New Testament Figures: A Biographical Study of Pontius Pilate

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Introduction

Unfortunately, casual readers often overlook minor biblical characters, yet the manner in which these individuals are depicted can often provide valuable insight into appropriate Christian conduct, ethics, and morality. Seeking to underscore this point, this biographical study will examine the life of Pontius Pilate, contrasting his comportment with biblical doctrines and deriving practical application principles.1  Accordingly, the examination will demonstrate that historical documents portray Pontius Pilate as a tyrannical political figure, more concerned with personal accomplishment than truth, justice, or theological understanding, thereby providing a cautionary tale for contemporary Christians in America.

 

Consulting the Primary Sources: The New Testament

Investigation into the primary sources begins with the New Testament documents, specifically the Gospels.2  Introducing our subject, Matthew records the chief priests and elders delivering Jesus to Pilate, who is the acting governor (Matthew 27).3  Questioning Jesus, Pilate expresses amazement at Jesus’ refusal to defend himself against the barrage of allegations being levied against Him (v. 14) and determines a lack of legal basis for the charges brought against Him (v. 18). Interestingly, Pilate’s wife also cautions him about condemning the righteous man (Jesus) believing she experienced a prophetic dream about Him (v. 19). Nevertheless, Pilate concedes to public pressure, condemning Jesus to death by crucifixion (vv. 24-26). Concluding Matthew’s references to Pilate, his narrative records Pilate acquiescing with two separate requests, releasing Jesus’ body to Joseph of Arimathea and appointing a Roman guard at Jesus’ tomb (vv. 57-66).

Similarly, Mark’s Gospel introduces Pilate in the same fashion (Mark 15) beginning with the Sanhedrin delivering Jesus to Pilate (v. 15) paralleling his questioning of Jesus (vv. 2-5). However, Mark includes additional details concerning the pardoning of Barabbas (vv. 6-15; Matthew 27:15-26). Alluding to a custom in which the governor would pardon a prisoner (v.6-15; Matthew 27:15) Mark includes two details Matthew omits from his record. First, Mark describes Barabbas as a rebel, highlighting his guilt of murder and insurrection (v. 7).4  Second, Mark indicates the Jewish crowd approaches Pilate about pardoning a prisoner (v. 8) whereas Matthew’s narrative implies Pilate initiates the malefactor release (Matthew 15:15-18). Reconciling these details, one determines the crowd most likely requested the customary pardon—presumably ensuring Jesus would not be sentenced and subsequently exonerated—while Pilate orchestrates the crowd’s choice between Jesus and Barabbas—conceivably anticipating the selection of Jesus over a notorious murder.

Transitioning to Luke’s Gospel, we notice Pilate’s role as governor of Judea began in the “fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar” (Luke 3:1) and discover a succinct statement conveying public trepidation as a result of Pilate slaughtering innocent Galileans (Luke 13:1).5  References to Pilate cease until chapter 23 when Luke records Jesus’ trial. Although the previous two Gospels strongly imply Jesus’ innocence, Luke explicitly chronicles the governor’s official judgment, as Pilate announces, “I find no guilt in this man” (v. 4).6  Furthermore, when Pilate learns Jesus is a Galilean, he sends him to Herod—the official responsible for Galilee—who also exonerates Jesus of any misconduct (vv. 6-16). Recognizing Jesus’ innocence, Pilate appeals to the Jewish gathering multiple times, seeking to release Jesus (vv. 20-22). Nonetheless, Pilate ultimately capitulates to the public’s demands, sentencing Jesus to Roman execution (vv. 23-24).

