|5th Prefect of Judaea|
c. 26 - 36 AD
|Died||c. AD 36-39|
Pontius Pilate (;Latin: Pontius P?l?tus ['p?n.ti.?s pi:'?a:.t?s]; Greek: ? ?, Pontios Pilatos) was the fifth prefect of the Roman province of Judaea, serving under Emperor Tiberius from AD 26/27 to 36/37. He is known for adjudicating on the trial and crucifixion of Jesus.
Among the sources for Pilate's life are an inscription known as the Pilate Stone, which confirms his historicity and establishes his title as prefect; a brief mention by Tacitus; Philo of Alexandria; and Josephus. Based on these sources, it appears that Pilate was an equestrian of the Pontii family, and succeeded Valerius Gratus as prefect of Judaea in AD 26. Once in his post he offended the religious sensibilities of his subjects, leading to harsh criticism from Philo, Josephus wrote around AD 93 that after harshly suppressing a Samaritan movement, Pilate was deposed by Lucius Vitellius and sent to Rome, where he arrived just after the death of Tiberius, which occurred on 16 March in AD 37. In Judea, Pilate was replaced by Marcellus.
Christian religious sources about Pilate include the four canonical gospels; the Acts of the Apostles; the First Epistle to Timothy; and other apocryphal works. In all four canonical gospel accounts, Pilate lobbies for Jesus to be spared his eventual fate of execution, and acquiesces only when the crowd refuses to relent. He thus seeks to avoid personal responsibility for the death of Jesus. In the Gospel of Matthew, Pilate washes his hands to show that he is not responsible for the execution of Jesus and reluctantly sends him to his death. The Gospel of Mark, depicting Jesus as innocent of plotting against the Roman Empire, portrays Pilate as reluctant to execute him. In the Gospel of Luke, not only does Pilate agree that Jesus had not conspired against Rome, but Herod Antipas, the tetrarch of Galilee, also finds nothing treasonable in Jesus' actions. In the Gospel of John, Pilate states "I find no guilt in him" [Jesus], and he asks the Jews if Jesus should be released from custody.
Scholars have long debated how to interpret Pilate's portrayal in the sources. The wider significance and context of the Pilate Stone, an artifact discovered in 1961 and bearing a partially preserved inscription that names Pontius Pilate and his title, is similarly debated by scholars.
One of the few pieces of physical, archaeological evidence that confirms the existence of Pilate is the Latin inscription found on a limestone block relating Pilate's tribute to Tiberius. The artifact, sometimes known as the Pilate Stone, was discovered in 1961 by an archaeological team led by Antonio Frova. It was found as a reused block within a staircase located in a semicircular structure behind the stage house of the Roman theatre at Caesarea, the city that served as Rome's administrative centre in the province of Judaea. Roman governors were based in Caesarea and only visited Jerusalem on special occasions, or in times of unrest. The artifact is a fragment of the dedicatory inscriptions of a building, probably a temple, which was constructed, possibly in honour of the emperor Tiberius, dating to 26-36 AD. The dedication states that Pilate was prefect of Judaea, read praefectus Iudaeae. The early governors of Judaea were of prefect rank, the later were of procurator rank, beginning with Cuspius Fadus in 44 AD. The artifact is currently housed in the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, while a replica stands at Caesarea.
The remaining text states (with conjectural letters in brackets):
The translation from Latin to English for the inscription states:
In November 2018, it was reported that archaeologists in Israel had discovered a thin copper-alloy sealing ring that might be related to Pilate. The ring had been unearthed 50 years earlier by Professor Gideon Foerster during excavations at the Herodium fortress in the Judean Desert, but its Greek inscription, which reads (PILATO), "for Pilate" (presumably dative, ), was only discovered recently by using modern reflectance transformation imaging photography (RTI) technology. Researchers commented that the cheap ring would not be typically worn by a person of Pilate's position, and that the inscription would also rather indicate that it was worn by a clerk sending goods to the governor. The inscription surrounds the image of a krater, a common Jewish motif in Judaea at that time. Altogether, it seems possible that the ring would have belonged to somebody in Pilate's administration, either Jewish or pagan. Pilatus was an extremely unusual name in first-century Judaea, which makes at least some connection to the governor quite likely.
