Sunday, March 27, 2016

Easter Musings: What happened to Pontius Pilate? How did he die?

We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him.

- Romans 6:9

This Easter, I found myself wondering about the fate of Pontius Pilate, the man who, according to the gospels, presided over the trial of Jesus.  To satisfy my curiosity, I did some research.  This is what I discovered:

Pontius Pilate was the fifth governor or prefect of the Roman province of Judeaa from about 26 A.D. to 36 A.D., during the reign of the emperor Tiberius.  The date off Pilate's birth is not known, but he is believed to have come from the Samnium region of central Italy.  He was not popular with the Jewish population because he hung idolatrous images of the emperor all over Jerusalem,  He also minted coins with pagan symbols on them.

In his capacity as Roman prefect.  Pontius Pilate was responsible for the collection of taxes and overseeing construction activity.  His most important duty, however, was to uphold the law.  Pilate was the supreme judge of the province of Judea.  As such, he was given the sole authority to approve the execution of a criminal.  It was he, according to the scriptures, who convicted Jesus of treason and declared that Jesus considered himself "King of the Jews." (In the Roman Empire, it was seditious to claim to be a king).

According to the Gospel of John, when Pilate questions Jesus as to whether he is a king, Jesus tells him that he born  "to testify to the ."  Pilate replies famously. "What is truth" or "Quid est veritas?" in Latin.

Therefore Pilate said to him, "So you are a king?" Jesus answered, "You say correctly that I am a king. For this I have been born, and for this I have come into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice." Pilate asked him, "What is 'truth'?" and then he went out to the Jewish leaders again and told them, "I find no basis for a charge against him.  (John 18: 37-38)

In the end, Pilate orders Christ's crucifixion, albeit reluctantly.  According to the Gospel of Matthew, he literally washes his hands of Jesus.  The four canonical gospels relate how there was a Passover tradition in Jerusalem that permitted or obligated the governor of Judea to a death sentence by popular approval.  The crowd is offered a choice between a rebel named Barabbas and Jesus. The people loudly insist upon releasing Barabbas and they demand that Jesus be crucified.  Pilate complies with their wishes.

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 this man's blood. The 
responsibility is yours. (Matthew 27:24)

Jesus before Pilate

Pilate washing his hands of responsibility for the death of Jesus

According to Josephus, a first-century Romano-Jewish historian and scholar, Pilate was ordered to return to Rome following the death of Tiberius in 37 A.D., after he brutally suppressed a Samaritan uprising.  Encyclopaedia Britannica states that "Josephus’s references appear to be consistent. They seem to picture a headstrong strict authoritarian Roman leader who, although both rational and practical, never knew how far he should go in a given case.  He provoked both Jews and Samaritans to riot."

Josephus wrote that "in order to abolish Jewish laws,"and with the intent of reducing the  privileges Jews had enjoyed, Pilate ordered his troops to camp out in Jerusalem.  They entered the city with images of the emperor bound to their ensigns.  The Jews protested in Caesara, Pilate's place of residence.  He threatened them with death, but they steadfastly demonstrated their willingness to die. In the end, according to Josephus, Pilate relented and removed the images because he was profoundly moved by their steadfast determination to retain their laws.  Below is a passage from the writings of Josephus:

But now Pilate, the procurator of Judea, removed the army from Cesarea to Jerusalem, to take their winter quarters there, in order to abolish the Jewish laws. So he introduced Caesar’s effigies, which were upon the ensigns, and brought them into the city; whereas our law forbids us the very making of images; on which account the former procurators were wont to make their entry into the city with such ensigns as had not those ornaments. Pilate was the first who brought those images to Jerusalem, and set them up there; which was done without the knowledge of the people, because it was done in the nighttime; but as soon as they knew it, they came in multitudes to Cesarea, and interceded with Pilate many days, that he would remove the images; and when he would not grant their requests, because it would tend to the injury of Caesar, while yet they persevered in their request, on the sixth day he ordered his soldiers to have their weapons privately, while he came and sat upon his judgment seat, which seat was so prepared in the open place of the city, that it concealed the army that lay ready to oppress them: and when the Jews petitioned him again, he gave a signal to the soldiers to encompass them round, and threatened that their punishment should be no less than immediate death, unless they would leave off disturbing him, and go their ways home. But they threw themselves upon the ground, and laid their necks bare, and said they would take their death very willingly, rather than the wisdom of their laws should be transgressed; upon which Pilate was deeply affected with their firm resolution to keep their laws inviolable, and presently commanded the images to be carried back from Jerusalem to Cesarea.

