Who Was Pontius Pilate according to History?
Pontius Pilate is best known for presiding over Jesus’ trial and ordering his crucifixion. He was an officer of the Roman empire, serving as procurator, or prefect, of Judea, managing the financial affairs and flexing administrative powers on behalf of the emperor. Pilate was the heir of the Roman family of Pontii. The name Pilate indicates he was probably a descendant of a "freedman." “A former slave set free … under Roman law, might become a citizen if the proper legal form was followed,” Britannica defines, “although he did not enjoy full civic rights.”
His full Latin name, Marcus Pontius Pilatus, was of Samnite origin, an ancient tribe eventually absorbed by the Roman empire. Britannica explains, “Pilate was a Roman equestrian (knight) of the Samnite clan of the Ponti (hence his name Pontius).” He was a middle-class Roman citizen, ruling under Emperor Tiberius. His reign, from 26 to 36, stretched across the ministry of John the Baptist and Jesus Christ.
Pilate’s political position gave him military power, though his soldiers mainly policed civilian life. He was head of the judicial system, with the power to inflict capital punishment. Coins have been found bearing his image because as Roman governor he had control of the monetary system and collection of taxes. Pilate held a small allotment of civil control over the Sanhedrin, the body of Jewish leaders who acquitted Jesus, which would explain why they came to him for the order to crucify him. Pilate also had the power to appoint the high priest.
Roman rulers were renowned for their brutality and corruption, but Pilate’s reputation superseded most. In 50 AD, Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria supposedly reprimanded him severely for his “briberies, insults, robberies, outrages and wanton injuries, execution without trial, constantly repeated, ceaseless and supremely grievous cruelty.”
Pilate’s hatred for the Jews was intense, and he deliberately infuriated them. Under Jewish law, images of the Roman government were forbidden in Jerusalem, but Pilate once allowed troops to carry shields with the Roman Emperor Tiberius into the city. “A great crowd traveled to the Judean capital of Caesarea in protest and lay prostrate around Pilate’s palace for five days until he relented,” wrote Christopher Klein.
Some sources indicate Pilate died in 36, committing suicide after being banished to Vienne in Gaul, accused by the governor of Syria for attacking unarmed Samaritans who were hoping to unearth artifacts buried on Mount Gerizim by Moses. Other sources say he simply retired, or his post as governor of Judea was up, and he either didn’t choose to return or was reassigned. His death, much like his early life, is difficult to trace with reliable accuracy. To some, he is considered a Christian martyr, because of the way the New Testament accounts portray him as hesitant to execute Jesus.
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