Pontius Pilate


By far the most well-known of the procurators, this guy's name has probably been spoken more times by more people than just about anybody else in human history! This of course owes to the fact that his name is part of the Apostles Creed, recited by Christians every Sunday for centuries. He has even made it into pop culture, making a cameo appearance in the Rolling Stones' song "Sympathy for the Devil," a lyric of which has the devil saying, "I made @#$% sure the Pilate washed his hands and sealed his fate."

Contrary to what the Stones may think, the Church has never taken a stance on the eternal fate of Pilate, who sentenced Jesus Christ to be scourged and crucified, just as it has no position on the fate of Judas Iscariot, the apostle who betrayed Jesus, as only God can know what it is. In fact, however, Pilate was thought of as a saint by a few early Christian communities, because according to the gospels he seems to have been very reluctant to crucify Jesus. His wife was/is also popularly loved by Christians, because she had a miraculous dream reported in Matthew 27:19 that caused her to tell her husband "Have thou nothing to do with that just man, for I have suffered many things this day in a dream because of him." Furthermore, according to Christian theology he was just fulfilling his role according to the scriptures and to prophecy, so he is not generally blamed for his action.

In a single incident that must be the single greatest juxtaposition of worldly and divine authority yet known, Pilate, who may not have even known of Jesus' existence before Jesus came to trial, executed him and two others on the secular charge of subverting the empire. These charges seem to have been brought about at the request of the Temple priests and appear in the gospels as being a facade for the real reason for the request, that they were afraid he was usurping too much power and respect, which in matters of religion was to be their domain alone. According to the gospels, Jesus never did anything to subvert the temporal rule of the empire, though. At one point he is even reported to have supported payment of taxes to the government ("Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, give to God what is God's").

It is one of the most telling facts about the strength of early Christianity that Pilate crucified Jesus and then continued to reign for about five years. He did not leave Judaea until 36 or 37, resulting from a completely differen episode that involved religious fervor and death at the hands of the state, which, as seen below, was one of at least several.

During his reign a large gathering of Samaritans tried to travel up to the top of one of their holy places, Mount Gerizzim. They did this at the instigation of a few leaders among them, who claimed that they would show the people some holy vessels that Moses had left on the mountain. Pilate, though, stopped the crowd from venturing up to the mountain, took many of them as prisoners, and killed the leaders. When the Samaritan senate complained about this to Vitellius, who was Legate of Syria, Vitellius sent him to Rome "to answer before the emperor to the accusations." Tiberius died (A.D. 37) before Pilate could answer to the charges, so apparently he was off the hook.

Another episode from Pilate's reign occurred when Pilate brought in images of Caesar called "standards" into the province at night. "When day dawned this caused great excitement among the Jews; for those who were near were amazed at the sight, which meant that their laws had been trampled on they do not permit any graven image to be set up in the city" (War 2.9.2). A crowd assembled and travelled from Jerusalem to Caesarea to ask him to remove the standards from the Holy City. "When Pilate refused, they fell prone all round his house and remained motionless for five days and nights" (War 2.9.2). After this standoff Pilate went to a local stadium and sent for the crowd, who thought they were getting an answer to their grievances. But instead, Roman troops formed a ring around the protestors three-deep. Pilate told the crowd, that unless they relented he would kill them, at which point they responded that they would rather die than disobey God's law. Pilate, amazed, backed down and removed the standards.

Pilate lost that battle but he won a later one. The governor spent a religious treasury called the "Corban" on an aqueduct. The next time Pilate visited Jerusalem "a crowd surrounded his tribunal and shouted him down" (War 2.9.4). But since the governor thought that this might happen (he knew from experience, apparently) he had his troops intermingle with the crowd dressed as civilians, and when he gave the signal from the tribunal the protestors were beaten with clubs, killing many of them. Many others were trampled to death, and the fate of both of these groups of people that died sufficiently intimidated the survivors so that they forgot about the Corban expenditure. This incident may be mentioned in the Gospel of Luke 13:1, which reads, ". . . [S]ome people . . . told [Jesus] about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with the blood of their sacrifices."

Ancient sources: Matthew 27; Mark 15; Luke 3:1, 13:1, 23; John 18:28-19:38; Acts 3:13, 4:27, 13:28; Antiquities 18.2.2, 18.3.1-3, 18.4.1-2, 18.6.1; War 2.9.2-4; Philo, Embassy to Gaius 38; Annals 15.44.

Taken from: Biographies of the Roman Procurators of Judaea A.D. 6 to c. 70
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