Pontius Pilate – Prefect of Judea
Pontius Pilate, under extenuating circumstances, condemns Jesus to death.
And Jesus stood before the governor, and the governor asked him, saying: Art thou the king of the Jews? Jesus saith to him: Thou sayest it. And when he was accused by the chief priests and ancients, he answered nothing. Then Pilate saith to him: Dost not thou hear how great testimonies they allege against thee? And he answered him to never a word; so that the governor wondered exceedingly. Now upon the solemn day the governor was accustomed to release to the people one prisoner, whom they would.
And he had then a notorious prisoner, that was called Barabbas. They therefore being gathered together, Pilate said: Whom will you that I release to you, Barabbas, or Jesus that is called Christ? For he knew that for envy they had delivered him. And as he was sitting in the place of judgment, his wife sent to him, saying: Have thou nothing to do with that just man; for I have suffered many things this day in a dream because of him. But the chief priests and ancients persuaded the people, that they should ask Barabbas, and make Jesus away.
And the governor answering, said to them: Whether will you of the two to be released unto you? But they said, Barabbas. Pilate saith to them: What shall I do then with Jesus that is called Christ? They say all: Let him be crucified. The governor said to them: Why, what evil hath he done? But they cried out the more, saying: Let him be crucified. And Pilate seeing that he prevailed nothing, but that rather a tumult was made; taking water washed his hands before the people, saying: I am innocent of the blood of this just man; look you to it. And the whole people answering, said: His blood be upon us and our children.
Then he released to them Barabbas, and having scourged Jesus, delivered him unto them to be crucified.
Pontius Pilate (Pontius Pilatus) had jurisdiction in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion, although he originated from the Samnarians, to the east of Rome along the Adriatic Sea. His real title was that of Prefect, which differs from Procurator which was used by historian Publius Cornelius Tacitus. His role there, as representative of Caesar (Tiberius Caesar Augustus) was to provide regional military leadership and to oversee the collection of taxes. For most judicial matters, such as civil disputes and minor criminality, local governments were employed and systems of justice applicable to the local ethnic mix were applied. There would have been clear legal demarcations to that end. In Judea, the local governmental head was Joseph Caiaphas, High priest of Herod’s Temple. His appointment to that role was made by the Prefect Valerius Gratus, who preceded Pontius Pilate. Herod’s Temple was destroyed in AD 70, although some remnants of it remained in place until around AD 690 when the Dome of the Rock was built by the Muslims.
In the context of Jesus’ trial, Pontius Pilate was understandably reluctant to have any part in the matter. It was not supposed to be his problem, but that of Caiaphas, who would have had the power to imprison Jesus or apply some other penalty upon him. Capital punishment was a Roman matter, however. The Gospel account describes how Pontius was manipulated and pressured into sentencing Jesus against his better judgment and despite the protestations of his wife. It is likely that he acted out of fear, both of the Jews and of Tiberius. He was later recalled to Rome, probably because of this incident, in AD 36.
Later writings about Pontius Pilate, which are unlikely to be entirely factual, suggest that Pilate was completely taken aback by the events which immediately followed the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, particularly of the earthquake, the blotting out of the sun and the civil commotion that must have resulted. It is traditionally believed in the Eastern Orthodox churches that he later committed suicide, whereas his wife, Claudia, is venerated as a saint for acting in Jesus’ defense.
It appears that in the early centuries of Christianity, there was a strong desire to reconcile Pontius Pilate’s actions with the hope that he had later converted and died a Christian. At the same time there were libelous and false accounts of Jesus’ life circulating which were used to subvert the Christian cause. Some historical documents were concocted (both sympathetic and against Christianity), based on rumors and legends which abounded at the time. Although mostly false, some aspects of these apocryphal texts may contain elements of truth.
For example, in the Acts of Peter and Paul is a letter, supposedly of Pontius Pilate:
Pontius Pilate to Claudius, greeting. There has lately happened an event which I myself was concerned in. For the Jews through envy have inflicted on themselves, and those coming after them, dreadful judgments. Their fathers had promises that their God would send them his holy one from heaven, who according to reason should be called their king, and he had promised to send him to the earth by means of a virgin. He, then, when I was procurator, came into Judæa. And they saw him enlightening the blind, cleansing lepers, healing paralytics, expelling demons from men, raising the dead, subduin the winds, walking upon the waves of the sea, and doing many other wonders, and all the people of the Jews calling him Son of God. Then the chief priests, moved with envy against him, seized him, and delivered him to me; and telling one lie after another, they said that he was a wizard, and did contrary to their law. And I, having believed that these things were so, gave him up, after scourging him, to their will; and they crucified him, and after he was buried set guards over him. But he, while my soldiers were guarding him, rose on the third day. And to such a degree was the wickedness of the Jews inflamed against him, that they gave money to the soldiers, saying, Say his disciples have stolen his body. But they, having taken the money, were not able to keep silence as to what had happened; for they have testified that they have seen him (after he was) risen, and that they have received money from the Jews. These things, therefore, have I reported, that no one should falsely speak otherwise, and that you should not suppose that the falsehoods of the Jews are to be believed.
Little is really known about what Pontius Pilate was thinking at the time, or what he did afterwards, but much has been surmised. It is likely that Pontius had regrets over the sentencing to death of someone who was clearly innocent of wrongdoing, and it is very likely that he was angry at having been made a fool by Caiaphas.
The great question that has been asked through history is that of Pilate’s responsibility for and guilt over Christ’s death. The answer cannot ultimately be known, but the lesson here is that a person, however far removed from an event, takes on a moral burden whenever a judgment is made on it. Those who rejoice in Jesus’ death, even two millennia later, become as guilty of His murder as was Pontius Pilate (although that is debatable), Joseph Caiaphas and the Roman guards who hammered in the nails.