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PILATE (pī'lat, Gr. Pilatos). The fifth procurator, or governmental representative, of imperial Rome in Palestine at the time of Christ, holding this office a.d. 26 to 36. Whether it be considered an honor or a disgrace, he is the one man of all Roman officialdom who is named in the Apostles’ Creed—“suffered under Pontius Pilate.” To Christians, therefore, he is known almost entirely for his cowardly weakness in the condemnation of Jesus to Roman crucifixion in 30. The four Gospels relate the sad but glorious events fully, especially the Gospel of John. Pilate is also mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles (3:13; 4:27; 13:28) and in 1Tim.6.13, where we are told that Jesus “before Pontius Pilate made the good confession.” Pontius was his family name, showing that he was descended from the Roman family, or gens, of pontii. Pilate no doubt came from the Latin pilatus, meaning “one armed with a pilum, or javelin.”

Beyond this, little is known of his early or later years, since most of the secular references may be only legend and tradition, such as the story that he was an illegitimate son of Tyrus, king of Mayence, who sent him to Rome as a hostage. In Rome, so a story goes, he committed murder and was then sent to Pontus of Asia Minor where he subdued a rebellious people, regained favor with Rome, and was awarded the governorship of Judea. It is more probable that, like the sons of many prominent Romans, he was trained for governmental service; and either because of his political astuteness or as a political plum the Emperor Tiberius gave him the hard task of governing the troublesome Jews. The Romans had many such governors throughout the provinces, which was part of their success in local government. Judea had a succession of these smaller rulers before and after Pilate. Generally they were in charge of tax and financial matters, but governing Palestine was so difficult that the procurator there was directly responsible to the emperor and also had supreme judicial authority such as Pilate used regarding Christ. His territory included Judea, Samaria, and old Idumea.

Most procurators disliked being stationed in a distant, difficult, dry outpost such as Judea. Pilate, however, seemed to enjoy tormenting the Jews, although, as it turned out, he was seldom a match for them. He never really understood them, as his frequent rash and capricious acts reveal. The Jewish historian Josephus tells us that he immediately offended the Jews by bringing the “outrageous” Roman standards into the Holy City. At another time he hung golden shields inscribed with the names and images of Roman deities in the temple itself. Once he even appropriated some of the temple tax to build an aqueduct. To this must be added the horrible incident mentioned in Luke.13.1 about “the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices,” meaning no doubt that Roman soldiers killed these men while they were sacrificing in the Holy Place. These fearful events seem to disagree with the role Pilate played in the trial of Jesus, where he was as clay in the hands of the Jews, but this may be explained by the fact that his fear of the Jews increased because of their frequent complaints to Rome.

According to his custom, Pilate was in Jerusalem at the time to keep order during the Passover Feast. His usual headquarters were in Caesarea. After the Jews had condemned Jesus in their own courts, they brought him early in the morning to Pilate, who was no doubt residing in Herod’s palace near the temple. It is surprising he gave them a hearing so early in the day (John.18.28). From the beginning of the hearing he was torn between offending the Jews and condemning an innocent person, and, apart from simply acquitting him, he tried every device to set Jesus free. He declared Jesus innocent after private interrogation; he sent him to Herod; he had Jesus scourged, hoping this would suffice; finally he offered the Jews a choice between Jesus and a coarse insurrectionist. When he heard the words, “If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar,” and “We have no king but Caesar!” he thought of politics rather than justice and condemned an innocent man to crucifixion. Washing his hands only enhanced his guilt. Pilate is to be judged in the light of his times when one lived by the philosophy of self-aggrandizement and expediency.

Scripture is silent regarding the end of Pilate. According to Josephus, his political career came to an end six years later when he sent soldiers to Samaria to suppress a small harmless religious rebellion, and in that suppression innocent men were killed. The Samaritans complained to Vitellius, legate of Syria, who sent Pilate to Rome. His friend Tiberius the emperor died while Pilate was on his way to Rome, and Pilate’s name disappears from the official history of Rome. The historian Eusebius says that soon afterward, “wearied with misfortunes,” he took his own life. Various traditions conflict as to how and where Pilate killed himself. One familiar legend states that he was banished to Vienna; another that he sought solitude from politics on the mountain by Lake Lucerne, now known at Mount Pilatus. After some years of despair and depression, he is said to have plunged into the lake from a precipice.——LMP

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

pi’-lat, pi’-lat, pon’-shi-us (Pontios Peilatos):

