Jesus Before Pilate

Who was the real Pontius Pilate?

walters-brabant

The iconic scene of Pilate washing his hands is based on the Gospel of Matthew (27:24): “[Pilate] took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.’” This representation comes from a late medieval prayer book produced, most likely, in Brabant. Photo: Walters Manuscript W.164, fol. 33v.

Pontius Pilate is a conflicted figure. He appears in the New Testament in a single story, but it’s a big one: the passion and death of Jesus. One may ask: Is the Pilate of Christian tradition the real Pontius Pilate, the historical Pontius Pilate?

Readers of the Bible are presented Pilate early one morning, a day before the central Jewish festival of Passover. The chief Sadducean priests and the Pharisees—with the consent of the Temple council (Sanhedrin)—bring Jesus before Pilate, calling upon the Roman statesman to judge and punish the charismatic teacher, whom they arrested in Jerusalem the night before.

Here it is important to understand that while the Jewish leaders were granted a significant degree of local self-government by the Romans and were allowed to regulate the internal matters of their people, while also representing the religious authority among their nation, they lacked the jurisdiction to impose a death sentence, which is what they wanted for the itinerant rabbi from Galilee, as we are told. Only the highest representative of the occupying power—the Roman prefect over Judea, Pontius Pilate—wielded that authority.

So the Jewish leaders drag Jesus before Pilate and try to make their case by piling accusations and pressing Pilate to act, say the Gospels. Ultimately, Pilate succumbs: Using his executive powers, he sentences Jesus to death. Based on that alone, Pilate deserves to be considered the ultimate bad guy. Or does he?

In the free ebook Who Was Jesus? Exploring the History of Jesus’ Life, examine fundamental questions about Jesus of Nazareth. Where was he really born—Bethlehem or Nazareth? Did he marry? Is there evidence outside of the Bible that proves he actually walked the earth?
trajan-column-rome

Ancient historians report that the Roman governor Pontius Pilate clashed with the Jewish population on several sensitive issues. One such conflict involved bringing to the holy city, Jerusalem, the military standards featuring the image of the emperor. Pictured here is a scene from Trajan’s Column in Rome (built 113 C.E.) showing praetorians carrying similar standards. Photo: Roger B. Ulrich.

Despite the fact that it was Pilate who sent Jesus to the humiliating and painful death on the cross, the Christian tradition is remarkably excusatory of Pontius Pilate—starting with the Gospel portrayal of Jesus before Pilate.

“I find no case against him,” says Pilate about Jesus in John 18:38. Mark 15:14–15 reads as follows: “Pilate asked them, ‘Why, what evil has he done?’ But they shouted all the more, ‘Crucify him!’ So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified.” Matthew 27:24–25 even inserts a malediction reportedly pronounced by the people: “[Pilate] took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.’ Then the people as a whole answered, ‘His blood be on us and on our children!’”

The Bible is no history book, no matter the proportion or accuracy of historical events it relates. In telling this particular story of Jesus before Pilate, the evangelists obviously did not intend to provide a transcript of the trial. To them the scene was an episode in a larger narrative: Jesus, the Son of God, came as the true Messiah, but his own people (the Jews) did not accept him. Instead, they conspired against him and had him killed. Pontius Pilate plays a rather compassionate role in this drama. He considers Jesus innocent and wants to release him, but has to ultimately yield to the Jewish leaders, realizing “that a riot was beginning” (Matthew 27:24).

This is what we know thus far from the Gospels. But do we know the real Pontius Pilate? Are there even any extra-Biblical sources to tell us about the historical Pontius Pilate, the governor of Roman Judea? What do the ancient historians and archaeological evidence have to say? And how does the picture painted in the New Testament compare to the real Pontius Pilate?

pilate-coin

Pilate’s dedication to promoting Roman religion in Judea is reflected in the coins he struck during his tenure. The mintages produced between 29 and 31 C.E. bore pagan symbols in the form of sacred vessels of the sort encountered in other parts of the Roman Empire. None of Pilate’s successors in Judea used these pagan cult symbols. This example here shows a simpulum, or a ritual ladle. It was the smallest coin in circulation, referred to in Mark 12:42 and Luke 21:2 as a lepton. Photo: Dr. Mark A. Staal Collection.

In his article “Pontius Pilate: Sadist or Saint?” in the July/August 2017 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, R. Steven Notley, who is Distinguished Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at Nyack College in New York City, looks into the conflicting presentations of Pontius Pilate and checks them against the historical evidence. Sorting through archaeological and literary sources, Notley pieces together a picture of the real Pontius Pilate—a ruthless governor loyal to the Roman emperor and the imperial cult.
 


 
BAS Library Members: Read the full article “Pontius Pilate: Sadist or Saint?” by R. Steven Notley in the July/August 2017 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

Not a BAS Library member yet? Join the BAS Library today.
 


 

Related reading in Bible History Daily:

Tour Showcases Remains of Herod’s Jerusalem Palace—Possible Site of the Trial of Jesus

Did Jesus Exist? Searching for Evidence Beyond the Bible
Lawrence Mykytiuk’s feature article from the January/February 2015 issue of BAR with voluminous endnotes

On What Day Did Jesus Rise?
 


 

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  1. Jimmy says

    Pilate from history is identical to his portrayal in the Gospels. All historians in the world think Pilate crucified Jesus. Some weak minded figures try to claim what Pilate “really would” have done considering the historical evidence, however our knowledge of Pilate’s tenure isn’t large and so it’s impossible to make such bold claims. Hence, there is no historical problem here.

