Pilate was a Samnite, a loose confederations of ancient Italic clans originally from south-central Italy; his own clan was the "Pontii", hence the origin of his name, and he was an equestrian, i.e. knight of that clan. He was appointed prefect (governor) in 26 A.D. by the Roman emperor Tiberius at the behest (or intrigues) of Lucius Aelius Sejanus, a commander of the Praetorian Guard who had political ambitions of his own. The only written account of the date of his appointment known to have survived to modern times - by way of the death of Tiberius in March, 37 A.D. - is from Josephus, who stated:
- ""(Tiberius)...sent Valerius Gratus to be procurator of Judea, and to succeed Annus Rufus...When Gratus had done those things, he went back to Rome, after he had tarried in Judea eleven years, when Pontius Pilate became his successor...So Pilate, when he had tarried ten years in Judea, made haste to Rome...but before he could get to Rome, Tiberius was dead."
That Pilate was appointed as prefect via Sejanus may have also been due in part to Sejanus' anti-Semitism. The Praetorian Guard commander issued a number of decrees against the Jewish people throughout the empire, and several ancient writers strongly indicate that is what took place; certainly Pilate was a valuable protege who could carry out Sejanus' decrees in Judaea. Eusebius wrote:
- "...Sejanus, who was then in great favor with Tiberius, had made every effort to destroy the whole nation of the Jews from the foundation, and that in Pontius Pilate under whom the crimes were committed against our Savior, having attempted everything contrary to what was lawful among the Jews respecting the Temple at Jerusalem, which was then yet standing, excited them to the greatest tumults."
Sejanus died in 31 A.D. under suspicious circumstances; it may be true that Tiberius, from his island retreat on Capri, was told of the mistreatment of Jews within Rome on Sejanus' orders and had the commander arrested and executed. Philo wrote down what followed:
- "Therefore everyone everywhere, even if he was not naturally well disposed toward the Jews, was afraid to engage in destroying any of our institutions, and indeed it was the same under Tiberius though matters in Italy became troublesome when Sejanus was organizing his onslaughts. For Tiberius knew the truth, he knew at once after Sejanus' death that the accusations made against the Jewish inhabitants of Rome were false slanders, invented by him because he wished to make away with the nation, knowing that it would take the sole or the principal part in opposing his unholy plots and actions, and would defend the emperor when in danger of becoming the victim of treachery. And he charged his procurators in every place to which they were appointed to speak comfortably to the members of our nation in the different cities, assuring them that the penal measures did not extend to all but only to the guilty, who were few, and to disturb none of the established customs but even to regard them as a trust committed to their care, the people as naturally peaceable, and the institutions as an influence promoting orderly conduct."
As a protege Pilate was eager to carry out Sejanus' policies once installed as prefect in Judaea. Josephus recorded the placement of Roman standards within Jerusalem, with the intention of violating the city's sanctity; he forcibly took money from the Temple treasury to pay for an aqueduct, and had men and women viciously beaten and/or killed when they protested. Even in the Gospel of Luke, it is mentioned that Pilate was extremely hostile towards the Jews:
- There were present at that season some that told him of the Galilaeans, whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.
New Testament accounts
Jesus is brought to Pilate; His case fell within the jurisdiction of the Roman governor, and the indictment was based upon political offenses, including high treason and incitement to rebellion, and Jesus - according to the charges of the Jewish high priests - had made himself the "king of the Jews" and thereby become a threat to the emperor in Rome and his territorial claims. Also, because there were signs of an uprising of the Jewish population, Pilate seemed forced to pursue the charges.
Pilate asked for a specific accusation; Jesus was declared to be a malefactor, i.e. criminal. Pilate entered the judgement hall and questioned Jesus directly about His alleged kingship, and receives the answer that He rules over the kingdom of truth, and over the hearts of men who acknowledge the truth. Pilate asks: "What is truth?". Pilate brings Him forth to the priests, and many accusations are made against Him, which to Pilate's surprise, He makes no reply. Pilate affirms His innocence, but the charges are repeated. Pilate then found out He was a Galilean, so he sent Him to Herod, who was curious as to what Jesus could do and expected to see such; getting nothing instead, Herod in mockery clothed Him in a "gorgeous robe" - possibly his own royal robe - and sent Him back to Pilate. Still convinced of His innocence, Pilate declared that neither Herod or himself had found any fault in Him, and offers to scourge Him and let Him go, with his wife sending him a message warning him not to harm Jesus because she has suffered many things in a dream because of Him.
Pilate's attempts to release Jesus utterly fail, in view of the vehement influence of the Jewish authorities, culminating in an accusation that "thou art not Caesar's friend", in reference to amicus Caesaris, a title Pilate himself held, granted to persons favored by the emperor. The priests further get the people to choose a notorious rebel-rouser and murderer (Barabbas) to be released instead, and further demand that Jesus be crucified. So Pilate turns away and purposely washes his hands for a motive of the Gospel of Matthew. One can interpret the attitude of Pilate during this episode as either an expression of tired skepticism, as agnosticism, as an expression of superior tolerance, or as an early case of ideological neutrality of state and administration. In any case Pilate ultimately fails because of the right knowledge of Jesus, while at the same time proving himself to be powerless against the Jewish accusers.
in 36 A.D. a Samaritan religious revolt was quashed by Pilate at Mt. Gerizim, and after complaints of his brutality reached the Roman legate in Syria, Lucius Vitellius (the father of the future emperor Vitellius) dismissed him from office and sent him to Rome. The further fate of Pilate is unknown; one account stated that he was ordered to commit suicide by the emperor Caligula.
A slab of stone became the first archaeological find that confirmed the existence of Pilate. In 1961 in the Mediterranean port of Caesarea, which was once the residence of a Roman governor in Judea, two Italian archaeologists discovered a limestone slab measuring 82 × 100 × 20 cm with a Latin inscription deciphered by Dr. Antonio Frova as:
- [DIS AUGUSTI]S TIBERIÉUM
- [...PO]NTIUS PILATUS
- [...PRAEF]ECTUS IUDA[EA]E
- [...FECIT D]E[DICAVIT]
- To the Divine Augusti [this] Tiberieum
- ...Pontius Pilate
- ...prefect of Judea
- ...has dedicated [this]
The stone itself was found embedded within part of a foundation of stairsteps to a structure erected in the 4th century A.D. as a part of an earlier theater originally constructed by Herod the Great; apparently it was just another stone to be used when the theater area was renovated, with much of the inscription carved off from the left side to make the block fit. The translation of the stone indicated it may have been part of a nearby temple, dedicated to Tiberius.
- Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History ii, V.
- Philo, Legatio 24, 159-161
- Josephus, Antiquities XVIII, 3.1
- Josephus, Antiquities XVIII, 3.2
- Luke, 13:1
- Matt. 27:2; Mark 15:1; Luke 23:1; John 18:28
- Matt. 27:24
- John 18:29-32
- reported briefly in Matt. 27:11; Mark 15:2; Luke 23:3, and with more detail John 18:33-38
- Matt. 27:12-14; Mark 15:3-5
- Luke 23:4
- Luke 23:6-12
- Luke 23:13-16
- Matt. 27:19
- John, 19:12-16
- Matt. 27:20-23; Mark 15:11-14; Luke 23:18-23; John 18:40
- Matt. 27:24