1. Name and Office

2. Pilate’s Procuratorship

3. Pilate and Jesus Christ

4. Pilate in Tradition and Legend

5. Character of Pilate


1. Name and Office:

The nomen Pontius indicates the stock from which Pilate was descended. It was one of the most famous of Samnite names; it was a Pontius who inflicted on a Roman army the disgrace of the Caudine Forks. The name is often met with in Roman history after the Samnites were conquered and absorbed. Lucius Pontius Aquila was a friend of Cicero and one of the assassins of Julius Caesar. The cognomen Pilatus indicates the familia, or branch of the gens Pontius, to which Pilate belonged. It has been derived from pileus, the cap worn by freedmen; this is improbable, as Pilate was of equestrian rank. It has also been derived from pilum, a spear. Probably the name was one that had descended to Pilate from his ancestors, and had long lost its meaning. The praenomen is nowhere mentioned. Pilate was 5th procurator of Judea. The province of Judea had formerly been the kingdom of Archclaus, and was formed when he was deposed (6 AD) Speaking roughly, it took in the southern half of Palestine, including Samaria. Being an imperial province (i.e. under the direct control of the emperor), it was governed by a procurator (see Procurator; Province). The procurator was the personal servant of the emperor, directly responsible to him, and was primarily concerned with finance. But the powers of procurators varied according to the appointment of the emperor. Pilate was a procurator cum porestate, i.e. he possessed civil, military, and criminal jurisdiction. The procurator of Judea was in some way subordinate to the legate of Syria, but the exact character of the subordination is not known. As a rule a procurator must be of equestrian rank and a man of certain military experience. Under his rule, the Jews were allowed as much self-government as was consistent with the maintenance of imperial authority. The Sanhedrin was allowed to exercise judicial functions, but if they desired to inflict the penalty of death, the sentence had to be confirmed by the procurator.

2. Pilate’s Procuratorship:

We have no certain knowledge of Pilate except in connection with his time of rule in Judea. We know nothing of his birth, his origin, or his earlier years. Tacitus, when speaking of the cruel punishments inflicted by Nero upon the Christians, tells us that Christ, from whom the name "Christian" was derived, was put to death when Tiberius was emperor by the procurator Pontius Pilate (Annals xv.44). Apart from this reference and what is told us in the New Testament, all our knowledge of him is derived from two Jewish writers, Josephus the historian and Philo of Alexandria.

Pilate was procurator of Judea, in succession to Gratus, and he held office for 10 years. Josephus tells (Ant., XVIII, iv, 2) that he ruled for 10 years; that he was removed from office by Vitellius, the legate of Syria, and traveled in haste to Rome to defend himself before Tiberius against certain complaints. Before he reached Rome the emperor had passed away. Josephus adds that Vitellius came in the year 36 AD to Judea to be present at Jerusalem at the time of the Passover. It has been assumed by most authorities (so HDB and EB) that Pilate had departed before this visit of Vitellius. They accordingly date the procuratorship of Pilate as lasting from 26 to 36 AD. As against this view, yon Dobschutx points out (RE under the word "Pilate") that by this reckoning Pilate must have taken at least a year to get to Rome; for Tiberius died on March. 16, 37 AD. Such delay is inconceivable in view of the circumstances; hence, von Dobschutz rightly dates the period of his procuratorship 27-37 AD. The procurator of Judea had no easy task, nor did Pilate make the task easier by his actions. He was not careful to conciliate the religious prejudices of the Jews, and at times this attitude of his led to violent collisions between ruler and ruled.

On one occasion, when the soldiers under his command came to Jerusalem, he caused them to bring with them their ensigns, upon which were the usual images of the emperor. The ensigns were brought in privily by night, put their presence was soon discovered. Immediately multitudes of excited Jews hastened to Caesarea to petition him for the removal of the obnoxious ensigns. For five days he refused to hear them, but on the sixth he took his place on the judgment seat, and when the Jews were admitted he had them surrounded with soldiers and threatened them with instant death unless they ceased to trouble him with the matter. The Jews thereupon flung themselves on the ground and bared their necks, declaring that they preferred death to the violation of their laws. Pilate, unwilling to slay so many, yielded the point and removed the ensigns (Josephus, Ant, XVIII, iii, 1; BJ, II, ix, 2, 3).

At another time he used the sacred treasure of the temple, called corban (qorban), to pay for bringing water into Jerusalem by an aqueduct. A crowd came together and clamored against him; but he had caused soldiers dressed as civilians to mingle with the multitude, and at a given signal they fell upon the rioters and beat them so severely with staves that the riot was quelled (Josephus, Ant, XVIII, iii, 2; BJ, II, ix, 4).

Philo tells us (Legatio ad Caium, xxxviii) that on other occasion he dedicated some gilt shields in the palace of Herod in honor of the emperor. On these shields there was no representation of any forbidden thing, but simply an inscription of the name of the donor and of him in whose honor they were set up. The Jews petitioned him to have them removed; when he refused, they appealed to Tiberius, who sent an order that they should be removed to Caesarea.