  2. GLENN says

    A lot of time and effort has been devoted to discussing who was “to blame” for Jesus’ death. There has been tremendous amounts of suffering inflicted because one group thinks another is at fault. It seems to me that most people forget that Jesus asked the Father to forgive his killers. And this was in conjunction with the Father’s will, as Jesus had stated that he only does what he sees the Father do. Whoever instigated Jesus’ execution has been forgiven for doing that. The reason that God forgave them is that dying on the cross was Jesus’ mission on earth, so that he could be resurrected to save all of us who believe in him.

  3. CB says

    The Jewish leaders “… lacked the jurisdiction to impose a life sentence, which is what they wanted for the itinerant rabbi from Galilee, as we are told.”

    No! They wanted Him crucified – a death (not a life) sentence. See Jn.19:6, inter al.

    Perhaps some of these learned people could start by reading the Bible before commenting thereon!

  4. David says

    It seems highly unlikely that the writer(s) of the Gospels would have created an impression of Pilate that was at variance with the characteristics of a man who contemporary readers would have known from personal experience. I think the presentation of Pilate as a politically susceptible, morally conflicted, three-dimensional bureaucrat makes these passages vibrate with veracity.

  5. Steven says

    Judea was in a state of turmoil. Pilate was assigned as prelate – no one requested assignment in Judea. It was reputed to be the worst assignment for the Roman army. The Judean extremists were an impoverished enemy willing to die for their cause who relied on guerilla tactics because they hadn’t the resources to form an army. Worse, for the legionnaire, there were no prospects whatever of plunder, an integral part of a legionnaires pension plan. Pilate was isolated. Herod was the puppet head of state placed by Rome, but he certainly no friend of Pilate’s. Pilate also had enemies and competitors in Rome and, according to some sources, was half Scottish which if it didn’t weaken his political position, it did absolutely nothing to strengthen it. If he questioned Jesus’ guilt, it seems obvious it was because it was required to do so under Roman law – a code which is with us as the basis of law in several modern nations. If another insurrection were to flare up because he had failed to follow the due process of law, Pilate would have been vulnerable to judgement. It seems to me that the interfaces between the Gospel story and Pilate’s story exhibit plausible behaviour by all parties and are not attempting to “excuse” That makes it all the more believable for me – the context test. The comment “Notley pieces together a picture of the real Pontius Pilate—a ruthless governor loyal to the Roman emperor and the imperial cult.” is building a straw man. What else would an appointed governor in a volatile province have been? When the US appoints a governor such as happened in Iraq it was not questioned that he condoned air strikes against hostile targets, answered to the US president, and communicated with the White House staff and Congress. It is a helpful and good thing to know history, in particular, the historical context of events that are of importance to us. That is why we follow BAS online. This article, though, my better have been written in the spirit of expanding knowledge and highlighting parallels with our time. I feel this theme of uncovering nasty secrets masks the lessons to be learned and promotes judgementalism.

  6. Elaine says

    The Bible IS a history book…..

  7. Christoper says

    As all good bible readers know and for the ones who proclaim Yeshua Ha’mashiach (Jesus) as Messiah, understand that our Lord himself said;

    “Therefore the Father loves me, because I lay down my life, that I may take it again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.” John 10:17-18

    So please be ensured, no one killed Him, He laid it down by choosing to do the will of His Father. In the garden, He told His deciples to pray so to not fall into temptation. And jesus proceeded (a stone throw away) to pray alone. Why? So he would not fall into temptation. He could of easily walked away from the situation and not listen to the Father. This was the temptation of Christ. He even asked the Father to take it away if possible.

    And it is very interesting to hear people talk about Mathew 27:24-25. “[Pilate] took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.’ Then the people as a whole answered, ‘His blood be on us and on our children!’”

    Let me, again, ensure you, the blood of Jesus saves! The Jews (but did not know it) were actually proclaiming and prophesying blessings over them and there children, for the blood of the Messiah saves. The ultimate sacrificial lamb that was crucified upon the alter on passover.

  8. PAUL says

    What would happened if JC had not been killed

  9. Edoardo Shmuel says

    Pilatus is described by Roman historians, like Tacitus, as a sadist bloodthirsty man. For this reason he was chosen to stop the continuous Jewish rebellions in Judea. In all the four Gospels, Pilatus asks Jesus if he is the King of the Jews and in all four Jesus answers affirmatively. This was an act of rebellion to Rome who was the only one allowed to name a king in its provinces. This imposed automatically the death penalty.
    That Pilatus came out saying that he did not find any wrong in Jesus, is pure added invention of the writers of the Gospels. As a matter of fact it was the fundament of the deicide libel against the Jews and the first attempt to go conquering the Roman Empire. So, the cumbersome Jews would have disappeared, as they did not accept the divine origins of Jesus, and the Romans would let the Christians missionering in Rome. Which slave could resist the words “you will go to Paradise, but not your master!” Politics against historical evidence.

  10. James says

    Ever so often this web site will try to squeeze beyond what the Bible says. I have seen hints in a number of articles that say the Bible in not completely reliable. Sometimes it comes out as “the archaeology contradicts the Bible”. Other times it comes out as the Bible is not accurately presenting facts.

    That suggests that there are a number of contributors who don’t actually believe the Bible. Can something be done about this, can a believing moderator ensure scriptural purity please?

    The correct starting point for all articles MUST be:
    The Bible is 100% accurate and reliable (apart from translation issues).

    If the archaeology supports it – good.
    If not, the archaeology is wrong or incomplete.

    And don’t try to cast doubt or suspicion over the accuracy of the scriptures.


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