Glossary of Terms



Young People's Bible Dictionary

by Barbara Smith (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1965)

Pilate, Pontius. Roman governor of Judea, A.D. 26-36. His headquarters were in Caesarea, but he moved to Jerusalem at feast times, when the city was crowded and riots were likely to break out. Matt. 27:2; Mark 15:2; Luke 3:1; 13:1; 23:13-16; John 19:19; Acts 3:13; 4:23-28; 1 Tim. 6:13.

Harper’s Bible Dictionary

edited by Paul J. Achtemier (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985)

Pilate, Pontius, Roman prefect of Judea, the fifth governor of the province and the second-longest holder of the office (a.d. 26-36). His term included the time of John the Baptist’s activity, as well as that of the public ministry and crucifixion of Jesus (see Luke 3:1). In addition to the nt references, where Pilate plays a central role in the events surrounding the trial and crucifixion of Jesus (Matt. 27:1-2, 11-26; Mark 15:1-15; Luke 23:1-25; John 18:28-19:16; Acts 3:13; 4:27; 13:28; 1 Tim. 6:13), we have information about Pilate and his rule in the historical writings of Philo Judaeus and Flavius Josephus. An important piece of archaeological evidence is a dedication inscription, found in Caesarea Maritima in 1961, where Pilate is given his correct title of prefect (not procurator).

In the Jewish Sources: Pilate’s character is represented very negatively in the Jewish sources: he is presented as insensitive to Jewish religious scruples and all too ready to use brutal force to repress any dissent. He is also charged with incompetence and venality. Since, however, we hear only one side on Pilate (the only extant Roman mention is a brief reference in the historian Tacitus to the crucifixion of Jesus), and since Pilate governed Judea for an unusually long term, which may indicate that the Roman government was not displeased with his performance, it appears best to withhold judgment on his character.

Josephus reports that, when Pilate first brought Roman troops to Jerusalem from Caesarea, he committed an unprecedented violation of Jewish sensibilities by allowing the troops to bring into the city their military standards with the busts of the emperor, which were considered idolatrous images by the Jews; and this was done in an underhanded manner, the troops bringing in and setting up the images by night. A massive protest demonstration in Caesarea’s stadium forced the removal of the standards, but only after the Jews used tactics of nonviolent mass resistance, lying down and baring their necks when Pilate’s soldiers, swords in hand, surrounded and attempted to disperse them.

Philo tells of an incident where Jewish letters of protest to Rome brought the intervention of the emperor himself, who commanded Pilate to remove golden shields with the emperor’s name on them that he had placed in his residence in Jerusalem. Similar incidents were not always resolved without bloodshed, however. Josephus again speaks of protests that broke out when Pilate appropriated Temple funds to build an aqueduct for Jerusalem. On this occasion, Pilate had Roman soldiers, dressed as Jewish civilians and armed with hidden clubs, mingle with the shouting crowd and attack the people at a prearranged signal. Many were killed or hurt.

There is no extrabiblical account of the incident mentioned in Luke 13:1, ‘of the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices,’ but it does not appear out of character with the other incidents or with the slaughter of Samaritans in a.d. 35, mentioned by Josephus, which apparently brought about Pilate’s recall. A Samaritan prophet (Josephus calls him a liar) gathered large numbers of his people to Mount Gerizim with the promise of showing them the holy vessels supposedly hidden there by Moses. Pilate treated the event as an insurrection and attacked the crowd with cavalry and heavy infantry, killing many in the battle and executing the leaders among the captured. Vitellius, the imperial legate to Syria, felt compelled to remove Pilate from office and sent him to Rome to render account of his conduct.

In the Gospel Accounts: Pilate’s part in the trial and execution of Jesus is, of course, the focus of most later interest in him. His role is presented somewhat differently in each of the Gospels, reflecting the diversity of theological agendas of the various authors as well as a growing tendency, as time passed, for Christians to exonerate the Romans and to lay blame for Jesus’ crucifixion on ‘the Jews.’

Mark’s account (15:1-15) presents Pilate in the most ambiguous light: he ‘wonders’ at Jesus’ silence when questioned and accused of calling himself ‘King of the Jews’ and bends to the will of the mob (stirred up by the chief priests) in sending Jesus to the cross and setting Barabbas free, even though he sees no good reason for this (15:14-15). Matthew’s account (27:1-2, 11-26) introduces Pilate’s wife (not named in the Gospel but called Procla or Procula in later tradition), who warns Pilate to have nothing to do with ‘that righteous man,’ about whom she has had a dream; also introduced is the hand-washing incident, in which Pilate claims, unchallenged, his own innocence and ‘all the people’ cry, ‘His blood be on us and on our children!’ (27:24-25). Luke’s version (23:1-25) has Pilate send Jesus, accused of perverting the nation, forbidding payment of tribute to Caesar, and claiming his own kingship, to Herod Antipas, whose soldiers (not the Romans) mock him. John (18:28-19:16), in an elaborate scheme of ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ scenes, carries even further the idea that Pilate, who did not wish to condemn Jesus, was a helpless pawn (not only of the Jewish people but also of God; see 19:11). John also has Jesus emphasize the otherworldly character of his kingship.

Later Christian tradition went even further than the Gospels in the direction of exonerating Pilate, in some cases even suggesting his eventual repentance and conversion to Christianity.


Topical index of terms
Edited for by Robert Nguyen Cramer
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