In antiquity, Pontius Pilate is characterized as a ruthless and callous ruler that was hardened by the might of the Roman Army and a purveyor of death by professional training. A man who hated his Jewish subjects and made no attempt to understand them. Pilate sat in the judgement seat over Christ (Mt 27:19; Jn 19:13 ESV) and this fact ostensibly confirms the extra-biblical witness of a ruthless and callous man. This conception of Pilate meets resistance in the Gospels. For instance, it seems to be in opposition to what the gospel writers wanted to purvey, that Pilate was a benevolent man (Mt 27:23; Jn 19:12). Was Pilate a ruthless and callous man? Or was he benevolent to Jesus? Why would the gospel writers portray Pilate as a man who was weak, ineffectual, seemingly fair-minded, and desiring to release Jesus? This study seeks to look at the characterizations of Pontius Pilate, which exists in extra-biblical sources and the Gospels, to conclude that the gospel writers’ characterizations of Pontius Pilate are in line with the extra-biblical accounts in antiquity. That is, that Pontius Pilate was a ruthless and callous man who bares culpability in the crucifixion of Jesus.
Examination of Pontius Pilate
During the reign of Augustus Caesar (27 B.C. – A.D. 14), the Roman Empire was strategically divided into two classifications: Peaceful Provinces, which were governed by the Senate and had a leader known as a proconsul; and Unruly Provinces, which were governed directly by the Emperor and had a leader known as a prefect. By A.D. 6, the Jews petitioned to Augustus for the removal of Archelaus, the son of Herod the Great. Subsequently, Judea and Samaria were combined into one province which was ruled by a prefect. Tiberius Caesar came to power in A.D. 14 and promoted Pontius Pilate to prefect of Judea in A.D. 26. Pilate was the fifth prefect of Judea and held the office for ten years.
Pontius Pilate owed his rise to prominence from an influential soldier turned politician, who was an anti-Semite, named Lucius Aelius Sejanus. During Pilate’s reign as prefect of Judea, he lived in Cesarea. The archaeological question of did Pilate exist was answered in 1961 at Cesarea. Italian archaeologists discovered a small stone with an inscription naming Pilate as the grantor of a monument to the Cesareans. Cesarea was a large metropolis on the western coast of Judea that was saturated with Roman culture. Cesarea had a Roman shrine dedicated to the god of Pan. It was a Gentile city filled with idolatry.
We may assume that Pilate was influenced by Pagan worship despite not being “religious.” Roman culture, and we may say more accurately Roman officials, were deeply superstitious. It seems correct to assume that Pilate would prefer to spend his time in Cesarea, only visiting Jerusalem during the Passover season and for other major Jewish festivals. These occasions brought with them civil disturbances and uprisings perhaps perpetrated by Hasmonean adherents. The presence of Pilate, in the city of Jerusalem, brought a strong dissuasion to those who desired to incite a Jewish rebellion. In addition to Pilate’s presence, he would have had at his disposal the presence of four Roman Legions stationed in Judea. A legion consisted of 6,000 soldiers.
Nefarious activities were common occurrences in Jerusalem. Murder, theft, and all manners of crimes were perpetrated on a regular basis. Roman punishment for perpetrating a crime was “outrageously brutal,” according to one scholar. The Roman pension for sadism produced the horrific method of reckoning we know as crucifixion. The other predominant method of punishment was scourging. Which left a criminal close to death and skin that looked like ribbons. It often exposed bones and the entrails, reducing the condemned to a “bloody pulp.” The prefect of Judea had the power of life and death, save an appeal to the Emperor himself, to condemn those whom he believed to be guilty to the sadistic methods of Roman torture and death.
Pilate was a career politician that ruled with the iron fist and ethos of Roman brutality. The blasphemy of the Jewish Temple and the subsequent slaughter of Jews served as a warning to all. It was common for Roman officials to begin their day much earlier than we do today. Roman officials would likely conclude their day at 10:00 in the morning. This fact explains why the Sanhedrin would arrest and try Jesus at night, then subsequently present Jesus to Pilate in the early morning hours (Mt 27:1; Mk 15:1; Jn 18:28).
Examination from Extra-Biblical Sources
The Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus, preserved for us an image of Pontius Pilate. Pilate was not a Jewish sympathizer and probably tended toward anti-Semitism. According to Josephus, Pilate desired to “abolish the Jewish laws” by quartering his army in Jerusalem and installing effigies of Caesar on signs throughout the city. Based upon the fact that Pilate executed this plan during the nighttime, “without the knowledge of the people,” suggests an awareness by Pilate that his actions were deeply offensive to the Jewish people. In response, the Jewish people petitioned Pilate to the point that they “laid their necks bare” under Roman swords. According to Josephus, Pilate was surprised by the resolve of the Jewish people and had the effigies carried back to Cesarea.
