Pontius Pilate

© 2007 Dr. Barbara Thiering

"I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth. And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified..."

Pontius Pilate appears with these words in the Apostles' Creed, a solemn declaration of the basics of the Christian faith, recited in church every Sunday. One purpose of his inclusion was no doubt to show that Jesus lived in a particular historical period, that of the Roman governor of Judea between 26 and 36 AD, thus preventing Jesus from becoming a timeless figure. But was it not rather out of proportion to actually name the governor in the same breath as God and Jesus?

It is one way of becoming immortal, to have countless people, over 2000 years, recite your name in the course of their confession of faith. The makers of the Apostles' Creed knew what they were doing when they put the name in such a context, as an enemy of Jesus. They were making Pilate the greatest villain of all time. On the indications of the pesher, they did it to get their revenge. Pilate had made a choice to crucify Jesus, and so had committed the greatest wrong of all time.

For the objective history, as given by Josephus, Pilate was simply an incompetent, blundering Roman governor who was eventually given the sack:

"Now Pilate, the procurator of Judea, when he brought his army from Caesarea and removed it to winter quarters in Jerusalem, took a bold step in subversion of the Jewish practices, by introducing into the city the busts of the emperor that were attached to the military standards, for our law forbids the making of images. It was for this reason that the previous procurators, when they entered the city, used standards that had no such ornaments. Pilate was the first to bring the images into Jerusalem and set them up, doing it without the knowledge of the people, for he entered at night. But when the people discovered it, they went in a throng to Caesarea and for many days entreated him to take away the images. He refused to yield, since to do so would be an outrage to the emperor; however, since they did not cease entreating him, on the sixth day he secretly armed and placed his troops in position, while he himself came to the speaker's stand....

"When the Jews again engaged in supplication, at a pre-arranged signal he surrounded them with his soldiers and threatened to punish them at once with death...But they, casting themselves prostrate and baring their throats, declared that they had gladly welcomed death rather than make bold to transgess the wise provisions of the laws. Pilate, astonished at the strength of their devotion to the laws, straightway removed the images from Jerusalem and brought them back to Caesarea.

"He spent money from the sacred treasury in the construction of an aqueduct to bring water into Jerusalem...The Jews did not acquiesce in the operations that this involved; and tens of thousands of men assembled and cried out against him...Some too even hurled insults and abuse of the sort that a throng will commonly engage in. He thereupon ordered a large number of soldiers to be dressed in Jewish garments, under which they carried clubs...When the Jews were in full torrent of abuse he gave his soldiers the pre-arranged signal. They, however, inflicted much harder blows than Pilate had ordered, punishing alike both those vho were rioting and those who were not. But the Jews showed no faintheartedness....many of them actually were slain on the spot, while some withdrew disabled by blows. Thus ended the uprising.

"About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who wrought surprising feats and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. He was the Christ. When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing amongst us, had condemned him to be crucified, those who had in the first place come to love him did not give up their affection for him. On the third day he appeared to them living, for the prophets of God had prophesied these and countless other marvellous things about him. And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared." (Antiquities 18, 55-64). On the genuineness of the last paragraph, called the Testimonium Flavianum, see Q&C section.

The pesher of the gospels includes these episodes, giving more explanatory detail. In Luke 13:1, at a date the concealed chronology shows to be December 32 AD - three months before the crucifixion - Jesus was informed of "the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices." This would mean the occasion when militants in Jesus' following formed part of the protest, for religious reasons, and some became martyrs. In the crucifixion story the fullest account is given in John's gospel, chapters 18 and 19, which the pesher shows to have been the work of Jesus himself. Pilate on Good Friday gave Jesus a legal trial, after the Jewish high priests had decided to hand him over. In John 18:33 the use of the Rule of the Last Referent, which may change the apparent meaning, shows that Jesus, the last person named, said to Pilate, "You are the king of the Jews". The special meaning of "king" basileus, is not "king" in the ordinary sense, but "graduate", one who wore a headdress like a crown. (See "Rule of the Last Referent" in Rules of the Pesher.)

