The Quest for the Historical Pontius Pilate

For an otherwise obscure governor of a minor province with a small military command Pontius Pilate is remarkably well attested in the ancient sources. In addition to the inscription bearing his name and title as “Prefect of Judaea” discovered at Caesarea Maritima in 1961, he is referred to in the written sources by Tacitus, Philo, Josephus, the four gospels and the Acts of the Apostles.  

Pilate’s involvement with Jesus was limited to a few hours direct contact, and a few hours beyond that of indirect contact when Jesus was taken for execution. Yet for two thousand years, Sunday by Sunday, Christians have affirmed that Jesus Christ, ‘suffered under Pontius Pilate’.

1. The Quest for the Historical Pilate

Pontius Pilate poses a major problem for the historian. The three main sources present him rather differently. Philo’s comments about Pilate are extremely hostile [1]. Josephus is not so obviously biased as Philo. Nonetheless, his descriptions of the governor are quite negative. How, then are we able to reconcile the ruthless figure of Philo (who is negatively described by Josephus) with the governor of the gospels who is unable to discharge a prisoner whom he wishes to set free ?

2. Pontius Pilate in the Gospels.

My working assumptions are that Matthew and Luke used Mark, but that John was written independently of the texts of Matthew, Mark or Luke.

2.1 Mark.

Mark portrays Pilate’s direct involvement with Jesus in two connected scenes.

In the first, the chief priests, elders, teachers of the law and the whole Sanhedrin handed Jesus over to Pilate accusing him, we infer, as ‘king of the Jews’. Pilate interrogates him along that line. Jesus’s answer, “You say so” is probably an acknowledgement of the charge and nothing more. The accusers make other charges and Pilate is astonished that Jesus makes no reply.

In the second scene it is to be implied that Pilate does not find the charges proven and offers to release the ‘king of the Jews’ based on the ‘Passover Custom’ for the release of a prisoner. ‘Deciding’ but not necessarily ‘wanting’ (so NIV – boulomai can mean either) to satisfy the crowd, Pilate is impelled to release Barabbas and hand Jesus over for execution.

2.2 Matthew.

Matthew follows the same two-scene format with two additions.

One is the dream of the Prefect’s wife, “Have nothing to do with that innocent man”. The other is Pilate’s washing of the blood of Jesus from his hands whereupon the people declare that Jesus’s blood will be on them.

2.3 Luke.

Luke follows the same two-scene format, with an elaboration in the first of treasonable allegations against this ‘king’.

Luke separates the two scenes with Herod Antipas’s interrogation of Jesus whom he exonerates of the charges of treasonable behaviour in Galilee.

In the second scene Pilate confirms the Tetrarch’s exoneration of the earlier explicitly made accusations. However, Pilate’s desire (qevlw) to release Jesus is met with the demand of chief priests and people to crucify Jesus. So Pilate ‘gave sentence’ (RSV) to their demands. He released Barabbas and surrendered Jesus to their will.

2.4 Unanswered Questions in the Synoptics.

2.4.1. If a Roman governor has reached a verdict why was he not able to implement his decision ? Why was Pilate not able to release Jesus finding the charges not proven ?

2.4.2. If for some reason Pilate felt impelled to execute Jesus, why did he feel he must release someone else ? Did the ‘Paschal Privilege’ require the release of a prisoner ? How historically authentic is this ‘Passover Custom’ ? See commentary on Mark by W. Lane for extensive discussion of the ‘Paschal Privilege’.

2.5 John.

John┬╣s account is the longest. With strong historical probability John keeps the accusers outside the Prefect’s praetorium to avoid ceremonial uncleanness. He calls them ‘the Jews’ but it is obvious that he has the temple hierarchy in mind. ‘The Jews’ never enter the praetorium. There are two main scenes.

In the first Pilate came outside to them asking what is the charge. Inside he asks Jesus, “Are you the king of the Jews?”. Jesus admits he is a king, but with a non-political kingdom. Pilate comes out and announces he finds no basis for the accusation. Pilate seeks to release Jesus according to the ‘Passover Custom’. ‘The Jews’ seek the release of Barabbas a lestes/’bandit’.

There is an interlude betwee the two scenes. This is when Jesus is handed over by Pilate to the soldiers who flog and parody the ‘king of the Jews’.

