Pontius Pilate

Roman procurator or governor of Judea beween c. a.d. 26-36, appointed by Emperor Tiberius. Jesus's trial and crucifixion took place somewhere in the middle of Pilate's tenure. His attempt to evade responsibility here (Luke 23:1-25; John 18:28-19:22; and parallel passages), despite his recognition of Jesus' innocence of the Jews' charge of sedition, was caused by his fear of the high priest's power and by his difficult responsibility for the peace of Palestine. Pilate's headquarters were in Caesarea, and Herod Antipas' in Tiberias. The former usually came to Jerusalem with reinforcements at Passover to preserve order among the Jewish crowds, while the latter came to gain favor with his subjects, as the tetrarch of Galilee and Perea. A ruthless ruler, Pilate caused a massacre of Galileans (Luke 13:1), was removed for this, according to Eusebius, and committed suicide at Rome. He was tactless, hot- tempered, and often weak in ruling; to cover his weakness he often resorted to brutal acts. A fourth- or fifth-century book of the Pseudepigrapha, The Acts of Pilate (see Apocryphal New Testament), tells of his ending as a Christian, but this is pure fancy.

PILATE, PONTIUS (Πόντιος Πειλάτος). Pontius Pilatus is the Lat. form of the name. The meaning is uncertain: Pontius may be connected with “bridge” or “fifth”; Pilatus may mean “armed with a javelin,” or it may refer to the pilus, or felt cap, emblem of a freed slave. Pilate was the Rom. procurator of Judea who sentenced Jesus to death by crucifixion (Matt 27:2ff.).

Sources of information.

All four gospels say something about Pilate; the fourth gospel yields additional insight of his character and philosophy. Outside of the NT, nearly all information comes from two sources: (1) Josephus (Antiq. and War) and (2) Philo of Alexandria (Legatio ad Gaium). Of these, Josephus is by far the fuller and more reliable, Philo being strongly prejudiced against Pilate, and therefore unable to write of him with sufficient objectivity. Besides these, in 1961, a stone tablet was discovered at Caesarea, bearing the Latin names Pontius Pilatus and Tiberius, thus affording archeological proof of Pilate’s historical reality.

Summary of Pilate’s life.

Pilate was a Rom. citizen, born prob. in Italy, but the date and place of his birth are unknown; it is unlikely that he was born later than the year 1 b.c. He was married, and his wife is mentioned (Matt 27:19); whether he had any children is unknown. A member of the Equestrian, or middle class, of Romans, he may have inherited the amount of wealth necessary to qualify him for this status. His career prior to becoming procurator of Judea is unknown, but he must certainly have held a series of civil or military appointments before he could become procurator of a province. Pilate was the fifth Rom. procurator of Judea, appointed c. a.d. 26 by the emperor Tiberius to replace Valerius Gratus. He brought his wife to Judea with him. Pilate’s area of jurisdiction was Samaria, Judea, i.e., the former kingdom of Archelaus, and the area S as far as Gaza and the Dead Sea. His functions combined military and administrative responsibilities. His immediate superior was the Rom. governor of Syria, but the actual nature of the relationship is unknown. Pilate’s authority over all persons in his area except Rom. citizens was virtually absolute. On the other hand, the Jews were granted a degree of liberty and self-government. The Sanhedrin at Jerusalem possessed various judicial functions, but death sentences could not be carried out until confirmed by the Rom. procurator. Because of political and religious problems, Judea, from the Rom. point of view, was a difficult province to govern. Pilate outraged the Jews by sending soldiers into Jerusalem with Rom. military standards bearing emblems that the Jews regarded as idolatrous. This had been attempted before, and the Jewish opposition was so strong that the Rom. authorities removed the offensive insignia from standards that were carried into the city of Jerusalem. When Pilate reversed this policy he met with deter mined Jewish resistance, which he sought to overcome by threatening to kill the objectors. Finding them adamant in their opposition and not afraid to die, Pilate finally had to yield the point. This incident reveals poor judgment, stubbornness, and finally weakness on Pilate’s part. Pilate fuither outraged the Jews by appropriating the corban money, or religious contributions from the Temple treasury, to finance the construction of an aqueduct, some twenty-five m. in length, to bring water to Jerusalem from the highlands S of the city. The Jews considered this action sacrilegious and reacted violently. Many rioters were killed by Pilate’s soldiers. This may be the atrocity mentioned in Luke 13:1, 2.

Philo of Alexandria (quoting Agrippa I) says of Pilate in the Legatio ad Gaium (38), that the Jews

exasperated Pilate to the greatest possible degree, as he feared lest they might go on an embassy to the Emperor, and might impeach him with respect to other particulars of his government—his corruptions, his acts of insolence, his rapine, his habit of insulting people, his cruelty, and his continual murders of people untried and uncondemned, and his never-ending, gratuitous and most grievous inhumanity.