A separate known incident was Pilate’s intention to build an aqueduct. To fund this project, he stole money from the Jewish temple. The Jewish people revolted and Pilate met them with a brutal response. We do not know for sure how many Jews were slaughtered but according to Josephus, “many ten-thousands of the people got together, and made a clamor against him,” and subsequently he says, “There were a great number of them slain.” It is likely that this slaughter was referenced in Luke 13:1-2 and could have been the impetus to a fractured relationship between Herod and Pilate. This due to Pilate having slaughtered many Galileans and involving himself in Herod’s jurisdiction. Why is this important? According to Luke 23, Pilate sent Jesus to Herod after he learned that he was Galilean, the two subsequently became friends (23:12). It is likely that Pilate was extending a peace offering by recognizing the tetrarch’s authority and jurisdiction.
Josephus and Philo of Alexandria are two major extra-biblical sources of information about Pontius Pilate. What is clear from their writings is that Pilate and the Jewish people did not have a warm relationship. Pilate sought to undermine and even eradicate their Jewish customs and heritage, he stole money and violently meted out Jews who questioned him. He made no attempt to empathize with the Jewish people and as one scholar said “hated” his Jewish subjects.
Examination From Biblical Sources
The Gospels present us with a picture of Pilate that ostensibly looks very different from the presentation of Pilate that we read in Josephus and Philo. Why the disparity? Some scholars have claimed that the gospel writers knowingly changed the conception of Pilate so that they could condemn the Jewish authorities for the death of Christ. If they could present Pilate as being innocent, then they could blame the Jewish authorities for the death of Christ. The question then becomes which picture of Pilate is accurate? Was Pilate ruthless and cruel or was he sympathetic to Jesus? Our intention is to reject any assertion to the claim that Pilate was sympathetic to Jesus and the Jews. It must be wholly rejected. The gospel writers made no attempts to present Pilate as innocent for the death of Jesus Christ. We will begin by looking at each gospel and extract a particular emphasis that each gospel writer included to elucidate the true intent of the author.
The Gospel of Matthew
“… He took water and washed his hands before the crowd saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood” (Mt 27:22). Did Matthew and the early church believe that Pilate was innocent and not responsible for the death of Jesus? A straightforward reading of this passage seems to suggest this. Our intention is to ask the question of what did this mean. Then we can answer the question of what does it mean.
It is customary to view this verse in this manner, but it is not the appropriate interpretation. According to Carson, some see this as Matthew’s attempt to show that Pilate heeded the warning of his wife in 27:19. But instead of intending to suggest that Pilate acquiesced to his wife’s warning, Matthew is seeking to display irony in his gospel. What is ironic about this statement by Matthew? Matthew is here making an attempt to show that all involved in the death of Christ bare culpability. Matthew indicts Judas for the death of Jesus in 27:3-10, which precedes Pilate’s attempt at patronizing the Jewish authorities in 27:19. Matthew is seeking to emphasize that all parties involved are guilty for the death of Christ. Pilate’s hand-washing is simply showing his desire to use a known Jewish custom in a contemptuous manner.
According to Carson, if Matthew were interested in showing that Pilate was innocent, then why would he include the savage beating of Jesus at the hands of Pilate’s soldiers in 27:27-31? With this perspective in mind, an appropriate interpretation of Matthew’s gospel is to see this as an attempt at indicting all parties involved. Moreover, Matthew sought to display Pilate’s contempt for the Jewish people, authorities, and their customs. This harmonizes well with extra-biblical sources that portray Pilate as having a deep-seated animosity toward the Jewish people.
The Gospel of Mark
“… so Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released for them Barabbas” (Mk 15:15). Why did the crowd have a choice and why was a prisoner released? Did Pilate want to release Jesus because he cared about what would happen to him? Paschal Amnesty was a custom that existed in Judea. This custom drew its roots from ancient Hebrew literature and Leviticus 16. It was associated with the Day of Atonement.
The crowds that gathered that day had gathered in anticipation of the release of a prisoner. It was customary for Pilate to acquiesce to the crowds during the Passover Festival but for reasons other than an empathetic disposition to the Jews. Pilate probably desired to keep peace and desired to quell a potential rebellion. Pilate was a career politician. A rebellion reflected poorly on his leadership ability. For a man that was already on a short leash with the emperor, his desire was to keep the peace at all costs.