The second scene is outside the praetorium. Pilate brings out the mocked ‘king of the Jews’ with the verdict that the charge against the accused is without basis. When Pilate proposed to set Jesus free, ‘the Jews’ declare,

“If you let this man free you are not a friend of Caesar. Any one who claims to be a king, opposes Caesar.”

When Pilate asks, “Shall I crucify your king?” ‘the Jews’ reply, “We have no king but Caesar.”

John’s account yields an apparent answer to one of the questions posed in the synoptics, that is, why did Pilate not simply release a prisoner whom he had found not guilty of the charges against him. Pilate, a ‘friend’ or client of Tiberius, owes his appointment to him. The prefect must not set free any man who claims to be ‘king of the Jews’ for Tiberius is that ‘king’.

But this does not take us very far. Tiberius would not expect his prefect to execute a person charged with treason if the prefect determined that the charges were not substantiated. The Romans did not crucify benign rabbis or prophets on merely religious offences.

In effect, John’s account, while hinting that the Temple hierarchy had some leverage with Pilate, does not explain further what that leverage might be.

3. Theories About Pontius Pilate

Naturally the divergences between Philo/Josephus and the Gospels have attracted the attention of scholars and several theories have been proposed to account for them. Two such views will be reviewed and a third proposed as the most likely approximation of the governor, under whom Jesus “suffered.”

There is, first, the view that the tough governor as portrayed by Philo and Josephus is more or less correct but the accommodating Pilate of the gospels is a falsification. According to this reconstruction, which is chiefly associated with S.G.F. Brandon [2]. Jesus was in fact an anti-Roman insurrectionist (or an advocate of insurrection). Since the early church needed the good will of the Roman authorities, its founder’s true sympathies must be masked. Hence the gospels present Jesus as innocent, a victim of Jewish machinations, with an indecisive governor portrayed as coerced to execute Jesus against his better moral judgment.

It is likely that the Romans were indeed aware of and concerned about the new messianic sect from Judaea. Though written half a century after the events Tacitus is describing the apprehension evident in his account of the spread of this “superstition” to Rome and of its strength there would surely also have been felt in the sixties [3]. The gospel writers’ sensitivity to this opinion may be reflected at a number of points. In his account of the Feeding of the 5000 Mark significantly omits the assertion found in John that the Galilean crowd attempted to make Jesus “king,” even though Mark’s account demands some detail of this kind to make sense of the flow of the narrative [4]. Luke’s version of Jesus’ trial by Pilate and his interrogation by Herod the tetrarch is intentionally careful to establish that Jesus did not engage in any treasonable kingship activities, whether in Galilee or Judaea [5].

Sensitivity to damaging opinion does not, of course, make that opinion true. The accusation of high treason to Pilate by the temple hierarchy, that “he opposes payment of taxes to Caesar and claims to be Christ a king” [6] resonates remarkably with the crimes of a notorious Galilean who had in the not too distant past risen up against Roman rule in Judaea. The uprising of Judas the Galilean at the time Judaea was annexed as a Roman province, when direct personal tax to Roman was first levied, was doubtless well-remembered by Roman officials in Rome. Judas was a rabbi, a Galilean and a populist [7], a convenient and damaging stereotype to apply to Jesus, who was also a Galilean and a rabbi and a populist.

The Roman military governors took seriously charges of this kind. One of their major responsibilties was to maintain peace and order within the provinces. The Roman military administration was quite severe not only in regard to leaders of movements, but also to associates and followers of those leaders who rose up against them. It must be assumed that Pilate would have investigated carefully these charges against Jesus and not only executed him for treason, as indeed he did, but that he would also have acted severely against his followers. Had Jesus been the insurrectionist of Brandon’s reconstruction the Romans would have stamped out the Jesus movement then and there, as they had in the case of Judas’ following [8].

In short, the possible presence of some apologetic elements in the gospels portraying Jesus as a non-revolutionary, does not prove that he was a revolutionary, nor does it invalidate the essential integrity of the gospels in their presentation of Pilate as a rather accomodating figure at that time.

A second, advanced by McGing in 1991, proposes that the major sources are in fact in fundamental agreement, despite apparent divergences [9]. According to this line of argument Pilate was a governor loyal to his emperor Tiberius and that his actions towards Jews and Samaritans, when compared to other governors, were relatively unremarkable. In fact his ten year incumbency was one of relative calm. His behaviour towards Jesus can be adequately accounted for by his ignorance of Jewish culture and politics along with a certain personal indecisiveness. There may have been just enough smoke, as it were, in the case of Jesus to justify extinguishing the fire. In any case what importance, more or less, attached to one Jew? And did not the accused’s stubborn silence in the face of interrogation amount to contempt of court (contumacia), something abhorrent to Romans?

