Pontius Pilate ; Latin: Pontius Pilatus, Greek: Πόντιος Πιλᾶτος) was the governor of the Roman Iudaea province from A.D. 26 until 36. In modern times he is best known as the man who, according to the canonical Christian Gospels, presided over the trial of Jesus and ordered his crucifixion. Pilate's biographical details before and after his appointment to Judaea are unknown, but have been supplied by tradition, which include the detail that his wife's name was Procula (she is canonized as a saint in the Coptic Orthodox Church) and competing legends of his birthplace.
Pilate's date and place of birth are unknown. Fortingall in Perthshire, Scotland; Tarraco (now Tarragona) in Spain, and Forchheim and its suburb Hausen in Germany have all developed local legends. The author of the Encyclopaedia Britannica 1911 article noted that Pontius suggested a Samnite origin—among the Pontii—and his cognomen Pileatus, if it derived from the pileus or cap of liberty, descent from a freedman. He is commonly believed to be descended from Gaius Pontius, a Samnite General.
Titles and duties
Pontius Pilate's title was traditionally thought to have been procurator. Tacitus speaks of him as such. However, an inscription on a limestone block — apparently a dedication to Tiberius Caesar Augustus — that was discovered in 1961 in the ruins of an amphitheater called Caesarea Maritima refers to Pilate as "Prefect of Judea". Archaeologists believe it to be genuine and settles the argument about the historicity of Pontius Pilate. (See Pilate Stone).
The title used by the governors of the region varied over the period of the New Testament. When Samaria, Judea and Idumea were first amalgamated into the Roman Iudaea Province, from 6 to the outbreak of the First Jewish Revolt in 66, officials of the Equestrian order (the lower rank of governors) governed. They held the Roman title of prefect until Herod Agrippa I was named King of the Jews by Claudius. After Herod Agrippa's death in 44, when Judaea reverted to direct Roman rule, the governor held the title procurator. When applied to governors, this term procurator, otherwise used for financial officers, connotes no difference in rank or function from the title known as prefect. Contemporary archaeological finds and documents such as the Pilate Inscription from Caesarea attest to the governor's more accurate official title only for the period 6 through 44: prefect. The logical conclusion is that texts that identify Pilate as procurator are more likely following Tacitus or are unaware of the pre-44 practice.
The procurators' and prefects' primary functions were military, but as representatives of the empire they were responsible for the collection of imperial taxes, and also had limited judicial functions. Other civil administration lay in the hands of local government: the municipal councils or ethnic governments such as — in the district of Judea and Jerusalem — the Sanhedrin and its president the High Priest. But the power of appointment of the High Priest resided in the Roman legate of Syria or the prefect of Iudaea in Pilate's day and until 41. For example, Caiaphas was appointed High Priest of Herod's Temple by Prefect Valerius Gratus and deposed by Syrian Legate Lucius Vitellius. After that time and until 66, the Jewish client kings exercised this privilege. Normally, Pilate resided in Caesarea but traveled throughout the province, especially to Jerusalem, in the course of performing his duties. During the Passover, a festival of deep national as well as religious significance for the Jews, Pilate, as governor or prefect, would have been expected to be in Jerusalem to keep order. He would not ordinarily be visible to the throngs of worshippers because of the Jewish people's deep sensitivity to their status as a Roman province.
Equestrians such as Pilate could not command legionary forces, and so in military situations, he would have to yield to his superior, the legate of Syria, who would descend into Palestine with his legions as necessary. As governor of Judaea, Pilate would have small auxiliary forces of locally recruited soldiers stationed regularly in Caesarea and Jerusalem, such as the Antonia Fortress, and temporarily anywhere else that might require a military presence. The total number of soldiers at his disposal numbered in the range of 3000.
