilate is that he was probably a few years older than the figure Tacitus referred to as Christus (the minimum age for governors being thirty). Born possibly in Rome, he may have fought in the German campaigns of Tiberius (9 AD) or Germanicus (14 AD). Tacitus writes that to be made a governor required a display of decent behaviour and possession of a noble character. However, Ann Wroe tells us in Pilate: The Biography of an Invented Man (1999) that Pomponius Flaccus was made governor of Syria after an impressive performance during a thirty-six-hour drinking binge. His imperial endorsement read, “A good fellow at all hours, day or night!”
Was Pilate married? Despite the Matthew Gospel referring to a wife who has a disturbing dream regarding Jesus (27:19)—“Have thou nothing to do with that just man: for I have suffered many things this day in a dream because of him”—if he was, it was not normal practice for wives to accompany their husbands to the provinces.
Pilate was the fifth prefect or governor of Judaea. In Greek—and an estimated 15 per cent of the population of Jerusalem spoke Greek as a first language, and a Greek-speaking synagogue was in fact located next to the Temple—he would have been addressed as hegemon. While Judaea was considered something of an empire backwater, as chief militia man and head of the judicial system he was still responsible for around six thousand soldiers and some two and a half million citizens. According to Philo, financial matters would have taken up most of Pilate’s time. The Romans had instituted a plethora of taxes that included income, food, transport, land, purchase and custom, not to mention the poll taxes and the necessary census taking that led the family of Jesus to go to Bethlehem. These taxes were unpopular, as was the necessity for Pilate to sell the idea of “imperial cult” (that Roman rule was divinely sanctioned). This was deeply offensive to the religious sensibilities of the Jews, who considered their culture in every way superior to that of Rome. Insurrections were common. It is likely the Barabbas figure in the Gospels, whom the angry mob wished to be set free in preference to the renegade Jesus, had been arrested as an insurgent.
While the Jews still exercised considerable autonomy over what would have been considered minor issues of governance, Pilate had the power to appoint the Jewish High Priest. Joseph ben Caiaphas, the High Priest mentioned in the Gospels, retained that position for the entirety of Pilate’s term, suggesting his administration had allied itself with the Sadducee sect, which according to Josephus was considered the upper echelon of Judaean society both socially and financially.
The Gospels themselves were written some forty to seventy years after the death of Jesus (60s AD for Mark, 70s to 80s for Luke and Matthew and 90s for John). Regarding Pilate’s role in the trial and death of Jesus, those of Mark and Matthew are in accord. When the chief Jewish priests and elders deliver Jesus to Pilate, the latter suggests putting into practice a supposed Passover custom (an invention of the Gospels, it seems) which grants amnesty to a prisoner. However, the chief priests and elders insist that rather than Jesus, the prisoner named Barabbas should be the one released. Pilate is at a loss as to what crime Jesus has committed—“What evil hath he done?”—but the mob is insistent, Barabbas is set free and Jesus is sent to be crucified. A distinguishing feature of the Matthew Gospel is that Pilate symbolically washes his hands and exclaims, “I am innocent of the blood of this just person” (27:24–25).
In Luke’s Gospel, Pilate initially sends Jesus to Herod. The latter is pleased to see him but Jesus refuses to speak. Here it is Herod’s men who mock him, array him in “a gorgeous robe” and send him back to Pilate. Once again Pilate announces (in concert with Herod) that he can find no reason for Jesus to be punished—“I will therefore chastise him, and release him” (23:16). The Barabbas scenario is repeated and the crucifixion takes place.
It is in John’s Gospel, however, that the drama of the situation is intensified. Martin Luther described John’s account as “unique in loveliness … the one fine, true and chief gospel … far, far to be preferred over the other three and placed high above them”.
Here Pilate demands that the Jews judge Jesus according to their own law—“Am I a Jew?” (18:35)—and the governor is forced into holding separate dialogues, one with Jesus, who is inside the judging hall or Praetorium, and another with the High Priest, elders and an angry mob without. The tension of the situation is captured majestically by J.S. Bach in his St John’s Passion (1724), a work which clearly took to heart Luther’s dictum that “it is more beneficial to ponder Christ’s Passion just once than to fast a whole year or to pray a psalm daily”.
The Jews are just as insistent on the Roman punishment of crucifixion. Meanwhile Pilate’s own soldiers mock Jesus and make him a crown of thorns. If the scourging, as instructed by Pilate, is intended to confer sympathy to Jesus when presented to the mob, it fails dismally. Furthermore, in John’s Gospel Jesus bears his own cross on the path to crucifixion and Pilate inscribes a titulus, a board attached to the cross which reads in Hebrew, Greek and Latin, JESUS OF NAZARETH THE KING OF THE JEWS. Here the still angry chief priests request an alteration that should read JESUS SAID HE WAS KING OF THE JEWS. Pilate, who has had enough, states simply, “What I have written I have written” (19:22). Finally, as in Luke’s Gospel, he grants permission for the dead body of Jesus to be removed from the cross and taken away.
