Pontius Pilate was the Roman ruler over the province of Judea during the time of Jesus' crucifixion. This province had been previously ruled over, on behalf of Rome, by one of the sons of Herod the Great, namely Archelaus (full brother of Herod Antipas and a half brother of Philip). Herod Archelaus ruled so poorly that Rome actually removed him from power (A.D. 6) creating this new, directly ruled, Roman province. As such, the procurator, of which Pilate was the 5th, was responsible directly to Rome as a servant of Caesar but also in some degree to the Roman governor of the region based in Syria. The procurator possessed civil, military and criminal jurisdiction over the affairs of his district, of course with an overall eye towards taxation revenues of which the Roman government was fond of. Though we know nothing historically about Pilate prior to his time in Judea it is certain, due to Roman practice, that he had some previous military experience.
During the time of Pilate's rule the Jewish people were allowed a degree of self-government so long as it didn't interfere with Roman affairs and concerns. The political and religious parties of the Pharisees and Sadducees were allowed through their ruling body, the Sanhedrin, to exercise many judicial functions and to maintain the religious aspects of worship at the temple, including collecting its' Biblically mandated head-tax. Rome knowing the possible political clout of the High Priest required his robes to be stored at the Antonia Fortress under the control of the Roman procurator. This would assure that the High Priest would not aspire to making official proclamations without the express consent of the Roman government. In addition, Rome, alone, claimed the sole authority for administering capital punishment, requiring the Sanhedrin to seek the procurator's consent in rulings of this magnitude.
Ruins of the theatre at Caesarea Maritima
Pilate was appointed procurator of Judea by Tiberius in A.D. 26 and remained so for only a ten year period. History records that Pilate almost immediately offended the Jews. During what may have been an attempt to move his official seat (or at least military seat) of government from Caesarea Maritima to Jerusalem, he ordered Roman soldiers to carry their standards (with imperial images on them) into Jerusalem (albeit secretly by night, showing Pilate knew how offensive they would be). These images of the emperor were considered to be idolatrous and their presence within sight of the temple caused a major disturbance among the people. Multitudes of Jews immediately went to Caesarea to petition him to remove the offense ensigns. For five days Pilate refused to hear them, but on the sixth he took his place on the judgment seat. When the Jews were allowed into his presence Pilate had them surrounded with soldiers and threatened them with instant death unless they stopped bothering him about this matter. In unison, the Jews fell to the ground and bared their necks, declaring that they preferred death to this violation of their laws. Pilate, wisely unwilling to kill so many, backed down and ordered the ensigns removed to Caesarea. (Recorded by Josephus, Jewish War 2.169-174 and Antiquities of the Jews 18.55-59)
Philo of Alexandria (the only other major historical source on Pilate) records that, on another occasion, Pilate dedicated some golden shields in the palace of Herod in honor of the emperor. These shields had no images that could be considered idolatrous, only an inscription of the name of the donor and of the one in whose honor they were set up. They were still an offense to the Jews, who subsequently petitioned Pilate to have them removed. When he refused, they appealed to Tiberius, who sent an order that they should be removed to Caesarea. (Recorded by Philo, Legatio ad Gaium, 38)
Pilate was also disliked by the Jews for misappropriating funds from the Temple treasury for the construction of an aqueduct into Jerusalem. Taking this sacred treasure, called corban (alt. qorban. See Mark 7:11), provoked a gathering of enraged Jews to clamor against Pilate. Rather than tolerating or placating them, Pilate had Roman soldiers disguised as civilians mix with them multitude. On Pilate's signal these soldiers attacked the rioters and beat them severely with staves, effectively ending their uprising. (Recorded by Josephus, Jewish War 2.175-177 and Antiquities 18.60-62)
Pieces of an aqueduct found outside of Jerusalem. On display at the Israel Museum.
These few recorded acts of Pilate, and one that will follow, certainly reflect the same type of act recording in Scriptures (prior to those concerning Jesus)...
In approximately A.D. 36 (or, some say, early A.D. 37), Pilate used arrests and multiple executions to stop a large Samaritan gathering, fearing it to be a religious uprising. After complaints were sent to the regional governor (the legate Vitellius) in Syria, Pilate was recalled to Rome to defend his actions. Since Tiberius died around this time, it is unknown whether he ever appeared before him. Regardless, Pilate never returned. Legends arose as to what happened following, including one that Pilate committed suicide (see Eusebius, 4th century A.D., Historia Ecclesiastica 2.7.1), but none have certain evidence in support of them. (The Coptic, or eastern, church, based on one of these legends, came to believe that Pilate became a Christian and list both he and his wife among their saints).
