Pilate whose family name Pontius indicates that he was related either by descent or adoption to the gens of Pontius. What little is known of his early history comes from unreliable fragments of tradition. A German legend holds that he was an illegitimate son of Tyrus, king of Mayence, who sent him as a hostage.
There he committed murder for which he was sent to Pontus to subdue the barbarous tribes, and for this he received the name Pontius and was sent to Judea.
There he was appointed governor of Judea by Tiberius (25 AD) and immediately offended the Jews by removing his army headquarters from Caesarea to Jerusalem.
The offensive action involved was that the soldiers brought with them their standards bearing the image of the emperor into what was considered a holy city. The sight of these standards planted near the temple so enraged the people that they declared themselves ready to submit to death than to this idolatrous innovation.
Pilate gave into their demands, and ordered the standards returned to Caesarea (Josephus, Ant., Xviii, 3, 12; War, ii, 9, 2-4).
There were two other occasions when Pilate nearly drove the Jews to insurrection:
- the first was when he hung gold shields inscribed with names of Roman deities, which the emperor ordered him to remove, in his palace on Mount Zion;
- the second was his appropriation of the temple revenue, arising from the redemption of vows, to the building of the aqueduct.
Other offensive actions included the murder of certain Galileans (Luke 13:1) while offering sacrifices in the temple.
As was custom during great feasts the procurators were in residence in Jerusalem to preserve order, and, thus Pilate was occupying his official residence in Herod’s palace the year of Jesus’ last Passover.
There, to the gates, Jesus was brought in the early morning condemned of blasphemy by the chief priests and officers of the Sanhedrin, who were unable to enter the residence of a Gentile, lest they should be defiled and unable to eat of the Passover (John 18:28).
Pilate, therefore, came out to discover their grievance and demand the charge. At first they simply accused Jesus of disturbing the peace think Pilate would accept their word and carry out their wishes without inquiring further into the matter.
However, the Roman procurator had more respect for justice than he had been credit for, and knew his position too well to so easily consent to such a condemnation. At these developments his accusers were obliged to put forth new charges; they therefore interpreted Jesus’ claims in a political sense and accused him of assuming a royal title, perverting the nation, and forbidding the payment of tribute to Rome (Luke 23:3-33), an account which is described as presupposed (John 8:33).
Initially Pilate was distracted by two conflicting feelings, his fear of offending the Jews and his sense that the condemned man before him was probably innocence. The latter feeling was strengthened by his previous dealings with these men, whose religious scruples had caused him frequent trouble; he had little use for them.
The more he observed the condemned man before him Pilate sensed his suspicions were right, there was within him a growing respect for this man’s calm dignity and meekness. Pilate then interviewed Jesus privately, asking him if he was a king; and afterwards, he declared to the Jews that he found the prisoner innocent.
But, they persisted, claiming Jesus had stirred up the people from Galilee to Jerusalem. At the mentioning of Galilee, Pilate saw a way out for himself, he sent the case to be decided by Herod Antipas; but Herod, though propitiated by this act of courtesy, declined to enter into the matter. Thus, it was still up to Pilate to render a decision.
So before the chief priests and people he announced that he found the accused had done nothing deserving death; but, at the same time hoping to pacify the Sanhedrins, he proposed the he be scourged before being released.
However, this concession proved to be futile, as Pilate knew it would be, because the Jews had stirred up the multitude, and the desired blood. Pilate’s next move was to follow a custom observed at Passover, which was to release a condemned criminal; therefore, he gave the people a choice between Barabbas, a murderer, and Jesus.
He was to receive their decision seated in front of the palace. As soon as he was seated Pilate given a message, which he discovered was from his wife informing him that she had suffered many things in a dream, and urged him not to condemn the Just One.
It was however too late, Pilate recognized that he had no alternative. He knew the crowd urged on by the priests was demanding the freedom of Barabbas, and clamoring for the death of Jesus; the wrong move and insurrection would break out at any moment.
Pilate was well aware of the situation; some say he yielded to the crowd while others might debate this saying that Pilate was smart enough to realize when mob-rule was imminent.
Before issuing the fatal sentence, Pilate arose and washed his hands before the crowd, signifying that he considered himself innocent of this crime which was about to be committed, and saying to the crowd, “I am innocent of the blood of this righteous person. You do it!” (Matthew 27:15-25). Pilate ordered scourging prior to the execution.
However, the dignity and patience by which Jesus endured the lashing again troubled the procurator, he again tried to reverse the sentence, but to no avail. The crowd leveled further charges against Jesus, and against Pilate himself saying “If you let this man go, thou art not Caesar’s friend.” Seeing the inevitable, Pilate ordered the execution to be carried out. A.G.H.
Unger, Merrill F., Unger’s Bible Dictionary, Chicago, Moody Press, 1966, pp. 865-866
Smith’s Bible Dictionary, Philadelphia, A. J. Holman, Co., p. 247