Today all of Christianity celebrates Good Friday. If you are a believer in Christianity, or simply know the story of the Crucifixion of Jesus , then you are aware of the Empire’s part in what happened this day in 33 AD.
Today Rome Across Europe will be discussing the most interesting Roman in this entire story. We are going to focus on Pontius Pilatus and his connection to the trial and crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth.
There are ruins of a Roman house in the small village of Bisenti, a region of Central Italy, which is alleged to be the birthplace of Pontius Pilate. Little is known, however, of Pilate’s birth or early life. We do know that the Pontii Family was part of the ordo Equester.
Pontius Pilate was the 5th Praefectus of the Roman province of Iudaea from 26 – 36 AD under Emperor Tiberius. This can be confirmed from a block of limestone, the Pilate Stone, was found in 1961 at the Roman theatre at Caesarea Maritima, the capital of the province of Iudaea.
Bearing a damaged dedication by Pilate to Tiberius Caesar Augustus, the dedication states that he was […] ECTVS IUDA […] (usually read as Praefectus Iudaeae), Prefect of Judaea. The inscription has been dated to about 30 AD, plus or minus 5 years.
The primary functions of Pontius Pilate were military, but as a representative of the Empire, he was primarily responsible for the collection of imperial taxes. Most judicial functions and civil administration lay in the hands of local government: the municipal councils or ethnic governments such as the Sanhedrin and its High Priest. The power of appointment of the High Priest, however, resided in the Roman Legatus of Syria or the Praefectus Iudaeae.
Normally, Pilate resided in Caesarea but traveled throughout the province in the course of performing his duties, especially to Jerusalem. During the Jewish Passover, Pilate’s position would have required him to be in Jerusalem to keep order. Because of the Jewish people’s deep sensitivity to their status as a Provincia, Pilate would not ordinarily be visible to the throngs of worshippers.
As governor of Iudaea, Pilate would command a few Legios and have small Auxilia of locally recruited soldiers stationed regularly in Caesarea and Jerusalem, such as the Antonia Fortress. With 3,000 total soldiers at his disposal, Pilate could have a fairly strong, but temporary, force anywhere that might require a military presence.
According to the New Testament, Jesus was brought to Pilate by the Sanhedrin, who had arrested Jesus and questioned him themselves. The Sanhedrin had, according to the Gospels, only been given answers by Jesus that they considered blasphemous pursuant to Mosaic Law, which was unlikely to be deemed a capital offense by Pilate interpreting Roman law.
The Gospel of Luke records that members of the Sanhedrin then took Jesus before Pilate where they accused him of sedition against Rome by opposing the payment of taxes to Caesares and calling himself a king. Promoting the development of tax resistance was a capital offense. Pilate was responsible for Imperial tax collections in Judaea.
Jesus had asked the tax collector Levi in Capernaum to quit his post. Jesus also appears to have influenced chief tax collector Zacchaeus in Jericho, which is in Pilate’s tax jurisdiction, to resign. Pilate’s main question to Jesus was whether he considered himself to be the King of the Jews in an attempt to assess him as a potential political threat.
Mark in the RSV translation states: “And Pilate asked him: Art thou the King of the Jews? But He answering, saith to him: Thou sayest it.” (Mark 15:2). Whatever degree of confirmation modern interpreters would derive from this answer of Jesus, according to the New Testament, it was not enough for Pilate to view Jesus as a real political threat.
The chief priests began hurling accusations toward Jesus, yet he remained silent. Pilate asked him why he did not respond to the many charges, and Jesus remained silent. Pilate was astonished by what can only be described today as nonchalantness of Jesus.
Pilate appears to have been reluctant to allow the crucifixion of Jesus, finding no fault with him. According to Matthew 27:19, even Pilate’s wife, Claudia Procula, spoke to him on Jesus’ behalf. Claudia was said to have had a strange dream about Christ which encouraged her to try to stop his crucifixion.
According to the gospels, it was the custom of the Roman Governor to release one prisoner at Passover. Pilate brought out Barabbas, identified by Matthew as a “notorious prisoner” and as a “murderer” by Mark, and told the crowd to choose between releasing Barabbas or Jesus as per the custom.
