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Pontius Pilate: Profile & Biography of Pontius Pilate, Roman Prefect


Pontius Pilate

Pontius Pilate

Who was Pontius Pilate?:

Pontius Pilate was prefect (not procurator, as some sources say) of Judea during the reign of emperor Tiberius Caesar. He was the fifth Roman appointed to govern Judea and held that office for the second-longest time: 26-36 CE. This was the same time during which John the Baptist and Jesus would have been active. As prefect, he was responsible for Tiberius’ estates, collecting taxes, and maintaining order. His rank was equestrian and thus he was subordinate to the senate legate of Syria.

When did Pontius Pilate live?:

We know that Pilate was prefect of Judea between 26 and 36 CE. Other than that, though, we have no information about any other dates in his life — including his birth or death. What little information we do have outside the gospels comes from Josephus and Philo. Eusebius, the 4th century church historian, also provides some material but its authenticity can be questioned due to its late dating.

Where did Pontius Pilate live?:

During his time as prefect of Judea, Pilate’s headquarters were located at Caesaria Maritima on the coast. Where he might have lived before and after this is unknown.

What did Pontius Pilate do?:

Information about Pilate comes from the writings of Philo Judaeus and Flavius Josephus. Neither has positive things to say about him: he is described as insensitive, cruel, ready to use brutal force to keep order, and incompetent. Because he kept his post for 10 years, it’s unlikely that he was incompetent. Brutality was, however, the norm for people in his position. Pilate was recalled to Rome for brutality, even by Roman standards, when he massacred a group of Samaritans at Mount Gerizim.

Why was Pontius Pilate important?:

Hardly anyone cares much about what Pontius Pilate actually did in Judea. Today, his importance is tied completely to the gospel stories about Jesus’ trial and crucifixion. Pilate, according to the gospels, was in charge of whether Jesus would be condemned or set free.

Some gospel accounts attach more responsibility to Pilate while others depict Pilate as weak and wavering, finally just giving in to the pressure from Jewish authorities. This latter image of Pilate is historically inaccurate and likely exists only because of the need to exonerate Roman authorities in order to avoid further persecutions. Philo’s description of Pilate as “inflexible, merciless, and obstinate” may also be biased, but is likely far closer to the truth.

Some later Christian stories even go so far as to depict Pilate as repenting of his actions and converting to Christianity. This is bizarre because repenting means wishing that one had acted differently; it makes no sense, however, for a Christian to wish that Jesus had not been crucified. The whole point was that Jesus suffer and die.

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