is truth?” Pilate’s question to Christ, asked without waiting for an answer, underlines his arrogant character, his dislike
of Jews, and his egotistical focus, while illuminating the crux of his dichotomous involvement in Jesus’ trial, crucifixion
Source information on Pilate’s history is found in
the biblical gospels and secular writings of Philo, Josephus during the time that Tiberius was Emperor as chronicled in Tacitus. Pilate’s youth is unknown, but he started as governor of Judea when he was appointed as Prefect during the reign of the Roman Emperor Tiberius in
A.D. 26, succeeding Valerius Gratus. He came from the Roman Knights or ‘Equites’, a group of Romans defined
by wealth, finances and birth. Pilate probably knew Lucius Aelius Sejanus, leader of the Praetorian Guard, son of a Prefect,
and a confidant of the Emperor. Pilate and Sejanus originated from the same equestrian social environment and so probably
shared similar training and values. Sejanus became Regent in A.D 26 as the Emperor Tiberius distanced himself from public
office. It is not clear whether Pilate was placed into his role as a result of Sejanus’ influence, but in A.D. 26 Pilate
would have had comfort in knowing that his role was understood and supported by Sejanus. Later in A.D. 31, Pilate would need
to re-consider this position as it became more tenuous when Sejanus was arrested and Tiberius started hunting for further
conspirators suspected of supporting Sejanus or planning Tiberius’ downfall.
role of Roman ‘Prefect’, or ‘Procurator’, as it was later known, was that of both a military and administrative
governor. He needed to collect taxes, manage the Roman forces of the area and ensure the local population adhered to the Roman
law. As the representative of Rome in the outlying province, Pilate had to ensure these activities were carried out with minimal
unrest. A Prefect of Rome was not above the law, but interpreted it in the local context, and administered judgment with punishment
as required. The distances from Rome as well as a need to act in a timely manner provided latitude in the interpretation of
this control, and allowed the Procurator to be relatively autonomous of Rome in his application of the law.
Pilate was a brutish governor, lacking in grace, truth and integrity as reported by Philo when referring to Pilate, “his corruption, and his acts of insolence, and
his rapine, and his habit of insulting people, and his cruelty, and his continual murders of people untried and uncondemned,
and his never ending, and gratuitous, and most grievous inhumanity” described his unpleasant character. Philo also explains that Pilate was emotional,
insensitive and stubborn “being exceedingly angry, and being at all times a man of most ferocious passions, he was
in great perplexity, neither venturing to take down what he had once set up, nor wishing to do any thing which could be acceptable
to his subjects”
These attributes caused Pilate to be disliked by his Jewish subjects and his Roman superiors.
An example of his lack of socio-political savvy and understanding of the Jewish religion was reported by Josephus on the occasion of his bringing ensigns of his legion, that the Jews interpreted as
“graven images”, into Jerusalem early in his period of office. This generated uproar among the Jews that lasted
over five days. Gathering in crowds, the Jews asked him to remove the graven images. On the sixth day he prepared his soldiers
in secret and went out to the Jews apparently to negotiate. Instead, he gave them an ultimatum to stop complaining or die,
ordering the soldiers to surround them in ranks three deep armed with spears. He was most surprised when they chose death,
so he backed down vacillating on his decision. As reported by Philo, Pilate wrote to Tiberius who wrote back, angrily ordering Pilate to take the offending
emblems out of Jerusalem back to Caesarea from which they came and place them in the temple of Augustus.
This pacified the Jews but reflected badly on Pilate.
A similar incident that also causing considerable
civil discontent, was resolved by Pilate in a less amicable manner. Josephus reports Pilate used temple money inappropriately to build an aqueduct bringing water
to Jerusalem. Again crowds gathered and this time Pilate had soldiers dress as civilians to infiltrate the angry civilians
and beat them into submission with staffs, killing many. This is perhaps what Luke refers to in Luke 13:1
It is clear Pilate was stubborn, unwilling to negotiate and chose violent confrontational
approaches when interacting with the Jews, but he continually worried that bad reports of his appalling behavior would reach
The truth of Jesus’ interactions with Pilate must be understood
within this moral, social and political background. John, when writing in A.D 90 was immersed in Roman culture and therefore
addressed the gospel story referring to Pilate from more of a Roman perspective than the writers of the other gospels who,
addressing Palestine, were more Jewish and less Roman in orientation.
