Pontius Pilate

Pontius Pilate

Pontius Pilate was a Roman prefect who governed Judaea from 26 to 37 c.e. Pilate rose to prominence in history when in about 30 c.e. he condemned Jesus (Christ) of Nazareth to be crucified.

Judaean prefects had command over five to six auxiliary military cohorts (each consisting of 500 to 1,000 soldiers), which provided tactical support to the legion stationed in Syria. There were 25 legions (each consisting of 6,000 soldiers) in the Roman Empire.

As a governor, however, Pilate also had administrative, judicial, and fiscal responsibilities, since the main job of a Roman governor was to ensure the uninterrupted flow of tax revenues to the Roman treasury. The Roman governors of Judaea lived in Caesarea and traveled to Jerusalem only at the major religious feasts.

The figure of Pilate is somewhat shrouded in mystery not only because so little is known about him but because the Gospels and Jewish sources are at odds with each other in their portrayals of him.

The four New Testament Gospels give the impression that he was a weak figure whom the Jewish authorities manipulated into executing Jesus. According to Philo and Josephus, however, he was a cruel and arrogant man, who, rather than being manipulated by the Jews, did much to agitate them.

For example, he set up either shields or standards in Jerusalem to honor the emperor Tiberius, which triggered a bitter protest among the Jews. He also took sacred funds from the Temple treasury to build an aqueduct. When a large crowd of Jews showed up in Jerusalem to protest his action, he put down the protest with brutal violence.

Pilate perpetrated these and other acts of provocation fully aware that they would offend Jewish sensitivities. So, the question is how to account for the two disparate pictures of Pilate in the Gospels and the Jewish sources. Three basic theories have been advanced to solve this problem.

According to the first theory, the reason Pilate suddenly changed his behavior at the trial of Jesus was that his enormously powerful patron, Sejanus, commander of the Roman Praetorian Guard (a cohort providing armed protection to the emperor and his family), had been executed in 31 c.e., and Pilate felt the need to alter his conduct toward the Jewish authorities, whom his earlier actions had offended. However, the historical evidence behind this neat theory is ambiguous at best.

For example, the coins struck by Pilate before 31 c.e. do not carry images that were particularly offensive to the Jews. If Pilate had indeed wanted to offend Jewish sensibilities in the years preceding the death of Sejanus, he would certainly have put more offensive images on the coins, such as those of Roman deities.

According to the second theory, the Gospel writers falsified the historical facts to put the blame on the Jews in hopes of appeasing Rome. The problem with this theory is that the Jewish sources may be just as biased as the Gospels.

According to the third theory, rather than being manipulated by the Jewish authorities, Pilate, ever a cunning and cruel bargainer, was exploiting the occasion to manipulate the crowds and the Jewish authorities into pledging their allegiance to the Caesar.

It appears, however, that the change in Pilate’s behavior must have been due at least in part also to the extraordinary presence and demeanor of Jesus, which, according to the Gospels, had power to disarm and overwhelm his opponents. According to later Christian traditions, Pilate, having been impressed by Jesus, eventually converted to Christianity.