Pilate according to early Jewish accounts
Most of the information about Pilate comes from the accounts of the first-century Jewish historian Josephus in Antiquities of the Jews and The Wars of the Jews. Pilate is said to have displayed some empathy for Jewish sensibilities. The two accounts in Josephus' writings of one important event may be summarised as follows:
On one occasion, when the soldiers under his command came to Jerusalem, he made them bring their ensigns with them, upon which were the usual images of the emperor. Roman battle standards were considered idolatrous by the Jews. The ensigns were brought in secretly by night, but their presence was soon discovered. Immediately multitudes of excited Jews rushed to Caesarea to petition him for the removal of the obnoxious ensigns. He ignored them for five days, but the next day he admitted the Jews to hear their complaint. He had them surrounded with soldiers and threatened them with instant death unless they ceased to trouble him with the matter. The Jews then threw themselves to the ground and bared their necks, declaring that they preferred death to the violation of their laws. Pilate, unwilling to kill so many, succumbed and removed the ensigns.
Philo of Alexandria states that on one other occasion Pilate dedicated some gilded shields in the palace of Herod Antipas 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 (Philo, Legatio ad Gaium,, 38).
Pilate is also said to have appropriated Herod's Temple funds for the construction of an aqueduct:
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, Jewish War 2.175–177; Ant. 18.60–62).
Pilate may possibly have responded so harshly to the unrest because, due to political machinations, the powerful neighbouring Roman province of Syria was unable to provide him military support.
Shortly after the account of this episode, the Antiquities of the Jews 18.63-64, a heavily disputed passage known as the Testimonium Flavianum and which many scholars think was interpolated, states that, "about this time", Pilate ordered the crucifixion of someone called "Jesus", whom the author identifies as "the Christ" (i.e. the Messiah), after whom "the tribe of Christians" were named.
In approximately 36, Pilate used arrests and executions to quash what appears to have been a Samaritan religious procession in arms that may have been interpreted as an uprising. Pilate's behaviour was so offensive to the morals of the time that, after complaints to the Roman legate of Syria, Pilate was recalled to Rome, where he disappears from historic record. Pilate's supposed suicide is merely a legend, and not derived from any historical account.
The "Pilate Inscription" or "Pilate Stone" from Caesarea
Limestone block discovered in 1961 with Pilate's tribute in Latin to Tiberius. The words [...]TIVS PILATV[...] can be clearly seen on the second line.
The first physical evidence relating to Pilate was discovered in 1961, when a block of black limestone was found in the Roman theatre at Caesarea Maritima, the capital of the province of Iudaea, bearing a damaged dedication by Pilate of a Tiberieum. This dedication states that he was [...]ECTVS IUDA[...] (usually read as praefectus iudaeae), that is, prefect/governor of Iudaea. The early governors of Iudaea were of prefect rank, the later were of procurator rank, beginning with Cuspius Fadus in 44.
The inscription is currently housed in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, where its Inventory number is AE 1963 no. 104. Dated to 26–37, it was discovered in Caesarea (Israel) by a group led by Antonio Frova.
Pilate in the canonical Gospel accounts
Christ before Pilate, Mihály Munkácsy, 1881
According to the canonical Christian Gospels, Pilate presided at the trial of Jesus and, despite stating that he personally found him not guilty of a crime meriting death, handed him over to crucifixion. Pilate is thus a pivotal character in the New Testament accounts of Jesus.
According to the New Testament, Jesus was brought to Pilate by the Sanhedrin, who had arrested Jesus, and questioned him themselves. The Sanhedrin had, according to the Gospels, only been given answers by Jesus that they considered blasphemous. The Gospel of Luke records that members of the Sanhedrin then took Jesus before Pilate where they accused him of sedition against Rome by opposing the payment of taxes to Caesar and calling himself a king. Pilate's main question to Jesus was whether he considered himself to be the King of the Jews, and thus a political threat. Mark 15:2 in the NIV translation states: "Are you the king of the Jews?" asked Pilate. "Yes, it is as you say," Jesus replied. However, that is a debatable translation of «ὁ δὲ ἀποκριθεὶς αὐτῶ λέγει, σὺ λέγεις». The KJV has Jesus' reply as: "Thou sayest it"; the NRSV has: "You say so"; the Jesus Seminar's Scholars Version has: "If you say so."
