Archaeology and Pontius Pilate
ISBE - Procurator
Inscription by Pontius Pilate
New Testament Period
Pontius Pilate, (26-37 AD)
82.0 cm H, 65.0 cm W
4 Lines of Writing (Latin)
Date of Discovery: 1961
Israel Museum (Jerusalem)
AE 1963 no. 104
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."
Line One: TIBERIEUM,
Who was Pontius Pilate?
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.
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
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
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
"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,
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
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
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:
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,'
- Confidence that the places and people mentioned in the Bible are
accurate, even though those places and people existed thousands of years in
- 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
- Confidence that everything that the Lord speaks will be fulfilled in its
Return to Bible History Online
The Story of the Bible
? Bible History Online (https://www.bible-history.com)
The main historical sources about the life of Pontius Pilate were:
- Josephus (75-94 A.D. approx.)
- The New Testament
(50-100 A.D. approx.)
- Jewish and Christian Tradition
- Archaeology: inscriptions, coins, written text.
Bibliography on Pontius Pilate
by Wroe, 432 Pages, Pub. 2001
Pontius Pilate a Novel
by Maier, 384 Pages
Bible History Online
© Bible History Online (https://www.bible-history.com)