Who was the real 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?
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?
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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New Testament Political Figures: The Evidence by Lawrence Mykytiuk
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
This Bible History Daily feature was originally published on July 17, 2017.
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