While this reconstruction upholds the broad historicity of the gospels in the face of the Brandon alternative, it scarcely does justice to Philo’s and Josephus’ accounts of Pontius Pilate. Indeed, so far as we know, it was the provocative actions of Pilate after his arrival in Judaea in A.D. 26 which broke the calm which had prevailed since Judas’ rebellion twenty years earlier. In his brief chronological survey of Jewish history from the arrival of Pompey in 63 B.C. to the outbreak of the war with Rome in A.D. 66 Tacitus was to comment, sub Tiberio ques, “under Tiberius all was quiet” [10]. This was to change during the next five years while the Praetorian Prefect L. Aelius Sejanus was, de facto, ruler in Rome.

Pilate’s introduction to Jerusalem of military standards bearing idolatrous icons was without precedent; previous governors had used unornamented standards. Similarly unprecedented, apparently, was the issuing of coins bearing the offensive lituus and simpulum as used in Roman cultic practice. These actions cannot be explained away on the grounds of cultural innocence. They were calculated and deliberate. Indeed, in relationship with the iconic standards in Jerusalem, Josephus comments “Pilate…decided to overturn the laws of the Jews.” Actions such as the seizure of money from the sacred treasury for the construction of an aqueduct in Jerusalem [11]. and the slaughter of the Galileans in the act of sacrificing the passover lambs [12] are quite consistent with the provocatively introduced iconic standards and coins noted above.

The two insurrectionists crucified with Jesus, along with Barrabbas, had participated in an otherwise unknown uprising against Roman rule [13]. Perhaps this disturbance was also provoked by Pilate’s actions. The furore some time later over the gilded shields brought to Jerusalem, despite the absence of iconography, reflects the deep and justifiable suspicion of the people towards Pilate [14]. Aniconic these shields may have been, but the inscriptions dedicated to Tiberius were almost certainly offensive [15]. Pilate’s appointment in Judaea effectively ended when he was dispatched to Rome to account for the slaughter of a number of Samaritans on Mt Gerizim [16].

Josephus does nothing to qualify or downplay his report that the Samaritans complained that their people had gathered at Mt Gerizim, “not as rebels against the Romans,” but as “refugees from the persecution of Pilate” [17]. Josephus’ is but a milder and briefer version of Philo’s portrayal of Pilate as “naturally inflexible, a blend of self-will and relentlessness” who, according to Philo “feared exposure for his conduct as governor…the briberies, the insults, the robberies, the outrages and wanton injuries; executions without trial constantly repeated, the ceaseless and supremely grievous cruelty…his vindictiveness and furious temper” [18]. Even allowing for some rhetorical excess by Philo the violence of the episodes recorded by Josephus and Luke’s brief but chilling reference to the slaughter of the Galileans may well justify Philo’s verdict on Pontius Pilate.

But how can this Pilate be reconciled with the governor who comes before us in the gospels ?

A third reconstruction, which is associated with E.M Smallwood and P.L. Maier, would indicate that both Philo and Josephus have portrayed Pilate correctly, but that at the trial of Jesus, due to changed political circumstances in Rome, Pilate had been forced to act out of character [19]. Thus each of the major sources are able to be viewed as historically consistent.

According to this line of thought it is noted that Pilate’s appointment to Judaea more or less coincided with the beginning of Sejanus’ appointment as Praetorian Prefect. It will be remembered that Tiberius continued to remain on the island of Capri during those years, leaving Sejanus as de facto ruler in Rome.

Philo the Jew of Alexandria states that Sejanus “wished to make away with (our) nation” knowing that the Jewish people were loyal to Tiberius [20]. There is evidence that Sejanus, ambitious to grasp imperial power in Rome, harboured the desire for a ruler cult in honour of his deity [21]. This, too, would have contributed to an enmity against the Jews and their monotheistic beliefs. It appears to be no coincidence that Pilate “decided to overturn the laws of the Jews” at a the very time the anti-Semite Sejanus was at the height of his powers in Rome.

