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Pontius Pilate

Pontius Pilate (Latin Pontius Pilatus) was the governor of the small Roman province of Judea from AD 26 until around 36 AD, although Tacitus believed him to be the procurator of that province. According to the Christian Gospels, he presided at the trial of Jesus and gave the order for his crucifixion. His biographical details before and after his appointment to Judea are unknown, but have been supplied by legend, which included the detail that his wife's name was Procula; she is canonized as a saint in Orthodox Christianity.


Biblical role

Pilate is famous primarily as a crucial character in the New Testament account of Jesus, but most of our knowledge of him comes from the account of the Romano-Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (for more detail, see the entry Josephus on Jesus).

Pilate is said to have displayed a serious lack of empathy for Jewish sensibilities, for example by displaying Roman battle standards . The story is worth quoting:

On one occasion, when the soldiers under his command came to Jerusalem, he caused them to bring with them their ensigns, upon which were the usual images of the emperor. The ensigns were brought in privily by night, but their presence was soon discovered. Immediately multitudes of excited Jews hastened to Caesarea to petition him for the removal of the obnoxious ensigns. For five days he refused to hear them, but on the sixth he took his place on the judgment seat, and when the Jews were admitted he had them surrounded with soldiers and threatened them with instant death unless they ceased to trouble him with the matter. The Jews thereupon flung themselves on the ground and bared their necks, declaring that they preferred death to the violation of their laws. Pilate, unwilling to slay so many, yielded the point and removed the ensigns.

—Josephus, Jewish War 2.169-174; Antiquities of the Jews 18.55-59

Philo of Alexandria tells us that on one other occasion he dedicated some gilt shields in the palace of Herod in honor of the emperor. On these shields there was no representation of any forbidden thing, but simply an inscription of the name of the donor and of him in whose honor they were set up. The Jews petitioned him to have them removed; when he refused, they appealed to Tiberius, who sent an order that they should be removed to Caesarea. (Philo, Legatio ad Caium, 38)

He further erred by appropriating Temple funds for the construction of an aqueduct:

At another time he used the sacred treasure of the temple, called corban (qorban), to pay for bringing water into Jerusalem by an aqueduct. A crowd came together and clamored against him; but he had caused soldiers dressed as civilians to mingle with the multitude, and at a given signal they fell upon the rioters and beat them so severely with staves that the riot was quelled.

—Josephus, Jewish War 2.175-177; Antiquities 18.60-62.

Pilate may possibly have responded so harshly to the unrest because, due to political machinations, the powerful neighboring Roman province of Syria was unable to provide him military support.

In approximately AD 36, Pilate used arrests and executions to quash a Samaritan religious uprising. After complaints to the Roman legate of Syria, Pilate was recalled to Rome; many readers are surprised to find that his suicide is merely part of the legend.

In contrast, Pilate's actual history was supplemented in 1961, when a block of limestone was found in the Roman theatre at Caesarea, the capital of the province of Judea, bearing a damaged dedication by Pilate of a Tiberieum. This dedication states that he was prefectus (usually seen as praefectus), that is, governor, of Judea. The word Tiberieum is otherwise unknown: some scholars speculate that it was some kind of structure, perhaps a temple, built to honor the emperor Tiberius. This inscription is currently in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

Pilate in the Gospels

According to the New Testament, Jesus was brought to Pilate by the Jewish authorities in Jersusalem after they had arrested him, questioned him, and received answers from him that they considered blasphemous.

Pilate's main question to Jesus was whether he considered himself to be the "king of the Jews".

In the continuing interrogation by Pilate, related in the Gospel of John, Jesus states that he "came into the world ... to bear witness to the truth; and all who are on the side of truth listen to my voice", to which Pilate replies, "What is truth?" Pilate then offers the Jews the choice of a prisoner to release, said to be a Passover tradition, and they choose a murderer named Barabbas over Jesus. John 18 makes it apparent that Pilate could not have cared less about the conflict between Jesus and the priests, or about executing Jesus; he certainly does not seem to see Jesus' "kingdom" as any sort of a threat to Rome.

In the Gospel of Matthew, after condemning Jesus to death, Pilate washes his hands with water in front of the crowd, who had demanded that Jesus be crucified, and says, "I am innocent of this man's blood. It is your concern." The story told by Josephus of the nonviolent resistance to the battle standards does not mention who was the leader of the Jewish people in this endeavor, but the crucifixion of Jesus is mentioned almost immediately afterwards, suggesting that the leader in question was Jesus himself.