Of the incident, mentioned in Lu 13:1, of the Galileans whose blood Pilate mingled with their sacrifices, nothing further is known.

Josephus (Ant., XVIII, iv, 1, 2) gives an account of the incident which led to Pilate’s downfall. A religious pretender arose in Samaria who promised the Samaritans that if they would assemble at Mt. Gerizim, he would show them the sacred vessels which Moses had hidden there. A great multitude assembled in readiness to ascend the mountain, but before they could accomplish their aim they were attacked by Pilate’s cavalry, and many of them were slain. The Samaritans thereupon sent an embassy to Vitellius, the legate of Syria, to accuse Pilate of the murder of those who had been slain. Vitellius, who desired to stand well with the Jews, deposed Pilate from office, appointed Marcellus in his place, and ordered Pilate to go to Rome and answer the charges made against him before the emperor. Pilate set out for Rome, but, before he could reach it, Tiberius had died; and it is probable that, in the confusion which followed, Pilate escaped the inquisition with which he was threatened. From this point onward history knows nothing more of Pilate.

3. Pilate and Jesus Christ:

The shortest and simplest account of Pilate’s dealings with Jesus Christ is given in the Gospel of Mark. There we are told that Jesus was delivered to Pilate; that Pilate asked Him if He was the king of the Jews, receiving an affirmative answer; that, to Pilate’s surprise, Jesus answered nothing to the accusations of the chief priests; that Pilate tried to release Jesus according to an ancient custom; that the multitude, in spite of the protest of Pilate, demanded the release of Barabbas, and cried out that Jesus should be crucified; that Pilate scourged Jesus and delivered Him to be crucified; and that Jesus, when He had been scourged and mocked, was led away to be crucified. Mark tells further how Joseph of Arimathea begged of Pilate the body of Jesus. Pilate was surprised that Jesus died so quickly, and questioned the centurion about it. Pilate’s surprise and question are peculiar to Mark. Being satisfied on this point, Pilate granted the body to Joseph. Matthew adds the dream and message of Pilate’s wife (27:19); it also tells how Pilate washed his hands before the people, disclaiming responsibility for the death of Jesus, and how the people accepted the responsibility (27:24 f); also how Pilate granted a guard for the tomb (27:62-66). Luke alone narrates the sending of Jesus to Herod (23:6-12), and reports Pilate’s three times repeated asseveration that he found no fault in Jesus (23:4,14,22). John gives by far the fullest narrative, which forms a framework into which the more fragmentary accounts of the Synoptics can be fitted with perfect ease. Some critics, holding that Mark alone is trustworthy, dismiss the additional incidents given in Matthew and Luke as apologetic amplifications; and many dismiss the narrative of Joh as wholly unworthy of credence. Such theories are based on preconceived opinions as to the date, authorship and reliability of the various Gospels. The reader who holds all the Gospels to be, in the main, authentic and trustworthy narratives will have no difficulty in perceiving that all four narratives, when taken together, present a story consistent in all its details and free from all difficulty. See Gospels. It should be noted that John evidently had special opportunities of obtaining exacter knowledge than that possessed by the others, as he was present at every stage of the trial; and that his narrative makes clear what is obscure in the accounts of the Synoptics.

Pilate is mentioned three times in Acts: in a speech of Peter (3:13), in a thanksgiving of the church (4:27), and in a speech of Paul (13:28). He is also mentioned in 1 Timothy (6:13) as the one before whom Christ Jesus witnessed the good confession.

4. Pilate in Tradition and Legend:

Eusebius, who lived in the 4th centuries, tells us (Historia Ecclesiastica, II) on the authority of certain Greek historians that Pilate fell into such calamities that he committed suicide. Various apocryphal writings have come down to us, written from the 3rd to the 5th centuries, with others of a later date, in which legendary details are given about Pilate. In all these a favorable view is taken of his character; hence, the Coptic church came to believe that he became a Christian, and enrolled him among the number of its saints. His wife, to whom tradition gives the name of Claudia Procula, or Procla, is said to have been a Jewish proselyte at the time of the death of Jesus, and afterward to have become a Christian. Her name is honored along with Pilate’s in the Coptic church, and in the calendar of saints honored by the Greek church her name is found against the date October 27.