The custom of Paschal Amnesty was used to keep peace with his Jewish subjects. The custom allowed for a substitution, by sacrifice, of one who is in prison. The specific custom reads: “they may slaughter [viz., a Passover Lamb] for one …whom they have promised to bring out of prison.” The irony is palpable. It is worth noting at this point that Pilate was the one who provided the crowd with a choice of Barabbas or Jesus. Why would Pilate want to present Jesus to the crowd? A straightforward reading would suggest that Pilate displayed some level of sympathy for Jesus. We cannot know for certain if some level of sympathy existed in the heart of Pilate, but it seems incorrect to assume that this was the impetus for his actions. According to Wessel, Pilate knew enough to know that the chief priests handed Jesus over because of jealousy. Pilate’s previous interactions did not endear him to the Jewish people. Moreover, Pilate hated the Jewish leaders. It then seems appropriate to assume that Pilate’s desire was to subvert any and all actions of the Jewish authorities, whether right or wrong, and that Pilate did not want to find himself working in conjunction with a group he held in disdain. Carson suggests that it may appear as though Pilate was for Jesus, in reality he was against the Sanhedrin.
The disdain that Pilate held for the Jewish authorities, and evidenced in Mark’s gospel, harmonizes well with extra-biblical sources. Therefore we can conclude that Mark did not seek to present Pilate as a man who held sympathy for Jesus but as a man who hated the Jewish authorities and people. Pilate wanted nothing more than to usurp the authorities and make a mockery of their customs, Jesus was simply a means to that end.
The Gospel of Luke
“And their voices prevailed. So Pilate decided that their demand should be granted” (Lk 23:23-24). Luke’s gospel is unique in that it was most likely written for a Roman audience. Luke’s intent was to show that the disciples of Jesus posed no threat to Roman authority. Luke’s gospel is clear in that Jesus was innocent and this is seen in the “declaration of his innocence” by Pilate (Lk 23:22). This theme is furthered by Luke including Pilate’s declaration of innocence three times (Lk 23:4, 14, 22). Did Luke seek to say that Pilate was innocent? No, it seems that Luke was seeking to supplant the idea that Jesus was a threat to Roman authority because Jesus “died an offender against Rome,” due to a capital sentence of crucifixion and not an offender against the Jewish nation. Pilate alone wielded the authority to execute capital punishment. It was standard Roman rule to remove the right to capital punishment of vassal states.
According to Stein, Luke’s gospel reaches to a divine and cosmic level to say that Jesus’ death was the carrying out of God’s will and plan. In addition to this, Stein sees 23:24 as containing a technical term for levying a sentence. Pilate did not declare that Jesus was guilty, he only declared that the Jewish authorities’ desire should be granted. Namely a desire for Jesus to be crucified. Is it correct to say that Luke desired to present Pilate as innocent? Stein answers this question well,
Numerous attempts have been made to absolve Pontius Pilate from the part he played in Jesus’ crucifixion. He is understood by some as a man caught in tragic circumstances and pressed into doing something he really did not want to do. No sympathy, should be lost over a man who was willing to execute someone who was innocent. The one human being who had the most to do with Jesus’ crucifixion was Pontius Pilate. He had the authority to release an innocent man or crucify him. He chose the latter to preserve his political career.
Rather than having a desire to present Pilate as baring no culpability in the death of Jesus, Luke’s intent was to show that God’s will and plan shall not be thwarted. A straightforward reading of Luke’s gospel seems to convey with it the idea that Pilate was innocent but that would be taking the text out of context and dismissing the true intent behind Luke’s message. We can conclude that Luke had no desire to exculpate Pilate and that his gospel does not stand in opposition to the extra-biblical accounts of Pilate.
The Gospel of John
“From then on Pilate sought to release him” (Jn 19:12). John’s gospel presents the most detailed account of Pilate’s interactions with Jesus (18:28-40). John’s gospel contains perhaps the most well-known retort of Pilate, “what is truth” (18:38). It was John’s intent to evidence the notion of aletheia. The notion of truth held many conceptions then and it still does today. The Romans spoke of Veritas as “factual representations” of things or events. In Hebrew thought, the notion of truth represented God’s faithfulness. The retort from Pilate is evidence to the fact that Pilate was thinking from a secular mindset. If Pilate was thinking from a secular mindset then any subsequent fears would be derived from secular sources. Fears deriving from secular sources fear the loss of secular things. A fear of the loss of secular things are those things that are rooted in this world. Pilate felt that he had a great deal at stake. His political career was on the line. The Jewish authorities threatened Pilate in 19:12b. Pilate knew that this was not an empty threat. Before Pilate assumed office, the Sanhedrin appealed to Caesar for the removal of Archelaus, son of Herod the Great, and received their wishes. Pilate knew that the Sanhedrin had the boldness to approach Caesar with their grievances. Any grievance against Pilate could result in his life.
