Pontius Pilate

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Pontius Pilate

Pontius Pilate (pŏnˈshəs pīˈlət), Roman prefect of Judaea (A.D. 26–36?). He was supposedly a ruthless governor, and he was removed at the complaint of Samaritans, among whom he engineered a massacre. His attempt to evade responsibility in the trial of Jesus was caused by his fear of the high priests' power and his difficult responsibility for the peace of Palestine. According to tradition he committed suicide at Rome. He is attested in the works of Josephus and Eusebius. The Acts of Pilate, one of the Pseudepigrapha (part of the Gospel of Nicodemus) tell of him as a Christian. In the Coptic and Ethiopic churches, Pilate has been canonized. Legend connects him with Mt. Pilatus.


See study by A. Wroe (2000).

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Pilate, Pontius

The mighty Roman Empire ruled Jesus'homeland during his lifetime. Politicians sent from Rome served as provincial governors backed up by battalions of Roman soldiers. The fifth Roman governor of the province of Judea held that post between 26 and 36 A.D. His name was Pontius Pilate and he lived in the Judean capital of Jerusalem. History remembers him for one act alone. According to the Bible he sentenced Jesus to death by crucifixion on a spring day about two thousand years ago (for more on crucifixion, see Cross; see also Good Friday).

Pilate's Role in the Easter Story

All four biblical accounts of Jesus' trial - found in the Gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John - tell of Pilate's encounter with Jesus (Mark 15:1-15, Matthew 27:1-2, 11-26, Luke 23:1-25, John 18:28-19:16). In general they paint a picture of a man who registers astonishment at Jesus'failure to defend himself, who believes Jesus to be innocent of any wrongdoing, but who nevertheless caves in to public pressure to execute him. Interesting differences between the accounts emerge when they are examined more closely.

Pilate's wife enters the story in only one of the four accounts. In the Gospel according to Matthew she dreams about Jesus on the night before his death and warns her husband to have "nothing to do with that righteous man" (Matthew 27:19). Pilate tries to avoid convicting Jesus, arguing with the crowd that is calling for Jesus' crucifixion and asking them to explain what harm Jesus has done. He eventually hands Jesus over to be flogged and crucified. Before he does so, he proclaims himself clean, or innocent, of Jesus' blood, and demonstrates this to the crowd by washing his hands. The crowd roars back, "His blood be on us and on our children" (Matthew 27:25). In Christian art, Pilate is often depicted washing his hands. Moreover, the expression "to wash one's hands" of something, meaning to deny one's responsibility about something, is still in common usage.

King Herod, governor of Galilee, appears only in Luke's account of the meeting between Christ and Pilate. In an attempt to avoid condemning Jesus himself, Pilate sends him to see Herod, who happens to be in Jerusalem at the time. Herod returns Jesus to Pilate, who eventually gives in to the demands of those who want him crucified.

John's Gospel gives a longer version of Pilate's encounter with Jesus. In this account Pilate appears especially intrigued by Jesus' answers to his questions concerning Jesus' identity and mission. Pilate orders Jesus flogged in an attempt to appease the mob with something short of Jesus'death. He tries to reason with the horde clamoring for Jesus' crucifixion but they in return question his loyalty to the Roman emperor. Finally Pilate bows to the will of the crowd and orders Jesus' execution.

Another View of Pilate

Pilate appears in only a few ancient texts besides the Bible. Ancient Jewish documents paint a different picture of Pilate than that shown in Christian scripture. They complain about his crass violations of Jewish religious customs and portray him as prone to violence as a means of rule. According to one of these texts Pilate was recalled to Rome in 36 A.D. for excessive use of force against his subjects.

Pilate in Christian Legend

Nothing is known about the later part of Pilate's life. One early Christian text suggested that he eventually committed suicide. Another speculated that the emperor Nero (37-68 A.D.) had him beheaded. This lack of knowledge created a void into which rushed Christian storytellers, eager to supply the missing details. Instead of portraying the man responsible for signing Jesus'death warrant as evil, however, some early Christian legends showed Pilate in an even more favorable light than does the Bible. Scholars explain this trend as an outgrowth of the increasing friction between the Jewish community and those Jews and Gentiles who wished to follow Jesus. Thus the campaign to purify Pilate's image was in large part motivated by the desire of certain Christians to portray Jews in a bad light.

In some legends Pilate converts to Christianity after Jesus'crucifixion. In one tale Pilate ends his life as a martyr for the Christian cause. A legend attributed to the Coptic Christians of north Africa claims that after Jesus' death Pilate and his wife became Christians. This so annoyed his former Jewish and Roman supporters that they crucified him. But one crucifixion was not enough. They cut him down from the first cross and then attached him to the same cross on which Jesus had been crucified (see also Tree of the Cross). Even then he was not allowed to die, but taken down once more and sent to Rome, where he was beheaded. The Coptic Christians of north Africa eventually proclaimed Pilate both a Christian martyr and a saint, along with his wife, whom Christian tradition assigned the name Procula. Procula also became a saint in the Greek Orthodox Church.

Early Christian legends may have minimized the role of Pontius Pilate in Jesus' death for fear that portraying him as guilty of Christ's death would encourage Roman officials to view the new, Christian religion as a threat to their authority. In the early fourth century, after Roman authorities adopted an official policy of toleration towards the Christian religion, Christian storytellers no longer found it necessary to shift the blame for Jesus' death away from the Romans and onto the Jews. After this time, western European legends concerning Pontius Pilate began to portray him in a more negative light.

Further Reading

Cheney, Emily. "Pilate, Pontius." In David Noel Freedman, ed. Eerdmans Dic- tionary of the Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2000. García-Treto, Francisco O. "Pilate Pontius." In Paul J. Achtemeier, ed. The HarperCollins Bible Dictionary. New York: HarperCollins, 1996. "Pilate, Pontius." In E. A. Livingstone, ed. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Third edition. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1997. Wroe, Ann. Pontius Pilate. New York: Random House, 1999.
Encyclopedia of Easter, Carnival, and Lent, 1st ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2002
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Pontius Pilate


Roman procurator of Judea from A.D. 26 to 36.

A cruel and insidious man, Pilate’s administration was marked by violence and executions. His oppressive tax and political policies and various provocations that offended the religious beliefs and customs of the Jews aroused mass popular opposition, which was mercilessly suppressed. According to Flavius Josephus and the tradition of the New Testament, he sentenced Jesus Christ to be crucified. According to the Gospel account, in connection with this, Pontius Pilate “took water and washed his hands before the multitude,” thereby following the ancient Jewish custom that symbolized innocence in the shedding of blood (hence the expression “to wash one’s hands of something”). After the Samaritans’ complaints concerning Pilate’s bloody reprisals, the Roman legate in Syria, Vitellius, removed him from his post in A.D. 36 and sent him to Rome. The subsequent fate of Pilate is unknown. According to the fourth-century church historian Eusebius of Caesarea, he committed suicide. Other sources claim he was executed by Nero.

Christianity’s initial hostility toward Pontius Pilate gradually disappeared, and a Pilate who had “repented” and “turned to Christianity” became the hero of many apocryphal works. The Coptic Church went so far as to canonize him and his wife. Pilate has been depicted in works of fiction, such as M. Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita and A. France’s The Procurator of Judea, and in the fine arts, as in Rembrandt’s Christ Before Pilate and N. N. Ge’s What Is Truth?


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

Pilate, Pontius

yields to clamoring of Jews, hands Jesus over. [N.T.: Matthew 27:24–26; Luke 23:16–25; John 19:1–16]
Allusions—Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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