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Archaeology and Pontius Pilate

Archaeology

Also See ISBE - Procurator

Caesarea, Israel
New Testament Period
Pontius Pilate, (26-37 AD)
Limestone, inscribed
82.0 cm H, 65.0 cm W
Building Dedication
4 Lines of Writing (Latin)
Date of Discovery: 1961
Israel Museum (Jerusalem)
AE 1963 no. 104

Inscription by Pontius Pilate

It wasn't long ago when many scholars were questioning the actual existence of a Roman Governor with the name Pontius Pilate, the procurator who ordered Jesus' crucifixion. In June 1961 Italian archaeologists led by Dr. Frova were excavating an ancient Roman amphitheatre near Caesarea-on-the-Sea (Maritima) and uncovered this interesting limestone block. On the face is a monumental inscription which is part of a larger dedication to Tiberius Caesar which clearly says that it was from "Pontius Pilate, Prefect of Judea."

It reads:

Line One: TIBERIEUM,
Line Two: (PON) TIUS
Line Three: (PRAEF) ECTUS IUDA (EAE)

This is the only known occurrence of the name Pontius Pilate in any ancient inscription. Visitors to Caesarea's theater today see a replica, the original is in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. It is interesting as well that there have been a few bronze coins found that were struck form 29-32 AD by Pontius Pilate.

Who was Pontius Pilate?

Pontius Pilate's family name, Pontius, indicates that he was of the tribe of Pontii. It was one of the most famous of the ancient Samnite names. The surname or cognomen Pilatus indicates the familia, or branch of the gens Pontius. The name is uncertain, though some think it may have meant "armed with the pilum" (a spear or javelin). One interesting note is about another man in Roman history bearing the name. Lucius Pontius Aquila was a friend of Cicero and one of the assassins of Julius Caesar on the Ides of March (44 BC) when the would-be king was murdered.

The only information regarding Pontius Pilate is the New Testament and two Jewish writers: Josephus and Philo of Alexandria. By far our greatest amount of information comes from the Jewish writer Flavius Josephus who composed his two great works, the Antiquities of the Jews and the Jewish War, towards the end of the first century. There are also several "less reliable" traditions and legends. One early German legend says that Pilate was an illegitimate son of Tyrus, king of Mayence, who had Pilate taken to Rome as a prisoner. After he had apparently committed a murder he was sent to Pontus, where he enlisted in the Roman Army and proved himself by winning many victories against the barbarous tribes in the north.

Tacitus, when speaking of the cruel punishments inflicted by Nero upon the Christians, tells us that Christ, from whom the name "Christian" was derived, was put to death when Tiberius was emperor by the procurator Pontius Pilate (Annals xv.44). Apart from this reference and what is told us in the New Testament, all our knowledge of him is derived from two Jewish writers, Josephus the historian and Philo of Alexandria.

The Roman Procurator

Tiberius Caesar, who succeeded Augustus in AD 14, appointed Pontius Pilate as governor of Judea in 26 AD. Pilate arrived and made his official residence in Caesarea Maritima, the Roman capital of Judea. Pilate was the 5th procurator of Judea. The province of Judea, formerly the kingdom of Archelaus, was formed in 6 AD when Archelaus was exiled and his territory transformed into a Roman province. Although it included Samaria and Idumaea, the new province was known simply as Judea or Judaea. It generally covered the S. half of Palestine, including Samaria. Judea was an imperial province (i.e. under the direct control of the emperor), and was governed by a procurator.

The procurator was devoted to the emperor and directly responsible to him. His primary responsibility was financial. The authority of the Roman procurators varied according to the appointment of the emperor. Pilate was a procurator cum porestate, (possessed civil, military, and criminal jurisdiction). The procurator of Judea was somehow under the authority of the legate of Syria. Usually a procurator had to be of equestrian rank and experienced in military affairs.

Under the rule of a procurator cum porestate like Pontius Pilate, the Jews were allowed as much self-government as possible under imperial authority. The Jewish judicial system was run by the Sanhedrin and court met in the "hall of hewn stone", but if they desired to inflict the death penalty, the sentence had to be given and executed by the Roman procurator.

