Pontius Pilate by Warren Carter

Pontius Pilate was the Roman governor of Judea (26-37 CE) during the reign of the Emperor Tiberius (14-37 CE). His claim to fame is his role in crucifying Jesus.

We do not know many details about his life. Apart from the New Testament gospels, two first-century Jewish writers, Philo of Alexandria (Embassy to Gaius 299-305) and Josephus of Rome (Jewish War 2.169-77; Antiquities of the Jews 18.55-89), briefly mention him. An inscription discovered in Caesarea in 1961 and some coins also attest to him.

His appointment as governor, nevertheless, indicates that he came from a wealthy, powerful, elite family that was probably well connected with the emperor Tiberius. Most likely he had previous military and administrative experience. Philo’s and Josephus’s accounts of Pilate’s actions suggest insensitivity to Jewish customs typical of elite Roman prejudices toward provincials.

Pilate: A Weak Wimp …?

Scholars have debated Pilate’s role in Jesus’s crucifixion. Pilate has usually been understood as a weak figure whom the Jerusalem leaders bully into crucifying Jesus. This reading emphasizes that Pilate thinks Jesus is innocent, wondering “what evil has he done?” (Mark 15:14; Matt 27:23; Luke 23:4, Luke 23:14-22). Yet he is weak and cannot stand up to these leaders (Mark 15:11-15; Matt 27:23-27; Luke 23:23-25; John 19:12-16). Threatened by possible crowd violence and by accusations of his disloyalty to the emperor if he does not crucify Jesus (John 19:12), Pilate tamely yields to their demands. This approach constructs Pilate as a weak wimp, powerless and disinterested.

Throughout two millennia, Christian interpreters have diminished Pilate’s role in Jesus’s crucifixion for several reasons. A long Christian tradition has blamed the Jerusalem leaders and crowds for Jesus’s death. In the early centuries of the church, apocryphal stories emerged that removed all responsibility from Pilate and transferred it to the Jerusalem leaders. One story has Jesus giving Pilate permission to crucify him while blaming the Jewish leaders. Another story has the emperor Tiberius and Pilate blame the Jews for Jesus’s execution; Tiberius punishes them with a military attack and scatters them from Judea. Foregrounding the Jerusalem leaders emphasizes their responsibility. Such readings are marked by a strong anti-Judaism tone.

Moreover, Christian interpreters have often read the New Testament passages concerning Pilate with the presupposition that the gospels deal with religious, not political, matters. The governor Pilate is understood to be reluctant to get involved in what Christian interpreters have often depicted as a religious dispute involving Jerusalem’s religious leaders and Jesus, a religious figure. Pilate has to be bullied into action by the Jerusalem leaders as they pursue their religious agenda against Jesus.

… or an Astute and Strong Governor?

This “weak Pilate” approach, however, has unrealistically played down the power and responsibilities entrusted to Roman governors. Governors were the face of Rome’s empire and power in the provinces. Pilate represented Rome’s political and economic interests, defended its hierarchical societal structure, and ensured submission and order in the provinces. As governor, Pilate exercised military, political, social, judicial, and economic power for the benefit of Rome’s ruling elites. Governor Pilate was not a wimp. Pilate’s apparent reluctance to execute Jesus can be understood very differently, then, in the context of Pilate’s power as governor. 

His initial refusal of the Jerusalem leaders’ request to crucify Jesus is a ploy, a strategy to assert his dominance. As Judea’s governor, Pilate rules in alliance with the Jerusalem leaders. These leaders were not just religious figures. Josephus identifies them as the native rulers of Judea (Antiquities 20.251). Pilate shared with them the common interest of maintaining the imperial system that secured their wealth, power, and status as ruling elites. Yet tensions and power struggles for ascendancy marked this ruling alliance. Rome stacked the deck. The governor appointed the chief priests and maintained the power to execute challengers to the system.

The Jerusalem leaders saw Jesus, his followers, and interested crowds as a threat. He openly proclaimed the “kingdom” or “empire” of God and was called “king of the Jews” (Mark 15:2; Luke 23:2). This title is treasonous since only Rome could appoint or sanction kings in provinces; they had not sanctioned Jesus. So to protect their position as rulers against a potential threat, they ask Pilate to crucify Jesus.