Completing the Gospels’ portrait of Pilate, John introduces the governor in chapter 18, providing information concerning the events preceding to Jesus’ trial. Retrospectively, Pilate exhibits reluctance in even considering Jesus’ case (vv. 28-33) yet, eventually conforming to the demands of the Jewish officials. Endowing the reader with particulars, John expounds upon Jesus’ tribunal, recording Jesus’ testimony of His divine authority and purpose (vv. 33-37). Dramatically, Pilate finds himself face-to-face with the Creator of the universe, as Jesus says, “For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice” (v. 37). Regrettably, Pilate seems unconcerned with truth, scoffing, “What is truth?” in response (v. 38). Paralleling the previous three Gospel narratives, John records Pilate’s attempts to release Jesus while appeasing the crowd (John 18:38-19:13). As the event transpires, Pilate learns of Jesus’ claims to divinity (John 19:7), and although he appears momentarily flummoxed and concerned, he quickly composes himself, handing Jesus over to the executioner. Perceptively, John includes details concerning Pilate’s motivations, noting a substantial fear of the Jewish population (cf. John 19:8).

Holistically considering the details presented in the Gospels, Pilate emerges as a corrupt politician, continually compromising justice—even decreeing the murder of innocents. Additionally, he demonstrates a complete disregard for truth and theology, quickly dismissing Jesus’ claims of divinity and espousal of truth without consequent investigation.

 

Consulting the Primary Sources: Other Ancient Writers

Continuing the investigation beyond the scope of the New Testament documents, we discover references to Pilate in the works of Josephus, a first-century Roman historian. Preliminary data points confirm Pilate as the procurator of Judea (Antiquities 18.55) while specifying him as the successor to Valerius Gratus (Antiquities 18.35; 18.177).7  Audaciously, Pilate introduces effigies of Caesar in Jerusalem, seeking to abolish Judaism and presumably elevate himself above his peers in the eyes of the Roman government (Antiquities 18.55-62; Wars of the Jews 2.169-174). Interestingly, he covertly establishes the statues at night, seeking to avoid public protest, rather than exerting political might. Nevertheless, multitudes of Jewish objectors actively petition Pilate over multiple days, prompting him to prepare an ambush for the lobbyists surreptitiously. Surrendering to Pilate’s army, the Jews willingly accept death over idolatry. Flabbergasted by their determination, Pilate relents, removing the effigies from Jerusalem.

Following this event, Pilate comes under public scrutiny again by misappropriating sacred funds to build an aqueduct in Jerusalem (Antiquities 18.60-62; Wars of the Jews 2.175-177). Again, exasperation takes hold, and Pilate arranges an ambuscade to silence the unarmed protesters. Contrasting the previous situation, Pilate offers no warning to the unsuspecting crowd, slaughtering the congregation of noncombatants. Subsequently, Pilate tyrannically oppresses the Samaritans, viciously massacring those who tried to escape, until the outcry of Pilate’s subjugation reached the authorities in Rome, thus prompting his reassignment (Antiquities 18.85-89). Consequently, the works of Josephus depict Pilate consistently with the New Testament documents: a tyrannical political figure, seemingly unconcerned with justice and unimpaired by virtuous moral inclinations. However, Josephus’ account does not indicate Pilate feared the population, and his actions portray a dictator who is predominantly indifferent to the opinion of his subjects.

Recounting the same events as Josephus, Philo adds clarifying details which prove helpful in comprehending the situation and determining Pilate’s character. For example, Philo describes Pilate as, “a man of a very inflexible disposition, and very merciless as well as very obstinate” (Embassy 301).8  Moreover, Philo chronicles the reason Pilate exercises, sparing the lives of those protesting the idolatrous monuments: confronting Pilate, the multitude contends, “Tiberius [Pilate’s superior] is not desirous that any of our laws or customs shall be destroyed. And if you yourself say that he is, show us either some command from him, or some letter, or something of the kind, that we, who have been sent to you as ambassadors, may cease to trouble you, and may address our supplications to your master” (Embassy 301).

Apparently, this challenge attains Pilate’s attention and arouses his anger. Illuminating the situation further, Philo writes,

But this last sentence exasperated him in the greatest possible degree, as he feared least they might in reality go on an embassy to the emperor, and might impeach him with respect to other particulars of his government, in respect of his corruption, and his acts of insolence, and his rapine, and his habit of insulting people, and his cruelty, and his continual murders of people untried and uncondemned, and his never ending, and gratuitous, and most grievous inhumanity. (Embassy 302).