In chronicling the history of the Roman administrators in Judaea, ancient Jewish writers Philo and Josephus describe some of the other events and incidents that took place during Pilate's tenure. Both report that Pilate repeatedly caused near-insurrections among the Jews because of his insensitivity to Jewish customs.
Josephus notes that while Pilate's predecessors had respected Jewish customs by removing all images and effigies on their standards when entering Jerusalem, Pilate allowed his soldiers to bring them into the city at night. When the citizens of Jerusalem discovered these the following day, they appealed to Pilate to remove the ensigns of Caesar from the city. After five days of deliberation, Pilate had his soldiers surround the demonstrators, threatening them with death, which they were willing to accept rather than submit to desecration of Mosaic law. Pilate finally removed the images.
Philo describes a later, similar incident in which Pilate was chastened by Emperor Tiberius after antagonizing the Jews by setting up gold-coated shields in Herod's Palace in Jerusalem. The shields were ostensibly to honor Tiberius, and this time did not contain engraved images. Philo writes that the shields were set up "not so much to honour Tiberius as to annoy the multitude". The Jews protested the installation of the shields at first to Pilate, and then, when he declined to remove them, by writing to Tiberius. Philo reports that upon reading the letters, Tiberius "wrote to Pilate with a host of reproaches and rebukes for his audacious violation of precedent and bade him at once take down the shields and have them transferred from the capital to Caesarea." According to Josephus, Caesarea was the scene in AD 26 of a major act of civil disobedience to protest against Pilate's order to plant eagle standards on the Temple Mount of Jerusalem.
Josephus recounts another incident in which Pilate spent money from the Temple to build an aqueduct. Pilate had soldiers hidden in the crowd of Jews while addressing them and, when Jews again protested his actions he gave the signal for his soldiers to randomly attack, beat and kill - in an attempt to silence Jewish petitions.
In describing Pilate's personality, Philo writes in the 1st century that Pilate had "vindictiveness and furious temper", and was "naturally inflexible, a blend of self-will and relentlessness". Referring to Pilate's governance, Philo further describes "his corruption, and his acts of insolence, and his rapine, and his habit of insulting people, and his cruelty, and his continual murders of people untried and uncondemned, and his never ending, and gratuitous, and most grievous inhumanity".
Pilate's term as prefect of Judaea ended after an incident recounted by Josephus. A large group of Samaritans had been persuaded by an unnamed man to go to Mount Gerizim in order to see sacred artifacts allegedly buried by Moses. But at a village named Tirathana, before the crowd could ascend the mountain, Pilate sent in "a detachment of cavalry and heavy-armed infantry, who in an encounter with the firstcomers in the village slew some in a pitched battle and put the others to flight. Many prisoners were taken, of whom Pilate put to death the principal leaders and those who were most influential." The Samaritans then complained to Vitellius, Roman governor of Syria, who sent Pilate to Rome to explain his actions regarding this incident to Tiberius. However, by the time Pilate got to Rome, Tiberius had died.
Pontius Pilate's title was traditionally thought to have been procurator because Tacitus speaks of him as such. However, the inscription on the so-called Pilate Stone refers to Pilate as "Prefect of Judaea".
The title used by the governors of the region varied over the period of the New Testament. When Samaria, Judea proper and Idumea were first amalgamated into the Roman Judaea Province (which some modern historians spell Iudaea), from AD 6 to the outbreak of the First Jewish Revolt in 66, officials of the Equestrian order (the lower rank of governors) governed. They held the Roman title of prefect until Herod Agrippa I was named King of the Jews in 41 by Claudius. After Herod Agrippa's death in 44, when Judaea reverted to direct Roman rule, the governor held the title procurator. When applied to governors, this term procurator, otherwise used for financial officers, connotes no difference in rank or function from the title known as "prefect". Contemporary archaeological finds and documents such as the Pilate Inscription from Caesarea attest to the governor's more accurate official title only for the years 6 through 41: prefect. The logical conclusion is that texts that identify Pilate as procurator are more likely following Tacitus or are unaware of the pre-44 practice.
