It has been bitterly remarked that the most well‑known Roman in history is Pontius Pilate. That caustic comment is probably true. Nero is renowned for depravity and cruelty, Julius Caesar the man who invaded Britain and was defeated, but much more familiar is the name of this rather minor diplomatic official who had the misfortune to be Procurator (Governor) of Judea at the time of the Crucifixion. Since that day he has been universally despised and vilified, and made to carry the major share of responsibility for the condemnation of Christ. What kind of man was he?
The four Gospels record his behaviour at the trial of Jesus but do not tell us anything about him. The two Jewish historians of the period, Josephus and Philo, have a little to say and what they do say shows him in a bad light. Roman historians only refer to him in passing, so that not much is known about his life before coming to Judea, nor his subsequent career after the tragedy in which he played so prominent a part. What little is known enables a picture of the man to be drawn; the history of his ten years' administration in Judea throws some light upon his character.
Pontius Pilate was appointed Procurator of Judea by the Emperor Tiberius Caesar in A.D.26, three years before John the Baptist appeared. He was, so far as can be determined, about thirty years of age, of Spanish‑Italian blood, born at Seville in Spain, and making considerable progress in Roman government service. He was well known and esteemed at Caesar's court, enjoying the confidence both of Tiberius and Aelius Sejanus, an influential politician who at that time was the "power behind the throne".
Pilate married Claudia Procula, a granddaughter of the late Emperor Augustus Caesar, distantly related therefore to the reigning emperor Tiberius. It was Claudia Procula who sent her husband the warning message at the time of the trial. There is not much doubt that Pilate's connection by marriage with the Caesars was a factor in his rapid promotion, although when he received the intimation that he was to succeed Valerius Gratus in the administration of Judea he might well have considered it a backhanded compliment, for none of Rome's subject peoples were more difficult to govern than the Jews. It was probably with very mixed feelings that Pilate and his wife set sail from Rome to take up his new appointment.
From this point some appraisal of the man's character can be made. One of the paradoxes of history is that Pontius Pilate appears in a much more favourable light in the Gospels than he does in the writings of Jewish historians. All four Evangelists unite in testifying that Pilate went to extreme lengths to acquit his prisoner and only when threatened with an accusation of treason to Rome did he give way. The literature of the Early Church is generally more favourable towards Pilate than it is toward the Jewish leaders of the day and there is no doubt upon whom the early Christians placed the main responsibility for the Crucifixion. Jewish writers of the time, Philo and Josephus, on the contrary, vilified him in the extreme. Since he represented the hated Roman power their attitude is understandable; the Jews were forever trying to get the governors into trouble with their superiors and often, it is true, with ample justification. Apart from Porcius Festus, who was Governor, A.D.60‑62 (and is mentioned in the Book of Acts) they were an unprincipled lot and usually out for illicit personal gain. Philo defined the administration of Pilate as one of "corruptibility, violence, robberies, ill‑treatment of the people, grievances, continuous executions without even the form of a trial, endless and intolerable cruelties". Josephus describes him as "mercenary, avaricious, cruel and bloodthirsty, conscienceless, and yet at the decisive moment wanting in decision". There is not much doubt that Pilate was a ruthless and somewhat obstinate man possessed of a profound contempt for the Jews. The known incidents of his administration highlight that fact. At the same time he was probably, from the viewpoint of Rome, a good governor. Tiberius is known to have been very scrupulous about the men he appointed, and the fact that Pilate lasted ten years would seem to show that there was no official dissatisfaction with his regime although he sailed perilously close to the wind at times. He involved himself in trouble at the beginning of his term of office. It was the custom for Roman troops to carry images of the Emperor on their standards, but on account of Jewish religious scruples former governors had not allowed them to be taken into Jerusalem itself. Pilate, either through ignorance or obstinacy, ordered his legionaries to carry the images into the city and this immediately provoked reaction. A number of leading Jews waited upon him at Caesarea, the official residence of the Roman governor, to plead for their removal. Pilate refused and there was a riot. He ordered his soldiers to draw their swords upon the multitude if they would not disperse and at once the Jews prostrated themselves upon the ground vowing they would suffer death rather than assent to heathen images in their Holy City. Pilate could not afford to start his new appointment with a massacre and he yielded, with bad