The Gospel of Luke also reports that such questions were asked of Jesus, in Luke's case it being the priests that repeatedly accuse him, though Luke states that Jesus remained silent to such inquisition, causing Pilate to hand Jesus over to the jurisdiction (Galilee) of Herod Antipas. Although initially excited at meeting Jesus, about whom he had heard, Luke states that Herod ended up mocking Jesus and so sent him back to Pilate. This intermediate episode with Herod is not reported by the other Gospels, which appear to present a continuous and singular trial in front of Pilate.
Unlike the synoptic gospels, the Gospel of John states that Jesus said to Pilate that he is a king and "came into the world ... to bear witness to the truth; and all who are on the side of truth listen to my voice", to which Pilate famously replied, "What is truth?" (John 18:38)
In a volume of Believe It or Not, Ripley quotes Pilate speaking in Latin, "QUID EST VERITAS?" ("What is truth?") and adds that an anagram of this is "EST VIR QUI ADEST"--"It is the man who stands before you."
The Synoptic Gospels and John then state that it had been a tradition of the Jews to release a prisoner at the time of the Passover. Pilate offers them the choice of an insurrectionist named Barabbas or Jesus, somewhat confusing because Barabbas had the full name Jesus Barabbas, and Barabbas (bar-Abbas) means Son of the Father, so the crowd had been given the choice of Jesus Son of the Father or Jesus. The crowd states that they wish to save Barabbas (i.e., Jesus Son of the Father). According to the Synoptics, Pilate is aware that the priests had handed Jesus over because they considered him a threat, but Pilate himself does not feel that Jesus is any threat to the Roman Empire and, upholding a Roman tradition of sparing the subjugated, asserts that Jesus is innocent of the charges.
Pilate is forced to condemn Jesus to crucifixion, due to the pressure of the crowd, who according to the Synoptics had been coached to shout against Jesus by the Pharisees and Sadducees. The Gospel of Matthew adds that before condemning Jesus to death, Pilate washes his hands with water in front of the crowd, saying, "I am innocent of this man's blood; you will see".
Jesus at the hands of Pilate, oil on Canvas- Cucuta Cathedral Colombia by Master Santiago Martinez Delgado
Responsibility for Jesus' death
In all New Testament accounts, Pilate hesitates to condemn Jesus until the crowd insists. Some have suggested that this may have been an effort by Early Christian polemicists to curry favor with Rome by placing the blame for Jesus' execution on the Jews. Yet Pilate's ability to be swayed by the crowd and his subsequent unjust decision to execute the innocent man hardly seem complimentary of Rome. So perhaps to save face, he "washed his hands", said that his death was not on his hands, and let the crowd decide.
Roman magistrates had wide discretion in executing their tasks, and some readers question whether Pilate would have been so captive to the demands of the crowd (Miller, 49–50). (And see, Nettervile, "Jesus, etc pp. 22-23) Summarily executing someone to calm the situation would, however, have been a tool a Roman governor could have used, and Pilate's reputation for cruelty and violence in secular accounts of the era makes it quite plausible he would have had no hesitation in using this tool.
With the Edict of Milan in AD 313, the state-sponsored persecution of Christians came to an end, and Christianity became officially tolerated as one of the religions of the Roman Empire. Afterward, in AD 325 the First Ecumenical Council at Nicaea promulgated a creed which was amended at the subsequent First Council of Constantinople in 381. The Nicene Creed incorporated for the first time the clause was crucified under Pontius Pilate (which had already been long established in the Old Roman Symbol, an ancient form of the Apostles' Creed dating as far back as the 2nd century AD) in a creed that was intended to be authoritative for all Christians in the Roman Empire. The main reason for this clause was to state the belief in Jesus as a real person, living in a precise moment and place, that is a historical Jesus. It is less clear that it was intended to implicate Pilate in Jesus' death. In modern times Western traditions regard Pilate as guilty, but those of Eastern Orthodoxy argue that he was clearly exonerated, and did all that he could to release Jesus.
