The Tragedy of Pontius Pilate

Wayne Jackson
Pontius Pilate, governor of Judea who presided at the trial of Jesus, was truly a tragic character. Yet, he was providentially used by God to establish the innocence of Christ. Wayne Jackson takes a look at Pilate in this week’s Penpoints.

Pontius Pilate has been enshrined forever in the cowards’ Hall of Shame. Though he knew the charges against Jesus Christ were void of substance, because of his spineless politicism, he delivered the Son of God over to the rebellious Jews for crucifixion (see Mt. 27:15-26; Mk. 15:6-15; Lk. 23:13-25; Jn. 18:39-19:15).

Were it not for the narratives of the New Testament, this graceless soul would scarcely be remembered at all. The historical narratives regarding him are scant. Aside from the New Testament records (where he is mentioned about twenty times — including parallels), he is briefly mentioned by Philo, a Jewish philosopher who lived in Alexandria (c. 25 B.C. — A.D. 45).

Flavius Josephus (c. A.D. 37 — 100), the Jewish historian who witnessed the Roman invasion of Palestine, also took note of him, as did Tacitus, a Roman historian (c. A.D. 55 — 120). Tacitus simply said that “Christus, from whom [the Christians] derived their name, was executed at the hands of the procurator Pontius Pilate in the reign of Tiberius Caesar” (Annals 15.44).

But both Philo and Josephus paint a very stark portrait of the Roman ruler. Pilate is characterized as oppressive, greedy, stubborn, and cruel. Philo specifically catalogs “his venality, his violence, his thefts, his assaults, his abusive behavior, his frequent executions of untried prisoners, and his endless savage ferocity” (Gaium 302), though some claim Philo exaggerated the matter. Nonetheless, Pilate did antagonize the Jews and they hated him (though they would later use him for the implementation of their own evil designs).

For example, he introduced into the city of Jerusalem certain ensigns that contained the image of Caesar, an act that infuriated the Hebrews because they considered the overture to be heathenish (Antiquities 18.3.1; Wars 2.9.2-3). Further, three different coins minted by Pilate have been found by archaeologists. They depict pagan symbols, again reflecting his disdain for the Jewish conscience.

Luke mentions an episode wherein Pilate, on one occasion, slaughtered some Galilean Jews, as they worshipped, mingling their own blood with that of their sacrifices (Lk. 13:1-3). Although this specific incident is not mentioned elsewhere, it certainly harmonizes with the testimony of secular history. Pilate truly was a brute — in spite of the fact that some scholars have attempted his historical rehabilitation. When the ruler placed the placard on the cross, just above Jesus’ head — This is Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews — it was intended to be a cutting insult to the Hebrew people, to the effect, “Behold, your crucified (criminal) king!”

In A.D. 26, Pilate assumed the role of procurator of Judea on behalf of the Roman government, which office he remained in for about ten years. The term procurator is a generic designation for a Roman ruler, suggesting one who administers finances. Another title he had, now known from an extra-biblical source, is praefectus, a military designation suggesting a commander over a band of soldiers (500 to 1,000). This was a sort of imperial police force. There is no conflict between these titles.

Pilate was an inept ruler, constantly getting into trouble with the Roman authorities whom he attempted to placate. Ultimately, he was deposed and recalled to Rome (c. A.D. 36). According to a 4th century A.D. historian, Eusebius, he finally “fell into such calamities that he was forced to become his own murderer” (Ecclesiastical History 2.7).

There is an interesting footnote to this story. In 1961 at Caesarea, an inscription mentioning Pilate’s name was discovered (the first of its kind). A free translation is as follows: “The Tiberieum [a temple dedicated to the worship of Tiberius] of the Caesareans Pontius Pilate Praefect of Judea has given.” The inscription illustrates how the Judean governor bowed and scraped before Caesar, and thus it harmonizes beautifully with the New Testament account that casts him in a similar light (see Jn. 19:12). The sustained corroboration of Bible history by means of archeological discovery is faith-building indeed.

The later tradition that Pilate became convinced of the divine nature of Jesus, and so may be regarded as having become a Christian (Tertullian, Apology 5 and 21), is given little credence by modern scholars.

Pilate was a tragic historical figure. He was a providential instrument in the divine plan that assured that Jesus would be declared “innocent” (Jn. 18:38; 19:5-6), though he suffered as a felon — on our behalf! (cf. 2 Cor. 5:21).

Thanks be to God for his unspeakable gift (2 Cor. 9:15).