This was in the hopes of getting the crowd to request the release of Jesus. However, the crowd demanded the release of Barabbas and said of Jesus, “Crucify him!” In Matthew, Pilate responds, “Why? What evil has he done?” The crowd continued shouting, “Crucify him!”
Pilate ordered a sign posted above Jesus on the cross stating “Jesus of Nazareth, The King of the Jews” to give public notice of the legal charge against him for his crucifixion. The chief priests protested that the public charge on the sign should read that Jesus claimed to be King of the Jews.
Pilate refused to change the posted charge, saying “Quod scripsi, scripsi.” (What I have written, I have written.). This may have been to emphasize Rome’s supremacy in crucifying a Jewish King. What is more likely though is that Pilate was offended by the Jewish leaders using him as a pawn compelling him to sentence Jesus to death contrary to his own will.
The Gospel of Luke also reports that such questions were asked of Jesus. Here Luke states it was the priests that repeatedly accused Jesus causing Pilate to hand him over to the jurisdiction of Herod Antipas, which was not part of Roman Judea.
Although initially excited with curiosity at meeting Jesus, Herod ended up mocking Jesus and sent him back to Pilate. This intermediate episode with Herod is not reported by the other Gospels, but can be read in Luke’s other book, Acts 4:24–28.
The Gospel of John gives more detail about the dialogue between Jesus and Pilate. According to John 18:37, Jesus tells Pilate, “Thou sayest that I am a king. For this was I born, and for this came I into the world; that I should give testimony to the truth. Every one that is of the truth, heareth my voice.” Pilate famously replied to this, “Quid est veritas?” (What is truth?).
Whatever it is that some modern critics want to deduce, the end result was the same for Jesus and Pilate. In the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke the conclusion Pilate made from this interrogation was: “I find in him no fault at all”.
Pilate agrees to condemn Jesus to crucifixion, after the Jewish leaders explained to him that Jesus presented a threat to Roman occupation through his claim to the throne of King David as King of Israel in the royal line of David. The crowd in Pilate’s courtyard, according to the Gospel of Mark, was incited by the chief priests to shout against Jesus.
In all gospel accounts, Pilate is reluctant to condemn Jesus, but is eventually forced to give in when the crowd becomes unruly and the Jewish leaders claim Jesus is a challenge to Roman rule and to Caesar. The Gospel of Matthew adds that before condemning Jesus to death, Pilate washes his hands with water in front of the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see you to it.”
Justification of Pilate is in Matthew 27:24–25 where it states “And Pilate seeing that he prevailed nothing, but that rather a tumult was made; taking water washed his hands before the people, saying: I am innocent of the blood of this just man; look you to it. And the whole people answering, said: His blood be upon us and our children.
The fragmentary apocryphal Gospel of Peter exonerates Pilate of responsibility for the crucifixion of Jesus, placing it instead on Herod and the Jews who refused to “wash their hands”. After the soldiers see three men and a cross miraculously walking out of the tomb they report to Pilate who reiterates his innocence: “I am pure from the blood of the Son of God”. He then commands the soldiers not to tell anyone what they have seen so that they would not “fall into the hands of the people of the Jews and be stoned”.
According to Romano-Jewish scholar Josephus, Pilate was ordered back to Rome after harshly suppressing a Samaritan uprising, arriving just after the death of Tiberius in March 37 AD. Pilate supposedly suffered misfortune in the reign of Caligula and was exiled to Gaul. It is said that Pilate eventually killed himself there in Vienne sometime around 37 AD.
When all is said and done, it turns out that the man most closely associated with the death of Jesus acutally wanted nothing to do with his death. Pilate appears in all four Gospels, and in each he wants to let Jesus go free, with each Gospel claiming a heroic moment for Pilate.
Later in Christian history, Pontius Pilate came to be seen as an active agent advancing God’s work of salvation. Odd how the Roman most closely associated with the crucifixion can have a completely different view cast upon him.
Whether you believe or not is not the point of this article. Rome Across Europe simply wants to shed a new perspective on a familiar story. Till next time, Don’t Stop Rome-ing!