Monday, March 26, 2012


The Famous Painting by Antonio Ciseri Ecce Homo - Behold the Man

Hello My Friend and Welcome. 

Our series of posts on The Men Who Tried Jesus now turns to the fourth, and arguably most famous, judge of Jesus, Roman Prefect, Pontius Pilate. He is immortalized in the phrase from both the Apostles and Nicene Creeds, “…suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried." 

There are several points about Pilate that require clarification. First, as the fifth Prefect to Judea, he is sometimes referred to as the Roman Procurator. Pilate was not a Procurator; his title was Prefect. Cuspius Fadus was the first Procurator of Judea in AD 44 …eight years and two Prefects after Pilate. This confusion derives from Tacitus who, in Annals, 15.44, called him by that title.  

Some critics of Christianity have claimed Pilate is an imaginary figure created by the Gospel writers. Though limited, there are historic records of Pontius Pilate outside of the Bible. He is referred to by Josephus, Philo, and Church historian Eusebius as well as other Church Fathers and, as mentioned above, by Tacitus. This nonsense was finally put to rest in 1961 when archaeologists discovered a block of limestone that had once been the cornerstone of a Roman theatre at Caesarea Maritima, the capital of the Province of Judaea. One could say the proof of Pilate’s existence is now carved in stone. Reconstructing the missing portions of the inscription, it becomes: S TIBERIEVM (Dedicated to the Emperor Tiberius) by PONTIVS PILATVS (Pontius Pilate) PRAECTVS IVDAEAE (Prefect of Judaea).

Pilate Cornerstone In Caesarea Maritima
A name in ancient Rome consisted of three parts, a praenomen, or given name, a nomen, or name of the gens or clan, and a cognomen, which is the family line within the gens. History never tells us what his praenomen was. The cognomen Pilatus is derived from the word pilum and means one skilled with the javelin. This should not be taken to mean that Pontius Pilate was a soldier, any more than your neighbor Mr. Smith earns his living as a blacksmith, or the father of your friend Mr. Johnson is named John. The family name, Pontius, signifies he was from the tribe of the Pontii. It is an ancient Samnite name. Tradition places Pilate’s birthplace in the small village of Bisenti, in Samnite territory…today's Abruzzo region of Central Italy. 

Pilate’s wife, Claudia Procula, has an interesting history of her own. She is said to have been the illegitimate daughter of Julia, Octavian’s only biological child. Julia married Marcus Claudius Marcellus (the son of Octavian’s sister Octavia) at the age of fourteen. He died two years later. She led a promiscuous life and had many lovers while married to Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa. When Agrippa died, she married Tiberius who would later become Emperor. Her father eventually gave Tiberius permission to divorce her due to her scandalous behavior and then banished her from Rome. She was pregnant when she arrived in Gaul and no one knows who fathered the child. Julia died shortly after giving birth to her daughter Claudia. This makes Claudia Procula the granddaughter of Octavian, later known as Caesar Augustus. Tiberius eventually adopted her as his daughter. She grew up in the Roman Province of Narbonensis in what is now known as the French Riviera. Her connection to the ruling elite may very well have been the reason Pilate got his position in Judea. 

Claudia Procula is best remembered for the dream she had. “Besides, while he (Pontius Pilate) was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent word to him, ‘Have nothing to do with that righteous man, for I have suffered much over him today in a dream.’” Matthew 27:19. Many people in the ancient Church considered her to be a secret follower of Jesus. The Eastern Orthodox Church lists her among their saints and celebrates her feast day on October 27th. 

There are varying interpretations to Pilate’s actions in the trial of Jesus. Properly read, it is easy to find evidence he was doing everything possible to avoid convicting Jesus. He told the Chief Priests who’d brought Jesus to him, “I find no crime in this man.” Luke 24:4. Then, upon learning Jesus was a Galilean, he passed him off to Herod in the hopes of avoiding responsibility. 