Pontius Pilate and the Jews

According to history Pilate made an immediate impression upon the Jews when he moved his army headquarters from Caesarea to Jerusalem. They marched into the city with their Roman standards, bearing the image of the "divine emperor" and set up their headquarters right in the corner of the Temple in a palace-fortress called "Antonia," which outraged the Jews. Pilate quickly learned their zealous nature and political power within the province and, according to Josephus, ordered the standards to be returned to Caesarea (Josephus Ant. 18.3.1-2; Wars 2.9.2-4).

Pilate made some other mistakes according to history before the time when he ordered the crucifixion of Jesus. One time he placed on the walls of his palace on Mt. Zion golden shields bearing inscriptions of the names of various gods. Tiberius had to personally order the removal of the shields. Another time Pilate used Temple revenue to build his aqueduct. There is another incident only recorded in the Bible where Pilate ordered the slaughter of certain Galileans (Luke 13:1) who had supposedly been offering sacrifices in the Temple. Here are some details:

"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, put 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."

(The Standards- Josephus, War 2.169-174, Antiq 18.55-59)


"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."

(The Aqueduct- Josephus, War 2.175-177, Antiq 18.60-62)


"Philo tells us (Legatio ad Caium, xxxviii) that on 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."

(from International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia)


The Trial of Jesus and Pontius Pilate

Pilate had traveled to Jerusalem in order to maintain order during the huge festival of Passover. This festival was always a problem time for the Romans, especially since Jewish resentment had always run especially high during national or religious holidays.

According to the Scriptures the Jewish authorities brought Jesus to Pontius Pilate and began prosecution by saying,

"Luke 23:1-2 Then the whole multitude of them arose and led Him to Pilate. And they began to accuse Him, saying, "We found this fellow perverting the nation, and forbidding to pay taxes to Caesar, saying that He Himself is Christ, a King."

The main charges brought before Pilate about Jesus were political and not religious. Jesus was accused of being a political threat to Rome and to Caesar's authority.

Pilate spoke with Jesus (see John 18:33-19:12) and considered the charges being brought against Jesus.

1. He subverts the nation
2. He opposes payment of taxes
3. He claims to be a King

These were, of course, false accusations because Jesus refused the title of king in a political sense, and did not oppose paying taxes. He criticized the leaders on religious issues, not political.

Pilate's verdict on all three counts were "I find no case against Him." For whatever reason Pilate tried to avoid judging Jesus. He wanted to give the responsibility to the Jewish authorities, then he tried to detour the responsibility to Herod. He also tried to invoke the custom of releasing a prisoner in honor of the Jewish Passover and let the multitudes decide, but they chose a murderous criminal named Barabbas. Finally he had Jesus scourged in hope that the Jewish Sanhedrin would feel pity.

John 19:15-16 "But they cried out, "Away with Him, away with Him! Crucify Him!" Pilate said to them, "Shall I crucify your King?" The chief priests answered, "We have no king but Caesar!" Then he delivered Him to them to be crucified. So they took Jesus and led Him away."

Pilate did not want to be responsible for the death of Jesus, and he would not until the Jewish rulers threatened to report him to Caesar, which they had done before. They cried "let His blood be upon us and on our children" (Matt 27:25) and how fearfully this was fulfilled. (See Masada)

When all else failed Pilate washed his hands of the whole situation in the presence of all the people and turned Jesus over to his soldiers for crucifixion and ordered a sign made for Jesus' cross. The sign on the vertical beam of the cross read in Greek, Latin and Hebrew: "Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews." The Sanhedrin were outraged and the chief priests came to Pilate and said:

John 19:21-23 "Do not write, 'The King of the Jews,' but, 'He said, "I am the King of the Jews." ' "Pilate answered, "What I have written, I have written."

What Happened to Pontius Pilate?