Accordingly, it seems Pilate’s fear of the people (as annotated in the New Testament documents) is a consequence of his corrupt activities, as he understands the Roman officials would hold him accountable for his crimes, should they become aware of his actions. Although the event causes apprehension and frustration for Pilate, he does not immediately remove the graven images as Josephus’ account might suggest, instead, after receiving a supplicatory letter from Jewish officials, Tiberius reprimands Pilate and commands him to remove the statues (Embassy 303-305).

After reviewing the primary sources, a disturbing portrait of Pontius Pilate emerges, revealing a tyrannical political figure, seemingly unconcerned with justice or truth, and unimpaired by virtuous moral inclinations. Furthermore, these documents depict a man willing to murder innocent persons, demonstrating a tremendous disregard for human life, while taking any means necessary to further his agenda. Although the New Testament documents insinuate public opinion easily influences Pilate, the clarifying details of Josephus and Philo reveal a calculated narcissist, willing to comply with external requests when it is personally advantageous.

 

Additional Sources of Information

Continuing the investigation, consultation of additional (secondary) sources of information, including references in early documents and creeds, apocryphal literature, and archeological evidence becomes necessary.9  While early church fathers, ecumenical creeds, and archaeological discoveries mention Pontius Pilate, none provide any additional insight, as they predominantly confirm biographical and chronological particulars or recount previously attested events without amplification.10  Interestingly, by the third century, documents begin portraying Pilate in an entirely different light—as someone who humbly recognizes the divine authority of Jesus. Exemplifying this radical shift, the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus (also referred to as the Acts of Pilate) recreates the events leading up to Jesus’ trial, stating,

They [the Jewish officials] say to him [Pilate]: He [Jesus]is a magician, and by Beelzebub prince of the demons he casts out the demons, and all are subject to him. Pilate says to them: This is not casting out the demons by an unclean spirit, but by the god Esculapius. The Jews say to Pilate: We entreat your highness that he stand at thy tribunal and be heard. And Pilate having called them, says: Tell me how I, being a procurator, can try a king?11

Pilate’s overwhelming admiration for Jesus does not cease with a mere verbal defense against the Jewish officials. Summoning Jesus for questioning, Pilate sends a runner—rather than an armed guard—who respectfully requests Jesus’ presence and recreates the triumphal entry (cf. Mark 11:1-11; Luke 19:28-44). Emphasizing Pilate’s blamelessness in Jesus’ crucifixion further, the Gospel of Peter alleges Pilate’s recognition of Jesus as the Son of God. Commenting after the crucifixion, Pilate says, “I am pure of the blood of the Son of God; but this was determined upon by yourselves.”12

Apparently, a multiplicity of similar apocryphal literature began emerging in the third and fourth centuries, successfully altered the perception of Christian thinkers, including Tertullian who references Pilate as a Christian, suggesting Pilate sought official recognition of Jesus as a god by the Roman government.13  Expounding upon these occurrences, New Testament scholar Bart D. Ehrman comments, “An entire literature surrounding Pilate eventually emerged within Christian circles, including other versions of the letter that he [Pilate] reportedly sent to the emperor, and several later, lengthier accounts of how the emperor reacted when he learned that one of his governors had executed the Son of God.”14  Considering the dating and origin of these documents, one cannot establish them as historically authentic and would be remiss including them as evidence when constructing a biographical framework of Pilate’s life. Appropriately, Dr. Ehrman concludes, “This is all the stuff of legend, of course, borne out by no non-Christian source.”15

Communication Partners: Consulting Contemporary Scholars

Analyzing the primary sources consistently produces a negative portrayal of Pontius Pilate, only receiving contradiction from unreliable, legendary tales emerging in the third and fourth centuries. Nonetheless, it is beneficial to consult contemporary scholars as analytical supplements, seeking to identify any information gaps, logical fallacies, or methodological oversights of our inquiry. First, Professor Walter A. Elwell clarifies the relationship between Pilate and the Sanhedrin, attempting to explain why he conforms to their requests, observing,