grace. A few years later he determined to give Jerusalem a good water supply by building an aqueduct from the Pools of Solomon, thirty miles south of the city. Probably thinking that a work of such public utility would be approved by all, he raided the Temple treasury to pay for it, and this provoked another riot which he put down ruthlessly with heavy loss of life. Following this, and probably not long before the events of the Crucifixion, he erected some golden shields with dedications to Caesar in Herod's palace in Jerusalem, and this time the outraged Jews sent a letter of complaint to the Emperor. Tiberius ordered Pilate to remove the shields. Altogether, by the time Jesus appeared before him, Pilate and the leading Jews were on extremely bad terms. Jesus himself referred to an otherwise unknown incident when He spoke (Luke 13.1 Diaglott) of those "Galileans, whose blood Pilate mingled with their sacrifices". A dispassionate view of the evidence seems to indicate that he was not particularly concerned about justice, had no hesitation in using his soldiers against opposition, was indifferent to the religious observances of the community even although Rome's official policy was one of toleration, was obstinate and callous in his dealings. There is no real ground though for thinking he was personally corrupt, amenable to bribes, or that he sought to enrich himself by unjust use of his power as did most of his predecessors and successors. Several indications point to the conclusion that he was a loyal and devoted servant of the Emperor and probably in all that he did was concerned only for the interests of Rome. For the subject peoples he cared not a jot.
The behaviour of Pilate at the trial of Jesus is therefore something of an enigma. There are four Gospel accounts; between them they provide a detailed narrative, and from that narrative it is clear that this usually ruthless and impatient man used every argument and artifice he could think of to avoid a verdict of guilty. Only when he was blackmailed by the suggestion of disloyalty to Caesar did he reluctantly give way. The concern he showed for this solitary prisoner is altogether out of keeping with his known character. The man who ordered his soldiers to massacre unarmed citizens whose only crime was a protest against violation of their religious customs would hardly be likely to concern himself over the guilt or innocence of one unknown man who had already been tried and condemned by his own people. What was it that made Pilate do all that he could to release Jesus, and when he found it of no avail, issue a public disclaimer of responsibility? Surely there is another side to Pilate's character which is not readily obvious.
Consider the situation. Pilate was brought out "early in the morning" to meet the priests arid their prisoner. This could point to Pilate having been approached by the High Priest, Caiaphas, late the previous night with a view to an early trial and quick verdict of guilty, so that all could be over before the Passover ceremonial, due that day, began. This might very well have been the case; the Roman governor would hardly have been amenable to an early morning summons from men he normally disliked and despised unless the appointment had been pre‑arranged. His formal question "What accusation bring ye against this man?" (John 18.29) was the normal prelude to a Roman trial and showed the priests that despite any agreement of the night before he intended reopening the entire matter. Hence their surly rejoinder "If he were not a malefactor, we would not have delivered him up unto thee" (vs.30), to which Pilate replied by telling them to take the prisoner and judge him according to their own law. This did not suit his opponents, who pointed out that having no power to pass the death sentence their purpose could not be achieved. Balked of this first attempt to rid himself of the problem, Pilate went inside the Praetorium—this battle of wits having taken place on the concourse outside, since the priests did not wish to defile themselves on the Passover day by setting foot inside a Gentile building—where he had left Jesus, and talked to him in private. This was the interview at which Jesus explained the nature of his kingship; that his kingdom was not of this world, that He came into the world to bear witness to the truth. But Pilate had no head, and was not in the mood, for philosophising. "What is truth?" (John 18.38) he exclaimed contemptuously and went out to the waiting Jews. "I find in him no fault at all" he told them, and this without giving them any chance to proffer their accusations or produce their witnesses! But this second attempt met with no better success than the first. According to Luke's account (23.5) the Jews vociferously accused Jesus of incitement to tumult, from Jerusalem to Galilee. Pilate's quick mind picked on the latter word; he asked if Jesus was a Galilean. Being told that He was, Pilate saw another possible avenue of escape. His own jurisdiction extended only over Judea; Galilee was under the nominal suzerainty (limited domestic autonomy) of Herod. Herod was in Jerusalem at the moment for the Passover. Pilate sent Jesus to Herod and told his accusers to go there and proffer their complaint.
