by John A. Tvedtnes

To most of the Christian world, Pontius Pilate is known only for the role he played in the judgment and crucifixion of Jesus Christ. He is generally depicted as the foremost defender of the Galilean in his last hours. [1] But an examination of additional records of Pilate’s life supplement the fragmentary New Testament account. [2] From these other writings, we discover that Pilate was a ruthless, bloodthirsty man, who sent many to their death.

A Bloody Leader

Pontius Pilatus was Tiberius Caesar’s second appointee as prefect of Judaea. His predecessor, Valerius Gratus, had served for ten years, during which time a new high priest, Joseph Caiaphas, had been designated. One of Pilate’s first acts as Prefect was to move the ensigns of Tiberius Caesar to Jerusalem by night, in order that they might be erected in the capital. To the Jews, these “graven images” of a Roman emperor who claimed to be divine, surmounting the Antonia Fortress that overlooked their temple, was sacrilege. The following morning, upon discovery of the shocking sight, a large company of Jewish men set out for Caesarea to confront the governor. Their petition being refused, they lay in the streets for five days and nights. On the sixth day, Pilate convened the assembly and, surrounded by Roman troops with drawn swords, the Jews were threatened with death. To Pilate’s amazement, they offered their necks to the blade, preferring death to disobedience to their sacred law. The Romans lost the first round and the images were returned to Caesarea.

On a subsequent occasion, Pilate expropriated temple funds to build an aqueduct system for Jerusalem. The Jews of Galilee were particularly enraged by this act. They were governed by Herod Antipas, not Pontius Pilate. As a religious obligation, they sent money to the temple, but their contributions were now being used for the benefit of Judea, but not of Galilee.

Pilate knew there would be trouble at the next big festival, when Jews from various regions would gather at the temple. As was his custom, he brought an extra cohort of soldiers to the capital. But this time, he took additional precautions by sending a large number of Roman soldiers, dressed as natives, with concealed staves and daggers hidden beneath their robes, to mingle with the crowd.

On the day of the feast, when the (outer) Court of the Gentiles was packed with demonstrators calling for the return of the temple funds, Pilate could observe activities from the Antonia Fortress overlooking the Temple compound. The crowd was not only obstructing the Roman government, but many of them were also verbally abusing the governor himself. Pilate ordered the assembled masses to disperse, but they would not. The insults continued and worsened. Finally, at Pilate’s pre-arranged signal, the soldiers attacked. In their zeal, they disobeyed orders and beat innocent bystanders as well as the troublemakers. Many people were killed by the Romans or trampled by the crowd rushing to the exit gates. The sedition was short-lived. This event is thought by some scholars to be the one referred to in Luke 13:1-3, where we read of “the Galileans, whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.”

For Pilate:  Just Another Encounter

It is difficult to reconcile this view of Pilate with the traditional role of defender that Christians assign him in the case of Jesus. What to us has become one of the most important events in history went almost unnoted in first century Jewish and Roman records. To Pilate, it must have been just another encounter with the Jews, whom he must have considered troublesome. And what was the crucifixion of one more criminal to the Roman historians?

When Pilate saw the small crowd of chief priests and elders bringing Jesus to him for judgment, we can be sure that he had not forgotten his previous encounters with Jews. Perhaps annoyed by their arrival at such an early hour, he said, “What accusation bring ye against this man?” To this, they replied, “if he were not a malefactor, we would not have delivered him up unto thee.” The gospel does not tell us of what they accused Jesus at that time, but it obviously was not a case for Roman law, for Pilate denied jurisdiction in the matter: “Take ye him, and judge him according to your laws” (John 18:29-31).

Jesus had already been falsely accused before the leaders of his people as a blasphemer and had been adjudged by the high priest and his party as worthy of death. [3] When Pilate told them to deal with the matter, they replied, “It is not lawful for us to put any man to death” (John 18:31). Many have misconstrued this to mean that the Romans had taken from the Jews the right of capital punishment. Such was not the case, however, for Rome merely superimposed its law on the laws of native peoples whom it conquered.