Two answers are possible. First, there may have been collusion between Caiaphas and Pilate that stemmed from a longstanding relationship and conterminous reign. Ten of Caiaphas’ 18 years in power were under Pilate and when the prefect was dismissed in AD 36, Caiphas was simultaneously removed. Second, if Jesus’ trial occurred in AD 33, Pilate may have been concerned about his impeachment. He had originally been appointed by Sejanus (prefect of the praetorians in Rome who had appointed men to colonial office under Tiberius) but in the autumn of AD 31 Sejanus died. This explains why a Jewish delegation could report directly to Tiberius during the votive shield incident [cf. Embassy 303-305]. Hence the charge recorded in John 19:12 (“if you release this man, you are not Caesar’s friend”) would have had genuine power over Pilate.16

While the second alternative is ostensible (as it corresponds with all of the primary source data), Dr. Elwell’s observation concerning the potential relationship between Caiaphas and Pilate is exceptionally insightful. Since neither explanation is mutually exclusive, it seems probable that both factors contribute to Pilate’s decision to condemn Jesus to death. Moreover, the relationship provides additional explanatory power, accounting for Pilate’s contributive role in guarding Jesus’ tomb and concealing the Resurrection event (cf. Matthew 27:62-66; 28:11-15).

Similarly, Dr. Paul H. Wright illuminates a detail the average reader is likely to overlook. Considering the Galilean slaughter (cf. Luke 13:1) Dr. Wright reminds the reader that Galilee is outside Pilate’s dominion (cf. Luke 23:6-7) writing, “Pilate had no authority in Galilee (that province was part of the tetrarchy of Herod Antipas), but when a number of Galileans ran afoul of his will while on a holy pilgrimage to Jerusalem, his response was true to form.”17  Unscrupulously, Pilate demonstrates complete disregard for legislative boundaries, entering Herod’s jurisdiction with the unambiguous determination to commit a heinous atrocity.

Mitigating Pilate’s totalitarian reign, historian Daniel R Schwartz recommends reading the primary sources (specifically Philo and Josephus) with “a grain of salt,” recognizing, “Philo’s characterization of Pilate is part of his exaltation of Tiberius, and we may now add that it is so reminiscent of his general characterization of corrupt governors, even to the point of several cases of verbal identity, that it cannot be taken as being particularly applicable to Pilate.”18  Moreover, Dr. Schwartz views Pilate’s conduct as unremarkable in light of contemporaneous authorities, concluding, “This is not a bad record for a term as long as Pilate’s; later governors, who served for much shorter periods, would do much worse.”19  While these points might be correct, it does nothing to abrogate the negative biographical portrait of Pilate obtained thus far, as regarding Philo’s comments as hyperbolic does not assuage Pilate’s corruption, nor does comparing him with contemporaneous Roman officials absolve his particular crimes.

Consequently, while the work of modern scholars helps identify subtle nuances and appreciate connections not previously contemplated, their conclusions do not destabilize those acquired thus far. Therefore, there appears to be adequate justification for maintaining the negative portrayal of Pilate, as found in the primary source materials. Although contradictory documents exist, there are practicable reasons for rejecting the historicity and validity, thus classifying it as apocryphal literature.

 

Ascertaining Practical Applications

Recapitulating the conclusions resulting from a biographical survey of primary sources, Pilate receives portrayal as a corrupt, tyrannical authority, demonstrating indifference regarding truth, justice, or theological concerns, while conducting heinous atrocities—including the mass murder of innocent civilians. Contrasting Pilate’s actions with biblical principles becomes astoundingly straightforward, as he actively exhibits antithetical characteristics and narcissistic tendencies.

