Who was Pontius Pilate?

According to historian Peter Schafer, “Pilate appears to have been particularly insensitive to Jewish concerns.”

A man dressed as Pontius Pilate (photo credit: REUTERS)
A man dressed as Pontius Pilate
(photo credit: REUTERS)
If it were not for the accounts in the Christian Scriptures, Pontius Pilate would only be of interest to historians of ancient Israel and students of the history of the Roman Empire. Of all the procurators sent by Rome to govern Judea, Pontius Pilate – if we are to believe the ancient Jewish historian Josephus, hardly a source antagonistic to Rome – was one of the most hated representatives of Roman rule in the Land of Israel.
Josephus describes a governor who antagonized Jews and ordered his troops to slaughter them. From 26 to 36 CE Pilate imposed Roman rule on Judea. He was hardly a pagan who would be sympathetic to a Jew who rebelled against his authority and that of his masters’ empire. Pilate’s role in the execution of Jesus is mentioned in Josephus but it is highly unlikely that Josephus included this dramatic episode in the original text. It was likely a later addition, an interpolation meant to bolster the Gospels’ accounts.
According to historian Peter Schafer “Pilate appears to have been particularly insensitive to Jewish concerns.” While it is true that the Jewish situation in Jerusalem would later deteriorate further later under the Roman emperor Caligula, this is no way lessens Pilate’s malevolent actions in Judea. In the words of Josephus, when Pilate “brought his army from Caesarea and moved it into winter quarters at Jerusalem, he intended to subvert the Jewish customs by introducing into the city busts of the emperor that were attached to the military standards when our law forbids the making of images.”
Previous governors avoided inciting the Jewish population of Jerusalem by using standards without the emperor’s image. Despite Jewish protests to Pilate
According to historian Peter Schafer “Pilate appears to have been particularly insensitive to Jewish concerns.”in Caesarea, the procurator refused to yield, “since to do so would be an insult to the emperor.” Pilate planned to murder the protesting Jews, unleashing his armed soldiers on them. The protesting Jews “threw themselves on the ground and bared their throats, declaring that they would welcome death rather than dare to transgress the wisdom of their laws.
Pilate, astounded at the firmness of their guarding of the laws, immediately transferred the images from Jerusalem to Caesarea.” But
the Roman governor would not be persuaded by the Jews again.
Pontius Pilate then stole money from the Temple treasury to finance the building of an aqueduct into Jerusalem. We turn to Josephus for the outcome of this desecration: tens of thousands of Jews “gathered and shouted against him, insisting that he abandon such plans. Some of them even hurled insults and abused the man, as such throngs commonly do.”
Pilate ordered a large number of soldiers to dress as civilians to surround the crowd that continued to protest. They clubbed to death both Jewish protesters and those not involved in the riot, “showing no mercy in the least.” While Josephus claims that the procurator did not want wholesale bloodshed, his strategy worked effectively and the rioting ceased. I doubt Pontius Pilate shed a tear for any dead Jews that day. He did his job – to maintain order and display the power of Rome.
The eventual fall of Pontius Pilate began with another violent clash. The victims of the procurator’s wrath were now not Jews but Samaritans. This remnant of the much earlier Assyrian exile in 721 BCE of the Northern Kingdom sacrificed on Mount Gerizim in Samaria. The account in Jospehus: “The Samaritans too were not exempt from troubles. A demagogue persuaded them to go with him to Mount Gerizim, where he would show them the sacred vessels which Moses had supposedly buried there. A great multitude arrived at the mountain armed, but Pilate blocked the route of ascent with cavalry and heavily armed infantry. In the clash that followed, some were killed and the rest scattered or taken prisoner. Pilate then executed the ringleaders and those who were more influential.”
The Samaritans accused Pilate of the massacre in a complaint to Vitellius, the governor of Syria. Pilate’s career in Judea was over.
Vitellius removed him from office. Pilate was recalled to Rome and would have become a footnote in world history were it not for the Christian Scriptures. Martin Goodman, in his study of Rome and Jerusalem (2007), writes the following: ‘In Josephus’ account, the long rule of Pontius Pilate as governor of Judea, from 26 to 36, evoked a series of disturbances quelled only with force.
The cause in each case was Pilate’s lack of tact and his stubborn unwillingness to listen to complaints even on quite trivial issues – according to Philo, Pilate’s contemporary Agrippa I described him in a letter sent to Gaius in 40 as “vindictive, with a furious temper.”’ Is this a description of the same man who sympathized with a Jew who preached the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven to supplant the power of Rome?
The account in the Gospel of Matthew paints a portrait of Pilate that a reader of Josephus would not recognize. Whether the Sanhedrin sentenced Jesus to death or not is not the issue. The authority to execute “the King of the Jews” was solely in the hands of Pilate. The composer of the Gospel reflects actual events in the final humiliation of the Jew by Roman soldiers sending him to his death.
But the behavior of the procurator in his attempt to transfer guilt to a Jewish mob and eschew any responsibility for the death of Jesus is suspect. Rome never released prisoners considered worthy of death – whether Jesus or the criminal Barabbas – and Pilate would never have ceded his authority to a Jewish mob. The way he dealt with Jewish protests was to order his troops to kill the protesters.
Further, as noted by Lawrence M. Wills in The Jewish Annotated New Testament (2011), “There is no evidence that the Romans released prisoners, much less insurrectionaries, at Passover.”
The goal of the Gospels is to transfer responsibility for Christ’s death from a powerful pagan official to the Jews. Pilate washes his hands of the affair and the Jews accept the crucifixion as a crime that would forever be the responsibility of any Jew who ever lived.
Perhaps the Pilate of the Gospels did have pity on Jesus and believed he was innocent. Perhaps this was a moment of conscience for an otherwise unscrupulous man. In the words of Wills on his notes to the Gospel of Mark – this Gospel composed more than 40 years after the crucifixion of Jesus – “Pilate was even considered a convert to Christianity, and he is honored as a martyr in the Coptic Orthodox Church; his feast day June 25.” Wills concludes: “The transfer of guilt from the Romans – who crucified Jesus – to the Jews was then complete.” If Pilate initially resisted the Jewish protest to remove the emperor’s image from the standard in the Josephus account, why would he sympathize with a Jew who wanted to overthrow Roman rule?
This essay does not intend to denigrate Christian believers in the Virgin Birth or Resurrection. It is not meant to portray the Gospel authors as charlatans who were merely peddling propaganda. In the past 50 years many Christians have rejected the hatred of Jews, have condemned the Roman procurator for his responsibility for the death of Jesus, and have proven to be stalwart defenders of Israel. Rather, it is a warning to believers of any faith. Finding historical accuracy in a religious text – or the text of any ideology, religious or secular – requires a study of history not tainted by an agenda. The belief that Pontius Pilate was not to blame for the murder of Jesus is simply that: a belief.
There is nothing wrong with questioning any belief, either of an ancient religion or a modern ideology. That is especially so when there is evidence to the contrary. And that is especially so when a belief condemns innocents and results in their persecution and destruction.
The author is rabbi of Congregation Anshei Sholom in West Palm Beach, Florida. All quotations from Josephus are the translations of Paul L. Maier in
Josephus: The Essential Works.