After the fall of Sejanus in October A.D. 31, however, Tiberius wrote to his provincial governors demanding that they “speak comfortably to the members of our nation in the different cities…to disturb none of our established customs but even to regard them as a trust committed to their care…” [22]. To no provincial governor would these words have been more appropriate than to the Prefect of Judaea, home of the Jewish people, even if we had no information about his actions. But we do. Josephus’ descriptions of Pilate’s behaviour and Philo’s verdict on Pilate, noted above, indicate the singular appropriateness of Tiberius’ letter to his Prefect in Judaea, Pontius Pilate.

The incident of the gilded shields occurred in the post-Sejanus situation [23]. Pilate is now accountable to a new master, Tiberius, who, aware of the political realities involving the Jews forbade further harassment of them. This will explain Pilate’s speedy removal of the shields, upon the petition of the Herodian princes (including the tetrarch of Galilee-Peraea, Herod Antipas). This he would not have done during Sejanus’ incumbency. In the new situation when Tiberius was again undisputed ruler, the Jewish temple hierarchy had the upper hand in regard to Pilate, especially in the light of his past behaviour towards the Jewish people. It is this ‘new’ situation that explains the ‘new’ Pilate as we encounter him in the gospels in his relationship to the Jewish leadership.

Under interrogation by the chief priests Jesus did not deny that he was the Messiah. This provoked the charge of blasphemy against Jesus. But when they brought him to Pilate they converted the religious charge of blasphemy to one more recognisable and culpable for the Roman mind, the political charge of treason. Thus in each of the four gospels Pilate asks the political question of the accused, “Are you the king of the Jews ?” [24]. Jesus’s agreement with this charge would have been, in effect, a denial of Tiberius’s kingship in Judaea. Upon inquiry, however, Pilate decided that he must release Jesus. The charge of treason was not substantiated. But in the ‘new’ situation after the fall of Sejanus, the chief priests are able to intimidate the governor:

If you release this man, you are not Caesar’s friend; everyone who makes himself a king sets himself against Caesar.

adding, ominously,

We have no king but Caesar [25].

The man who had ridden roughshod over the Jewish people was now at the mercy of their leaders. And he knew it. One false move and his appointment would be cancelled and his career finished. And so Pilate acquiesced, handing Jesus over to the execution squad for crucifixion, on the charge of treason, that he was “the king of the Jews.”


1. Whereas B. McGing, “Pontius Pilate and the Sources,” CBQ 53/3 (1991), 416-438, holds a low view of Philo as a historical source E.M. Smallwood, “Philo and Josephus as Historians of the Same Event,” Josephus, Judaism and Christianity, ed. L.H. Feldman and G. Hata (Leiden: Brill, 1986), 114-129, rates him higher than Josephus as to hard facts.

2. Jesus and the Zealots (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1967)

3. See Tacitus, Annals xv.44.

4. Cf. John 6:15 with Mark 6:45-46.

5. Luke 23:1-16.

6. Luke 23:2

7. See Josephus BJ ii.118,433; vii.253.

8. Acts 5:37

9. See McGing, “Pontius Pilate,” 416-438

10. Tacitus, Histories v.9. See further P.W. Barnett, “Under Tiberius All was Quiet,” New Testament Studies 21 (1975),564-571

11. Josephus, AJ xviii. 60-62

12. Luke 13:1-2.

13. Mark 15:7.

14. Philo, Legatio ad Gaium 299-305

15. See further P.S. Davies, “The Meaning of Philo’s Text about the Gilded Shields,” JTS 37 (1986), 109-114.

16. Josephus, AJ xviii.85-89

17. Josephus, AJ xviii.88.

18. Philo, Legatio ad Gaium 301,302

19. The leading advocate of this reconstruction is P.L. Maier, “Sejanus, Pilate and the date of the Crucifixion,” Church History xxxvii (1968), 3-13; “The Episode of the Golden Roman Shields in Jerusalem,” HTR lxii (1969), 109-121

20. In Flaccum 1:1; Legatio ad Gaium 160. See E.M. Smallwood, “Some notes on the Jews under Tiberius,” Latomus xv (1956), 325

21. Tacitus Annals iii. 72; iv. 2,72; Suetonius, Tiberius 48,65; Dio Cassius lviii.2,4,5,7

22. Philo, Legatio ad Gaium 160-161

23. See further E.M. Smallwood, “Philo and Josephus as Historians of the Same Events,” Josephus, Judaism and Christianity ed. L.H. Feldman and G. Hata (Leiden: Brill, 1987), 126-128.

24. Mark 15:2; cf, 14:61. See John 18:33

25. Mark 15:2; cf, 14:61. See John 18:33