Firstly, let’s consider Pilate’s regard for truth exhibited during Jesus’ trial. Standing before Pilate, Jesus reveals His divine authority and fundamental purpose—to testify concerning truth (John 18:37). Responding with indifference, Pilate replies, “What is truth?” (John 18:38). Although biblical scholars debate how to interpret Pilate’s response, it appears utterly dismissive, and the historical records do not indicate Pilate desires to continue the conversation further. Denoting this assessment, theologian Edwin Blum writes,

Pilate’s question, What is truth? has echoed down through the centuries. How his question was intended is problematic. Was it a wistful desire to know what no one could tell him? Was it philosophical cynicism concerning the problem of epistemology? Was it indifference to anything so impractical as abstract thought? Or was it irritation at Jesus’ response? These are all possible interpretations of his words. But the significant thing is that he suddenly turned away from the One who is “the Truth” (14:6) without waiting for an answer.20

Similarly, D. A. Carson elucidates,

In this context, truth is understood in more than an intellectual sense; it is nothing less than the self-disclosure of God in his Son, who is the truth (14:6). Disclosing the truth of God, of salvation and of judgment, was the principal way of making subjects, of exercising his saving kingship. Similarly, only those who are rightly related to God, to the truth itself, can grasp Jesus’ witness to the truth (cf. 3:16–21). Everyone who is on the side of truth (lit. ‘who is of the truth’) listens to Jesus (cf. 10:3, 16, 27). If Jesus’ kingship is indistinguishable from his testimony to the truth, and if his followers are characterized by allegiance to his testimony rather than by violent upheaval, Pilate is forced to recognize that Jesus is the victim of a Sanhedrin plot. Moreover, there is an implicit invitation in Jesus’ words. The man in the dock invites his judge to be his follower, to align himself with those who are ‘of the truth’. Jesus is not dangerous; he may also be getting under Pilate’s skin. Either way, Pilate abruptly terminates the interrogation with a curt and cynical question: What is truth?—and just as abruptly turns away, either because he is convinced there is no answer, or, more likely, because he does not want to hear it.21

Regardless of how Pilate intends the question, his subsequent actions demonstrate a disregard for Jesus’ propositions, resulting in an apparent refusal to continue the dialogue and diligently consider the matter.

In contrast, the Scriptures continually remind Christians of the importance of truth (e.g., Psalm 15:2; 51:6; 86:11; 119:160; Proverbs 12:19; 23:23; John 8:32; Romans 1:18), while insisting the gospel message is objectively true, and exhorting Christians to practice discernment to identify factual propositions. Rather than investigating Jesus’ claims, Pilate clings to his inflexible worldview, refusing to consider the evidence. Abandoning truth, Pilate inherently dismisses the theological ramifications of Jesus’ claims to divinity. While Pilate likely receives additional information about the works of Jesus, the Gospels explicitly annotate his awareness of Jesus’ claims to deity (cf. John 18:36-37; 19:7), and his wife’s prophetic dream (cf. Matthew 27:19). Nonetheless, Pilate appears unconcerned with the truthfulness of Jesus’ claims and the theological ramifications of such propositions being true. Inversely, Christians revere God as the ultimate reality, requiring theological considerations to take precedence within the life of every believer.

Secondly, Jesus’ trial underscores Pilate’s dispiritedness toward moral justice, sentencing Jesus to execution after vindicating Him of all charges. Although Josephus and Philo reveal Pilate’s propensity for murdering innocent noncombatants, Jesus’ trial underscores his efforts to conceal his unethical escapades from superior Roman officials. Such practices represent an unambiguous dissimilarity to the attributes of God and injustice is demonized throughout the Bible, especially in Deuteronomy, where we discover the passage, “Cursed be anyone who perverts the justice due to the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow” (27:19). In fact, God is commonly represented as a righteous Judge or King in the Bible (e.g., Psalm 7:8; 7:11; 9:4; 9:7; 89:14; 99:4), contrasting the positive attributes of the Eternal King with the morally degenerate characteristics of finite rulers—such as Pilate.

Accordingly, Pilate embodies the antithesis of Christian morality and ethical conduct, representing a cautionary tale for contemporary Christians. Although most people will not find themselves in a position to potentially execute the morally reprehensible actions Pilate did, every Christian routinely finds themselves in a position in which they must choose to uphold justice, discern truth, or actively pursue theological understanding, and we often discover that one compromise can easily produce another. Therefore, we must actively learn from the examples (both positive and negative) of biblical characters, seeking to emulate the righteous and God-honoring actions, while attempting to rid our lives of negative characteristics.

