Who Was Pontius Pilate?

Daniel Darling
header for Who Was Pontius Pilate?

Pontius Pilate was a real person in place and time, more than the cardboard cutout we envision in movies and plays and flannelgraphs. So who is this ruler who suddenly shows up to coldly wash his hands in defiance of a mob determined to crucify Jesus? We don’t really know much about where he was born or his family, though some have speculated that perhaps he was born in Italy.

The Herods Before Pilate

To fully understand Pontius Pilate, it’s helpful to zoom out a bit and understand some of the history that placed this rising Roman politician on a collision course with an itinerant rabbi from Nazareth. It begins with Herod. And not just one Herod, but a succession of Herods appointed by the Romans to rule this part of the world. Yes, there are several Herods who ruled that part of the world, and it can get confusing trying to sort them all out.

The first was Herod the Great, who ruled the entire region for forty years, right up until the time of Jesus’ birth. This Herod was a legendary builder who created some of the amazing architectural masterpieces in the world, including large aqueducts that brought water from the Mediterranean around Israel, and the Jewish temple, a marvel that elicited awe and wonder every time a pilgrim came to worship (Mark 13:1). Today those aqueducts are still mostly standing. I’ve visited them on tours of Israel. Herod’s temple, though destroyed by the Roman general Titus in AD 70, still has its Western Wall visible and is a revered symbol of Judaism, visited by pilgrims from around the world.

But Herod was not loved. He was feared. Deep insecurities shaped the way he led, including his paranoia about being replaced. He had three sons and a wife killed. He committed infanticide against baby boys in Bethlehem (Matt. 2) upon hearing the news from the Magi that Jesus, a new King of the Jews, would be born. Herod was so ruthless and cruel that Caesar Augustus once said that it would be better to have been Herod’s pig than his son.[1] It’s not a compliment when a Caesar thinks you are a bit too authoritarian.

When Herod the Great died, his will dictated that the vast territory he ruled be divided among this three remaining sons, Herod Phillip, Herod Antipas, and Herod Archelaus. Herod Antipas, whose territory included Galilee, is the ruler who ordered John the Baptist beheaded for speaking out about Antipas’ adultery with Herod Phillip’s wife. Antipas is also the ruler before whom Jesus would appear in His trial.

Herod Archelaus was the lesser of the three sons and seemed to inherit his father’s cruelty. He was also inept. In fact, he was so bad that a delegation of Jewish leaders traveled to Rome and successfully petitioned Caesar to replace him. For Rome, Judea was strategic, an important bridge between Egypt and Syria. They couldn’t afford tumult in the region, so they quickly cycled through a series of governors to replace Herod, none of whom seemed to be able to solidify control. Eventually they landed on Pontius Pilate, a mid-level Roman politician.

Pilate’s Reign

Pilate was recommended by a benefactor high up in the Roman government named Sejanus.[2] Judea was not exactly a plum posting for an aspiring politician. It was a complex situation with a history of messy revolts and unrest. Rulers got into trouble when they failed to recognize the importance and significance of the sacred rituals and practices of the Jewish people. So Rome came to a kind of arrangement that gave Israel some religious autonomy, deferring to its seventy-member religious ruling council, called the Sanhedrin, and a security force of temple guards. Jews were given space to practice their sacrifices and rituals. But if this wasn’t managed well, things could spiral out of control quickly. Perhaps Pilate accepted the assignment thinking it could be a stepping-stone to something greater.

He’s a man hanging onto his position, who despises the people he is tasked with leading.

Even though Pilate was likely the most successful at governing Judea, he too got caught in the leadership quicksand. He developed a reputation for brutality. Historians tell us about a few notable flashpoints:

  • Not long after he assumed power in Judea, he ordered Roman soldiers to place large defensive shields bearing the likeness of Caesar in Jerusalem. This was a cultural and racial affront to the Jewish people, a highly insensitive gesture that Pilate did to try to ingratiate himself to Tiberius, but which brought tremendous opposition from the Jewish people. Jewish people protested and even followed him to his palace in Caesarea. He eventually backed down.[3]
  • To fund a freshwater source in Jerusalem, Pilate raided the temple treasury for funds, again provoking backlash. This time Pilate put down the protest by hiding Roman soldiers in the crowd, disguised as protesters. His soldiers used knives to kill many Jewish people.[4]
  • His Roman troops massacred some Galileans while they were worshiping in the temple, their blood mixing with the blood of the sacrifices (Luke 13:1).

Pilate and the Crucifixion

Pilate could be brutal and cruel, but it cost him. By the time Jesus was put on trial before him, Pilate had zero political capital and his standing with Rome was on thin ice. Not only had he squandered his leadership capital, but Sejanus, the benefactor who had recommended Pilate for this posting to the emperor, Tiberius, was off the scene, caught up in a scandal of his own, and executed. Every move of the prefect’s was being watched. He couldn’t afford another uprising. He couldn’t afford his troubles to reach the ears of Rome.

So when we open the gospels and read about Pontius Pilate, it’s good to remember that there is a history that informs and influences the decisions he makes. He’s a man hanging onto his position, who despises the people he is tasked with leading. He has a tenuous alliance with the religious leaders, but you can hear the desperation in his voice and see the uneasiness with which he handles the trial of Jesus. He both disdains these people and is scared of what will happen with his position.

[1] N. T. Wright and Michael Bird, The New Testament in Its World: An Introduction to the History, Literature, and Theology of the First Christians (London: Zondervan Academic, 2019), 96–99.

[2] Mark L. Strauss, Four Portraits, One Jesus: An Introduction to Jesus and the Gospels (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007), 496.

[3] Walter C. Kaiser Jr. and Duane Garrett, eds., NIV Archaeological Study Bible: An Illustrated Walk Through Biblical History and Culture (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006), 1632.

[4] Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 18.60, trans. William Whiston, accessed June 9, 2020, https://lexundria.com/j_aj/18.60/wst.

For Further Reading:

The Characters of Easter

by Daniel Darling

Meet the unlikely people who witnessed history’s greatest event. At Easter, the Son of God took on the world’s sin and defeated the...

book cover for The Characters of Easter