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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: The World into Which Jesus Came

Don Stewart :: Who Was Pontius Pilate?

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Who Was Pontius Pilate?

The World into Which Jesus Came – Question 5

One of the most notable of all the New Testament characters is the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate. From the New Testament, as well as from secular history, we can determine a number of things about this man who sentenced Jesus Christ to be crucified.

Pontius Pilate was the fifth Roman governor of the province of Judea. His rule lasted from A.D. 26 to A.D. 36 or early A.D. 37.

Although Pilate’s residence was in the Caesarea on the coast, he was in Jerusalem for the time of the Passover. It was at that time that Jesus Christ was brought before him.

From the four gospels we learn a number of things about Pilate and his part in the death of Jesus. We can make the following observations.

1. Jesus Made No Defense before Pilate

The Bible says that Pilate marveled that Jesus did not attempt to defend Himself. We read the following in the Gospel of Matthew:

“Don’t you hear their many charges against you?” Pilate demanded. But Jesus said nothing, much to the governor’s great surprise. (Matthew 27:13, 14 NLT)

Pilate was used to seeing prisoners protest their innocence. Jesus, a man who was innocent, said nothing.

2. Pilate Admitted Jesus Was Innocent

Pilate told the large crowd that had gathered that Jesus was innocent of any crime. We read of this in the Gospel of John. It says,

Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus replied, “You’re correct in saying that I’m a king. I have been born and have come into the world for this reason: to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to me.” Pilate said to him, “What is truth?” After Pilate said this, he went out to the Jews again and told them, “I don’t find this man guilty of anything. You have a custom that I should free one person for you at Passover. Would you like me to free the king of the Jews for you?” (John 18:37-39 God’s Word)

Pontius Pilate realized that Jesus was not guilty for the crimes in which He was charged. He made this clear to the crowd.

3. Pilate Tried to Release Jesus

Since he realized that Jesus was innocent of all charges, Pilate attempted to release Jesus. John writes,

Then Pilate tried to release him, but the Jewish leaders told him, “If you release this man, you are not a friend of Caesar. Anyone who declares himself a king is a rebel against Caesar”. (John 19:12 NLT)

Yet, the crowd was loudly calling for His death. They falsely claimed that Jesus was opposing Caesar.

4. Pilate Denied Responsibility in Jesus’ Death

Pilate tried to put the responsibility of Jesus’ death on others. He washed his hands of the matter thinking this would remove any responsibility from him. Matthew records what took place:

Pilate saw that he wasn’t getting anywhere and that a riot was developing. So he sent for a bowl of water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of the blood of this man. The responsibility is yours!” (Matthew 27:24 NLT)

He believed this would absolve him of any role in this matter.

5. Pilate Handed Him over for Death

Pilate then handed Jesus over to be crucified; a man whom he, the governor of Judea, declared to be innocent:

So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified. (Mark 15:15 NRSV)

Like so many politicians, Pilate wanted to satisfy the noisy crowd rather than do what he knew was right.

6. Pilate Could Not Deny His Responsibility

Although Pilate wanted to absolve himself of responsibility for the death of Jesus, the Apostle Paul later emphasized that Jesus was tried before Pilate. We read what he wrote to Timothy:

And I command you before God, who gives life to all, and before Christ Jesus, who gave a good testimony before Pontius Pilate. (1 Timothy 6:13 NLT)

The statement of Paul seems to be part of a Christian creed, or statement of beliefs. Pilate was guilty with the rest of them.

7. Pilate Is Acknowledged in the Book of Acts

In addition, Pilate’s role in Jesus’ death is also referred to in the Book of Acts. In fact, there are three separate statements about his involvement.

Pilates Effort to Release Jesus Is Noted

First, the Book of Acts records Pilate’s efforts to release Jesus:

The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our fathers, glorified his servant Jesus, whom you delivered over and denied in the presence of Pilate, when he had decided to release him. (Acts 3:13 ESV)

This again demonstrates to us that Pilate wanted to release Jesus but did not follow through on what he knew was right.

Pilate and Herod Were Connected

The early church also connected Pilate and Herod in their guilt for putting Jesus to death. We read in the Book of Acts:

For in this city, in fact, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. (Acts 4:27 NRSV)

Pilate is linked with Herod in the death of Jesus. Both were guilty.

