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Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblical Literature

Pilate Pontius

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Pi´late, Pon´tius, was the sixth Roman Procurator of Judea (;;; John 18-19), under whom our Lord taught, suffered, and died (;;;; Tacit. Annal. xv. 44). The testimony of Tacitus on this point is no less clear than it is important; for it fixes beyond a doubt the time when the foundations of our religion were laid. The words of the great historian are: 'The author of that name (Christian) or sect was Christ, who was capitally punished in the reign of Tiberius by Pontius Pilate.'

Pilate was the successor of Valerius Gratus, and governed Judea, as we have seen, in the reign of Tiberius. He held his office for a period of ten years. The agreement on this point between the accounts in the New Testament and those supplied by Josephus, is entire and satisfactory.

Pilate's conduct in his office was in many respects highly culpable. Josephus has recorded two instances in which Pilate acted very tyrannically (Antiq. xviii. 3. 1; comp. De Bell Jud. ii. 9. 2, sq.) in regard to the Jews. He conducted himself with equal injustice and cruelty to the Samaritans also. His own misconduct led the Samaritans to take a step which in itself does not appear seditious or revolutionary, when Pilate seized the opportunity to slay many of the people, not only in the fight which ensued, but also in cold blood after they had given themselves up. 'But when this tumult was appeased, the Samaritan Senate sent an embassy to Vitellius, now President of Syria, and accused Pilate of the murder of those who had been slain. So Vitellius sent Marcellus, a friend of his, to take care of the affairs of Judea, and ordered Pilate to go to Rome to answer before the Emperor to the accusation of the Jews, Pilate, when he had tarried ten years in Judea, made haste to Rome, and this in obedience to the orders of Vitellius, which he durst not contradict; but, before he could get to Rome, Tiberius was dead' (Joseph. Antiq. xviii. 4. 2). This removal took place before the Passover, in A.D. 36, probably about September or October, A.D. 35; Pilate must, therefore, as he spent ten years in Judea, have entered on his government about October, A.D. 25, or at least before the Passover, A.D. 26, in the twelfth year of Tiberius's sole empire.

To be put out of his government by Vitellius, on the complaints of the people of his province, must have been a very grievous mortification to Pilate; and though the emperor was dead before he reached Rome, he did not long enjoy such impunity as guilt permits; for, as Eusebius states, he shortly afterwards made away with himself out of vexation for his many misfortunes.

Owing to the atrocity of the deed in which Pilate took a principal part, and to the wounded feelings of piety with which that deed has been naturally regarded by Christians, a very dark idea has been formed of the character of this Roman governor. That character was undoubtedly bad; but moral depravity has its degrees, and the cause of religion is too sacred to admit any spurious aid from exaggeration. It is therefore desirable to form a just conception of the character of Pilate, and to learn specifically what were the vices under which he labored. For this purpose a brief outline of the evangelical account seems necessary. The narratives on which the following statement is founded may be found in John 18-19; Matthew 27; Mark 15; Luke 23.

Jesus having been betrayed, apprehended, and found guilty of blasphemy by the Jewish Sanhedrim, is delivered to Pilate in order to undergo the punishment of death, according to the law in that case provided. This delivery of Jesus to Pilate was rendered necessary by the fact, that the Jews, though they retained for the most part their laws and customs, both civil and religions, did not possess the power of life and death which was in the hands of the Roman governor. Pilate could not have been ignorant of Jesus and His pretensions. He might, had he chosen, have immediately ordered Jesus to be executed, for He had been tried and condemned to death by the laws of the land; but he had an alternative. As the execution of the laws, in the case at least of capital punishments, was in the hands of the Roman Procurator, so without any violent straining might his tribunal be converted into a court of appeal in the last instance. At any rate, remonstrance against an unjust verdict was easy and proper on the part of a high officer, who, as having to inflict the punishment, was in a measure responsible for its character. And remonstrance might easily lead to a revision of the grounds on which the verdict had been given, and thus a cause might virtually be brought, de novo, before the Procurator: this took place in the case of our Lord. Pilate gave Him the benefit of a new trial, and pronounced Him innocent.

