Who Was Pontius Pilate, Before and After Jesus's Crucifixion?

By: Dave Roos  | 

"Ecce Homo" ("Behold the Man")
In the painting "Ecce Homo" ("Behold the Man") by Antonio Ciseri, Pilate shows Jesus to the crowd who wants him crucified. Public Domain/Wikipedia

At its peak, the Roman Empire included 40 provinces covering much of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, yet historians know very little about the men put in charge of governing these Roman outposts. Pontius Pilate is one of the exceptions.

Pilate presided for 10 years as the governor or "prefect" of Judea, from 26 to 36 C.E., and his name is immortalized in the New Testament as the man who oversaw the trial and crucifixion of Jesus. Yet the Bible isn't the only ancient source of information about Pilate. Historians like Josephus and Philo of Alexandria fill in a portrait of Pilate as an unprepared and hotheaded ruler of a problematic province.

"You have the impression that Pilate doesn't understand the complexities of the province and the sensitivities of the people he was governing," says Helen Bond, professor of Christian origins at The University of Edinburgh and author of "Pontius Pilate in History and Interpretation." "On the other hand, they weren't making it very easy for him. It was a bit of a minefield."

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Where Did Pilate Come From?

We don't know much about Pilate's life before his posting in Judea, but some things can be inferred from his title "prefect" or praefectus in Latin, which means "one who stands in front."

"Praefectus is a military title," says Bond. "Judea had only been under direct Roman rule for 20 years when Pilate arrived, so it was still a military posting. The whole point is to repress the natives and keep law and order."

Prefects like Pilate came from second-tier noble families, says Bond, and were chosen because of their ability on the battlefield. Pilate's family names Pontius and Pilatus may have referred to the region the family originally hailed from — possibly the Kingdom of Pontus on the southern coast of the Black Sea — or some connection with javelin throwers, because pilatus means "spear." Pilate would have had a first name, too, like Marcus or Gaius, but that's been lost to history.

Bond says that as a military man, Pilate would have had limited experience and training in diplomacy or governance, something Roman authorities may not have deemed necessary for an unimportant outpost like Judea.

"Pilate was in Judea seeing to national security and he left the day-to-day administration to the chief priests in Jerusalem," says Bond. "Mostly he was just making sure there were no riots."

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Pilate the Pawn

The trial of Jesus is recounted with slight variations in all four New Testament gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The gospels paint a clear picture of Pilate as a weak governor being bullied by the Jewish authorities into condemning an innocent man to a slow and agonizing death.

"I find nothing wrong with this man!" Pilate tells the angry crowd in Luke. And in John, Pilate is desperate not to get involved, and tells Caiaphas, the chief priest of the Jewish Temple, to "take [Jesus] away and judge him by your own law."

When the Jewish leaders refuse, telling Pilate they don't have the authority to execute Jesus, Pilate tells the crowd that they can release one of two prisoners, the innocent Jesus or Barabbas, a murderer. They roar "Barabbas!" and insist that Pilate crucify Jesus for claiming to be "King of the Jews." Literally "washing his hands" of guilt, Pilate orders the execution.

Pilate washes hands
This 1650 painting shows Pilate literally washing his hands of responsibility. The Gospel of Mathew says that Pilate washed his hands before the crowd and said "I am innocent of the blood of this just person [Jesus]." From this we get the expression to "wash your hands of the situation."
Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

"The Bible's portrayal of Pilate is not a very positive picture of a Roman governor," says Bond. "I think a first-century audience would have been quite shocked."

Even if Pilate was afraid of a riot and wanted to "pacify the crowd," as it says in Mark, it was fully within his authority as governor to refuse the trumped-up charges against Jesus. The truth is that historians have no idea what actually happened at Jesus's trial (if there was one) and must rely on the gospel accounts, which have their own biases.

"The main thing that the gospel writers wanted to show was that Jesus is innocent," says Bond, "and that his crucifixion was a mixture of Jewish pressure and a pretty hopeless governor who wanted to get rid of the case."

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Pilate the Saint

The books of the New Testament aren't the last word on Pilate. There are a number of early Christian writings that didn't make it into the Bible (called the "Apocrypha") but were in wide circulation in the first centuries of Christianity. Some present an increasingly positive view of Pilate and a few even cast him as a true believer.