Since Pilate’s allies are concerned about Jesus, so is Pilate. They share common interests in maintaining the status quo. But he can’t instantly yield to their demand; that would make him their lackey. Rather, he uses their request to subordinate them further. He makes them beg. Several times he says he sees no threat. Each time they beg for Jesus’s crucifixion, submitting themselves further to Pilate’s power. When the crowd joins in begging, Pilate learns that there will not be a riot when he crucifies this kingly wannabe.

Governor Pilate completes an astute piece of governing. He does what they want but only after he has increased his power over them.

Warren Carter, "Pontius Pilate", n.p. [cited 21 Sep 2018]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.com/en/people/main-articles/pontius-pilate

Contributors

Warren Carter

Warren Carter
Professor, Texas Christian University

Warren Carter is professor of New Testament at Brite Divinity School at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Texas. He is the author of numerous books, including What Does Revelation Reveal? (Abingdon, 2011), John and Empire: Initial Explorations (Continuum, 2008), and The Roman Empire and the New Testament: An Essential Guide (Abingdon, 2006).

Pontius Pilate was the Roman governor of Judea during the reign of Emperor Tiberius.

Did you know…?

  • We know few details about Pilate as the Roman governor of Judea (26-37 CE) apart from his dealings with Jesus.
  • As a governor, Pilate would have had previous military and administrative experience.
  • Governors represented Roman rule and interests in their province in tense alliance with local leaders, exercising great power for the benefit of Rome’s ruling elites.
  • Pilate was recalled to Rome in early 37 CE, charged with misgoverning, but Emperor Tiberius died before a trial. Pilate then disappears from the historical record.
  • Pilate’s role in Jesus’s crucifixion has been debated. Was he weak and wimpy, bullied into crucifying Jesus by the Jerusalem leaders? More likely, he strategically “plays with” his allies by “refusing” to crucify Jesus. The more they beg, the more power over them Pilate acquires.
  • Subsequent church traditions create various imaginative stories about Pilate, thereby constructing him variously: to be a villain who commits suicide for crucifying Jesus; a Christian to whom the risen Jesus appears; a saint honored by the Ethiopian church; and a martyr executed by Tiberius who does not understand that Pilate does God’s will in crucifying Jesus.

A rebellion by the Jewish people against their Roman occupation, lasting from 66-73 C.E. and culminating with the destruction of the Temple. Also known as the First Jewish War or First Jewish Revolt.

A Jewish historian from the first century C.E. His works document the Jewish rebellions against Rome, giving background for early Jewish and Christian practices.

The southern kingdom of Judah.

A collection of first-century Jewish and early Christian writings that, along with the Old Testament, makes up the Christian Bible.

A Jewish philosopher who lived from roughly 20 B.C.E. to 50 C.E. whose writings bridge Greek culture and Jewish thought.

People who study a text from historical, literary, theological and other angles.

The religion and culture of Jews. It emerged as the descendant of ancient Israelite Religion, and is characterized by monotheism and an adherence to the laws present in the Written Torah (the Bible) and the Oral Torah (Talmudic/Rabbinic tradition).

Mark 15:14

14Pilate asked them, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Crucify him!”

Matt 27:23

23Then he asked, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Let him be crucified!”

Luke 23:4

4Then Pilate said to the chief priests and the crowds, “I find no basis for an accusation against this man.”

Luke 23:14-22

14and said to them, “You brought me this man as one who was perverting the people; and here I have examined him in your presence and have not found this man gui ... View more

Mark 15:11-15

11But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release Barabbas for them instead.12Pilate spoke to them again, “Then what do you wish me to do with th ... View more

Matt 27:23-27

23Then he asked, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Let him be crucified!”Pilate Hands Jesus over to Be Crucified
24So when Pilate sa ... View more

Luke 23:23-25

23But they kept urgently demanding with loud shouts that he should be crucified; and their voices prevailed.24So Pilate gave his verdict that their demand shoul ... View more

John 19:12-16

12From then on Pilate tried to release him, but the Jews cried out, “If you release this man, you are no friend of the emperor. Everyone who claims to be a king ... View more

John 19:12

12From then on Pilate tried to release him, but the Jews cried out, “If you release this man, you are no friend of the emperor. Everyone who claims to be a king ... View more

A broad, diverse group of nations ruled by the government of a single nation.

Mark 15:2

2Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” He answered him, “You say so.”

Luke 23:2

2They began to accuse him, saying, “We found this man perverting our nation, forbidding us to pay taxes to the emperor, and saying that he himself is the Messia ... View more

A person deemed holy by a religious tradition, especially in Roman Catholicism.

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