Historic Jesus
Pontius Pilate

The Roman Senate appointed governors for the more settled provinces of the vast empire. Judea, however, was among the more volatile provinces whose governors were appointed directly by the emperor himself. In A. D. 26, Tiberius appointed Pontius Pilate the fifth procurator of Judea, a Roman province of the third class, to rule under the general jurisdiction of the imperial legate of Syria. Pilate exercised full control of the province, backed up by a detachment of Roman cavalry and four or five cohorts, or between 2,500 to 5,000 heavy infantry soldiers. These troops were stationed at the procurator's headquarters at Caesarea on the Mediterranean. A detachment of about 400 troops was permanently quartered in the Tower of Antonia in Jerusalem. When Pilate visited Jerusalem for the annual feasts, this detachment was strengthened considerably.

The procurator had complete power of life and death over his subjects. Should the Sanhedrin want to execute someone for violating Jewish law, they had to submit the case to the procurator for review; he could reverse the recommendations of the Sanhedrin without appeal. He appointed and deposed the high priest at will, in addition to controlling temple activities and funds. Even the high priest's vestments were locked in the Tower of Antonia under the procurator's direct control; the high priest had access to his own sacred vestments only for the three annual festivals.

The only mention of Pilate by contemporary historians refers to events that occurred during his ten-year procuratorship of Judea, A. D. 26-36. Nothing is known of his family or earlier positions, though he must have captured the emperor's attention with sufficient family connections or achievements to warrant his assignment to one of the most sensitive provinces in the empire. Nor is anything known of what happened to Pilate after he left Palestine. He returned to Rome in A .D. 36, to find that Tiberius had just died. Some legends recount that Pilate committed suicide in the south of France, where he was exiled by the new emperor, Gaius. Others say he lived for years near Lake Lucerne in Switzerland, becoming more and more melancholic until he drowned himself in the icy waters.

The two main accounts of Pilate that exist were written by hostile Jews: The Gospel writers, for he condemned their Lord; and Josephus, the Jewish historian, a Pharisee and patriot, who blamed Pilate for offending, massacring, and misruling the Jews. But Pilate must have governed satisfactorily in the eyes of his Roman superiors, for to be procurator for ten years was an extremely long time in those days of murderous court intrigue in Rome. The only mention of Pilate by Roman historians supports his action in executing Jesus: "Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus" (Tacitus, The Annals, XV, 44, translated by Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952).

Josephus tells of Pilate's early actions that alienated the Jews, who bore no love for Roman rule anyway: "As procurator of Judaea Tiberius sent Pilate, who during the night, secretly and under cover, conveyed to Jerusalem the images of Caesar known as 'signa.' When day dawned this caused great excitement among the Jews; for those who were near were amazed at the sight, which meant that their laws had been trampled on - they do not permit any graven image to be set up in the City - and the angry City mob were joined by a huge influx of people from the country. They rushed off to Pilate in Caesarea, and begged him to remove the 'signa' from Jerusalem and to respect their ancient customs. When Pilate refused, they fell prone all round his house and remained motionless for five days and nights.

"The next day Pilate took his seat on the tribunal in the Great Stadium, and summoned the mob on the pretext that he was ready to give them an answer. Instead he gave a prearranged signal to the soldiers to surround the Jews in full armour, and the troops formed a ring three deep. The Jews were dumbfounded at the unexpected sight, but Pilate, declaring that he would cut them to pieces unless they accepted the images of Caesar, nodded to the soldiers to bare their swords.

At this the Jews as though by agreement fell to the ground in a body and bent their necks, shouting that they were ready to be killed rather than transgress the Law. Amazed at the intensity of their religious fervour, Pilate ordered the ‘signa' to be removed from Jerusalem forthwith.

"After this he stirred up further trouble by expending the sacred treasure (from the temple-Ed.) known as Corban on an aqueduct 50 miles long. This roused the populace to fury, and when Pilate visited Jerusalem they surrounded the tribunal (the Tower of Antonia-Ed.) and shouted him down. But he had foreseen this disturbance, and had made the soldiers mix with the mob, wearing civilian clothing over their armour, and with orders not to draw their swords but to use clubs on the obstreperous. He now gave the signal from the tribunal and the Jews were cudgelled, so that many died from the blows, and many as they fled were trampled to death by their friends. The fate of those who perished horrified the crowd into silence" Josephus, The Jewish War, translated by G. A. Williamson, Penguin, 1959, pp. 126-127).

The historian Noldius avers that during this riot, Pilate inadvertently killed some of Herod Antipas' supporters, causing Herod to think ill of Pilate. If so, this helps clarify why Pilate was careful to send Jesus to Herod for interrogation and possible trial; since Jesus was a Galilean, he was technically under Herod's jurisdiction.

Philo, a first-century Jewish philosopher and historian from Alexandria, described Pilate as "by nature rigid and stubbornly harsh," "of spiteful disposition and an exceeding wrathful man" who was responsible for "acts of violence," "outrages," "constant murders without trials," and "ceaseless and most grievous brutality" ("De Virtutibus et Legationc ad Gaium, xxxviii"). The Gospel writers depict him as a man who vacillated between wanting to do the just thing and free Jesus and wanting to ensure that no unnecessary word of criticism went back to Tiberius. As the pressure mounted, Pilate did the "safe" thing and executed Jesus to calm the Jewish leaders.