Pilate in the Apocrypha
Little enough is known about Pilate, but mythology has filled the gap. A body of fiction built up around the dramatic figure of Pontius Pilate, about whom the Christian faithful hungered to learn more than the canonical gospels revealed. Eusebius (Historia Ecclesiae ii: 7) quotes some early apocryphal accounts that he does not name, which already relate that Pilate fell under misfortunes in the reign of Caligula (AD 37–41), was exiled to Gaul and eventually committed suicide there in Vienne.
Other details come from less respectable sources. His body, says the Mors Pilati ("Death of Pilate"), was thrown first into the Tiber, but the waters were so disturbed by evil spirits that the body was taken to Vienne and sunk in the Rhône: a monument at Vienne, called Pilate's tomb, is still to be seen. As the waters of the Rhone likewise rejected Pilate's corpse, it was again removed and sunk in the lake at Lausanne. The sequence was a simple way to harmonise conflicting local traditions.
The corpse's final disposition was in a deep and lonely mountain tarn, which, according to later tradition, was on a mountain, still called Pilatus (actually pileatus or "cloud capped"), overlooking Lucerne. Every Good Friday, the body is said to reemerge from the waters and wash its hands.
There are many other legends about Pilate in the folklore of Germany, particularly about his birth, according to which Pilate was born in the Franconian city of Forchheim or the small village of Hausen only 5 km away from it. His death was (unusually) dramatised in a medieval mystery play cycle from Cornwall, the Cornish Ordinalia.
Pilate's role in the events leading to the crucifixion lent themselves to melodrama, even tragedy, and Pilate often has a role in medieval mystery plays.
In the Eastern Orthodox Church, Claudia Procula is commemorated as a saint, but not Pilate, because in the Gospel accounts Claudia urged Pilate to have nothing to do with Jesus. In some Eastern Orthodox traditions, Pilate committed suicide out of remorse for having sentenced Jesus to death.
Gospel of Peter
Main article: Gospel of Peter
The fragmentary apocryphal Gospel of Peter exonerates Pilate of responsibility for the crucifixion of Jesus, placing it instead on Herod and the Jews, who unlike Pilate refuse to "wash their hands". After the soldiers see three men and a cross miraculously walking out of the tomb they report to Pilate who reiterates his innocence: "I am pure from the blood of the Son of God". He then commands the soldiers not to tell anyone what they have seen so that they would not "fall into the hands of the people of the Jews and be stoned".
Acts of Pilate
Main article: Acts of Pilate
The 4th century apocryphal text that is called the Acts of Pilate presents itself in a preface (missing in some MSS) as derived from the official acts preserved in the praetorium at Jerusalem. Though the alleged Hebrew original of the document is attributed to Nicodemus, the title Gospel of Nicodemus for this fictional account only appeared in mediaeval times, after the document had been substantially elaborated. Nothing in the text suggests that it is in fact a translation from Hebrew or Aramaic.
This text gained wide credit in the Middle Ages, and has considerably affected the legends surrounding the events of the crucifixion, which, taken together, are called the Passion. Its popularity is attested by the number of languages in which it exists, each of these being represented by two or more variant "editions": Greek (the original), Coptic, Armenian and Latin versions. The Latin versions were printed several times in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.
One class of the Latin manuscripts contain as an appendix or continuation, the Cura Sanitatis Tiberii, the oldest form of the Veronica legend.
The Acts of Pilate consist of three sections, whose styles reveal three authors, writing at three different times.
The first section (1–11) contains a fanciful and dramatic circumstantial account of the trial of Jesus, based upon Luke 23.
The second part (12–16) regards the Resurrection.
An appendix, detailing the Descensus ad Infernos was added to the Greek text. This legend of a Harrowing of Hell has chiefly flourished in Latin, and was translated into many European versions. It doesn't exist in the eastern versions, Syriac and Armenian, that derive directly from Greek versions. In it, Leucius and Charinus, the two souls raised from the dead after the Crucifixion, relate to the Sanhedrin the circumstances of Christ's descent to Limbo. (Leucius Charinus is the traditional name to which many late apocryphal Acta of Apostles is attached.)