We find not unkindly references to Pilate in the recently discovered fragment of the Gospel of Peter, which was composed in the 2nd century. In the so-called Gospel of Nicodemus, which belongs to the 4th or 5th century, we find in the first part, called the Ac of Pilate, a long account of the trial of Jesus. It tells how the standards in the hall of judgment bowed down before Jesus, in spite of the efforts of the standard-bearers, and others who attempted it, to hold them erect. It tells also how many of those who had been healed by Jesus bore testimony to Him at the trial (see Apocryphal Gospels). There has also come down to us, in various forms (e.g. in the Ac of Peter and Paul), a letter, supposed to be the report of Pilate to Tiberius, narrating the proceedings of the trial, and speaking of Jesus in the highest terms of praise. Eusebius, when he mentions this letter, avers that Tiberius, on perusing it, was incensed against the Jews who had sought the death of Jesus (Historia Ecclesiastica, II, 2). Elsewhere (Historia Ecclesiastica, IX, 5) he recounts that under Maximin forged Ac of Pilate, containing blasphemies against Christ, were circulated with consent of the emperor. None of these, if they ever existed, have come down to us. In the Paradosis Pilati we read that Caesar, being angry with Pilate for what he had done, brought him to Rome as a prisoner, and examined him. When the Christ was named, all the gods in the senate-chamber fell down and were broken. Caesar ordered war to be made on the Jews, and Pilate, after praying to Jesus, was beheaded. The head was taken away by an angel, and Procla, seeing this, died of joy. Another narrative, of late date, recounts that Pilate, at his trial, wore the seamless robe of Jesus; for this reason Caesar, though filled with anger, could not so much as say a harsh word to Pilate; but when the robe was taken off, he condemned Pilate to death. On hearing this, Pilate committed suicide. The body was sunk in the Tiber, but such storms were raised by demons on account of this that it was taken up and sunk in the Rhone at Vienne. The same trouble recurred there, and the body was finally buried in the territory of Losania (Lausanne). Tradition connects Mt. Pilatus with his name, although it is probable that the derivation is from pileatus, i.e. the mountain with a cloud-cap.

5. Character of Pilate:

Philo (Legatio ad Caium, xxxviii) speaks of Pilate in terms of the severest condemnation. According to him, Pilate was a man of a very inflexible disposition, and very merciless as well as obstinate. Philo calls him a man of most ferocious passions, and speaks of his corruption, his acts of insolence, his rapine, his habit of insulting people, his cruelty, his continual murders of people untried and uncondemned, and his never-ending and most grievous inhumanity. This is very highly colored and probably much exaggerated; certainly the instances given do not bear out this description of the man. Much of what he says of Pilate is in direct opposition to what we learn of him in the Gospels. There he appears to us as a man who, in spite of many undoubted faults, tries hard to conduct the trial with fairness. Pilate had the ethics of his class, and obviously tried to act up to the standard which he had formed. There was in him, however, no deep moral basis of character, as is shown by the utter skepticism of his question, "What is truth?" When he found that the doing of strict justice threatened to endanger his position, he reluctantly and with a great deal of shame gave way to the demands of the Jews. He sent Jesus to the cross, but not before he had exhausted every expedient for saving Him, except the simple and straightforward one of dismissing the case. He had the haughtiness of the dominant race, and a profound contempt for the people over which he ruled. This contempt, as we have seen, continually brought him into trouble. He felt deeply humiliated at having to give way to those whom he utterly despised, and, in the manner of a small mind, revenged himself on them by calling Christ their king, and by refusing to alter the mocking inscription on the cross. It is certain that Pilate, in condemning Jesus, acted, and knew that he acted against his conscience. He knew what was right, but for selfish and cowardly reasons refused to do it. He was faced by a great moral emergency, and he failed. We rest on the judgment of our Lord, that he was guilty, but not so guilty as the leaders of the chosen people.


The Gospels; Philo, Legatio ad Caium; Josephus, Josephus, Antiquities and BJ; the Annals of Tacitus; Eusebius, HE; Walker, Apocryphal Gospels, Acts, and Revelations in the "Ante-Nicene Christian Library," and for the Gospel according to Peter, volume IX of the same series err, New Testament Apocryphal Writings ("Temple Bible Series"), gives the text of the Gospel of Nicodemus and the Gospel of Peter.

There is a great mass of literature on the subject, but there is no English monograph on Pontius Pilate. In German there is G.A. Muller, Pontius Pilatus der funfe Prokurator von Judaa (Stuttgart, 1888). See also the various articles on Pilate in books of reference on the New Testament, notably RE (von Dobschiitz), HDB (G. T. Purves), DCG (A. Souter), and Encyclopedia Biblica (W. J. Woodhouse). For the name of-Pilate see the articles on "Pontius Pilatus et les Pontii" by Ollivier in Review Biblical, volume V. For the Apocryphal Gospels see article on "Gospel of Nicodemus" in HDB, also article "Apocryphal Gospels," in the supplementary volume of HDB; Orr, New Testament Apocryphal Writings; Zahn, Geschichte des New Testament Kanons; Harnack, Altchristliche Litteraturgeschichte. For the trial of Jesus see Lives of Christ by Keim, Edersheim, Stalker, Andrews and others; Taylor Innes, Trial of Jesus Christ, a Legal Monograph, 1899; and for the historical background, Schurer, HJP.

J. Macartney Wilson

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