The Fall (and Rise) of Pontius Pilate

Almost everyone, Christian and non-Christian, has heard of Pontius Pilate and is generally aware of his role in the death of Jesus. He was certainly an historical figure as archaeology, non-biblical historical sources, and the gospels can attest. Pilate was a prefectus, sometimes translated into English as governor, appointed by Rome to administer the relatively new imperial province of Judea and Samaria in 26 CE. Such men were chosen from the equestrian class, the Latin knights of Roman society. Thus Pilate was a military man with sufficient experience and accolades to suggest his appointment to the emperor. He, like the four prefecti before him, made his headquarters in the Mediterranean coastal city of Caesarea, only recently given an extensive Greco-Roman renovation by the late Herod the Great. Periodically, when the religious city of Jerusalem swelled with visiting pilgrims, Pilate would make his way with his cadre of non-Italian infantry and a few cavalry to take up residence not far from the Jewish Temple. There, he would reside in Herod’s Jerusalem palace. His accompanying troops augmented their stationary comrades located in the fortress named for Mark Antony astride the Temple itself. It was on just such an occasion, the Passover of 30 CE, that Pilate was presented by the Temple’s religious leadership with a Jewish offender who required Roman justice, one Jesus of Nazareth. It was he, the leading priests said, who had been making himself out to be a king. Pilate should therefore vanquish him forthwith.

Why the Jewish leadership thought Pilate might willingly acquiesce to such a request is not hard to fathom. The late first-century CE Jewish historian Josephus gives us a number of examples of Pilate’s brutality in reaction to real and imagined rebellion during his tenure. Pilate, hardly a friend of the Jews, arrived at his post in a contemptuous manner sending his troops into Jerusalem carrying the iconic image of the emperor attached to their military standards, an obvious violation of Jewish laws against graven images. Only after threats by the populace did he have them replaced. Later he made plans to modernize Jerusalem’s water delivery system by using, with the chief priests’ acquiescence or not, temple funds to do so. This, too, created an uprising which resulted in casualties. During an event that took place after Jesus’s execution, Pilate was quick to violently strike down a group of Samaritans who had assembled near the ruins of their own temple. There they had joyfully followed a self-appointed leader who promised to dig up the temple’s buried holy furnishings from the past. The subsequent over-reaction by Pilate resulted in his recall to Rome.

Although Josephus only gives us his side of the story of the altercations mentioned above, we may add the characterization of Pilate by the first-century Alexandrian Jewish theologian Philo (“inflexible,” “vindictive,” “furious temper”) and a New Testament reference to an incident involving “Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices” (Luke 13:1) to confirm that crucifying Jesus would not have unduly worried the Roman governor. Yet this is not quite the picture we get of Pilate by reading the accounts of the hearing that Pilate gave to Jesus. In fact, Pilate is made to seem quite reluctant to sentence Jesus to death.

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