Pilate Is the One Who Wrongfully Allowed Jesus to Be Executed

Finally, Pilate is again mentioned as the one whom allowed Jesus to be wrongfully killed. We read the following:

They found no just cause to execute him, but they asked Pilate to have him killed anyway. (Acts 13:28 NLT)

The religious leaders could find no reason to execute Jesus so then sent Him to Pilate. He too could find no crime which Jesus had committed. However, Jesus was killed anyway.

8. This Is All That the Bible Has to Say about Him

No other details are given about Pilate after Jesus’ death. As is true with other secular and religious leaders mentioned in the gospels, his only importance is how he figured in the story of Jesus.

Scripture has no intent, whatsoever, to give us any details about him or any of these other leaders.

9. The Testimony of the Christian Creeds

Pilate’s role in the death of Jesus has never been forgotten. Whenever the Apostles’ Creed is recited the words, “crucified under Pontius Pilate” remind the world of his responsibility. Pilate can never escape his role in Jesus’ death.

10. There Has Been Recent Evidence Found concerning Pilate

There is one interesting footnote to all of this. During the summer of 1961, Italian archaeologists excavated an ancient theater in Caesarea in Israel. They discovered a two-by-three-foot inscribed stone. The inscription read:

Pontius Pilate, Prefect of Judea, has presented the Tiberieum to the Caesareans.

This was the first archaeological evidence of the existence of Pontius Pilate. Thus, the authenticity of Pilate is found in written records, the New Testament, and the archaeological evidence. He truly was an historical character.

11. There Has Procurator or Prefect?

There is one other note of interest on Pilate. Traditionally he had been given the title “Procurator of Judea.” This was based upon the writings of the early Roman historian Tacitus. However, the limestone inscription found in Caesarea called Pilate “Prefect.” Why the difference?

Simply stated, the titles of the Roman governors during this period were varied. From A.D. 6 to A.D. 44 the title “Prefect” was used for them. After this time, they were known as “Procurators.” Tacitus used the current title at his time to refer to Pilate’s governorship. Technically, he was in error because Pilate was a Prefect not a Procurator. However, there was no difference in duties or rank between the Procurator and Prefect.

The New Testament uses a Greek word to describe Pilate which can be best translated as “governor” or “ruler.” In other words, it is not a technical term like Procurator or Prefect. Therefore, we do not find the New Testament writers making the same mistake as Tacitus in giving the wrong title to Pilate.

Pilate’s Legacy

In sum, Pontius Pilate is an historical figure who is remembered for one thing only. He was the Roman governor who sent Jesus Christ, a man he declared innocent, to His death on the cross. Unfortunately for him, Pilate will have all eternity to regret that decision. Indeed, he asked Jesus the question “What is truth?” Pilate now realizes that he was looking at “truth” when he asked that fateful question.

Summary – Question 5
Who Was Pontius Pilate?

One of the most well-known figures of the New Testament is the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate. History tells us that he was the “Prefect” of Judea from A.D. 26 to A.D 36. It was Pilate who sentenced Jesus Christ to death by crucifixion. Although he wished to set Jesus free, this weak politician gave in to the large crowd who wanted Jesus dead.

Pilate tried to absolve himself of any blame in the matter by washing his hands in front of the crowd. However, the Book of Acts attributes the responsibility of Jesus’ death to Pilate. He bears the responsibility along with the Romans, King Herod, and the Jewish religious rulers.

Thus, the New Testament, as well as the creeds of the Christian Church, all recognized that Jesus Christ was crucified by a decree of Pontius Pilate. The New Testament says nothing about Pilate’s life after Jesus’ death.

In 1961, an inscription was found in Israel in the city of Caesarea that had Pilate’s name on it. This was the first archaeological evidence that Pilate existed. His existence as an historical figure is now beyond all doubt.

Interestingly, the Roman historian Tacitus gave Pilate the incorrect title of “Procurator” instead of “Prefect.” While the duties were the same, their official title changed in the year A.D. 44. The New Testament makes no such error in describing this Roman governor.

Pilate will always be remembered for sentencing the innocent Jesus to His death on the cross. He ignored his opportunity to do the right thing. His legacy is there for all to see.

Who Were the Caesars Mentioned in the Four Gospels? ← Prior Section
Who Were the Herods? Next Section →
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