History of Pontius Pilate: his Background Before Good Friday
HISTORY OF PONTIUS PILATE
The Roman governor who presided over the trial of Jesus and ordered his crucifixion had a complex background. The name Pontius Pilate provides two valuable clues to his background and ancestry.
The family name, Pontius, was that of a prominent clan among the Samnites, hill cousins of the Latin Romans. They had almost conquered Rome in several fierce wars. The Pontii were of noble blood, but when Rome finally absorbed the Samnites, their aristocracy was demoted to the Roman equestrian or middle-class order rather than the higher senatorial order.
Pilate’s praenomen, his personal name Pilatus, proves almost conclusively that he was of Samnite origin. Pilatus means “armed-with-a-javelin.” The pilum or javelin was six feet long, half wooden, and half pointed iron shaft, which the Samnite mountaineers hurled at their enemies with devastating results.
Its hardened iron tip could pierce shields and body armor. The Romans quickly copied it, and it was this pilum, in fact, during the Late Republican period, that made the Roman Empire possible.
By the way, the picture at the top is called Ecce Homo, “Behold the Man.” It depicts Pilate gesturing to Jesus in the gospel narrative from the Latin Vulgate translation of John 19:5 and is by Italian painter Antonio Ciseri. It hangs in the Pitti Palace in Florence, Italy, where I saw it many years ago on Easter Day.
We know Pilate in the Bible from the four New Testament Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, and the epistle of First Timothy. He is described in several later apocryphal writings. Roman historian Tacitus talks about Pilate, as do Jewish writers Philo of Alexandria and the Jewish historian Josephus.
Pontius Pilate, Equestrian
Some historians feel that Pilate rose to prominence and perhaps gained the governorship of Judea under the sponsorship of Sejanus. Some may recall that name from the 1976 BBC television rendition of “I, Claudius,” where Star Trek‘s Patrick Stewart played the role.
Lucius Aelius Sejanus was of the equestrian order, like Pilate in Imperial Rome. He was the prefect or head of the Praetorian Guard, the emperor’s personal bodyguard. Sejanus was an ambitious man.
Sejanus had the complete trust of Emperor Tiberius, who lived in self-exile on the island of Capri while engaging in various debaucheries. It is quite likely that at this time, Pilate was admitted to the inner circle of “amici Caesaris” or friends of Caesar, an elite fraternity of imperial advisers open only to senators or equestrians high in imperial service. This fact would play a part in the later trial against Jesus.
Pontius Pilate’s Sponsor’s Treason
The emperor was getting old and paranoid. Sejanus took advantage of this and offered Caesar the names of senators he claimed were not loyal to Rome. Tiberius would convict them of maiestas or treason. Their property and wealth were forfeited, and they usually committed suicide to avoid bringing public shame upon their name and family.
Sejanus hoped to consolidate his power and advance himself in the emperor’s confidence, perhaps to become co-consul with Tiberius. However, his boldness did not go unnoticed. Through the efforts of the future emperors Caligula and Claudius, the plots of Sejanus were made known to the emperor, and Sejanus himself was convicted of maiestas. His allies and appointees as well became suspect.
Prefecture of Pontius Pilate
It is unlikely that Pilate was an incompetent official, for he ruled Judea for a decade from A.D. 26 to 36. It is doubtful that Emperor Tiberius, who insisted on good principal administration, would have retained Pilate for so long, the second-longest tenure of any first-century Roman governor in Palestine. Nevertheless, the governorship of Judea was a most taxing experience.
Aside from Good Friday, it seems from our sources, Philo and Josephus, that there were several other incidents in which Pilate blundered.
- In what came to be called “the affair of the Roman standards,” Pilate’s troops once marched into Jerusalem carrying medallions with the emperor’s image or bust among their regimental standards. This provoked a five-day demonstration by the Jews at the Provincial capital, Caesarea, which protested these effigies violating Jewish law concerning engraved images. Though Pilate had his soldiers threaten them with death, he finally relented and ordered the offensive standards removed.
- Later, he built an aqueduct from cisterns near Bethlehem to improve Jerusalem’s water supply but paid for it with funds from the Temple treasury. Josephus records that this sparked another riot, which was put down only after bloodshed by Roman auxiliaries, despite Pilate cautioning his troops against excessive force.
Imperial Intervention with Pontius Pilate
- On another occasion, Pilate set up several golden shields in his Jerusalem residence that, unlike the standards, bore no images, only a bare inscription of dedication to Tiberius. Nevertheless, the citizens protested, but Pilate refused to remove them this time.The Jews, with the help of Herod Antipas, formally protested to Tiberius. In a very testy letter, the writer Philo reported that the emperor ordered Pilate to transfer the shields to a temple in Caesarea and rebuked him “for his audacious violation of precedent” concerning his Jewish subjects. This last episode occurred just five months before Good Friday.
Tiberius had his eye on Pilate.
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian
Inspired in part by Paul L. Maier’s In the Fullness of Time
P.S. An excellent historical novel is available by Paul L. Maier, professor emeritus of history at Western Michigan University, called Pontius Pilate: A Biographical Novel
Maier seems to imply that the standards were set up in the Herodian Palace. What evidence is there that Pilate did business from that Palace and not the Antonia?
Great question. Before I answer directly, a little history. The Antonia, which I’ve visited in Jerusalem, has a long history before it was Pilate’s administrative HQ in the 1st century. Immediately adjacent to the Temple precinct it was originally built — according to Josephus — by John Hyrcanus for storing the priestly vestments that were used at the Temple. During Pilate’s time, it was used as a military barracks.
Parenthetically, the Antonia was believed for centuries to be the location of the Pilate’s courtyard, where Jesus stood in judgement before the Roman prefect and was known as the Scala Pilati, the Stairs of Pilate — and is the 1st Station of the Cross on the Via Dolorosa according to Roman Catholic tradition. (Indeed, even today every Friday at 3 pm the Franciscans lead pilgrims from here to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the location of the last 6 Stations of the Cross.)
Despite the fact that some modern archeologists contest this location, the legend goes that back in the 4th century Constantine the Great’s mother, St. Helena had these stairs transported to Rome to the Lateran Palace. The Scala Sancta (Sacred Stairs) are now situated across the street from the Basilica of St. John Lateran (San Giovanni’s) in Rome. It has been a pilgrim destination for centuries and even Martin Luther visited it in the 16th century. By the way St. John’s is the cathedra of the Bishop of Rome, the official eccelesiastical seat of the Bishop of Rome, the Pope, and not St. Peter’s in the Vatican.
Contrary to earlier tradition that Pilate’s residence was in the Antonia, it is more likely that the Roman governor would have taken residence in the palace of Herod the Great on the west side of the city. This site is now located by the Citadel/Tower of David Museum, by the Afar Gate. The reasoning is that according to Jewish philosopher Philo in his “Embassy to Gaius” Pilate hung a set of golden shields “in Herod’s palace in the holy city” and further identified it as “the house of the governors.” Even Josephus tells us that the Roman governors occasionally stayed in the palace of Herod — when he was in Jerusalem for administrative duties, like Passover, rather than his home in Caesarea Maritima, some 60 miles away on the coast.
I note that in my article referring to “Pilate’s headquarters” is ambiguous. I should have said “residence” to disambiguate the location. I have now corrected that.
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