John reports, as
do the Synoptic’s, that on that fateful morning in the dark hours, Jesus, bound by the Jews is brought to Pilate after
he had completed the final of the three Jewish trials. Roman Governors routinely started their day before dawn, but Pilate would rarely have had a request of this nature so early in the day and
with as little warning as he received. Normally the Sanhedrin would have taken longer to deliberate on so significant a case
and the news would have reached Pilate beforehand. Pilate also would usually have been in residence in Caesarea, but during
the Passover he had moved to Jerusalem “in case a riot or insurrection took place”. This was the reason for his presence there when Jesus was brought to him.
John 18:28 makes a point of telling us that Pilate came to meet the crowd outside so that the Jews would
not need to become unclean and thereby miss the Passover celebration. This concession of Pilate shows that he was attempting
to address the situation with more care than some of the previous interactions. Perhaps this is due to being in the post-‘Sejanus’
timeframe where Pilate was taking care not to do anything that could be construed to annoy Tiberius. An uprising during the
Passover period with the additional numbers of Jews in the city would not have reflected well on Pilate. Also, he was aware
that the Jews and Tiberius had a sufficiently strong relationship that Herod had named a town in his honor, and at this point
Pilate was not yet on good terms with Herod. In fact it is only due to their common role in Jesus’ trial that Pilate
becomes friends with Herod (Luke 23:12) so he perhaps had decided during this trial to be prudent regarding Jewish politics
and religion. This is out of character for Pilate, who was known to hate the Jews. He spends considerable time investigating
the charges against Jesus. This again seems out of character unless one realizes that he probably did not care about the supposed
innocence or not of a Jew. It’s more likely that he was concerned about the possible civil unrest and whether he could
reject the Jews request, than he cared about Jesus.
John, unlike the synoptic gospels, records
Pilate asking about the charges brought against Jesus. F.F.Bruce notes Pilate would have been told the charges in advance and was manipulating the charges
into a new Roman trial whereas the Jews simply wanted him to rubber stamp their judgment. This argument appears flawed. The
charges had only been finalized a short period before, it was early, and so it seems unlikely anyone would have wanted to
disturb Pilate before he was ready to start his day. In addition, when Pilate later urges the Jews to execute their judgment
themselves, they do not want to do so, but insist on a Roman charge being brought against Jesus showing their fear of the
Jewish people’s potential anger at Jesus’ death. They didn’t want to be held responsible by the masses for
deciding Jesus’ death even if Pilate allowed them to make the decision.
asking for charges would be customary, it was a loaded question to the Jews in this case. They had to make absolutely sure
that in Roman law Jesus would be found to be guilty as they needed him dead before the next day’s celebrations started.
Pilate, hating the Jews, would probably have preferred to reject their requests, but since it was Passover he had to be careful
not to cause unnecessary trouble. Luke 23:2 differs from John explaining that the Jews replied to Pilate
with three charges not one, “And they began to accuse him, saying,
“We have found this man subverting our nation. He opposes payment of taxes to Caesar and claims to be Christ,b a king.”
focuses only on the one charge, that of being King, probably because he wants to communicate clearly it was the only charge
that could be used to achieve Jesus’ death in a short timeframe required by the Jews. Pilate’s response is consistent
with his character and John reports Pilate immediately asking, “Are you the king of the Jews?”5
This is also reported in all other gospels however the way the answer is given differs between the synoptic’s
and John. In the synoptic’s Jesus answers Pilate, “Yes, it is as you say”, but in John, Jesus first ensures Pilate understands he is not a King as the term would
commonly have been understood. Jesus answers Pilate with a question, following rabbinical custom of the time, indicating that
this account is probably more detailed than the synoptic’s account and that perhaps the writer had access to more information.
Pilate’s discussion then serves to clarify to John’s readers the role of Jesus, and the measure that those wanting
to understand and follow Jesus would need to comply to. John 18:38 “Everyone on the side of truth
listens to me” shows Jesus establishing criteria for those who will support him. Pilate pays lip service to this
by asking the question on truth but does not wait for the answer as previously mentioned in this essay. He does not listen
and so truth will evade him. Being able to determine that Jesus was not guilty of the charges would have pleased Pilate, but
as a coward he would rather have others take the responsibility for the decision and after determining Jesus to be Galilean,
a conversation not recorded in detail, sends Jesus to Herod.