The question of responsibility for Jesus' death

In all New Testament accounts, Pilate hesitates to condemn Jesus until the crowd insists. Some have suggested that this may have been an effort by early Christian polemicists to curry favor with Rome by placing the blame for Jesus' execution on the Jews, and that it was part of the process by which Pauline Christians marginalized the still-observant Christian Jews of the Levant (Ebionites). Later, after state-sponsored persecution of Christians was stopped, the Nicene Creed adopted in 325 at the First Council of Nicaea convoked by the Emperor himself, stated unambiguously that Jesus "was crucified under Pontius Pilate," for Christian Rome was fully prepared to criticize even recent actions of pagan Rome. However, the main reason for the inclusion was to state the belief in Jesus as a real man living in a precise moment and place.

Western traditions: the guilty Pilate


Eastern traditions: the exonerated Pilate

. See the entry Bar Abba.

Pilate in mythology

Little enough is still known about Pilate, but mythology has filled the gap. A body of fiction built up around the dramatic figure of Pontius Pilate, about whom the Christian faithful hungered to learn more than the canonical gospels revealed. Eusebius (Historia Ecclesiae book ii: 7), quotes some early apocryphal accounts that he does not name, which already relate that Pilate fell under misfortunes in the reign of Caligula (37 - 41 A.D.), was exiled to Gaul and eventually committed suicide there, in Vienne. Other details come from less respectable sources. His body, says the Mors Pilati ('Death of Pilate') was thrown first into the Tiber, but the waters were so disturbed by evil spirits that the body was taken to Vienne and sunk in the Rhone: a monument at Vienne, called Pilate's tomb, is still to be seen. As the waters of the Rhone likewise rejected Pilate's corpse, it was again removed and sunk in the lake at Lausanne. Its final disposition was in a deep and lonely mountain tarn, which, according to later tradition, was on a mountain, still called Pilatus (actually pileatus or 'cloud-capped'), overlooking Lucerne. Every Good Friday the body re-emerges from the waters and washes its hands. There are many other legends about Pilate in the folklore of Germany, and his death was (unusually) dramatized in a medieval mystery play cycle from Cornwall, the Cornish Ordinalia.

Pilate's role in the events leading to the crucifixion lent themselves to melodrama, even tragedy, and Pilate often has a role in medieval mystery plays.

In the Coptic Orthodox Church (predominantly African), Pontius Pilate is commemorated as a saint. According to their tradition, he secretly converted to Christianity sometime after the death of Jesus Christ, through the influence of his wife Claudia. Pilate and Claudia are both commemorated as saints on June 25. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, Claudia is commemorated as a saint, but not Pilate, because in the Gospel accounts Claudia urged Pilate to have nothing to do with Jesus. In some Eastern Orthodox traditions, Pilate committed suicide out of remorse for having sentenced Jesus to death.

Acts of Pilate

The 4th century forgery that is called the Acts of Pilate presents itself in a preface (missing in some mss) as derived from the official acts preserved in the praetorium at Jerusalem. Though the alleged Hebrew original of the document is attributed to Nicodemus, the title Gospel of Nicodemus for this fictional account is even later in origin. Nothing in the text suggests that it is in fact a translation from Hebrew.

This forgery gained wide credit in the Middle Ages, and has considerably affected the legends surrounding the events of the crucifixion, which, taken together, are called the Passion. Its popularity is attested by the number of languages in which it exists, each of these being represented by two or more variant 'editions': Greek (the original), Coptic, Armenian and Latin versions. The Latin versions were printed several times in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

One class of the Latin manuscripts contain as an appendix or continuation, the Cura Sanitatis Tiberii, the oldest form of the Veronica legend. There is more detail at the entry Saint Veronica.

The Acta Pilati consist of three sections, whose styles reveal three authors, writing at three different times.

The first section (i-xi) contains a fanciful and dramatic circumstantial account of the trial of Jesus, based upon Luke, xxiii.

The second part (xii-xvi) regards the Resurrection. An appendix, detailing the Descensus ad Infernos was added to the Greek text. This "Harrowing of Hell" has chiefly flourished in Latin, and was translated into many European versions. It doesn't exist in the eastern versions, Syriac and Armenian, that derive directly from Greek versions. In it, Leucius and Charinus, the two souls raised from the dead after the Crucifixion, relate to the Sanhedrin the circumstances of Christ's descent to Limbo.

The well-informed Eusebius (325), although he mentions an Acta Pilati that had been referred to by Justin and Tertullian and other pseudo-Acts of this kind, shows no acquaintance with this work. Almost surely it is of later origin, and scholars agree in assigning it to the middle of the 4th century. Epiphanius refers to an Acta Pilati similar to this, as early as 376, but there are indications that the current Greek text, the earliest extant form, is a revision of an earlier one.