There is clear evidence that Jews guilty of crimes meriting capital punishment could be condemned and executed by Jewish courts, as always. [4] Moreover, when the Jews of the New Testament use the term “not lawful,” they refer to the law of Moses, not Roman law. [5] Jewish law permitted execution by various methods (mostly stoning), but not by crucifixion. [6] Moreover, they would not execute on the preparation of the Passover, [7] nor would they have been allowed to touch a dead body for burial at that time. [8]

That He Might Suffer Crucifixion

Jesus’ accusers perhaps brought him to Pilate in the hope that he would suffer crucifixion, known to be an especially horrible way to die. That they were referring to crucifixion when they said it was “not lawful” for them to put a man to death is clear from the verse that immediately follows: “That the saying of Jesus might be fulfilled, which he spake, signifying what death he should die” (John 18:32). Jesus had previously foretold that he would be “lifted up.” [9]

As Roman prefect, Pilate would not have wanted to accede to the demands of the Jewish high priest (though, at the time, the latter was himself a Roman appointee). If Jesus were guilty of anything, it was blasphemy, which was a crime against Jewish, but not Roman, law. As the hearing proceeded, Jesus became a pawn in the hands of both his accusers and Pilate. The accusation against him was quickly changed to treason, forcing Pilate to conduct an interview that convinced him of the falseness of the charge (Luke 23:2-4.). Pilate’s reaction only enraged Jesus’ accusers, who began to recount his supposed seditious acts while in Galilee.

At this point, Pilate found a way out of his dilemma. Herod Antipas, one of the sons of Herod the Great, was the tetrarch of Galilee and was in town for the feast. Let him judge the case. Herod’s reaction did not satisfy the chief priests. The would-be monarch was delighted, at long last, to set eyes on the miracle-worker. Jesus, however, remained silent in the presence of the man who had slain his cousin, John the Baptist. So Herod, after providing him with a purple robe, returned him to Pilate with a message of reconciliation, the text of which is not revealed in the Bible (Luke 23:5-16). [10] What happened subsequent to this suggests that Herod and Pilate may have agreed to stand together in a power play against the high priest.

Trapping His Opponent

Pilate began his move by trying to trap his opponents between two difficult choices. He proposed releasing a prisoner, in honor of the festival. “Will ye that I release unto you the king of the Jews?” he queried. To his great surprise, they called for the release of Barabbas, a seditious murderer. “What will ye then that I shall do unto him whom ye call the King of the Jews?” Pilate’s words were carefully chosen. He knew that the people, though not the chief priests, had recently proclaimed Jesus king during his triumphal entry into Jerusalem the week before (Matthew 21:1-16). [11] If anyone was guilty of sedition, it was the entire population, not the silent Galilean.

The cry for Jesus’ crucifixion fell upon Pilate’s ears as his wife, following an ominous dream, sent word to have nothing to do with the matter (Matthew 27: 19.). Pilate feigned acceptance of the crowd’s decision and set about to release Barabbas and have Jesus scourged. In a dramatic gesture, he washed his hands of the matter in public. “I am innocent of the blood of this just person,” he declared, “see ye to it” (Matthew 27:24-25). He had thus once again given them permission to execute Jesus.

During this time, Jesus was being scourged by the Roman soldiers, who also staged a mock coronation, in which Christ was dressed as a king (Matthew 27:24-37). Brought forth in royal attire, Jesus’ presence must have angered his persecutors all the more.  Pilate added to the show by his introduction: “Behold the man!” (John 19:4-7). The clamor for crucifixion grew louder. “Pilate saith unto them, Take ye him, and crucify him: for I find no fault in him” (John 19:6). He was perhaps mocking the Jews, who did not crucify. They parried by saying, “We have a law, and by our law he ought to die, because he made himself the Son of God” (John 19: 7-8).

Tables Turned

The tables were turned. Now it was Pilate who was worried. If this Jesus of Nazareth were indeed a divine being, then it would be very dangerous to punish him and incur the wrath of the gods. In Roman theology, it was believed that the gods had many sons on the earth (it being typical of a girl pregnant out of wedlock to say that the father of her baby was one of the gods) With his wife’s ominous dream still in mind, Pilate retired for another interrogation session

with Jesus (John 19:8-11).

Whether Pilate became convinced of Jesus’ divinity or not is unclear in the text. He did learn, nevertheless, that Jesus was resigned to the fact that he would die, and his words may have given Pilate reason to believe that God so desired it. All we know is that “from thenceforth Pilate sought to release him,” perhaps for fear of divine punishment (John 19:9-12).