This review of the case was the alternative that lay before Pilate, the adoption of which speaks undoubtedly in his favor, and may justify us in declaring that his guilt was not of the deepest dye.

That the conduct of Pilate was, however, highly criminal cannot be denied. But his guilt was light in comparison of the criminal depravity of the Jews, especially the priests. His was the guilt of weakness and fear, theirs the guilt of settled and deliberate malice. His state of mind prompted him to attempt the release of an accused person in opposition to the clamors of a misguided mob; theirs urged them to compass the ruin of an acquitted person by instigating the populace, calumniating the prisoner, and terrifying the judge. If Pilate yielded against his judgment under the fear of personal danger, and so took part in an act of unparalleled injustice, the priests and their ready tools originated the false accusation, sustained it by subornation of perjury, and when it was declared invalid, enforced their own unfounded sentence by appealing to the lowest passions. Pilate, it is clear, was utterly destitute of principle. He was willing, indeed, to do right, if he could do right without personal disadvantage. Of gratuitous wickedness he was perhaps incapable, certainly in the condemnation of Jesus he has the merit of being for a time on the side of innocence. But, he yielded to violence, and so committed an awful crime. In his hands was the life of the prisoner. Convinced of his innocence he ought to have set him at liberty, thus doing right, regardless of consequences. But this is an act of high virtue which we hardly look for at the hands of a Roman governor of Judea; and though Pilate must bear the reproach of acting contrary to his own declared convictions, yet he may equally claim some credit for the apparently sincere efforts which he made in order to defeat the malice of the Jews and procure the liberation of Jesus.

If now we wish to form a judgment of Pilate's character, we easily see that he was one of that large class of men who aspire to public offices, not from a pure and lofty desire of benefiting the public and advancing the good of the world, but from selfish and personal considerations, from a love of distinction, of power, of self-indulgence; being destitute of any fixed principles, and having no aim but office and influence, they act right only by chance and when convenient, and are wholly incapable of pursuing a consistent course, or of acting with firmness and self-denial in cases in which the preservation of integrity requires the exercise of these qualities. Pilate was obviously a man of weak, and therefore, with his temptations, of corrupt character. This want of strength will readily account for his failing to rescue Jesus from the rage of his enemies, and also for the acts of injustice and cruelty which he practiced in his government—acts which, considered in themselves, wear a deeper dye than does the conduct which he observed in surrendering Jesus to the malice of the Jews. And this same weakness may serve to explain to the reader how much influence would be exerted on this unjust judge, not only by the stern bigotry and persecuting wrath of the Jewish priesthood, but specially by the not concealed intimations which they threw out against Pilate, that, if he liberated Jesus, he was no friend of Tiberius and must expect to have to give an account of his conduct at Rome. And that this was no idle threat, Pilate's subsequent deposition by Vitellius shows very plainly; nor could the procurator have been ignorant either of the stern determination of the Jewish character, or of the offence he had by his acts given to the heads of the nation, or of the insecurity, at that very hour, when the contest between him and the priests was proceeding regarding the innocent victim whom they lusted to destroy, of his own position in the office which he held, and which, of course, he desired to retain. On the whole, then, viewing the entire conduct of Pilate, his previous iniquities as well as his bearing on the condemnation of Jesus—viewing his own actual position and the malignity of the Jews, we cannot, we confess, give our vote with those who have passed the severest condemnation on this weak and guilty governor.

That Pilate made an official report to Tiberius of the condemnation and punishment of Jesus Christ, is likely in itself, and is confirmed by the voice of antiquity. Lardner, who has fully discussed the subject, decides that 'it must be allowed by all that Pontius Pilate composed some memoirs concerning our Savior, and sent them to the emperor.' These documents have in some way been lost, and what we now have under the title of the Acts of Pontius Pilate and his letter to Tiberius, are manifestly spurious, though they have probably been fabricated in some keeping with the genuine pieces, the loss of which the composers of the existing documents sought as well as they could to repair.





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Kitto, John, ed. Entry for 'Pilate Pontius'. "Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblical Literature".

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