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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament


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PILATE.—Pilate’s first name, that by which he would be known in his own household, has not been recorded; we know only his second name ‘Pontius,’ and his third ‘Pilatus.’ Pontius may be derived from pons (‘bridge’), or be cognate with πέντε (‘five’); and Pilatus meant, no doubt, originally, ‘armed with the pike’ (of the Roman legionary); but we are no nearer his origin. We know nothing of his parents, his birthplace, or the date of his birth. He was a Roman citizen, and was born probably in Italy. From the position which he afterwards occupied, it is certain that he belonged in manhood to the middle or equestrian class in the community; but whether by favour of the Emperor or by birth is unknown. Admission to this class could be obtained only by those who possessed 400,000 sesterces (equivalent to about £3000 of our money, but with much greater purchasing power). The question whether he inherited this property qualification or not cannot be answered.

In order to reach the position of procurator of the Roman province of Judaea, he must have passed through a course of earlier appointments open to his order. He must have had considerable military experience, and have held one or more of the following appointments: prefecture (or tribunate) of an auxiliary cohort, or a legionary tribunate of the second class (those of the first being open only to the senatorial order), or the prefecture of a wing (ala) of cavalry (Cagnat, Cours d’Épig. Lat.3 [Note: designates the particular edition of the work referred] p. 109 ff.). The earliest age at which one could become a procurator was between twenty-seven and thirty years. These procuratorships differed in standing (see Procurator), and that of a province like Judaea was not the highest. Further promotion was open to one who did well in that position. The date of the birth of Pilate cannot have been later than about b.c. 4–1. In Matthew 27:19 he appears as married, but whether he left any descendants or not is uncertain.

In a.d. 26, Pilate was appointed by the Emperor Tiberius procurator of the province of Judaea. This province comprised the former kingdom of Archelaus,—roughly Samaria and the territory south of it to Gaza and the Dead Sea,—and the procurator’s duties were both administrative and military. He was in a position of subordination to the governor of the province of Syria, but the exact nature of the subordination is not known. For all practical purposes his rule over all in the province, except Roman citizens, was absolute. At the same time, it must be remembered that in this, as in other provinces, certain communities were permitted a large measure of self-government—one of the secrets of Rome’s success as a world-power. Thus in Jerusalem the Sanhedrin retained many judicial functions; death sentences, however, had to be confirmed by the governor, and were carried out under his supervision (John 18:31; Josephus Ant. xx. ix. l, BJ ii. viii. l). The religious and political zeal of the various sections of the population made the task of governing the province one of extreme difficulty, requiring statesmanlike gifts of no ordinary quality.

We derive most of our knowledge of Pilate’s rule from Josephus, from whom the following incident is repeated, to illustrate the statement above made. The Jewish prejudice against images of gods was incomprehensible to the other ancient peoples; but their attitude was officially respected by the Romans, whose practice it was to refrain from introducing such into the Jews’ country. They carried their conciliatory policy so far as to remove the figures of the god-emperor from those military standards which bore them. In contravention of this custom, Pilate caused the standards with their usual decoration to be carried by night into Jerusalem. The people pleaded with him to remove the objectionable images, but he remained obdurate, and eventually ordered his soldiers to surround the crowd and put them to death if they persisted. This threat bad no terror for men whose religious frenzy was worked up to the highest pitch, and Pilate had to yield, for it was impossible to massacre so many. His action in this matter showed want of tact, hot temper, and weakness; and as the occurrence took place early in his period of government, it was an evil augury for his rule (Ant. xviii. iii. 1). On another occasion he used money from the Temple-treasury for the building of an aqueduct, and broke up the riot which threatened by introducing disguised soldiers into the crowd (Ant. xviii. iii. 2). Luke 13:1 is the only authority for the mention of the Galilaeans whose blood Pilate ‘mixed with their sacrifices.’ The cause of his action was doubtless some riot. Pilate is represented in the worst possible light by a passage in Philo, which is put into the mouth of Agrippa (Legatio ad Gaium, 38).—

[The Jews’ threat to communicate with Tiberius] ‘exasperated Pilate to the greatest possible degree, as he feared lest they might go on an embassy to the Emperor, and might impeach him with respect to other particulars of his government—his corruptions, his acts of insolence, his rapine, and his habit of insulting people, his cruelty, and his continual murders of people untried and uncondemned, and his never-ending, gratuitous, and most grievous inhumanity.’

We do not need to go beyond the Gospel narratives, and the fact that he was retained in his position for ten years by Tiberius, to realize that this picture is grossly overdrawn.

For our knowledge of the part Pilate played in the trial of Jesus we are dependent on all four canonical Gospels. As it may be assumed that Mark’s narrative is the oldest, we shall take it first, then proceed to Matthew’s and Luke’s, which are probably almost contemporaneous with one another, and, lastly, we shall draw on the Fourth Gospel.