Celsus, the second-century Greek philosopher and opponent of Christianity, wondered why Pilate seemed not to have been punished by the Christian God. The Christian apologist Origen of Alexandria proposed that this had not been necessary since it was the Jews themselves who were accountable. Several apocryphal gospels further complicate the matter of apportioning blame. That attributed to Peter accords the responsibility of Christ’s crucifixion to the Galilean leader Herod, while that of Nicodemus portrays Pilate as being forced by the Jews to execute Jesus and adds furthermore that he was distraught at having done so. The Ethiopian and Coptic churches hold that Pilate himself became a Christian, and due to his reluctance to crucify Christ these churches venerate him as a saint on June 19 and 25 respectively.
In early Christian art Pilate is portrayed as a squat Roman with a cloak clasped at the shoulder. In Ravenna mosaics of the sixth century (right), he develops a beard—an unlikely occurrence given the Roman males’ obsession with shaving—an error of judgement corrected by the likes of Giotto (left) and where he is presented for the most part as a government functionary blandly going about his job. By the High Baroque, a trademark bowl of water for his hand washing identifies him, but with his turbans, robes and lengthy exotic beard, he could easily be taken for a Jew. The 1617 painting by Gerrit Van Honthorst now known as Christ before the High Priest was for several hundred years known as Christ before Pilate.
In the dramatic arts, the popular passion plays of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries presented Pilate variously as an expensively dressed dandy, a drunkard complete with hangover, or a saccharine family man who “rules” under the constant threat of vicious Jews. One such French version has Pilate’s daughter take him to task over his treatment of Jesus: “Father, I’m really sad you’ve treated that prophet so badly. No one’s complained about him except the Jews. He has such a good character, everyone says so. Let him go. Have pity on him.” A beleaguered Pilate replies: “What are you saying, sweetheart? The Jews will kill me if I do that; they’ll have the eyes out of my head.” In more recent times, cinema history has handed scripts to figures as diverse as Basil Rathbone and David Bowie.
From Rome’s perspective, for what could Jesus have been found guilty? Calling himself Christ the King was neither here nor there, though the allegations of the priests that he was speaking to the idea of “forbidding tribute to Caesar” and “perverting the nation” would have held substance. The Roman charge of maiestas, referred to by Cicero as “an ambiguous term” that essentially described anything that could be held to be prejudicial to the interests of the Roman people, is perhaps the only explanation. Pilate did have the authority to order summary executions without trial (his predecessor Valerius Gratius, having quelled an insurrection attempt, had ordered the simultaneous crucifixion of two hundred Jews) and indeed was accused of so doing. However, in the case of Jesus he would have needed to be careful. Jerusalem was a volatile city at the best of times and an influx of 70,000 visitors for Passover would only have exacerbated this.
It appears that every attempt was made to allow Jesus a fair trial. Under the law, a trial afforded the accused three chances to defend himself before sentencing. In the Gospels, for the most part, Pilate is officious and matter-of-fact, since Jesus chooses to offer nothing in his own defence. However, in John’s Gospel, the governor displays an anxiety which is driven by the accused’s belligerent attitude and his refusal to speak up for himself: Pilate becomes in Ann Wroe’s words “the great equivocator”. While he seems the only individual prepared to speak up for Jesus (in Luke and John, he pronounces him innocent no less than three times), the mob are eager to remind Pilate not only of who he is responsible to—“You are not Caesar’s friend”—but also the consequences of this for himself. In each of the Gospels, Pilate capitulates without fuss and Jesus is crucified—the Roman penalty reserved for slaves, bandits and civil miscreants. Its victims died slowly and became corvorum cibia—food for the crows. We can only conclude therefore that while it was the Jewish priests that demanded his blood, it was the Roman governor who sentenced Jesus to death. In the end Pilate dutifully accepted the charges laid. Luther was eminently pragmatic in his interpretation of Pilate’s actions:
he kept strictly to the Roman laws. He didn’t want an innocent man to be executed and slain without a hearing, and he availed himself of all just means to try and release Christ: but when they threatened him with the emperor’s disfavour, he was dazzled, and forsook the imperial laws, thinking, it’s only the loss of one man, who is both poor and condemned; no one is supporting him … Better that one man should die than that the whole nation should be against me.
Wroe asks the question: Why then were the early Christian writers such as Origen so willing to transfer blame for the crucifixion of Jesus from the Roman governor to the Jews? Her answer is that it made sense. During the three hundred years in which the new religion attempted to gain a footing, it was expedient to cite evidence that a Roman official had acted as an advocate for the one seen as the Messiah. If this meant the Jews needed to be seen in a poor light then so be it. As the Christians became more accepted and indeed gained legal status after the Edict of Milan in 312, Pilate was looked upon less favourably. The Nicene Creed of 381 states categorically that Jesus was put to death by Pilate and makes no mention of the Jews as having been complicit.
Anatole France’s 1892 short story, “The Procurator of Judea”, has it that in exile in Sicily after his recall to Rome, a gouty but relatively contented Pilate remembers his time in Judaea well—the discontent, the nagging for favours, the local colour and the importance of his position. Yet he has no recollection of the one they called Jesus of Nazareth, a perfectly legitimate premise if the trial as set out in the Gospels presented what was for Pilate part of a typical day at the office. What if Pilate had insisted Jesus be set free? Latest estimations say that 2.56 billion people today identify as Christians. Pilate’s judgment makes him pivotal to their story and God’s redemptive plan. Without Pilate, as Wroe puts it, “there would have been no Resurrection, no founding Christian miracle”.
Barry Gillard, a frequent contributor on literature and history, lives in Geelong.