Pilate – the Story Behind the Story
Pilate will be forever known as the Roman Procurator who condemned Jesus of Nazareth to be crucified. Why he made this judgement defies sensible logic considering Pilate himself and Herod the Tetrarch, son of King Herod, both found Jesus guiltless of any crime.
In the case of Pilate and Jesus, the politics were much deeper than conveyed in the Gospel accounts which primarily focused on the political pressures from the Jewish leadership. Roman influences were just as much, if not more, a significant factor.
Roman politics were no different than they are today, except perhaps for the deadly endgame objective to totally eliminate the opponent, often by death – including Caesars. Each government official had to try to avoid the pitfalls that come with authority, quite commonly from blood relatives and spouses.
Only two Procurators were sent to Judea by Tiberius Caesar during his 22-year reign. Gratus was first to be sent to Jerusalem where he served as Procurator for 11 years. One of his last actions was to appoint Joseph Caiaphas as High Priest. Pontius Pilate followed as the second Procurator sent by Tiberius and served 10 years.
Insights to the thinking and behaviors of Tiberius Caesar are key to understanding what drove the actions and behaviors of Pilate. What was or not important to Tiberius, how he viewed the Empire, his temperament, and how he reacted to various scenarios.
Tiberius highly regarded the policies and decrees of his predecessor, Caesar Augustus, saying, “I who respect as law all his actions and sayings.” Highlighting this, Tiberius was once observed sacrificing to the Divine Augustus.
Jews were to be treated with moderation. A decree by Augustus was chiseled into a pillar in the Temple of Caesar in Rome granting the Jews certain liberties – anyone who transgressed the decree was to be severely punished:
“Cesar Augustus, High Priest, and Tribune of the people ordains thus: …the Jews have liberty to make use of their own customs, according to the law of their fathers, as they made use of them under Hyrcanus the High Priest of Almighty God; and that their sacred money be not touched, but be sent to Jerusalem; and that it be committed to the care of the receivers at Jerusalem; and that they be not obliged to go before any judge on the Sabbath-day, nor on the day of the preparation to it, after the ninth hour… And if any one transgress any part of what is above decreed, he shall be severely punished.”
Augustus backed up his words after a complaint by the Jews against Ethnarch Archelaus, a ruling heir of King Herod. Augustus banished Archelaus to Vienna and took away his wealth for treating the Jews harshly against his command. No doubt Pilate knew of the banishment and how Tiberius desired to follow the examples of Augustus.
As time went on, Tiberius became a ruthless ruler with the level of his depravity and cruelty on full display. Tacitus called it a “cruel temper” surmising absolute power perverted the actions of Tiberius. Josephus described Tiberius as having an “intractable” temper, a “tyrant.”
Religious beliefs of the Jews were considered “superstitions” by Tiberius, banned from the city of Rome. Jews in military service were assigned “to provinces of a less healthy environment.”
Walking a fine line, Pilate had to separate the superstition religion of Judaism from the treatment of the people of Judea. The risk – if a report got back to Caesar that Pilate had mistreated the people, bad things could happen to him. Thus was the authoritative profile of the ruler Pilate served.
Pilate first provoked the Jews by moving his Roman troops from Caesarea to Jerusalem “to abolish the Jewish laws.” During the night, Roman ensigns with effigies of Caesar were brought into the city violating Jewish law prohibiting the images.
A rebellion ensued among thousands of Jews who petitioned Pilate to remove the images. In front of Pilate, Jewish zealots prostrated themselves on the ground pulling back their hair to expose their necks for the sword. Taken aback, Pilate removed the ensigns.
Next incitement, Pilate announced the construction of a Jerusalem aqueduct to be paid using the “sacred money” of the Jews. Triggering a protest by tens of thousands of Jews, they cast insults at the crier who made the announcement.
Addressing the crowd himself, more aspersions were now hurled at Pilate who took offense. Planning for this likelihood, he had Roman soldiers dress in disguise and mingle in the crowd. Giving the signal, the soldiers pulled out daggers wounding and killing many of the unarmed protesters.
With Pilate in Judea during the famed ministry of Jesus of Nazareth, it set the two on an inevitable collision course. In the next sequence of incidents with the Jews, Josephus wrote, “Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man…” He goes on to write “…Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men among us, had condemned him to the cross…”
According to Luke 3:1, Jesus began his ministry in the 15th year of Tiberius meaning that Pilate was entering his fifth year as Procurator when the ministry of Jesus began. After a 3-year ministry, it reckons that Pilate was about in his 8th year as Procurator when Jesus was delivered to him to be judged.
By now, Tiberius was a seasoned Caesar in his 18th year of rule with his cruelties being well-known. Pilate had a long track record of the Caesar to consider and ponder the risks that came with working for a ruler considered a tyrant who was feared by even the Roman citizens.
After holding their own trial for blasphemy and rendering a verdict of guilty, the Jewish leadership brought Jesus to Pilate for Roman judgement under the accusation of insurrection and tax evasion. As the Roman authority in Judea, the Procurator had little choice but to deal with the situation.
Directly asking Jesus if he is a king, Jesus admitted to Pilate he is a King, but not of this world. Perplexed, Pilate sent Jesus to be judged by Galilee Tetrarch Herod Antipas who just happened to be in Jerusalem at that time. No fault was found by Herod Antipas who sent Jesus back to Pilate.
Neither Tetrarch Herod nor Procurator Pilate found any guilt in Jesus for insurrection or incensus despite Jesus admitting to Pilate that he is a King. Pilate’s judgment in front of the Jewish crowd shouting for Jesus to be crucified compelled him to wash his hands of the contrivance saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood.”
Was Pilate’s decision to crucify Jesus a result of political fears of the Jews and Tiberius Caesar as the Gospel of John alluded; or was it part of a divine Messiah plan where an innocent man was to be crucified – or both?
Postscript: Pilate, too, was caught in the spiderweb of Jewish–Roman politics. About two years later, the Samarians lodged a complaint against Pilate for his abuses of them to Vitellius, Roman provincial governor of Syria. Vitellius removed both Pilate and Caiaphas from their positions sending Pilate to Rome to be judged by Tiberius, but the Caesar was murdered while he was enroute. Tradition holds Pilate, like Archelaus, was banished to Vienna by Caius, better known as Caligula.
Updated October 12, 2022.
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