This appraisal of Pilate must be regarded as greatly exaggerated, as shown by the much more moderate tone of statements about Pilate in the NT. That he was able to continue in office as procurator of Judea for ten years would seem to indicate the extreme bias of Philo’s words.

Pilate’s political ruin came about through his own folly. A Samaritan put forth the claim that he knew where on top of Mt. Gerizim, Moses had hidden golden objects pertaining to the Tabernacle. This claim proceeded from ignorance and fanaticism, for Moses had never crossed the Jordan and thus could not have visited Mt. Gerizim. A large assembly of Samaritans, however, gathered at the base of the mountain, intending to climb to the summit to search for the alleged treasures. Foolishly they were armed with weapons which Pilate interpreted as a threatened insurrection. Many of the Samaritans were killed by Pilate’s soldiers. The Mt. Gerizim affair, however, was a mere passing incident and certainly no real threat to Rom. rule in Pal. Pilate had killed so many people that the Samaritans filed a complaint with Pilate’s superior, Vitellius, the Rom. governor of Syria. Vitellius deposed Pilate as procurator of Judea and ordered him to Rome for the judgment of the emperor on his rash conduct in the Gerizim affair. This ended Pilate’s ten years as procurator.

The emperor Tiberius died 16 March a.d. 37, before Pilate’s arrival in Rome. Apparently Pilate escaped trial because of the emperor’s death. All accounts of Pilate after his arrival at Rome are of late date and are considered doubtful and legendary by historians. The common story is that he was banished to the city of Vienne in Gaul where he eventually committed suicide. This is found in Eusebius (HE, ii. 7). According to another story, Pilate was beheaded by order of Tiberius, but repented before his execution. The spurious book Acta Pilati (dating from the 4th or 5th cent. a.d.) clears Pilate of all blame, and even represents him as confessing that Jesus is the Son of God (ch. 46). Other books entitled Acta Pilati are extant, which differ among themselves, and all of which are spurious. One legend claims that Pilate’s wife became a Christian. The Coptic Church is said to observe June 25 as a day honoring Pilate as a saint and martyr (A. Souter in HDCG, ii, 366). This idea lacks historical basis. It is much more likely that Pilate committed suicide, but this also cannot be proved.

Pilate and the trial and death of Jesus.

The character of Pilate.

The NT record portrays Pilate as cynical and skeptical—a hardheaded Rom., but lacking the traditional Rom. virtues of honor, justice, and integrity. Pilate was a dealer in compromise and expediency rather than a maintainer of justice. His cynical question “What is truth?” (John 18:38)—essentially a brush-off rather than an inquiry—keynotes his character. Pilate knew Jesus to be innocent, and he knew that the Jews were motivated by hatred and envy in their demand for Jesus’ death. Pilate sought to release Him but only if it could be done without adverse effect upon himself. His yielding to popular clamor and pressure in sentencing Jesus to be crucified shows that he was not fit to be a judge according to the Rom. ideal of fiat justitia ruat caelum (“Let justice be done, though the heavens fall”), far less according to the ideal of justice set forth in the sacred Scriptures.

By a brief command Pilate could have prevented the soldiers from mocking and torturing Jesus—already in terrible pain from the scourging—but he did not. This callousness to human suffering perhaps was common among Rom. provincial officials, yet Pilate seems exceptionally and shockingly callous.

The faults and weaknesses of Pilate were those of a sinful, unredeemed or “natural” man, whose position in life exposed him to great temptations, and made it possible for him to yield without being called to account over a period of several years. It has been said that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Pilate’s power, although not actually absolute, was virtually absolute over the non-Rom. population of his territory. He had power of life and death over the people. Only following the most outrageous abuse of power was he finally deposed and ordered to Rome to answer for his deeds.


Josephus, Antiq., XVIII. iii. 3; War, II. ix. 2-4; Tacitus, Annals, xv. 44; Eusebius, HE, ii. 7; Philo, De Virtutibus et Legatione ad Gaium, xxxviii; G. A. Müller, Pontius Pilatus der fünfte Prokurator von Judäa (1888); F. C. Conybeare, “Acta Pilati” in Stud. Bibl. et Eccles., iv (1896), 59-132; A. T. Innes, Trial of Jesus Christ: A Legal Monograph (1899); G. Rosadi, The Trial of Jesus (1905); A. Souter, HDCG, II (1908), 364-366; ISBE, IV (1929), 2396-2398; Hedley, JTS, xxxv (1934), 56-58; S. Liberty, “The Importance of Pontius Pilate in Creed and Gospel,” JTS, xlv (1944), 38-56; D. H. Wheaton, NBD (1962), 996, 997; H. C. Kee and F. W. Young, Understanding the New Testament (1957), 172-174; E. M. Blaiklock, Out of the Earth (1961), 39-41; M. F. Unger, Archaeology and the New Testament (1962), 67, 69, 70, 98.

See also

  • Pilate