This, the third effort, failed also. Herod refused to be involved and sent Jesus back. Pilate remembered then that it was the custom on the occasion of the Feast to release a prisoner as a symbolic act of clemency. The custom was really a Roman one in honour of the gods, but had been observed also in Judea. Once again Pilate repeated his view that no fault was to be found in the prisoner, that he would therefore scourge him and release him in observance of the custom, the scourging being obviously a sop to the insistent demand of the Jews that Jesus be condemned. That alone highlights Pilate's disregard of the ordinary principles of justice.
The proposal was met with a roar of dissent. "Not this man, but Barabbas" . Barabbas was a man admittedly and undoubtedly guilty of sedition and treason. Weakly, Pilate yielded and consented to the release of Barabbas. Thus ended his fourth attempt to avoid a decision.
The order of incidents in the trial is a little difficult to follow but it seems that Pilate next brought Jesus out before the crowd, arrayed in the purple robe and the crown of thorns, repeating his former statement, "I bring him forth to you, that ye may know that I find no fault in him". And as Jesus approached, Pilate uttered the phrase for which he has become famous "Behold the man!" It is impossible to determine whether those words were spoken in admiration or contempt; certain it is that Pilate was at that moment profoundly contemptuous of the accusers, for as they vociferously shouted out "Crucify him, crucify him" he replied coldly "Take ye him, and crucify him: for I find no fault in him" (John 19.6). He knew full well that they could not take and crucify anyone; that prerogative belonged only to Pilate. They knew that too, that they must rely upon the consent of the Roman to get their purpose accomplished. In a milder and more conciliatory tone, therefore, they re‑joined "We have a law, and by our law he ought to die, because he made himself the Son of God" (vs.7).
It is significant that although no crime against Roman law was involved in such a claim, Pilate, as soon as he heard the words, was "the more afraid", going back into the Praetorium to ask Jesus from whence He really had come. He received no answer. To his reminder that he, the governor, had power both to crucify and to release, Jesus calmly told him that he had no power at all except it were permitted him from above, and at that Pilate was more afraid than ever. He declared once again and for the fifth time that Jesus would be released.
The priests were not defeated. They had a trump card, and now they prepared to use it. They knew where to find Pilate's vulnerable point. The former accusations were put aside; a new one brought to the front. The kingship of Christ had already been mentioned; a new cry fell upon the ears of the harassed Governor. "If thou let this man go, thou art not Caesar's friend; whosoever maketh himself a king speaketh against Caesar."
Pilate must have heard that cry with a tremor of apprehension. Tiberius was notoriously sensitive on any question of possible treason; these same Jews had already complained once to the Emperor about him and he had received an official reprimand. Any suggestion of connivance at possible rebellion would certainly mean something much more serious than a reprimand. He could not afford the risk. The considerations which had led him all this while to avoid the condemnation of Jesus met a powerful counter‑force. He knew, now, that the priests had won. So Pilate gave in.
There are two elements in the Gospel narratives which shed some light upon the reasons which led Pilate thus to act so much out of character. One is the fact of his very real concern on hearing that Jesus claimed to be the Son of God, and his consequent attempt to learn from Jesus' own lips his origin. The other is the intervention of Pilate's wife. According to Matthew, Pilate had taken his place in the "judgment seat", therefore was in the opening stage of the trial, when a hasty message came to him from Claudia "Have thou nothing to do with that just man; for I have suffered many things in a dream this day because of him". The Praetorium, in which the trial was held, was in the Tower of Antonia. Pilate's official residence when in Jerusalem was in the palace which Herod had originally built for himself, half a mile away. If in fact the High Priest did visit Pilate late the previous night to discuss the trial, Claudia would have known something about it. Pilate left early in the morning for the Praetorium; his wife, awaking later and finding him gone, sent the frantic message, just as Pilate was about to open the trial.