John omits any record
of Pilate sending Jesus to Herod, and only Luke’s gospel records this in Luke 23:6-12. This same text describes the
friendship between Pilate and Herod starting as a result of this incident, but Herod sends Jesus back to Pilate who is again
faced with the responsibility of convicting Jesus himself. All gospel’s clearly record that Pilate believes there is
no basis for the charges against Jesus and Pilate states this a number of times. His attempt to substitute Barabbas, another
convict, in place of Jesus fails. F.F Bruce indicates that Barabbas would have probably been convicted of the same type of sentence
that the rabble wanted for Jesus. Pilate’s failure to pronounce Jesus innocent and let him go free is finally shown
to be self serving ensuring he would not get into trouble with his superiors as when the crowd threatens to go to Caesar,
Pilate agrees to convict Jesus. Perhaps the memory that in the past similar stands against the Jews had hurt him politically
and at the time of Jesus trial he could no longer rely on the support of Sejanus played a factor. John’s depiction of
Pilate entertaining the unjustified call for Jesus’ death even when he knows himself it is wrong, is perhaps the answer
to Pilate’s question “what is truth?”
Pilate is so distorted
by his character, his history, his immorality and the pressures on him, that to him the truth is what he pleases to make it,
rather that what God ordains. Driven by fear of reprisal, Pilate capitulates rather than standing as a leader with integrity.
He attempts to degrade Jesus in the eyes of others by having him scourged and dressed in mock robes and a crown of thorns.
This cruelty reported by John is consistent with Pilate’s character, but in so doing he succeeds in degrading himself
further. Jesus is shown to have the integrity Pilate lacks.
of Pilate naming Jesus “King of the Jews” when talking to the crowd’s is revealed by Pilate’s belief
that he is mocking the Jews and Jesus, while apparently being unaware he is in fact proclaiming the truth. John’s statement
in the prologue, “He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him” emphasizes this interaction. Is it perhaps to highlight this that John included Pilate’s
question on truth?
The crowd calls for Jesus’ crucifixion when Pilate parades Jesus before them and John differs from the other
gospel’s by pointing out that Pilate tried to get them to kill Jesus without first having convicting him of a Roman
crime. F.F.Bruce explains that the Jewish capital crime was claiming to be Son of God, while the Roman
capital crime was claiming to be King of the Jews. Pilate gives them latitude to crucify Jesus without Roman conviction, “You
take him and crucify him. As for me, I find no basis for a charge against him.” but they angrily demand a Roman verdict. Pilate still does not want to convict Jesus
of the Roman crime and proclaims him innocent for a second time. The Jews re-iterate their demand that he die because he had
broken Jewish law and John is the only gospel that points out Pilate becomes afraid and goes to Jesus again. John is depicting
Pilate to be vacillating in his decision, uncertain of what to do and this aspect is congruent with the earlier incident over
the graven images where he also fails to determine a clear course of action under Jewish pressure. Pilate is selfish, egotistical
and uses the power he thinks he has over Jesus as a point of debate with his apparently helpless prisoner but Jesus remains
in control answering,
“You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above. Therefore the one who handed
me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.” From then on, Pilate tried to set Jesus free”
Jesus makes it very clear to Pilate who
the guilty party is and where the power actually comes from. It appears as if Pilate understands and agrees but true to his
cowardly egotistical past is too weak to hold to the truth. When the Jewish leaders warn him that he would not be doing Caesar’s
will, he agrees to have Jesus crucified.
John is the only gospel that brings the
point forward that Pilate was afraid, but it is consistent with Pilate’s character that fear of reprisal from Tiberius
would motivate his final decision to convict Jesus independent of whether this fear would have been realized or not.
Pilate sacrifices truth on the altar of ego and self-preservation. He convicts Jesus from his tribunal seat surrounded
by the demands of the Jews to crucify Jesus. John using Roman time keeping puts the time as the sixth hour or 6am.
John’s gospel does not refer to Pilate’s washing of his hands to signify his innocence that
Matthew’s gospel refers to, nor to the later mocking of Jesus by Pilate’s soldiers, but it moves the narrative
directly to the crucifixion. It appears that John’s purpose is to show Jesus as King and God supreme who died for our
sins, so he appears to ignore these other aspects as not being central to the theme that he is developing. John wants to show
Jesus is in control of the circumstances and keeps Him at the center of his narrative.
Pilate is next referred to when he insists that the title over Jesus’ head reads “The king of the Jews”.