What do we know about Ponious Pilate's personal life?  Well, according to the Gospel of Matthew, he had a wife.  (Matthew 27:19). Tradition holds that her name was Claudia Procula.  In Matthew's account, she warns her husband to disassociate himself from Jesus because of his innocence.

While Pilate was sitting on the judge’s seat, his wife sent him this message: “Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him."

In the Christian Bible, there is no information about Ponriua Pilate's parents and no mention of any children.  Pilate died circa 39 A.D. under mysterious circumstances.  According to some accounts, he was sent into exile and committed suicide of his own volition.  However, Eusebius of Caesara's Ecclesiastical History states that Pilate killed himself under orders from Caiss (Emperor Caligula, who succeeded Tiberius as Roman emperor in 37 A.D).  Eusebus, referring to earlier apocryphal accounts, wrote the following:

It is worthy of note that Pilate himself, who was governor in the time of our Saviour, is reported to have fallen into such misfortune under Caius, whose times we are recording, that he was forced to become his own murderer and executioner, and thus divine vengeance, as it seems, was not long in overtaking him.  This is stated by those Greek historians who have recorded the Olympiads, together with the respective events which have taken place in each period.


* Some Christian churches continue  to uphold an early church tradition that looked favourably upon Pontius Pilate.  The Eastern Orthodox church believes that Pilate and his wife eventually converted to Christianity.  The couple are actually venerated in the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewhedo Church and their feast day falls on June 25th.

* The Pilate Stone, an artifact discovered in 1961 by Italian archaeologist, Dr. Antonio Frova, bears the name of Pontius Pilate in Latin. The partially damaged block of limestone also contains an inscription that links Pilate  to the reign of Tiberius.  It was uncovered at the archaeological site of Caesarea Maritima, believed to be where Pilate was headquartered.  He likely only journeyed to Jerusalem, the heart of the province's Jewish population,when necessary.

The Pilate Stone is evidence of Pontius Pilate's historical existence.  It is presently located at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Below is a photo of a replica of the stone that can be found at Caesarea Maritima.

                                             Photo Attribution: Marion Doss

* It's difficult to know what to make of Pontius Pilate, although he is an intriguing figure.  Was he a tyrant who ruthlessly suppressed rebellions.  Was he weak and vacillating, as he is portrayed in the gospels, or was he just trying to do his job as governor of Judea?  There are more questions than answers.

EDITORS UPDATE (December 1, 2018):  The name of Pontius Pilate has been identified on a 2,000- year-old copper alloy ring.  The ring was actually found in the late 1960s, one of numerous artifacts discovered in an excavation of Herodium, an ancient fortress or palace, south of Bethlehem, on the West Bank.  It wasn't until recently that researchers were able to decipher the inscription on the ring, using advanced photo technology.  The words read "of Pilates"  in Greek letters, set around  a photo of a wine container known as a krater, a popular motif among Jews in Judea at the time.

According to a November 30, 2018 article in The New York Times by Palko Karasz, the findings were published last week in the Israel Exploration Journal, an Israeli archaeological review.  Researchers believe it is unlikely that the ring belonged to Pilate himself, since it is not elaborate enough for someone of his position and his wealth.  Such simple rings were usually owned by soldiers and lesser officials.  The name "Pilate" was not common in the area at that time.  Archaeologists consider this copper ring to be the second artifact bearing Pilate's name ever to be discovered, after the Pilate Stone.

- Joanne

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