(1) According to Mark (Mark 14:53), the chief priests and scribes and elders, after Jesus had been brought from Gethsemane, led Him away to the high priest, in whose residence they all assembled. This was an extraordinary meeting of the Sanhedrin. The Court sought evidence which would lead to the death of Jesus, but failed to find any that was reliable. Such evidence as they had was false and conflicting. Jesus’ statement about the Temple was repeated and misconstrued. Then the high priest elicited from Him a declaration that He was the Messiah. This statement was decided to be blasphemy, and as a result He was judged worthy of death (Leviticus 24:16). After the verdict He was subjected to every insult. The death sentence had by law to be confirmed by Pilate before it could be carried out. In their eagerness they lost no time in bringing Him before Pilate’s tribunal (Mark 15:1). The question was put by Pilate, ‘Art thou the king of the Jews?’; to which Jesus answered, ‘Thou sayest’ (Mark 15:2). The chief priests, being permitted by Pilate to make their charges, brought many against Him; the accused, on being asked by Pilate if He had anything to say, was silent, and caused His judge to wonder. It happened that the feast of the Passover was at hand, and on such an occasion it was the custom to release a prisoner. The crowd which stood around called for the release of a certain Barabbas, a robber and murderer. Pilate proposed instead to release Jesus, knowing that hatred had been the motive of the high priests in handing Him over. The chief priests instigated the crowd to beg for Barabbas. Pilate then asked what they wished to be done with ‘the king of the Jews,’ and they said, ‘Crucify him.’ On being asked by Pilate what evil He had done, their only answer was to repeat the cry. Pilate, being anxious to please the crowd, gratified both their requests. Such is Mark’s narrative of the trial, baldly stated. It is so very brief that it is not surprising that the other Evangelists have been able to add to it. Mark has nothing further to say about Pilate except to tell that Joseph of Arimathaea begged and obtained from him the body of Jesus (Mark 15:43).

(2) Matthew makes only two additions of any importance to this narrative. One is the warning message sent to Pilate, when seated on the tribunal, by his wife (Matthew 27:19). The Character of the incident stamps it as a reliable tradition. The second is Pilate’s washing of his hands after he had acquiesced in the decision of the Jews and the wishes of the mob, and his proclamation of his innocence, followed by the Jews’ invocation of the curse upon themselves and their children. At a later stage in the narrative, Matthew alone (Matthew 27:62 ff.) gives the incident of the deputation to Pilate with the request for permission to seal the tomb, and the granting of that permission.

(3) Luke, at the beginning of the accusation before Pilate, mentions the charge (Luke 23:2): ‘We found this man perverting our nation, and forbidding to give tribute to Caesar, and saying that he himself was an anointed king.’ The first part of this charge is directly contrary to the truth (Mark 12:17 = Matthew 22:21 = Luke 20:25). It is Lk. also who mentions (23:4–12) that when Pilate learned that Jesus was a Galilaean he sent Him to Herod, tetrarch of Galilee, to whose jurisdiction He belonged. Herod could elicit no answer from Jesus, and sent Him back to Pilate. This exchange of courtesy led to a renewal of the friendship between Pilate and Herod, which had been interrupted for some reason or other. On the return of Jesus, Pilate is represented as proclaiming His innocence and confirming it by the decision of Herod.

(4) The Fourth Gospel makes the following contributions to the story. The informal questioning by Annas (John 18:19-24) is special to Jn., which gives also (John 18:33-38) a much longer conversation between Jesus and Pilate than the others, in which Jesus explains the nature of His Kingdom. It is quite certain that Pilate realized that Jesus’ Kingdom was not an ordinary kingdom, else his conduct of the case would have been entirely different. The section John 19:4-15 contains a further examination of Jesus, and the terrorizing of Pilate by the Jews. The Johannine account, as it is the fullest, is also the best. It explains what is obscure in the others, and brings the whole situation before us with startling vividness. John makes Pilate the author of the inscription on the cross, and mentions his repudiation of the Jewish criticism of its wording.

The situation was for Pilate an extremely difficult one. The Jews in authority were determined that Jesus should die. Assassination was impossible, because of the people. They were therefore compelled to resort to the governor’s power. In order to get him to sign the warrant, they had to show that Jesus had committed a crime worthy of death. They had to select a charge which in their opinion would leave Pilate no option. They seized upon that of treason, a charge which brought death upon some of the most influential Roman citizens during that period, as the early books of Tacitus’ Annals show. Pilate examined Jesus on this charge, and soon found that this was no case of treason. A strong man might have defied the provincials, and set Jesus at liberty. In doing so, he would have risked all his future prospects, perhaps his own life. The procurator was in reality only an upper servant of the Emperor, and as such could be dismissed and ruined without appeal. The Jews, when they saw that Roman justice might win and Jesus be released, held over Pilate the threat of a report to the Emperor on his conduct. Pilate, as we have seen, was not a strong man. He yielded, though he knew the accused was innocent. It must be remembered that Jesus was not a Roman citizen, was, in fact, in the eyes of a Roman officer, merely a subject, a slave, a chattel. The life of a Roman citizen was precious, that of a mere subject worthless. That Pilate had a tender enough conscience or a sound enough idea of justice to try to save this ‘slave,’ should be remembered to his credit. He was not of the stuff of which heroes are made, though doubtless in many respects a competent governor.

