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Bible Encyclopedias

1911 Encyclopedia Britannica

Pontius Pilate

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The Roman governor of Judaea under whom Jesus Christ suffered crucifixion. Of equestrian rank, his name Pontius suggests a Samnite origin, and his cognomen in the gospels, pileatus (if derived from the pileus or cap of liberty), descent from a freedman. In any case he came in A.D. 26 from the household of Tiberius, through the influence of Sejanus, to be procurator over part of the imperial province of Syria, viz. Judaea, Samaria and Idumea. He ruled ten years, quarrelled almost continuously with the Jews - whom Sejanus, diverging from the Caesar tradition, is said to have disliked - and in A.D. 36 was recalled. Before he arrived Tiberius died, and Pilate disappears from history. Eusebius relates ( Hist. eccl. ii. 7) - but three centuries later and on the authority of earlier writers unnamed - that he was exiled to Gaul and committed suicide at Vienne.

Pilate kept the Roman peace in Palestine but with little understanding of the people. Sometimes he had to yield; as when he had sent the standards, by night, into the Holy City, and was besieged for five days by suppliants who had rushed to Caesarea (Jos. Ant. 31; B. J. ii. ix. 2, 3); and again when he hung up inscribed shields in Jerusalem, and was ordered by Tiberius to remove them to the other city ( Philo ad Gaium 38). Sometimes he struck more promptly; as when the mob protested against his using the temple treasure to build an aqueduct for Jerusalem, and he disguised his soldiers to disperse them with clubs (Jos. Ant. xviii. 3, 2); or when he " mingled the blood " of some unknown Galileans " with their sacrifices " (Luke xiii. i); or slew the Samaritans who came to Mt Gerizim. to dig up sacred vessels hidden by Moses there (Jos. Ant. xviii. 4, i) - an incident which led to his recall. Philo, who tells how any suggestion of appeal by the Jews to Tiberius enraged him, sums up their view of Pilate in Agrippa's words, as a man " inflexible, merciless, obstinate." A more discriminating light is thrown upon him by the New Testament narratives of the trial of Jesus. They illustrate the right of review or recognitio which the Romans retained, at least in capital causes; the charge brought in this case of acting adversus majestatem populi romani; the claim made by Jesus to be a king; and the result that his judge became convinced that the claimant was opposed neither to the public peace nor to the civil supremacy of Rome. The result is explained only by the dialogue, recorded exclusively in John, which shows the accused and the Roman meeting on the highest levels of the thought and conscience of the time. " I am come to bear witness unto the truth. .. Pilate answered, What is truth?" Estimates of Pilate's attitude at this point have varied infinitely, from Tertullian's, that he was " already in conviction a Christian " - jam pro sua conscientia Christianus- to Bacon's " jesting Pilate," who would not stay for a reply. We know only that to his persistent attempts thereafter to get his proposed verdict accepted by the people, came their fatal answer, " Thou art not Caesar's friend," and that at last he unwillingly ascended the bema (in this case a portable judgmentseat, brought for the day outside the Praetorium), and in such words as Ibis ad crucem" delivered Him to be crucified." Pilate's place in the Christian tragedy, and perhaps also in the Creed, stimulated legend about him in two directions, equally unhistorical. The Gospel of Nicodemus, written by a Christian (possibly as early, Tischendorf thought, as the middle of the 2nd century), repeats the trial in a dull and diluted way; but adds not only alleged evidence of the Resurrection, but the splendid vision of the descensus ad inferos - the whole professing to be recorded in the Acta Pilati or official records of the governor. The Epistola Pilati gives Pilate's supposed account to Tiberius of the Resurrection; and the Paradosis Pilati relates how Tiberius condemned him and his wife Procla or Procula, both Christian converts. All this culminates in Pilate being canonized in the Abyssinian Church (June 25), and his wife in the Greek (Oct. 27). On the other hand the Mors Pilati tells how when condemned by the emperor he committed suicide; and his body, thrown first into the Tiber and then the Rhone, disturbed both waters, and was driven north into " Losania," where it was plunged in the gulf near Lucerne and below Mt Pilatus (originally no doubt Pileatus or cloud-capped), from whence it is raised every Good Friday to sit and wash unavailing hands.

Bibliography. - For legends see Tischendorf's Evangelia apocrypha (1863) and Apocryphal Gospels, Ante-Nicene Lib. (1880).

The earlier Pilate literature, to the extent of rTo treatises, chiefly of the 17th and 18th centuries, is enumerated in G. A. Milller's Pontius Pilatus der fii.nfte Prokurator von Judeia (Stuttgart, 1888). See in loco in the following English or translated histories of the life or time of Jesus, Theodor Keim, E. Schiirer, A. Edersheim, J. P. Lange, Bernhard Weiss and F. W. Farrar; Expositor (1884) p. 107 and (1900) p. 59; also H. Peter," Pontius Pilatus, der romische Landpfleger in Judea," in Neue Jahrb. f. d. kl Altertum (1907). Sir James Fitzjames Stephen, in his Liberty, Equality and Fraternity (1873), p. 87, starts the question, " Was Pilate right in crucifying Christ: " his somewhat paradoxical answer is criticised in The Trial of Jesus Christ, a legal monograph, by A. Taylor Innes (1899).

(A. T. I.)

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Bibliography Information
Chisholm, Hugh, General Editor. Entry for 'Pontius Pilate'. 1911 Encyclopedia Britanica. 1910.

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