Scripture gives us no further information concerning Pilate, but Josephus, the Jewish historian records that Pilate, the Roman procurator of Judea succeeded Gratus. According to Josephus (Ant, XVIII, iv, 2) Pilate held office in Judea for 10 years. Afterwards he was removed from office by Vitellius, the legate of Syria, and traveled in haste to Rome to defend himself before Tiberius against certain complaints. Before he reached Rome the Tiberius had died and Gaius (Caligula) was on the throne, AD 36. Josephus adds that Vitellius came in the year 36 AD to Judea to be present at Jerusalem at the time of the Passover. This would indicate that Pilate had already left for Rome.

Josephus (Ant, XVIII, iv, 1, 2) gives an account of what really happened to Pontius Pilate and his removal from office. A religious fanatic arose in Samaria who promised the Samaritans that if they would assemble on Mt. Gerizim, he would show them the sacred vessels which Moses had hidden there. A great multitude of people came to the "sacred mountain" of the Samaritans ready to ascend the mountain, but before they could they were attacked by Pilate's cavalry, and many of them were slaughtered. The Samaritans therefore sent an embassy to Vitellius, the legate of Syria, to accuse Pilate of murdering innocent people. Vitellius, who wanted to maintain friendship with the Jews, removed Pilate from office and appointed Marcellus in his place.

Pilate was ordered to go to Rome and answer the charges made against him before the emperor. Pilate set out for Rome, but, before he could reach it, Tiberius had died.

From this point onward history knows nothing more of Pilate.

Tradition and Legend

Eusebius (4th cent AD) tells us (Historia Ecclesiastica, II), based on the writings of certain Greek historians, that Pilate soon afterward, "wearied with misfortunes," had killed himself. (Hist. Eccl. 2.7.1).

Various apocryphal writings have come down to us, written from the 3rd-5th centuries AD, giving legendary details about Pontius Pilate becoming a Christian, and his wife, traditionally named Claudia Procula, was a Jewish proselyte at the time of the death of Jesus and afterward became a Christian.

There are other traditions mentioned in the false Gospels (non-canonical Apocryphal Gospels) concerning Pontius Pilate.

Church tradition portrayed Pilate in very favorable terms. In the second century Gospel of Peter, Jesus is condemned not by Pilate but by Herod Antipas. Tertullian asserted that Pilate was a Christian at heart and that he wrote a letter to Tiberius to explain what had happened at Jesus' trial (Apology 21). The fourth or fifth century Gospel of Nicodemus (which contains the Acts of Pilate), does not make Pilate a Christian, but depicts him as more friendly towards Jesus than any of the canonical gospels. Pilate was soon canonized by the Coptic and Ethiopic churches.

The Biblical Comparison

The Bible clearly mentions Pontius Pilate as the Roman procurator of Judea at the time of Jesus Christ. Since this dedication stone found in Caesarea Maritima was the first inscription mentioning his actual name, and that he indeed was the Roman procurator who had made his official residence in Caesarea, the discovery of The Pilate Inscription is a monumental discovery that verifies again that the Bible is a Book of history.


The Evidence of Archaeology

The evidence of archaeology helps to give us:

  1. Confidence that the places and people mentioned in the Bible are accurate, even though those places and people existed thousands of years in the past.

     

  2. Confidence that the details of the Biblical accounts have not changed over the centuries since it was written as we have a "fixed fact" in history.

     

  3. Confidence that everything that the Lord speaks will be fulfilled in its time.
Isa 46:8-10 "Remember this, and show yourselves men; Recall to mind, O you transgressors. Remember the former things of old, For I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like Me, Declaring the end from the beginning, And from ancient times things that are not yet done, Saying, 'My counsel shall stand, And I will do all My pleasure,'

 

 


Pontius Pilate
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Facade of the Temple Coin

Table of Contents

Pontius Pilate
Index of Topics
Introduction
Overview
Name
History
Procurator
Personal Life
Pilate and Jesus
Pilate's Later History
Dictionaries
Encyclopedias
Scriptures
Archaeology
Conclusion