We are all familiar with Pontius Pilate, the man who condemned Jesus Christ to be executed by crucifixion in Jerusalem. Or are we?
While billions of people over the last two millennia have heard about his actions on one spring evening sometime in the early 30s AD, very few people know much about Pontius Pilate. So here we explore the life and death of Pontius Pilate.
The Early Life of Pontius Pilate
Admittedly, very little is known about the early life of this middling Roman official. But, according to some traditional accounts, he was a knight of the Roman equestrian class and a member of the Samnite clan of the Pontii in Italy.
This explains his name Pontius, but very little else can be verified about his birth, origins, or early life. That is until his appointment to the office that has made him so famous.
In 26 AD, Pilate became the fifth governor of the Roman province of Judaea. He obtained the office through his ties to Sejanus, an extremely influential figure during the reign of the second Roman emperor, Tiberius. The latter was widely perceived as the real power behind the throne.
Pilate was to take over in Judaea just twenty years after its last client, king Herod Archelaus, was deposed, and Rome began to rule the region directly.
It was a fractious time as the Jewish people, one of the few subject people of Rome who were monotheists and believed in one rather than multiple gods, were rebellious.
Many groups of Jewish people were also increasingly inclined to follow one of many proclaimed messiahs preaching throughout the province in the first century AD. The man we know as Jesus was just one of these messiahs operating there during Pilate’s governorship.
Governing Judaea and Killing Jesus
Pilate would govern Roman Judaea for ten years, from 26 AD to 36 AD. It is unclear when precisely during his tenure there that Jesus was brought before him and condemned by many leaders of the Jewish church as being a heretic.
But some have argued that this occurred in the early 30s AD. In 31 AD, Sejanus was removed from power in Rome by Tiberius, and this weakened Pilate’s position in Judaea as he lost his backer in the capital.
Many have speculated that Pilate’s decision to placate the leaders of the Jewish church and acquiesce to their demands was because his position was weak in Judaea following Sejanus’s downfall, and he needed to gather support for his regime in Jerusalem.
This would certainly make sense given that between his appointment in 26 AD and Sejanus’s death in the autumn of 31 AD, Pilate had generally been deeply antagonistic to the leaders of the Jewish church in the province.
He incited their fury by issuing coins with symbols of the Pagan gods on them and hanging icons of Emperor Tiberius in Jerusalem and other towns across the province, actions which the Jewish people deemed idolatrous.
Given this, it seems likely that Pilate’s more accommodating decision to grant the church leaders’ request for Jesus to be executed occurred when his position as governor of Judaea was weak following Sejanus’s fall from power.
Despite the often apocalyptic depiction of Pilate’s decision to condemn Jesus in the New Testament, this was very likely a reasonably typical day as governor for Pontius. However, it was a day when he was aware of the chance of a revolt breaking out during Passover if he did not comply with the request to kill Jesus.
Yet it in no way earned him any censure from Rome, and he continued ruling the region for a few years afterward. What brought about his actual downfall was not his decision to order the execution of one of the province’s numerous messianic prophets at the time but instead increasing tensions in one of the regions of Judaea.
What Happened to Pontius Pilate after he Killed Jesus?
At some point in 36 AD, a group of Samaritans from Samaria, who were followers of another messiah there, most likely called Dositheos, had begun excavating Mount Gerizim in the belief that they would find riches and artifacts there associated with the Hebrew prophet Moses.
Pilate seems to have ordered some of his legionaries to Mount Gerizim, and the Samaritan group there was massacred. A complaint about this was subsequently made to the governor of the neighboring Roman province of Syria, a man called Lucius Vitellius.
He took the complaint seriously enough to send word to Rome, and Pilate was recalled to the Eternal City by Emperor Tiberius to account for his conduct as governor.
When Pilate finally made it to Rome in 37 AD, Tiberius had died and been succeeded by Emperor Caligula. It was often the case that individuals in Pilate’s position who were accused of severe misconduct were pardoned upon the accession of a new emperor. Because of this, there is a lack of clarity as to what happened to Pilate after.
He largely disappears from the historical record, so two competing theories have emerged, for neither of them has sufficient evidence to state that it is entirely accurate.
One holds that Pilate was found to be in such disgrace for his actions while governor of Judaea that he committed suicide shortly after returning to Rome.
The other contends that Caligula did indeed pardon him, and he retired to a quiet, obscure life on some country estate in the Italian countryside, never to be heard of again until the authors of the New Testament began writing their accounts of Jesus’s life several decades later.
Whichever is the truth of Pontius Pilate’s later years, we know that his reputation is mixed today. In some Christian traditions, he is seen as a reluctant governor who begrudgingly consented to allow Jesus to be crucified to placate the leaders of the temple of Jerusalem. Indeed both the Christian Ethiopian Church and the Coptic Church of Egypt revere Pilate as a Saint.
Others have typically viewed him as an autocratic, violent governor whose role in the murder of the son of god makes him one of the great villains of Roman history.
The answer to which of these interpretations is most accurate is perhaps as hard to answer as the question of whether he killed himself in 37 AD or lived a long life in retirement after that.
John F. Hall, ‘The Roman Province of Judea: A Historical Overview’, in Brigham Young University Studies, Vol. 36, No. 3 (1996–7), pp. 319–336.
Paul L. Maier, ‘Sejanus, Pilate, and the Date of the Crucifixion’, in Church History, Vol. 37, No. 1 (1968), pp. 3–13.
Tibor Grüll, ‘The Legendary Fate of Pontius Pilate’, in Classica et Mediaevalia, Vol. 61 (2010), pp. 151–176.