The procurators' and prefects' primary functions were military, but as representatives of the empire they were responsible for the collection of imperial taxes, and also had limited judicial functions. Other civil administration lay in the hands of local government: the municipal councils or ethnic governments such as--in the district of Judaea and Jerusalem--the Sanhedrin and its president the High Priest. But the power of appointment of the High Priest resided in the Roman legate of Syria or the prefect of Judaea in Pilate's day and until AD 41. For example, Caiaphas was appointed High Priest of Herod's Temple by Prefect Valerius Gratus and deposed by Syrian Legate Lucius Vitellius. Normally, Pilate resided in Caesarea but traveled throughout the province, especially to Jerusalem, in the course of performing his duties. During the Passover, a festival of deep national as well as religious significance for the Jews, Pilate, as governor or prefect, would have been expected to be in Jerusalem to keep order. He would not ordinarily be visible to the throngs of worshippers because of the Jewish people's deep sensitivity to their status as a Roman province.
Equestrians such as Pilate could command legionary forces but only small ones, and so in military situations, he would have to yield to his superior, the legate of Syria, who would descend into Palestine with his legions as necessary. As governor of Judaea, Pilate would have small auxiliary forces of locally recruited soldiers stationed regularly in Caesarea and Jerusalem, such as the Antonia Fortress, and temporarily anywhere else that might require a military presence. The total number of soldiers at his disposal would have numbered about 3,000. As regards the death of Pontius Pilate, Eusebius of Caesarea's Ecclesiastical History says that Pilate killed himself on orders from the Emperor Caligula in about 39 AD.
According to the canonical Christian gospels, Pilate presided at the trial of Jesus and, despite stating that he personally found him not guilty of a crime meriting death, sentenced him to be crucified. Pilate is thus a pivotal character in the New Testament accounts of Jesus.
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 Caesar and calling himself a king. Fomenting tax resistance was a capital offense. Pilate was responsible for imperial tax collections in Judaea. Jesus had asked the tax collector Levi, at work in his tax booth in Capernaum, to quit his post. Jesus also appears to have influenced Zacchaeus, "a chief tax collector" 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 NIV translation states: "Are you the king of the Jews?" asked Pilate. "It is as you say", Jesus replied. However, quite a number of other translations render Jesus' reply as variations of the phrase: "Thou sayest it." (King James Version, Mark 15:2); "So you say". (Good News Bible, 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, so Pilate was "astonished".
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 spoke to him on Jesus' behalf. According to the gospels, it was the custom of the Roman governor to release one prisoner at Passover, and Pilate brought out Barabbas, identified by Matthew as a "notorious prisoner" and by Mark as a murderer, and told the crowd to choose between releasing Barabbas or Jesus as per the custom, in the hopes of getting them 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 "What I have written, I have written." ("Quod scripsi, scripsi"). This may have been to emphasize Rome's supremacy in crucifying a Jewish king; it is likely, though, that Pilate was offended by the Jewish leaders using him as a catspaw and thus 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; in Luke's case it being the priests that repeatedly accused him, though Luke states that Jesus remained silent to such inquisition, causing Pilate to hand Jesus over to the jurisdiction of Herod Antipas, namely Galilee which was not part of Roman Judea. Although initially excited with curiosity at meeting Jesus, of whom he had heard much, Herod (according to Luke) ended up mocking Jesus and so sent him back to Pilate. This intermediate episode with Herod is not reported by the other Gospels, which appear to present a continuous and singular trial in front of Pilate. Luke, however, made further reference to this involvement of Herod along with Pilate in Jesus' execution and linked it with the prophecy about the Messianic King found in Psalm 2, as we can read in Luke's other book, Acts 4:24-28. This could explain why he counted this episode important.
Compared with the synoptic gospels, the Gospel of John gives more detail about that dialogue taking place between Jesus and Pilate. In John, Jesus seems to confirm the fact of his kingship, although immediately explaining, that his "kingdom" was "not of this world"; of far greater importance for the followers of Christ is his own definition of the goal of his ministry on earth at the time. According to Jesus, as we find it written in John 18:37, Jesus thus describes his mission: "[I] came into the world...to bear witness to the truth; and all who are on the side of truth listen to my voice", to which Pilate famously replied, "What is truth?" ("Quid est veritas?") (John 18:38)...