Minor Pilate literature

The minor legendary material is as deeply divided as the rest: in the Coptic Orthodox Church Pilate is a Christian convert and a saint, while in other traditions he is a lost soul condemned to restless wandering in the West.

There is a forged letter reporting on the crucifixion, purporting to have been sent by Pontius Pilate to the Emperor Claudius, embodied in the pseudepigraphic forgery known as the Acts of Peter and Paul , of which the Catholic Encyclopedia states, "This composition is clearly apocryphal though unexpectedly brief and restrained." There is no internal relation between this feigned letter and the 4th century Acts of Pilate (Acta Pilati).

This Epistle or Report of Pilate is also inserted into the Pseudo-Marcellus Passion of Peter and Paul. We thus have it in both Greek and Latin versions.

The Mors Pilati ("Death of Pilate") legend is a Latin tradition, thus treating Pilate as a monster, not a saint; it is attached usually to the more sympathetic Gospel of Nicodemus of Greek origin. The narrative of the Mors Pilati set of manuscripts is set in motion by an illness of Tiberius, who sends Volusanius to Judea to fetch the Christ for a cure. In Judea Pilate covers for the fact that Christ has been crucified, and asks for a delay. But Volusanius encounters Veronica who informs him of the truth but sends him back to Rome with her veronica of Christ's face on her kerchief, which heals Tiberius. Tiberius then calls for Pontius Pilate, but when Pilate appears, he is wearing the seamless robe of the Christ and Tiberius' heart is softened, but only until Pilate is induced to doff the garment, whereupon he is treated to a ghastly execution. His body, when thrown into the Tiber, however, raises such storm demons that it is sent to Vienne (via gehennae) in France and thrown to the Rhone. That river's spirits reject it too, and the body is driven east into "Losania," where it is plunged in the bay of the lake near Lucerne, near Mont Pilatus— originally Mons Pileatus or "cloud-capped" as John Ruskin pointed out in Modern Painters— whence the uncorrupting corpse rises every Good Friday to sit on the bank and wash unavailing hands.

This version combined with anecdotes of Pilate's wicked early life were incorporated in Jacobus de Voragine's Golden Legend, which ensured a wide circulation for it in the later Middle Ages.

In the Cornish cycle of mystery plays the "death of Pilate" forms a dramatic scene in the Resurrexio Domini cycle.

More of Pilate's fictional correspondence is found in the minor Pilate apocrypha, the Anaphora Pilati ('Relation of Pilate,'), an 'Epistle of Herod to Pilate,' and an 'Epistle of Pilate to Herod,' spurious texts that are no older than the fifth century.

The Dutch writer Simon Vestdijk wrote a novel (1938) about the life of Pilate after the crucifixion: De nadagen van Pilatus (The last days of Pilate).

The role of Pilate in drama

Plays and movies dealing with life of Jesus Christ often include the character of Pontius Pilate due to the central role he played in the final days of Christ's life. Pilate has been interpreted in a number of different ways. At times he was portrayed as a weak and harried bureaucrat. Some portrayals showed Pilate as a hard governor who ruled with an iron fist.

Pontius Pilate is portrayed in the classical work of Michael Bulgakov , The Master and Margarita.

Notable figures who have played Pontius Pilate in various dramas include Telly Savalas (The Greatest Story Ever Told), Rod Steiger (Jesus of Nazareth), and Frank Thring (Ben-Hur). In the Mel Gibson film The Passion of the Christ Pontius Pilate was portrayed by the Bulgarian actor Hristo Naumov Shopov. In Martin Scorsese's controversial The Last Temptation of Christ, David Bowie portrayed a somewhat sympathetic Pilate. A satire on Pilate was played by Michael Palin in the Monty Python film Life of Brian. In the film, he had an Elmer Fudd style of talking, replacing "r" with "w".

In the summer of 2004, as part of its New Works festival, the Royal Shakespeare Company debuted a 'work in progress' performance of a piece called The Pilate Workshop . Inspired by the book by Ann Wroe , the piece explores the life of Pontius Pilate in the style of a mystery play. The workshop was developed by RSC artistic director Michael Boyd and ran for only five performances.

External links


The references to Pilate, outside the New Testament: Josephus, Antiquities 18.35, 55-64, 85-89, 177; War 2.169-177; Philo, Legatio ad Caium (Embassy to Gaius) 38; Tacitus, Annals 15.44.

Last updated: 05-07-2005 09:17:40
Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04