His direction at having the charge placed where all the public could see it is true to the stubbornness and enjoyment he took
in doing things that annoyed the Jews. Pilate enjoys insisting that the charge that the Jews brought is placed over Jesus
in such a way as to embarrass the Jewish leaders. The dichotomy of this event is again that Pilate does not believe Jesus
is the King of the Jews, but insists on placing what he believes is a lie above Jesus head. The Jews agree with Pilate that
Jesus is not a King and want it to be clear they never stated he was a king, both are wrong since Jesus is a King and John
narrates this incident to portray Him this way. Pilate’s title proclaims to the world a truth that it does not want
to accept, “He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.” John successfully shows
that both Jews and Gentiles alike bear the responsibility of the attempted misrepresentation of the truth and that Jesus is
successful with truth dominating the actions of those that want to lie. Pilate unintentionally but correctly displays the
truth about Jesus for the world to see and acknowledge.
The injury Pilate
had ordered inflicted on Jesus as a result of the scourging causes Jesus to die earlier than the others crucified with him.
John records how the Jews requested the crucified have their legs broken to hasten their death, but that this was not necessary
for Jesus as he was already dead. Pilate would have approved the leg breaking to avoid trouble with the Passover crowds. Instead
Pilate’s soldiers, to verify Jesus is dead, stab a spear into him. John takes time to point out clearly that he personally
testifies that Jesus bones were not broken so that he can show that Pilate’s form of death completes prophecies about
the Messiah. No broken bones being required as in Exodus 12:46, Numbers 9:12 and Psalm 34:20 and the piercing prophecy being
referred to in Zechariah 12:10. It also fulfilled the prophecy that “A person under God’s curse was to be
displayed (hanged) on a tree as a sign of judged sin (Deut. 21:23; Gal. 3:13).” .
The next action of Pilate regarding Jesus
was when he granted Joseph of Arimathea the right to have Jesus body. FF Bruce points out it was not customary for those convicted of sedition to have their bodies
handed over, but that Pilate probably allowed this to occur because of his belief in Jesus’ innocence. This was uncharacteristic
of Pilate and not in line with his normal cruel and vengeful disposition. Perhaps Jesus, through his innocent death, finally
got through to this hardhearted man!
Pilate’s final action regarding Jesus
was the sealing of Jesus tomb and posting of a guard but this is reported by Matthew and not by John. Pilate provided a significant
service to mankind since by doing this he removed the potential of the stolen body story ever having any significance and
supported Christ’s resurrection. This would hardly have been his intent and again the dichotomy of his action is revealed.
Truth prevails as a result of his actions and his intent is again thwarted by God’s sovereign will. Two courses run
through the same event, one having physical intent, one having spiritual intent. The spiritual purpose succeeds and the soldiers
have to appeal to the Jews to protect them from Pilate’s vengeance for failing in their assigned duty by spreading stories
that were obviously untrue or they would have had no need to spread those stories.
final events of Pilate’s years of governing are recorded by Josephus and conclude in a final incident of socio-political
ineptness. Pilate learns that the Samaritans are gathering with weapons to go up to Mt Gerissim to see what are, supposedly,
some sacred vessels from Moses’ time. Again his confrontational reactionary impulse sets in and Pilate decides to stop
the crowd using horses and soldiers. This results in the killing of many Samaritans who had no quarrel with him. The angry
Samaritans send messengers to Vitellius, a Roman Consol with authority over Pilate. Vitellius replaces Pilate with a man named
Marcellus and Pilate has to go to Rome to answer to the accusations of the Jews. This is the last historical event recorded
regarding Pilate and the time is about A.D.36. No more is heard of him. Pontius Pilate convicts
Jesus to physical death and attempts to thwart rumors of his resurrection but succeeds in promoting Jesus’ spiritual
victory, establishing the cross as Jesus’ point of victory and proving his resurrection. While being cruel, self-serving
and hating Jews, he broadcasts Jesus innocence and unintentionally ensures that Jesus is known as a King. His decision to
put Jesus to death provides opportunity of everlasting life for all by being the instrument by which Jesus submits to the
Father’s will. Pilate’s continual protection of himself fails and he has to answer to crimes against the Jews.
His fears are finally realized about two years after Jesus’ death. It is interesting to consider
if on that trip he remembered the words of the innocent man he convicted. Perhaps faced with Jesus’ death and resurrection,
and now facing his own trial while guilty, Pilate was finally forced to face the truth of Jesus, as we all will.
Cornelius P Tacitus, Histories, translated by Alfred John Church &
Willam Jackson Broadribb
b Or Messiah; also in verses 35 and 39
The Holy Bible : New International Version, Jn 1:11. Grand Rapids: Zondervan,
The Holy Bible : New International Version, Jn 19:11-12. Grand
Rapids: Zondervan, 1996, c1984.
The Holy Bible : New International Version, Jn 1:11. Grand Rapids: Zondervan,