Who is Pontius Pilate?

Pontius Pilate, the Roman official under whose authority Jesus Christ was tried and sentenced, was the fifth governor of Judea, holding his position during the period of A.D. 26-36. As an equestrian, Pilate came from the Roman class that was second only to the senatorial order and from which the Roman emperors increasingly drew their administrative and military officials. Little is known about his career before his appointment as governor of Judea, although he may have benefited from the political patronage of L. Aelius Seianus (Sejanus), an important minister of the emperor Tiberius (ruled A.D. 14-37). Although Tacitus calls him a “procurator” (Tacitus, Annales 15:44), which is the title common for the equestrian governors of small imperial provinces from the time of Claudius (ruled A.D. 41-54, and important inscription from Caesarea, the capital of Roman Judea, confirms that he held the earlier title of “prefect.”

Two first-century Jewish sources, Josephus and especially Philo, record several disastrous missteps early in Pilate’s administration of Judea, including carrying into Jerusalem Roman standards that were offensive to Jewish sensibilities, responding to Jewish demonstrations against his policies with excessive force, and dedicating golden shields to the emperor Tiberius in the former Herodian palace. Pilate’s earlier problems in the province, and perhaps the A.D. 31 purge in Rome of the supporters of his possible patron Seianus, put Pilate in a difficult political position when he was faced with the case of Jesus Christ, particularly when the hostile claque gathered at the trial accused Pilate of not being a friend of the emperor when he initially sought to release Jesus (John 19:12). The good working relationship that Pilate seems to have had with Joseph Caiaphas, a Jewish high priest from A.D. 18-37, may suggest that either he was more influenced by the animosity of the Jewish leadership against Jesus Christ or that he was collaborating more closely with it than the Gospel accounts reveal.

Of all the Gospel accounts of Pilate’s trial of Jesus Christ, John’s may be the most important because of its account of two private interviews between them (John 18:33-38; 19:8-11). The first interview preserves a memorable interchange between Pilate, the representative of fleeting, worldly power, and Jesus Christ, the Son of God: “Pilate therefore said unto him, Art thou a king then? Jesus answered, Thou sayest that I am a king. To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth. Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice” (John 18:37).

In A.D. 36, Pilate brutally suppressed a Samaritan religious movement on Mount Gerizim. Perhaps as a result, in late A.D. 36 or the spring of A.D. 37, Pilate was suspended from his office; and Caiaphas, who may have encouraged the action, was dismissed as high priest.