Like most Romans, Pilate probably had at least a nominal belief in the gods. He would certainly have been well acquainted with the literary works current in his time, and he must have been familiar with the stories of gods coming down to earth in the form of men. He could hardly have viewed the God of Israel as other than one of the many gods of heaven, one perhaps solely concerned with the Jews but essentially of the same nature as those of Rome. The histories of his own people and of the Greeks told of occasions when one or another of the gods, coming to earth in the guise of some peasant or poor man, was ill‑treated by those to whom he appeared, and of the vengeance the god wrought upon them in consequence. The enigma of Pilate's conduct during this eventful trial can well be explained if the calm and unruffled demeanour of Christ, his assertion that Pilate had no power against him unless it were permitted from above, the Jews' intimation that He had claimed to be the Son of God, and Claudia's anxious warning, had given rise to a real fear in the Procurator's mind that the man before him might well be one of the gods come to earth, just as they had been reported to do in former times. Had he been sure that Jesus was no more than man, Pilate would probably have had no hesitation in condemning him, innocent or guilty, and forgetting the whole matter. But he was not sure, and he feared the vengeance of the gods. So he wavered, torn between his dread of Jupiter and his fear of Caesar, while the Jews waited, exultant.
One last gesture, one despairing effort to appease the powers of heaven, since those on earth would not be mollified. He called for water, and a bowl was brought. There, in full view of the now quiet multitude, he ceremonially washed his hands. "I am innocent of the blood of this just person; see ye to it." And there arose a great shout, a cry that has echoed down the centuries and earned a terrible fulfilment; "His blood be on us, and on our children. And Pilate gave sentence that it should be as they required."
Little more is known of the life of Pilate after that dreadful day. Two years later he was involved in a fracas with the Samaritans. A fanatical prophet had promised to reveal the secret hiding place of some sacred objects on Mount Gerizim and a multitude had assembled. Pilate, nerves on edge and fearing an insurrection, sent his soldiers against this unarmed concourse and there was a massacre. The Samaritans appealed to Vitellius, the Governor of Syria, Pilate's superior. Vitellius ordered Pilate to return to Rome to face the Emperor. So, in disgrace, the unhappy man and his wife boarded ship for home. But Tiberius died whilst Pilate was on the voyage, and when he did reach the capital Caligula was Emperor, and what happened to Pilate no one really knows. He was no longer important enough to figure in Roman historians' works and there are only the traditions of the Early Church to go upon.
It is only to be expected that the early Christians of the first few generations would preserve among themselves some recollections relating to the fate of the man who condemned their Lord. There were Jews in Rome at the time; within a matter of ten years there were Christians. The traditions as they have come down to us are fragmentary and somewhat contradictory; the most probable reconstruction is that Caligula was not greatly interested either in Pilate or his alleged crimes, but deprived him of office and banished him to Gaul (France) where in A.D.41, eight years after the Crucifixion, he ended his life by his own hand. If that is indeed a true recollection, does that last desperate act indicate remorse for the part he had played or a haunting dread that he had indeed offended the gods beyond repair by his treatment of their Sent One? He must have known of the excitement in Jerusalem associated with the preaching of the Resurrection of Christ and noted how the same priestly fraternity to whose demands he had so weakly submitted proved to be powerless against the unlearned disciples now preaching that this same Jesus lived again. As a Roman, he knew only the Roman gods, but what he saw and heard in Jerusalem in the months after the Crucifixion might well have convinced him that Jesus was one sent from the gods.
Several Apocryphal books contain alleged reports of the trial, said to have been sent to Tiberius by Pilate, but none of them are likely to have any foundation in fact. There is in existence a lengthy treatise claimed to be translated from a manuscript in the Vatican library purporting to be Pilate's official report to the Emperor. Such manuscript, if it exists is most likely to be one of the "religious fictions" of the Middle Ages‑many such are known. It is certainly not genuine, for it contains too many inaccuracies, betokening its author's ignorance of the conditions in Judea at the time. If in fact Pilate did make any report justifying his actions it is most unlikely that it has survived; as a document of no particular importance it would have been destroyed at the next clear‑out of unwanted Government records.