Whatever it be that some modern critics want to deduce from those differences, the end result was the same for Jesus and Pilate, as it was in all the other three Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke). In the same chapter of John 18 verse 38 (King James Version, compare with other versions) 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 Mark's gospel, were incited by the chief priests to shout against Jesus. 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."
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 remind him that Jesus' claim to be king is a challenge to Roman rule and to the Roman deification of Caesar. Roman magistrates had wide discretion in executing their tasks, and some readers[who?] question whether Pilate would have been so captive to the demands of the crowd. Pilate was later recalled to Rome for his harsh treatment of the Jews.
With the Edict of Milan in AD 313, the state-sponsored persecution of Christians came to an end, and Christianity became officially tolerated as one of the religions of the Roman Empire. Afterwards, in 325, the First Ecumenical Council at Nicaea promulgated a creed which was amended at the subsequent First Council of Constantinople in 381. The Nicene Creed incorporated for the first time the clause was crucified under Pontius Pilate (which had already been long established in the Old Roman Symbol, an ancient form of the Apostles' Creed dating as far back as the 2nd century AD) in a creed that was intended to be authoritative for all Christians in the Roman Empire.
Pilate's reluctance to execute Jesus in the gospels has been seen by Anchor Bible Dictionary and critical scholars as reflecting the authors' agenda. It has thus been argued that gospel accounts place the blame on the Jews, not on Rome, in line with the authors' alleged goal of making peace with the Roman Empire and vilifying the Jews.
Little is known about Pilate, but tradition has tried to fill the gap. A body of legend grew up around the dramatic figure of Pontius Pilate, about whom the Christian faithful hungered to learn more than the canonical Gospels revealed.
There is an ancient tradition linking his birthplace with the small village of Bisenti, Samnite territory, in today's Abruzzo region of Central Italy. There are ruins of a Roman house in Bisenti alleged to be the house of Pontius Pilate. There is also a tradition in Scotland that Pilate was born in Fortingall, a small village in the Perthshire Highlands. Other places such as Tarragona in Spain and Forchheim in Germany have been proposed as Pilate's birthplace, but it is more likely that he was a Roman citizen, born in Central Italy.
Eusebius, quoting early apocryphal accounts, stated that Pilate suffered misfortune in the reign of Caligula (AD 37-41), was exiled to Gaul and eventually killed himself there in Vienne. The 10th-century historian Agapius of Hierapolis, in his Universal History, says that Pilate killed himself during the first year of Caligula's reign, in AD 37/38.
Other details come from less credible sources. His body, says the Mors Pilati ("Death of Pilate"), was thrown first into the Tiber, but the waters were so "disturbed by evil spirits" that the body was taken to Vienne and sunk in the Rhône: a monument at Vienne, called Pilate's tomb, is still to be seen. As the waters of the Rhone likewise rejected Pilate's corpse, it was again removed and sunk in the lake at Lausanne. The sequence was a simple way to harmonise conflicting local traditions.
The corpse's final disposition was in a deep and lonely mountain tarn, which, according to later tradition, was on a mountain, still called Pilatus (actually pileatus or "cloud capped"), overlooking Lucerne. Every Good Friday, the body is said to reemerge from the waters and wash its hands.
The fragmentary apocryphal Gospel of Peter exonerates Pilate of responsibility for the crucifixion of Jesus, placing it instead on Herod and the Jews who, unlike Pilate, 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." (GoP 46) 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". (GoP 48-9)
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The 4th century apocryphal text that is called the Acts of Pilate presents itself in a preface (missing in some manuscripts) as derived from the official acts preserved in the praetorium at Jerusalem. Though the alleged Hebrew original of the document is attributed to Nicodemus, the title Gospel of Nicodemus for this fictional account only appeared in the Middle Ages, after the document had been substantially elaborated.
This text gained wide credit in the Middle Ages, and has considerably affected the legends surrounding the events of the crucifixion, which, taken together, are called the Passion. Its popularity is attested by the number of languages in which it exists, each of these being represented by two or more variant "editions": Greek (the original), Coptic, Armenian and Latin versions. The Latin versions were printed several times in the 15th and 16th centuries.
One class of the Latin manuscripts contain as an appendix or continuation, the Cura Sanitatis Tiberii, the oldest form of the Veronica legend.