"The Gospel of Nicodemus," likely written in the fourth century C.E., is presented as an eyewitness account of the trial of Jesus by Nicodemus, a pharisee who is sympathetic to Jesus and his followers. The text describes Roman standard-bearers bowing to Jesus as he is led into the trial, and Pilate raging against the Jewish authorities for forcing his hand to crucify "a just man."

jesus, pilate
Jesus appears before Pilate.
traveler1116/Getty Images

Later texts known as "The Letters of Herod and Pilate" purport to be actual correspondence between Pilate and Herod Antipas, the king of Galilee, about the trial of Jesus. In Pilate's letter, he and his wife are visited by the resurrected Jesus, whom they recognize as the Son of God and beg forgiveness for their sins.

Bond says that while these texts are "a million miles away from anything that may be historical," they recast Pilate as a repentant sinner who ultimately accepted Jesus as his Savior. In some Christian traditions, including the Ethiopian Church, Pilate and his wife Procla even achieved sainthood.

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Pilate the Harsh Ruler

Philo of Alexandria was a Jewish-Roman historian who lived in Egypt at the same time that Pilate was governor of Syria. His writings are the closest thing we have to a contemporary historical account of Pilate's tenure in Judea — even the gospels were written decades later — but Philo had his own problems with Pilate.

"Philo really hates Pilate," says Bond. "He doesn't have a good word to say. He says Pilate was vain, savage and stubborn, and that he put people to death without trial."

Philo's main beef with Pilate was that he brought gilded shields called "standards" into Jerusalem, which insulted the Jewish authorities and Temple priests. When the Jewish leaders protested, Pilate refused to remove the statues. According to Philo, it took a sharply worded letter from Emperor Tiberius himself to convince Pilate to take down the standards.

Josephus was another Jewish-Roman historian who was born soon after Pilate's stint in Judea. Josephus is famous for being the only nonbiblical ancient source to mention Jesus, although his brief account was "clearly worked over by Christian editors," says Bond, and must be taken with a grain of salt.

As for Pilate, Josephus tells us of another blow-up with the Jewish authorities, when Pilate tried again to have some busts of the emperor displayed in Jerusalem. When a crowd of Jewish protesters gathered outside of Pilate's headquarters in the coastal town of Caesarea, Pilate ordered his soldiers to surround them. According to Josephus, the Jews "astonished" Pilate with their willingness to die rather than endure the insult, so Pilate relented and removed the statues. In another incident, he had an aqueduct constructed with sacred funds from the treasury of the Jewish temple. When people protested, Pilate had soldiers go among the crowd disguised as civilians with clubs under their coats which they used to beat the protesters, many to death.

Pilate, soliders beat protestors
This illustration shows one of Pilate's later acts: Commanding a party of soldiers to arm themselves privately with clubs and beat Jewish protesters.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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Where Did Pilate Go After Judea?

The last news we hear about Pilate also came from the pen of Josephus and involved another controversy over a man claiming to be the Messiah.

In 36 C.E., a Samaritan man declared that he was a reincarnation of Moses and led a group of followers on a trek up Mount Gerizim, where he prophesied that great wonders would be revealed to them, including sacred vessels buried there by Moses. Word got to Pilate that these men were planning an armed uprising.

"They all start to go up the mountain but Pilate decides the best thing is to nip this in the bud," says Bond. "So, he sends in the cavalry, they kill loads of people, execute the leaders and that's the end of the uprising."

The Samaritans complained about Pilate's violence to the legate of Syria, a higher-ranking Roman governor, who ordered Pilate to return to Rome and make his case directly to Tiberius, the emperor. But before Pilate reached Rome, Josephus says, Tiberius died and was replaced by Caligula. It's unknown whether Pilate's hearing went badly and he was removed from his post, or else he simply decided to retire.

"Pilate had been in Judea for 10 years at that point, so it was probably a good time to have a change," says Bond. "Once he goes back to Rome, we know absolutely nothing more about what happens to him, apart from the non-canonical stories and legends we hear about him."

In one of those legends, Pilate was banished from Rome and ended up dying (committing suicide?) in Vienna, Austria, where he was believed to emerge every Easter from a local lake clad in purple robes, and anyone who looked at him would die within the year. A related legend placed his final resting place on Mount Pilatus near Lucerne, Switzerland, where his evil spirit is said to be responsible for bouts of nasty weather.

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