Pontius Pilate is probably one
of the best-known characters in the gospels. And yet the portrait the
gospel authors present is very far from the truth.
The gospels portray a Pilate who tended towards mercy, who attempted
to prevent the crucifixion of Jesus, and who was driven to do what he
did by vociferous crowds of Jews. The impression is given that if Pilate
had had his way, Jesus would have been released and the robber Barabbas
crucified in his place.
History tells a different story.
Our main source of information about Pilate is the Jewish Wars
of Flavius Josephus, written just before the end of the first century -
that is, at much the same time as the gospels. Josephus was involved in
an uprising against Rome which began in the year 66. After his capture,
he was spared by the authorities in return for his co-operation. He was
given a pension and lived the rest of his life out in Rome.
As a Jew, Josephus was intent upon improving the image of his nation
in the eyes of the Roman authorities. When the Jerusalem temple was
broken down and burned by the Roman army in 70, many Jewish people
emigrated to other parts of the Empire. It seems that they were often
viewed with some suspicion by more established elements of the
communities of which they became part.
Bad government by Roman governors of Palestine was advanced by
Josephus as one reason why otherwise peace-loving Jews were provoked
into rebellion. One of the governors at fault was, according to
Josephus, Pontius Pilate, Prefect of Judea from 26-36.
Pilate seems to have been capricious, cruel and devious. He began his
period of rule badly. Perhaps to curry favour with his masters in Rome
he sneaked standards of the Emperor Tiberius (which had images attached
to them) into Jerusalem at night.
We might wonder today why this should have done Pilate any good. The
modern image of the Roman administration is one of ruthless efficiency,
of a strong legal system, and of considerable technical skill.
Seldom mentioned, however, is the all-pervasive insistence of the
authorities on maintaining proper religious observances. Religious
beliefs were, despite appearances to our technological culture, deep and
sincere. Failure to respect and publicly honour religious symbols was
regarded with great suspicion. Roman religion was thought of as the
spiritual glue which bound the Empire together and which guaranteed
God's favour in its various enterprises.
The Jewish nation's refusal to tolerate images of any sort had long
been condoned by Rome. Pilate appears to have thought that he would
succeed where others had failed and introduce Roman symbols into the
holy city. He miscalculated. Josephus tells how
This excited a very great tumult among the Jews when it was day ...
for laws do not permit any sort of image to be brought into the city
Pilate had to back down when the crowds
... fell down in vast numbers together, exposed their necks, and
cried out that they were sooner ready to be killed than that their law
should be transgressed.
Pilate's next clash with the Jews ended better for him. He had
appropriated money from Temple funds to build a much-needed aqueduct to
bring water to Jerusalem. He seems to have anticipated trouble about
using this money. When a protesting crowd assembled, he infiltrated his
troops amongst them. At Pilate's signal they set upon the crowd with
sticks and clubs and gave them a sound thrashing. That action stopped
the protest in its tracks.
Pilate's cruel and inept governance eventually came to the notice of
the Roman authorities. He was removed from his post by Lucius Vitellius,
Governor of Syria (under which Judea fell as far as Rome was concerned).
A reading of the New Testament does not convey a negative picture of
Roman governors in general and of Pilate in particular. On the contrary,
they are portrayed as worthy rulers who deserve praise for their
beneficence towards the Jews.
The author of Luke's Gospel and of the Acts of the Apostles presents
the governors in a favourable light. In Acts chapters 24 and 25, for
example, the Procurator Felix is honoured as a reformer who has brought
peace and who is deeply concerned for the welfare of the Jewish nation.
Only a hint of anything more sinister is admitted, as in his reference
to a number of Galileans "whose blood Pilate mingled with their
sacrifices" (Luke 13.1).
The other gospels are considerably more sycophantic with regard to
Pilate. In Mark's Gospel, Pilate marvels at Jesus while the Jewish
leaders don't hesitate to have him convicted on false charges. Pilate is
a good judge of character and knows that the Jews oppose Jesus for the
basest of motives. He even risks trying to release Jesus by offering the
Jews a choice between their innocent victim and a convicted killer.
Matthew's Gospel goes even further in suggesting that Pilate was
basically sensitive and just. In response to his wife's dream, Pilate
pronounces Jesus innocent of any offence. He is driven by pressure from
the Jewish authorities to do what he would rather not do.
The build-up of Pilate is even greater in John's Gospel. Pilate takes
on the role of Jesus' representative (19.12) before the Jews and it is
to them that he is handed over to be crucified (19.16). We know that
this could not have happened since only the Romans were allowed to carry
out a death sentence.
The question arises as to why the gospel authors went to such pains
to portray Pilate in a favourable light, when Josephus (and any other
well-informed person) knew that Pilate was a poor example of Roman
justice and administrative equity.
A determined focus on the timescale of the gospels is important in
attempting an answer. They were written after the destruction of
Jerusalem when anything Jewish was regarded with suspicion not only by
the Roman authorities, but also by the average Roman who sought to
preserve and build the Empire. Palestine was not finally subdued until
74. Only some 50 years later yet another uprising brought yet more
turmoil and death to the region.
In this context, the early Christian communities were at first
thought of by the Roman authorities as a "tribe" or offshoot of the
Jewish nation. As such they were tarred with the same brush.
As Steve Mason points out, one response of Christians at the time was
what we today call anti-Semitism . It did not
suit the gospel writers to approve of their Jewish roots. One way to
temper, if not improve, their public image was to portray Jews as
Christ-killers. Another was to whitewash Pontius Pilate.
Their predicament in the context of the Roman Empire of the time,
... stemmed from the novelty of Christianity. In a culture that
respected what was old and established, Christianity seemed a new
religion - a contradiction in terms for Roman thinking! - for it
worshiped as Lord someone who had quite recently been executed by the
Roman authorities, in the humiliating way reserved for trouble-making
provincials (crucifixion), and in a backwater province no less.
All sorts of rumours tended to float around about early Christians.
One such was passed on in Pliny's letter to the Emperor Trajan about the
year 111. He assumes, for example, that Christians eat human flesh at
their secret night-feasts. Perhaps he had heard about the words "body
and blood" at Christian ceremonial meals and thought the worst.
Christians thought of themselves as the "true Israel". It served
their purposes to vilify Jews as the old Israel now superceded by God's
The Pilate of history, it turns out, was not the person portrayed by
Christians. It is much more probable that he and the Jewish authorities
colluded to put Jesus to death for the sake of good public order in
Jerusalem. At the same time, it's wrong to blame the gospel authors for
having been biased. After all, who can claim absolute impartiality in
the face of a need to survive and prosper as a viable, if not
controlling, social force?
 The Wars of the Jews, 2.169-174
 Josephus and the New Testament, Hendrickson, 2003