The Acts of Pilate consist of three sections, whose styles reveal three authors, writing at three different times.
Eusebius (325), although he mentions an Acta Pilati that had been referred to by Justin and Tertullian and other pseudo-Acts of this kind, shows no acquaintance with this work. Almost surely it is of later origin, and scholars agree in assigning it to the middle of the 4th century. Epiphanius refers to an Acta Pilati similar to this, as early as AD 376, but there are indications that the current Greek text, the earliest extant form, is a revision of an earlier one.
Justin Martyr - The First and Second Apology of Justin. Chapter 35 - "And that these things did happen, you can ascertain from the Acts of Pontius Pilate."
There is a pseudepigraphic letter reporting on the crucifixion, purporting to have been sent by Pontius Pilate to the Emperor Claudius, embodied in the pseudepigrapha known as the Acts of Peter and Paul, of which the Catholic Encyclopedia states, "This composition is clearly apocryphal though unexpectedly brief and restrained." There is no internal relation between this feigned letter and the 4th-century Acts of Pilate (Acta Pilati).
The Mors Pilati ("Death of Pilate") legend is a Latin tradition, thus treating Pilate as a monster, not a saint; it is attached usually to the more sympathetic Gospel of Nicodemus of Greek origin. The narrative of the Mors Pilati set of manuscripts is set in motion by an illness of Tiberius, who sends Volusanius to Judaea to fetch the Christ for a cure. In Judaea Pilate covers for the fact that Christ has been crucified, and asks for a delay. But Volusanius encounters Veronica who informs him of the truth but sends him back to Rome with her Veronica of Christ's face on her kerchief, which heals Tiberius. Tiberius then calls for Pontius Pilate, but when Pilate appears, he is wearing the seamless robe of the Christ and Tiberius' heart is softened, but only until Pilate is induced to doff the garment, whereupon he is treated to a ghastly execution. His body, when thrown into the Tiber, however, raises such storm demons that it is sent to Vienne (via gehennae) in France and thrown to the Rhone. That river's spirits reject it too, and the body is driven east into "Losania", where it is plunged in the bay of the lake near Lucerne, near Mont Pilatus - originally Mons Pileatus or "cloud-capped", as John Ruskin pointed out in Modern Painters - whence the uncorrupting corpse rises every Good Friday to sit on the bank and wash unavailing hands.
This version combined with anecdotes of Pilate's wicked early life were incorporated in Jacobus de Voragine's Golden Legend, which ensured a wide circulation for it in the Late Middle Ages. Other legendary versions of Pilate's death exist: Antoine de la Sale reported from a travel in Central Italy on some local traditions asserting that after death the body of Pontius Pilate was driven to a little lake near Vettore Peak (2478 m in the Sibillini Mountains) and plunged in. The lake, today, is still named Lago di Pilato.
In the Cornish cycle of mystery plays, the "death of Pilate" forms a dramatic scene in the Resurrexio Domini cycle. More of Pilate's correspondence is found in the minor Pilate apocrypha, the Anaphora Pilati (Report of Pilate), an Epistle of Herod to Pilate, and an Epistle of Pilate to Herod, spurious texts that are no older than the 5th century.
The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church recognized Pilate as a saint in the 6th century, based on the account in the Acts of Pilate, as it does his wife, named Procla, whose strange dream of Jesus Christ induced her to try to stop his crucifixion.
There are many other legends about Pilate in the folklore of Germany, particularly about his birth, according to which Pilate was born in the Franconian city of Forchheim or the small village of Hausen only 5 km away from it. His death was unusually dramatised in a medieval mystery play cycle from Cornwall, the Cornish Ordinalia.
Pilate's role in the events leading to the crucifixion lent themselves to melodrama, even tragedy, and Pilate often has a role in medieval mystery plays.
In the Eastern Orthodox Church, Pilate's wife is commemorated as a saint, but not Pilate, because according to tradition Claudia urged Pilate not to have anything to do with Jesus. In some Eastern Orthodox traditions, Pilate committed suicide out of remorse for having sentenced Jesus to death.
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From a recently discovered inscription in which Pontius Pilate is mentioned, it appears that the title of the governors of Judea was also "praefectus".
The references to Pilate, outside the New Testament:
| Prefect of Iudaea