 

Conclusion

Investigating biblical figures and completing a biographical survey assists the reader in understanding the context of the Scriptural narrative while simultaneously amplifying the events themselves. Scouring primary source materials and actively considering the life of Pontius Pilate, it becomes evident that Pilate is an ambitious leader, skillfully navigating the political landscape in an attempt to ensure the best outcome for himself. Unquestionably, the historical record describes Pilate as a corrupt ruler, who actively exchanges truth and justice for personal gain, while demonstrating no reverence for human life or theological matters. Accordingly, Pontius Pilate emerges as a cautionary tale for contemporary Christians, exhibiting antithetical characteristics and narcissistic motivations which ought to be vigorously eschewed by all disciples of Christ.

 

 

Footnotes

  1. Obtaining a biographical or character profile of Pontius Pilate is the primary objective, not to detail chronological events of his life. For a detailed chronology, see Daniel R. Schwartz, “Pontius Pilate (Person),” in The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, ed. David Noel Freedman (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1992), 396-397.
  2. Additionally, Acts and 1 Timothy mention Pilate, but do not provide additional information; instead, they serve as a recapitulation of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion.
  3. All Scriptural references are from the English Standard Version (ESV) unless otherwise annotated.
  4. Subsequently, John adds the crime of robbery to Barabbas’ criminal record (cf. John 18:40). Also, see Acts 3:13-15.
  5. Luke includes additional details useful for creating a timeline of events and understanding the political landscape of the region, writing, “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas” (Luke 3:1-2).
  6. Luke reiterates this in Acts 13:23-28.
  7. References to Josephus’ writings are from Flavius Josephus, The Works of Josephus: Complete and Unabridged, trans. William Whiston (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1987). Additionally, Tacitus briefly mentions Pilate, confirming his position as the procurator of Judea (Annals 15.44). See Cornelius Tacitus, Tacitus, Volume Three, trans. Arthur Murphy (London, England: A. J. Valpy, M.A., Henry Colburn, and Richard Bentley, 1831).
  8. References to Philo’s writings are from Philo of Alexandria, The Works of Philo: Complete and Unabridged, trans. Charles Duke Yonge (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1995).
  9. Actually, archaeological findings ought to be considered a primary source; however, since they fail to advance this study (see subsequent note) they will be included in this section.
  10. For instance, the 1961 archaeological discovery in Caesarea (commonly referred to as the “Pilate Stone”) confirms Pilate’s role as Prefect of Judea; yet fails to provide additional information useful in this inquiry. See J. A. Thompson, The Bible and Archaeology, Third Edition, Fully Revised (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1982), 303-304.
  11. James Orr, ed., New Testament Apocryphal Writings (Philadelphia, PA: J. B. Lippincott Co., 1903), 40.
  12. Ibid., 76.
  13. Tertullian, The Apology of Tertullian, trans. WM. Reeve (London, England: Griffith Farran & Co., 1893), 16-17; 65-66; Carrie Sinclair Wolcott, “Pilate Cycle,” in The Lexham Bible Dictionary, ed. John D. Barry, et al. (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).
  14. Bart D. Ehrman, Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2003), 21.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Walter A. Elwell and Barry J. Beitzel, Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1988), 1695.
  17. Paul H. Wright, Rose Then and Now Bible Map Atlas with Biblical Background and Culture (Torrance, CA: Rose Publishing, 2012), 216.
  18. Daniel R. Schwartz, “Pontius Pilate (Person),” 398. Also, see Helen K. Bond, “Pilate, Pontius,” in The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Katharine Doob Sakenfeld (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2006-2009), 526.
  19. Schwartz, “Pontius Pilate (Person),” 398.
  20. Edwin A. Blum, “John,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, Volume Two, ed. J. F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), 337-338.
  21. D. A. Carson, The Gospel according to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1991), 595.

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