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Pontius Pilate and the New Testament
Jason Freewalt
BIL 102: New Testament Survey
Dr. Kierstead
March 11, 1999

Early in the morning, all the chief priests and the elders of the people came to the decision to put Jesus to death.  They bound him, led him away and handed him over to Pilate, the governor.[1]

Pontius Pilate is perhaps the most villainous of all the characters in the Bible.  Despite the fact that he is mentioned in each of the four gospel accounts, very little time is spent discussing him.[2]  This paper will endeavor to probe various historical sources to uncover a deeper understanding of the man Pontius Pilate.

The only mention of Pontius Pilate in pagan Latin text is in Tacitus' Annals of Imperial Rome.[3]   In it, Tacitus describes Emperor Nero's attempts to blot out

the notoriously depraved Christians (as they were popularly called).  Their originator, Christ, had been executed in Tiberius' reign by the governor of Judaea [sic], Pontius Pilatus.  But in spite of this temporary setback the deadly superstition had broken out afresh, not only in Judaea [sic] (where the mischief had started) but even in Rome.  All degraded and shameful practices collect and flourish in the capital.[4]

After examining this text, it can easily be confirmed that Pilate was indeed the governor of Judea as is stated in Matthew 27:2.  He served as governor from AD 26 to AD 36, and was the military governor of the Roman controlled province of Judaea or Judea,[5] with its capital at the Roman built city of Caesarea.  He was placed as governor (sometimes called procurator or prefect[6]) by the Emperor Tiberius in the twelfth year of his reign.[7]  Almost immediately, there was great trouble as a result.

In the middle of the night, Pilate covertly conveyed images (or standards) of Tiberius Caesar to Jerusalem.  The Jews were aghast at the audacity of their unwelcome governor to "trample" on their religious laws by setting up graven images in the Holy City.  Despite the pleadings of the Jews, Pilate refused to listen to them.  Instead, he sent troops to surround the Jews and threatened to "cut them into pieces unless they accepted the images of Caesar."  To his surprise, the Jews "fell to the ground in a body and bent their necks [to receive decapitation], shouting that they were ready to be killed rather than transgress the Law."  Amazed at their religious fervor, Pilate removed the images of Caesar from Jerusalem.[8]

In another episode, Pontius Pilate spent a secret Jewish treasure known as Corban by building an aqueduct.  A riot ensued in Jerusalem over the expenditure of the sacred treasure.  To quell the riot, Pilate mixed his soldiers with the riotous mob, "wearing civilian clothing over their armour [sic], and with orders not to draw their swords but to use clubs on the obstreperous."  When he gave the order to attack, his soldiers clubbed many of the Jews to death.  The ensuing panic and evacuation of the area caused many of the Jews to be trampled to death.[9]  Thus, Pilate was feared as a heavy-handed governor.

According to the historian Eusebius, Pilate was never able to "wash his hands" of the execution of Jesus Christ.[10]  In fact, he was perplexed by it to the extent that he issued a report about the supernatural nature of Christ and His resurrection to the Emperor Tiberius.  Eusebius states, "Tiberius referred the report to the senate, which rejected it.  …for the old law still held good that no one could be regarded by the Romans as a god unless by vote and decree of the senate."[11]  Nevertheless, the life of Pontius Pilate would be forever changed by the infamous decree to crucify Jesus. 

While Pontius Pilate is blamed for the execution of our Savior Jesus Christ, his life was a strange twist of fate.  He was sent to the dusty and arid lands of Judea to fulfill God's plan of Salvation for humanity.  Aside from the Biblical evidence and scant outside evidence, little is known of him.  Even less is known about his death.  One legend records that Pilate committed suicide over a forged Memoranda of Pilate which blasphemed Christ and was spread throughout all of Judea.  According to Eusebius, Pilate "paid the penalty of his malignity."[12]  Other legends or traditions record that he became a Christian (ironically) and was executed by the Roman Senate.  Because of this tradition, he is considered a martyr by the Coptic Church and was venerated as a saint.  His feast day is June 25.[13]  While "Saint Pontius Pilate" has a rather strange ring to it, only God can judge the soul.  Such was the life and death of one of the world's most infamous villains.

[1] Matthew 27:1-2, NIV.
[2] Matthew 21:1-26, Mark 15:6-15, Luke 22:66-23:25, John 18:28-19:16.
[3] Tacitus, The Annals of Imperial Rome, Translated by Michael Grant, London: Penguin, 1971, 365, footnote one.
[4] Ibid., 365.
[5] "Pontius Pilate," Encarta 98 Desk Encyclopedia, Microsoft Corporation, 1997.
[6] Josephus, The Jewish War, Translated by G. A. Williamson, Revised by E. Mary Smallwood, London: Penguin, 1981, Appendix A, 465.
[7] Eusebius, The History of the Church from Christ to Constantine, Translated by G. A. Williamson, Revised and Edited by Andrew Louth, London: Penguin, 1989, 26.
[8] Josephus, 138.
[9] Ibid., 139.
[10] Matthew 27:24, NIV.
[11] Eusebius, 38.
[12] Ibid., 286.
[13] Encarta 98 Desk Encyclopedia.
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