Summary: So what do we know about Pilate and what can we learn from him?
The phrase “suffered under Pontius Pilate” is used in the Apostle’s Creed and has been translated into more languages than just about every other name. Even though he stepped onto the stage of human history for only about four hours, Pilate’s name is known to more people in the world than most great men in history. He didn’t choose to get involved in the Passion of Jesus but involved he was. So what do we know about Pilate and what can we learn from him?
Pilate had a middle class upbringing. He served in the Roman army in Germany, and while on a long stay in Rome caught the affection of a Roman girl Claudia Procula, the granddaughter of Caesar Augustus. Because of this, Pilate was given a position that otherwise would never had been given to him. In A. D. 26, he was appointed governor of Judea and allowed to take his wife with him which was a very unusual privilege. As governor, Pilate was in charge of administering all aspects of Roman law, was head of its judicial system, collected taxes, allocated spending for the province, and sent taxes to Rome.
During this time, Palestine bristled with problems. Because of the stubborn resistance by the Jews toward their Roman captors, there was constant rebellion and unrest. Governor of Judea was not a highly sought position and was considered to be the armpit of the Roman Empire. Nobody in their right mind wanted the job. Although he was able to live in a palace with servants and soldiers at his side, he had to deal with all types of problems including keeping peace among the Jews, a seemingly fanatical people who only understood the whip.
There are diverse views about Pilate throughout history. The Ethiopian Coptic church recognized both Pontius Pilate and his wife, Procula, as saints and observe June 25 in their honor. The early church father Tertullian believed that Pilate "was a Christian in his conscience", and the Greek Orthodox church made Procula a saint. Medieval legends have Pilate tortured, exiled and compulsively washing his hands in his remaining days. Several historians paint Pilate as a brutal despot who despised the Jewish people. The historian Philo writes of "his venality, his violence, his thefts, his assaults, his abusive behavior, his frequent executions of untried prisoners, and his endless savage ferocity.” History seems to bear this out.
In one instance, Pilate decided that Jerusalem needed a new water supply. In order to finance the new aqueduct, Pilate stole from the temple treasury. The people were so incensed that they rioted in the streets and protested at His palace. Seeing the crowd, Pilate had his soldiers dress in plain clothes, mingle among the protesting people and then draw their swords and murder several thousand people. Another time, Pilate viciously quelled a peaceful gathering of Samaritans at Mt. Gerazim by killing those leading the event. They had gone there in search of holy vessels they believed Moses had buried there. These atrocities were hallmarks of Pilate’s rule. That kind of treatment only incited Jewish riots further which didn’t please Caesar. If there was one thing Rome wanted from their governors was peaceful rule. All of his actions eventually led to Pilate being recalled back to Rome in March 37AD.
At the time of his encounter with Jesus, Pilate was on the political hot seat. He had had several protests and riots and had been called to Rome by Caesar to feel his wrath. He couldn’t afford another insurrection. To make matters worse, when the Jews wished to fulfill the punishment of the law on their people, especially a death sentence, they had to go to Pilate for the Romans to carry out the sentence. He’s drawn into their squabbles whether he wants to or not. And that’s why when the religious leaders bring Jesus to Pilate on that fateful Friday morning, they know his back is against the wall and Caiaphas uses that to force Pilate’s hand. Pilate is stuck between a rock and a hard place. The Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling body enforcing Jewish law, sought to maintain Israel’s religious freedom but to do that, they needed to keep the Jewish people from rioting. Pilate needed the Sanhedrin to keep the Jewish people in check. The Sanhedrin had reached a guilty verdict against Jesus and handed him over to Pilate. They want Jesus punished and yet Pilate interviews him and finds him innocent. If he didn’t please the Jews, they would riot, report to Rome, and would probably lose his job. If he didn’t please his wife, well you know the old saying, “Happy wife, happy life” or to put it another way: “if momma ain’t happy, no one’s happy.” So Pilate’s decision will determine whether he either keeps his job and makes the Jews happy or frees an innocent man and makes his wife happy.