Eusebius (325), although he mentions an Acta Pilati that had been referred to by Justin and Tertullian and other pseudo-Acts of this kind, shows no acquaintance with this work. Almost surely it is of later origin, and scholars agree in assigning it to the middle of the 4th century. Epiphanius refers to an Acta Pilati similar to this, as early as 376, but there are indications that the current Greek text, the earliest extant form, is a revision of an earlier one.
Justin the Martyr - The First and Second Apology of Justin Chapter 35-"And that these things did happen, you can ascertain from the Acts of Pontius Pilate."
The Apology letters were written and addressed by name to the Roman Emperor Pius and the Roman Governor Urbicus. All three of these men lived between AD 138-161.
Minor Pilate literature
There is a pseudepigrapha letter reporting on the crucifixion, purporting to have been sent by Pontius Pilate to the Emperor Claudius, embodied in the pseudepigrapha known as the Acts of Peter and Paul, of which the Catholic Encyclopedia states, "This composition is clearly apocryphal though unexpectedly brief and restrained." There is no internal relation between this feigned letter and the 4th-century Acts of Pilate (Acta Pilati).
This Epistle or Report of Pilate is also inserted into the Pseudo-Marcellus Passio sanctorum Petri et Pauli ("Passion of Peter and Paul"). We thus have it in both Greek and Latin versions.
The Mors Pilati ("Death of Pilate") legend is a Latin tradition, thus treating Pilate as a monster, not a saint; it is attached usually to the more sympathetic Gospel of Nicodemus of Greek origin. The narrative of the Mors Pilati set of manuscripts is set in motion by an illness of Tiberius, who sends Volusanius to Judea to fetch the Christ for a cure. In Judea Pilate covers for the fact that Christ has been crucified, and asks for a delay. But Volusanius encounters Veronica who informs him of the truth but sends him back to Rome with her Veronica of Christ's face on her kerchief, which heals Tiberius. Tiberius then calls for Pontius Pilate, but when Pilate appears, he is wearing the seamless robe of the Christ and Tiberius' heart is softened, but only until Pilate is induced to doff the garment, whereupon he is treated to a ghastly execution. His body, when thrown into the Tiber, however, raises such storm demons that it is sent to Vienne (via gehennae) in France and thrown to the Rhone. That river's spirits reject it too, and the body is driven east into "Losania", where it is plunged in the bay of the lake near Lucerne, near Mont Pilatus — originally Mons Pileatus or "cloud-capped", as John Ruskin pointed out in Modern Painters — whence the uncorrupting corpse rises every Good Friday to sit on the bank and wash unavailing hands.
This version combined with anecdotes of Pilate's wicked early life were incorporated in Jacobus de Voragine's Golden Legend, which ensured a wide circulation for it in the later Middle Ages. Other legendary versions of Pilate death exist: Antoine de la Sale reported from a travel in central Italy on some local traditions asserting that after the death the body of Pontius Pilate was driven until a little lake near Vettore Peak (2478 m in Sibillini Mounts ) and plunged in. The lake, today, is still named Lago di Pilato.
In the Cornish cycle of mystery plays, the "death of Pilate" forms a dramatic scene in the Resurrexio Domini cycle. More of Pilate's fictional correspondence is found in the minor Pilate apocrypha, the Anaphora Pilati (Relation of Pilate), an Epistle of Herod to Pilate, and an Epistle of Pilate to Herod, spurious texts that are no older than the 5th century.
The Ethiopian Church recognized Pilate as a saint in the sixth century, based on the account in the Acts of Pilate.
Pilate in later fiction
Plays and movies dealing with life of Jesus Christ often include the character of Pontius Pilate due to the central role he played in the final days of Christ's life. Authors have also found reason to make Pilate a main character and fill in unknown details of his life. Pilate has been interpreted in a number of different ways. At times he was portrayed as a weak and harried bureaucrat. Some portrayals show Pilate as a hard governor who ruled with an iron fist. Also, some authors have portrayed Pilate as a man who sees clearly how the story of Jesus will affect human history. Other writers have portrayed a Pilate oblivious to the significance of the Galilean he condemns to death.