When Herod sent Jesus back, Pilate again insisted, “You brought me this man as one who was perverting the people; and after examining him before you, behold, I did not find this man guilty of any of your charges against him; neither did Herod, for he sent him back to us. Behold, nothing deserving death has been done by him; I will therefore chastise him and release him.” Luke 23:14-17 

When they continued screaming for his death, Pilate played his last bargaining chip by bringing out Barabbas. When this ploy backfired, he said, “‘Why, what evil has he done?’” Matthew 27:23. Then in a symbol that has resonated through the ages, “he took water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, ‘I am innocent of this man's blood…’” Matthew 27:24. 

Clearly, Annas, Caiaphas and their cronies outfoxed Pilate. Rather than do what he knew to be right, he acquiesced when they threatened to accuse him of being disloyal to Caesar. When a person was crucified, a titulus —a plaque which listed the prisoner’s name and offense — was nailed to the palus, the upright stake of the cross, for everyone to see when they reached the place of execution. Many crucifixes have the image of a scroll at the top with the letters INRI on it. These letters stand for Iesus Nazarenus, Rex Iudaeorum Latin for Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. 

Pilate made no mistake when he wrote those words on the <em>titulus</em>. Whatever slight comfort it may have provided, Pilate managed to get in the last word in his confrontation with Annas and Caiaphas. The Priests complained in outrage and he responded, “What I have written I have written.” John 19:22, thus ending one of the worst days in the life of Pontius Pilate.

Coins Minted Under Pontius Pilate

Pilate remained in office for several years after Jesus was executed. He was removed from office in AD 36 by the Syrian governor, Vitellius, for ordering troops into Samaria to attack a peaceful assembly of Samaritans. Pilate left Judea heading for Rome and an official review of his conduct before Caesar. However, by the time he arrived in Rome Tiberius was dead and Caligula had taken his place. What happened next, no one knows. 

Some old traditions say Pilate committed suicide in Rome. The Christian Historian, Eusebius, tells the story and attributes it to the former governor’s remorse for the execution of Jesus. One must temper these reports of suicide with the understanding that to the Romans suicide was considered an honorable death. In fact, if someone displeased the Emperor he could order them to kill themselves and, in most cases, they complied. Other sources say he was exiled to Gaul and committed suicide in Vienne and his body was thrown into the Rhône River. There is even a monument at Vienne, called Pilate's tomb. In Switzerland, near Lucerne, there is a Mount Pilatus. An old tradition states Pilate was banished to the mountain as punishment. 

Pilate appears in apocryphal writings such as The Gospel of Peter, The Acts of Pilate, and The Acts of Peter and Paul. They address the question of what happened to Pilate and, in some cases, also depict him converting to the Christian faith. In addition to Saint Claudia, the Coptic Church also lists Pontius Pilate as a saint. How much of this is a pious attempt to show that no one is beyond redemption and how much is fact, is anyone’s guess. 

Part of what makes Pilate such an interesting historical character is the dilemma he faced on that first Good Friday. At that moment he becomes not a Roman official, but everyman. Like Adam, and everyone after him, Pilate finds himself at a crossroads of good and evil. He apparently knows what should be done, what is right, or in his words, what is true. But the world beckons him. To do what he knows is right he must risk all that he has…his power and position, his lavish lifestyle, future opportunities for advancement and retirement with honors. Pilate chose what appeared to be the safe path. But, as Jesus said, whoever wants to save his life will lose it and lose it he did. 

Before we leave Pilate there is one final irony to address. Matthew tells us the Priests went to him and asked for guards at the grave to prevent his disciple from stealing the body. Pilate authorizes it. Yet on Easter morning when the women arrive, the stone is rolled aside, the body is gone, and the soldiers are nowhere to be seen. 

Later the Priests tell the soldiers to say they fell asleep and the disciples stole the body. Sleeping on guard duty was a capital offense in the Roman army. The priests promised to smooth things over if word reached Pilate. Could they smooth things over? It seems very unlikely. So why don’t we hear anything about the fate of those soldiers? Shouldn’t at least one of the four Gospel writers have addressed the issue? Or was there an issue? Could it be that Pilate did hear about it and he was the one that swept it under the rug? Why would he do such a thing? 

Next time we’ll visit the fourth, and final, man who judged Jesus…Herod Antipas. 

Until then, we wish you Peace and Blessings. 

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