The contest between Prefect and priests continued as the latter “cried out, saying, If thou let this man go, thou art not Caesar’s  friend: whosoever maketh himself a king speaketh against Caesar” (John 19:12). “When Pilate therefore heard that saying,” he realized how he could win this game. Bringing Jesus out again, he sat down and “he saith unto the Jews, Behold your king!” They protested and called for crucifixion. “Shall I crucify your king?” asked Pilate. There was but one possible reply at this point. “The chief priests answered, We have no king but Caesar” (John 19:13-15).

Pilate must have been proud of his achievement. He had elicited from the “chief priests,” who, before Roman times, had ruled as kings of the Jews for a century, [12] the admission that the Jews were subservient to the Roman emperor. The game over-and won-Pilate lost no time in commissioning a unit of soldiers to crucify Jesus. What was the blood of another Jew to a man who had slain so many of them?

In a final stroke of irony, Pilate ordered that Jesus’ “accusation” read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews” (John 19:19-21). He could now claim to have put down an insurrection led by a king who had not received his appointment from Caesar and the Senate.

Political Troubles

Despite Pilate’s “clean hands,” he seems to have continued to have troubles.  In his tenth year as prefect, he massacred a large number of unarmed Samaritans. Vitellius, former consul and then governor of Syria, quickly dispatched Pilate to Rome to answer to the emperor. Before he arrived, Tiberius died and Pilate quickly disappeared from history, despite later Christian traditions that associate him with the robe of Jesus.

Pontius Pilate’s ten-year rule of Judea is noted in historical records only for his misdeeds. Early Christianity, in documents such as the “Apostles Creed,” attributed to him the responsibility for Jesus death. Later generations blamed the Jews. Both views ignore the facts. Not all of the Jews sought to have Jesus slain.  Indeed, a large number of them had greeted him as king on the day of triumphal entry, while many more came to mourn at the site of the crucifixion. Pilate, on the other hand, may not have dealt with Jesus at all had it not been for the pressures he felt during his confrontation with the chief priests.

[1] The story of Jesus’ trial before Pilate is found in Matt. 27:1-2, 11-26; Mark 15:1-15; Luke 23:1-25; John 18:28-19:16.

[2] Our principal sources are two first-century Jewish historians, Flavius Josephus (in his Antiquities of the Jews and Wars of the Jews) and Philo Judaeus (in The Embassy to Gaius). Pilate

is briefly mentioned by Tacitus in his Annals of Imperial Rome. There is archaeological evidence for the existence of Pilate in the form of Palestinian coins of the period, as well as a stela bearing

an inscription in his name found at Caesarea, headquarters of the Roman prefects of Judaea. 3. John 18:28-31.

[3] Matthew 26:64-66; Mark 14:61-64; Luke 22:67-71.

[4] Josephus, in his Antiquities of the Jews 14.9.3, notes that in his clay, the Sanhedrin had the power to condemn a man to death. This was but a few decades after Jesus’ death, when Judaea was still under Roman rule. In addition, the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 4-9, 11), describing the Sanhedrin’s operations in the days of the Second Temple, gives a list of capital crimes and very exact (and gruesome) details of the different types of execution, where they were performed, how, and by whom, under Jewish law. Finally, we have the evidence of Acts 7, where Stephen was condemned and executed by the Jews, not the Romans.

[5] Matthew 12:2-3, 10-12 14:4; 19:3; 22:17; 27:6; Mark 2:24-26; 3:4; 6:8; 10:2; 12:14; Luke 6:2-4, 9; 14:3; 20:22; John 5:10.

[6] Based on the curse in Deuteronomy 21:22-23.

[7] Mishnah, Sanhedrin 4: 1.

[8] Leviticus 21:11; Numbers 6:6; 9:6-10; 19:11-16. 11.

[9] John 3:14-16; 12:32-33.

[10] It is likely that the disagreement between Herod Antipas and Pontius Pilate centered around Pilate’s use of temple funds to build an aqueduct in Judaea. Antipas would have undoubtedly received complains about this from his Galilean subjects.

[11] The procession into Jerusalem, today commemorated as “Palm Sunday,” was a clear indication that the participants acknowledged Jesus as their king. They recited portions of Psalm 18 that were used during the fall feast of tabernacles, over which the ancient kings presided, and called Jesus “the son of David,” a royal title. See Matthew 21:1-9; Mark 11:1-11; Luke 19:29-38; John 12:12-15.

[12] From 165 to 63 BC, the Jews were ruled by the Hasmonaean family, who  served as high priests and kings. For the priestly caste to acknowledge Caesar as rightful king of the Jews was therefore a great achievement for Pilate.

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