Pilate had been made an honorary graduate of the Jewish ascetic schools, the equivalents of universities, which had been established throughout the Diaspora in the 2nd and 1st centuries BC. When he had been appointed as governor of the troublesome little country of Judea, it was necessary to prepare him to deal with its language and customs. On the Tiber Island in Rome stood a house of Antipas Herod the tetrarch, who had remained the only Herod in Judea after the abolition of the monarchy in 6 AD. Antipas - called "Jews" in the pesher - was in favor with the emperor Tiberius, having named the Galilean city of Tiberias after him. He was a suitable person to prepare the governors, so would have entertained Pilate in his home. All governors were given a token membersip of the Jewish religion so that they could attend its festivals, and Pilate was given the status of honorary graduate. It could be that even at that time he showed more than a token interest in the ascetics' religion, having been made a "king" (graduate) of the "Jews" (Antipas). When he arrived in Judea he would have actually met Jesus, the teacher of Gentiles, and been impressed by him. His initial sympathy with Jesus is expressed in the account of his trial in John's gospel.

In Matthew's gospel, Matthew 27:24, Pilate "took water (hydōr)and washed his hands", apparently disclaiming responsibility for allowing Jesus to be crucified. But members of the ascetics were characterised by engaging in frequent ritual washings with holy water (hydōr). Pilate was in fact demonstrating that he was an initiate, and he was doing so because he had decided to accept a bribe from the rich Antipas, out of mission money payable to ministers. It was a known fact that all Roman governors accepted bribes, as was admitted by the cynical emperor Tiberius (Josephus, Antiquities 18, 172).

A conspiracy was going on, among those who knew that it was easy to fool the obtuse Pilate. Three men were to be crucified, Simon Magus the leader, Judas Iscariot his deputy, and the man called Theudas or Barabbas as the third man. But Theudas was an elderly man, a hero of the 6 AD uprising of Judas the Galilean. He would not be able to withstand the rigors of the few hours on the cross that the conspirators led by Antipas intended. They planned to persuade or threaten Pilate to avoid breaking the sabbath rule by placing Simon Magus and Judas in a dungeon in a cave at the south end of the Qumran esplanade. From there they would rescue them when the coast was clear. Jesus, a younger man, should take the place of Theudas-Barabbas, and this would satisfy the militants within their movement who believed that he was not fully committed to their cause. Pilate, although regretting the loss of Jesus, found it politic to listen to the Jewish priests and moreover to accept a handsome bribe from Antipas.

A small point is that there was no Pilate's wife. In Matthew 27:19 the Rule of the Last Referent meant that it was Jesus who was sitting on a stand near the back gate at Qumran, and the woman or wife (gynē) who spoke to him was his own wife, Mary Magdalene.

The Acts of Pilate

There is a document called the Acts of Pilate, found in the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus. It may be read here.

It will be apparent that it is derived almost entirely from the surface story of the gospels, without knowledge of facts given through the pesher. Unlike some of the Apocrypha (See Section 4: The Other Gospels on this site), which are valuable historical documents, it has been written for a different purpose. It may be seen that it was part of the popular literature intended for a Roman audience that was hearing about Jesus and the crucifixion for the first time. The gospels were too difficult for them to concentrate on, even in Greek, and their equivalents of the tabloids were writing it up as a great story that would be a novelty and easily read, throwing in a few extra facts that would seem to add to the authenticity.

Nevertheless, it can be asked why they focussed so much on Pilate. It could be simply because he was a Roman who had been involved in the story ex officio. The gospels appear on the surface to give a reasonably sympathetic picture of Pilate, and these parts were highlighted. It would be all a way of saying, "This story is for Romans - leave the Jews out of it." That would be more readily understood if Pilate had come to figure in Roman circles as a media personality, one who had illustrated the famed Roman tolerance in an intriguing little dependency in the east.

There would be some substance in such an image of him if he had indeed become personally involved in the religion, as the pesher indicates. He would be able to talk about it, or at least the superficial knowledge of it that he had acquired in his contacts with it. Both Roman pagans and Roman Christians would have an interest in writing up his part in it as news for the Sunday papers - so to speak! The retention of the Pilate literature would then be part of the subsequent project of collecting all documents relevant to the early history.

The makers of the Apostles' Creed got their way - everyone has heard of Pontius Pilate!

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