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.

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Subscribers: 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 subscriber yet? Join today.

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?

Related reading in Bible History Daily:

New Testament Political Figures: The Evidence by Lawrence Mykytiuk

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?
 


 
This Bible History Daily feature was originally published on July 17, 2017.
 


 

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  • Johan says

    The Jews (as any other Roman client state) were allowed to execute non-Roman citizens contravening their own laws (see Luke 14:29 for instance). The Romans very much left internal laws and usages intact after conquering.

    In the wider empire, there are plenty of documented executions by client rulers especially in the documented histories of Gaul and Germany.

    Nobody was, however, allowed to execute for sedition (the crime of endangering Roman rule by armed rebellion and possibly also instigating this). This prerogative belonged to Rome alone.

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