Due to a lack of physical evidence overall, some minimalists question the actual existence of a Roman Governor with the name Pontius Pilate. These scholars routinely discard the testimony of Scriptures and hold suspect subsequent documents that testify in support of them, often claiming them to be revisions by Christians. To their surprise, in 1961, Italian archaeologists found a block of limestone during the excavation of an ancient Roman theatre (see photo above) at Caesarea Maritima. Found in secondary use, the stone bears a damaged inscription; a dedication by Pilate of a Tiberieum. The dedication also notes that he was prefectus (alt. praefectus), or in other words, ruler over Judea. As to what the Tiberieum was remains as speculation, though some think it to be a temple perhaps in honor of the emperor Tiberius. The original of this inscription is on display in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, with a replica on site at Caesarea.
replica stone on display at Caesarea Maritima
A model better showing the lettering on the found stone.
The writing is in Latin...
"Pontius Pilate, Prefect of Judea"
The original stone measures 82 cm high by 65 cm wide.
In regards to Jesus' crucifixion, the events that marked Pilate with notoriety forever, they can be summarized (or harmonized from the four gospels) as follows...
Jesus is brought to Pilate by the Jews (Matthew 27:2; Mark 15:1; Luke 23:1; John 18:28). Pilate asks for a specific accusation (John 18:29-32). Pilate enters the judgment hall (praetorium), questions Jesus about His professed kingship, and receives the answer that He rules over the kingdom of truth, and over the hearts of men who acknowledge the truth. Pilate then asks: "What is truth?" (Matthew 27:11; Mark 15:2; Luke 23:3, and with the most detail in John 18:33-38). Pilate brings Jesus forth and many accusations are made against Him. To Pilate's surprise, Jesus makes no reply (Matthew 27:12-14; Mark 15:3-5). Pilate confirms His innocence, but the charges are repeated (Luke 23:4). Pilate then sends Him to Herod, who in mockery clothes Him royal garments and sends Him back (Luke 23:6-12). Pilate declares that neither he nor Herod can find any fault in Jesus and offers to scourge Him and let Him go (Luke 23:13-16; John 18:38). Pilate offers to release Jesus in accordance with an ancient custom (Matthew 27:15-18; Mark 15:6-10; John 18:39). Pilate's wife sends him a message warning him not to harm Jesus because she has suffered many things in a dream because of Him (Matthew 27:19). In response to Pilate's offer, the people, as persuaded by the chief priests and elders, choose Barabbas, and, in spite of the protests of Pilate, demand that Jesus be crucified (Matthew 27:20-23; Mark 15:11-14; Luke 23:18-23; John 18:40). Pilate washes his hands before the people, declaring himself innocent of Jesus' blood (Matthew 27:24). Pilate releases Barabbas and orders Jesus to be scourged (Matthew 27:26; Mark 15:15; Luke 23:24-25). Jesus is scourged and mocked, beaten and spit upon (Matthew 27:27-31; Mark 15:16-20; John 19:1-3). Pilate again declares the innocence of Jesus, brings Him out, and says: "Behold the man!" The chief priests and officers cry out: "Crucify him!" They accuse Him of making Himself to be the Son of God. Pilate, becoming more afraid at this saying, once more interviews Jesus in the judgment hall (praetorium). He again tries to release Him, but is accused of being disloyal to the emperor. Finally, Pilate sits on the judgment seat and says: "Behold your King!" Again the cry goes up: "Away with him, crucify him!" Pilate says: "Shall I crucify your King?" The chief priests answered with a final renunciation of Jesus, saying: "We have no king but Caesar" (John 19:4-15). Pilate then sentences Jesus and gives Him up to be crucified, resulting in Jesus being led away to Golgotha (Matthew 27:31; Mark 15:20; Luke 23:26; John 19:16). Pilate writes a title for the cross and refuses to alter it (John 19:19-22). Following the events of the crucifixion, the Jews ask that Pilate order the legs of the three who were crucified to be broken (John 19:31), though it wasn't necessary for Jesus, who was found to be already dead. Joseph of Arimathea (alt. Arimathaea) petitions Pilate for the body of Jesus (Matthew 27:57-58; Mark 15:42-43; Luke 23:50-52; John 19:38). Pilate is surprised that Jesus was dead so quickly and questions the centurion (Mark 15:44). He then allows Joseph to have the body of Jesus (Matthew 27:58; Mark 15:45-46; John 19:38). The chief priests and the Pharisees obtain permission from Pilate to take precautions against any theft of the body of Jesus (Matthew 27:62-66).
Another notable source from the ancient world also briefly mentions Pilate. He is notable, not for supply new details, but for being Roman. Thus far, all other document sources we have considered are of Jewish origin. The Roman historian Tacitus, writing circa 115 A.D. in regards to Nero's treatment of Christians, stated the following:
Pilate is mentioned three times in the book of Acts. (1) In a speech of Peter:
(2) In a prayer/praise of the church:
(3) In a speech by the apostle Paul:
Pilate is also mentioned again by Paul, in 1 Timothy 6:13, as the one before whom Christ Jesus made a good confession.