What are we to say about Pilate’s desire to release Jesus? A straightforward reading would be to assume that Pilate desired to release Jesus. But this fails to take into account the antagonistic attitude that Pilate held against the Jewish authorities. In 19:14-15, Pilate displays his disdain for the Jews once again. By proclaiming that Jesus was the King of the Jews, Pilate was continuing to humiliate the Jewish authorities. Carson points out that this title was the title that the Sanhedrin expressly denied could be ascribed to Jesus. Carson continues that Pilate had no desire for justice but for an “ego-building” satisfaction that he received from making the Jewish authorities placate to his authority. It seems appropriate to conclude that John’s gospel offers no attempt to exculpate Pilate and that his gospel does not stand in contradiction to extra-biblical sources.
Apprehension in Condemning Christ to Death
Pilate was apprehensive in condemning Christ to death but for reasons different than we assume. Pilate was no friend of the Jews and moreover was opposed to the Sanhedrin and Jewish authorities in almost every way. Carson sees Pilate as having a “hatred” for the Jewish people and any assumption that he wanted to release Jesus for sympathy fails to recognize his true desire to thwart the Jewish authorities. Though it may seem that Pilate was for Jesus, it is more likely that he was against the Sanhedrin. The enemy of my enemy is my ally.
Moreover, Jesus was not the criminal that Pilate was used to dealing with. Pilate was hardened though war and was used to dealing with brutal men. Pilate was expecting more of a Zealot type than the humble disposition of Jesus. Jesus gave very short and brief answers that were filled with wisdom. This caused Pilate apprehension because he was not sure how to respond to Jesus. The silence of Jesus receives its importance. In the Roman Judicial system the defense was based upon the responses of the defendant. Jesus’ silence would have confused Pilate. The dreams of Pilate’s wife certainly played in the back of his mind and could have been a reason why Pilate sought an alternative form of punishment. Pilate decided to flog Jesus and hoped that would satisfy the crowd.
Complicit Based Upon a Fear on Man
Pilate was rightfully afraid of the emperor Tiberius Caesar. Pilate had been rebuked by the Emperor in earlier situations and after the execution of his sponsor Sejanus, at the hands of the Emperor, Pilate knew he did not have much favor in the eyes of Tiberius. Being that Judea was a troublesome province with frequent uprisings, Pilate’s role was to prevent uprisings and disruptions. If he was not successful in maintaining peace he would be removed from office. The Romans expected their governors to maintain peace. A threat from the Sanhedrin that reached the ears of the Emperor was enough to intimidate Pilate. The threat of the Sanhedrin to appeal to Caesar in John 19:12 would have caused Pilate to fear for his political career.
Pilate also knew that this was not an empty threat. Before Pilate assumed office, the Sanhedrin appealed to Caesar for the removal of Archelaus, son of Herod the Great, and were granted their wishes. After the removal of Archelaus, Judea was governed by a prefect of Rome. Pilate knew that the Sanhedrin had the audacity to approach Caesar with their grievances and he knew it would be his life that was threatened.
Innocent or Culpable?
Culpable. Scripture is clear that Pilate carries a level of blame in the crucifixion of Jesus. Matthew makes it clear that all who were involved are guilty. Stein reminds us that “the one human being who had the most to do with Jesus’ crucifixion was Pontius Pilate.” He had the authority to release an innocent man or crucify him. He chose the latter to preserve his political career.
Up to the final moment, Pilate was still trying to antagonize the Jewish authorities. John 18:39 “do you want me to release to you the king of the Jews?” must be read as Pilate’s attempt at belittling the Sanhedrin because the title “King of the Jews” was exactly what the Sanhedrin claimed Jesus was not. Pilate attempted to appease the crowd by having Jesus flogged instead of executing him. He did make efforts to release Jesus but ultimately succumbed to the pressure from the crowds in order to save his own soul which is the irony of the scene. The salvation of Pilate was standing before him yet he did not see it.
God’s plans will not be thwarted. Matthew’s gospel emphasizes that all parties involved are guilty. No one is without guilt (Mt 27:3-10). Mark’s gospel highlights that Pilate was reluctant to carry out the plans of the chief priests but ultimately did so because of his fear of men (Mk15:12-14). Luke’s gospel emphasizes that the Jesus was innocent and was wrongly put to death. Ultimately, what God wills will happen. Luke also seeks to convey that Jesus and the disciples pose no threat to the Romans (Lk 23:4, 14-15, 22). John’s gospel speaks to the supremacy of Jesus’ kingdom, which is not of this world, but is real nonetheless (Jn 18:36