Little is known of Pilate’s later history. He used armed force to suppress a fanatical movement in Samaria, which does not appear to have endangered the Roman supremacy in the slightest (Josephus Ant. xviii. iv. 1). So many were put to death that the Samaritans appealed to Vitellius, the then governor of the province of Syria. The governor ordered Pilate to Rome, to appear before the Emperor’s council. Before he reached Rome, Tiberius had died. The result of this no doubt was that he escaped trial. Of his further career nothing is certainly known, but legend has naturally not neglected one of the most interesting figures of NT history. In the Gospel of Peter, which belongs probably to the middle of the 2nd cent., he is represented in a very favourable light; the author shows also anti-Jewish tendencies. As the fragment of this Gospel is put together almost entirely from the canonical Gospels, it yields in interest to another apocryphal work—the Acts of Pilate. In the 2nd cent. the Church began to busy itself with its own history, and to build up a defence of its faith and practice on a historical foundation. The person of Pilate was a subject of special interest, and was pressed into the service of the Church as a valuable witness to the truth of Christianity. In the Acts of Pilate he is acquitted of all blame, and represented as in the end confessing Jesus to be the Son of God (ch. 46). It was widely believed in ancient times that an official account of the trial of Jesus was sent by Pilate to the Emperor Tiberius and preserved in the archives at Rome. It is not impossible that such a report was sent; but this at least we can say with certainty, there is no real evidence of its existence or its use to be found in any apocryphal writing. Justin in his (first) Apology (chs. 35, 48) refers more than once to the Acts under Pontius Pilate. The Acts of Pilate (Gospel of Nicodemus) which we possess, however, with kindred pieces, is not of earlier date than the 4th or 5th century. Tertullian in his Apology (ch. 21) speaks of the report of Pilate to Tiberius as containing an account of the miracles, condemnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus, with the story of the guard at the grave. There still exists in various ancient works (e.g. Acts of Peter and Paul) a so-called Letter of Pilate to Claudius (or Tiberius), which, though possibly interpolated at a later date, gives an impression of real antiquity, and is no doubt the document referred to by Tertullian. As to the date of it nothing can be said, except that it is older than 197 a.d., the date of the Apology of Tertullian: it was probably written in Greek originally, though it is extant also in Latin. Tertullian says (Apol. 5) that Tiberius, as the result of a communication from Palestine, proposed to the Roman Senate that Jesus should be recognized as a god, but that the Senate rejected the motion. He further states that the Emperor held by his intention, and punished those who accused the Christians. All this must be regarded as pure legend.

Tradition has it that Pilate fell on evil days after the death of Tiberius, and ultimately committed suicide (Euseb. Historia Ecclesiastica ii. 7, and also in his Chronicle). Another account has it that he was beheaded by Tiberius’ order, but that he repented before his death. His wife is commonly reported to have become a Christian, on the strength, no doubt, of the warning which St. Matthew records that she gave to her husband. It is told that Pilate appeared before the Emperor to stand his trial, wearing the tunic of Jesus, and that this tunic acted as a charm to protect him from the anger of his Imperial master. His body is said to have been first thrown into the Tiber, but the evil spirits so haunted the spot as to terrorize the populous neighbourhood, and it was conveyed to Vienne in the South of France and sunk in the Rhone. Here also the evil spirits proved troublesome, and the body was removed to the territory of Lausanne in Switzerland, where it was sunk and walled up in a deep pit surrounded by mountains. The best known legend connects itself with that country, and the mountain still known as Pilatus. The corpse is said to rest in a lake on the mountain side, whence it comes forth periodically and goes through the act of washing its hands. The Coptic Church reveres Pilate as a saint and martyr (June 25th).

Literature.—The Part. ‘Pilate’ in Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible contains a very full bibliography. A few works only are mentioned here; G. A. Müller, Pontius Pilatus der fünfte Prokurator von Judäa (Stuttgart, 1888); A. Taylor Innes, Trial of Jesus Christ: a Legal Monograph (Edinburgh, 1899); G. Rosadi, The Trial of Jesus (London, 1905); F. W. Robertson, Serm. 1st ser. 292 ff.; Expositor, ii. viii. [1884] 107, vi. ii. [1900] 59; J. B. Lightfoot, Serm. in St. Paul’s Cathedral, 91; W. B. Carpenter, The Son of Man, 33; W. H. Simcox, The Cessation of Prophecy, 287; J. H. Moulton, Visions of Sin, 185; for the early apocryphal literature, see R. A. Lipsius, Die Pilatus-Akten kritisch untersucht (1871); F. C. Conybeare, ‘Acta Pilati’ in Stud. Bibl. et Eccles. vol. iv. pp. 59–132 (Oxford, 1896); E. Hennecke, Neutest. Apokryphen, pp. 74–76 (Tübingen and Leipzig, 1904), and Handbuch z. neutest. Apokr. p. 143 ff. (Tübingen and Leipzig, 1904).

Alex. Souter.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Pilate'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. 1906-1918.

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Pilate Pontius