“Then Pilate said to Him, “Do You not hear how many things they testify against You?” But He answered him not one word, so that the governor marveled greatly” (Matthew 27:13)
By James Bishop| Pontius Pilate plays a significant role in the New Testament gospel accounts. He was the governor of the Roman province of Judaea (26 – 36 AD), and was the person who took charge over the trial of Jesus and who subsequently ordered his crucifixion. But what of his historicity and what can we know about him? Did he even exist?
Right off the bat our historical evidence is very convincing. We have textual evidence of his activities and existence from our four biographical gospels (Mark, Matthew, Luke, John), and Roman historian Cornelius Tacitus. Tacitus tells us that:
“Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus.” (Annals 15, 44).
Jewish-Roman historian Josephus Flavius also chronicles an episode involving Pilate. According to Flavius he spent money from the Temple on an aqueduct he wanted to build. He also ordered his troops attack and silence the Jewish opposition (Antiquities of the Jews18.3.2). Another crucial text comes from Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria. He tells us that Pilate had a “furious temper,” and was “relentless[ness].” (On The Embassy of Gauis Book XXXVIII 299–305).
Early, independent sources
What is important is that these sources are very early. For instance, Pilate was governor from 26 – 36 AD, and our sources date very close to this time. For example, extemely conservative dating puts the Gospel dates at Mark (70 AD), Luke (80 – 85 AD), Matthew (80 – 85 AD), John (90 AD), Antiquities (96 AD), and Annals (116 AD). These textual sources all fall within a 100 year time gap after Pilate’s life.
For an analogy, compare these sources with our earliest source for the Buddha, the epic poem Aśvaghoṣa, that comes in around 500 years after his existence. Furthermore, I could not find the date of Philo’s biography ‘On The Embassy of Gauis’ despite looking through several sources.
Nevertheless, theologian and historian Peter Harris sketches out what we can know about Jesus and Pilate from the gospels: “It is therefore possible to provide an outline of the information the Gospels commonly furnish as follows: Christ is sent by the Jewish High Council to Pilate for trial on the mendacious charge of lèse majesté.
Pilate interrogates Christ, finds him not guilty and tries to persuade the crowd that he should be released. The crowd adamantly refuses, so Pilate, to pacify them, has Christ flogged and then crucified (Matthew 27:11-26; Mark 15:2-15; Luke 23:2-3, 18-25; John 18:29-19:16).” (1)
Beyond our gospel texts, and other primary materials, there are later sources mentioning Pilate, such as by the bishop Eusebius (living 260 – 340 AD), 10th century Arabic Christian writer Agapius of Hierapolis, as well as the Acts of Pontius Pilate.
The Acts of Pilate, referred to by Justin Martyr in AD 150 and by Tertullian around 200 AD, is claimed to record miracles of Jesus, however this document was never found. There is a slightly earlier text than these, although it is highly legendary: the Gnostic Gospel of Peter (150–200 AD).
Peter (who never actually wrote this text as it is a forgery and falsely attributed to him as its author, also known as pseudepigrapha) also adds a highly colourful, legendary composition of Jesus, and his empty tomb episode. Harris summarizes these sources as “unsubstantiated legends and [hold] no objective accounts.”
However, despite being legendary, and mostly without value, it is important to note that these textual sources were all written with the assumption that Pilate existed, thus his existence was never disputed by any ancient writer throughout history. When we add our other primary textual sources (as noted above) to the pile it is beyond doubt that Pilate existed, and that we can actually know details about him.
Pilate certainly existed
All seven primary sources confirm the activities of Pilate, and five of them relate to Jesus’ conviction, and crucifixion. However, we also have archaeological evidences in support of Pilate: the Pilate Stone, and some bronze coins. The Pilate Stone, discovered by the Italian archaeologist Antonio Frova, is a damaged block with an inscription carved into it (2).
It is accepted as authentic, and provides contemporary evidence to Pilate’s life (3). It is also consistent with how our textual sources (New Testament and Tacitus) portray him as an authority. According to the inscription (translated into English): “To the Divine Augusti [this] Tiberieum…Pontius Pilate…prefect of Judea…has dedicated [this]…”
Thus, we learn that he was “prefect of Judea.” We also have archaeological evidence for Pilate from a few bronze coins minted by him sometime between AD 29 and AD 32 (4). With this body of textual and archaeological evidences Harris concludes that these sources
“… demonstrate important parallels with the four Gospel accounts of Christ’s trial before Pilate which reinforce the assertion that the Gospels are historically trustworthy.”
1. Harris, P 2011. Are the Gospels Accurate in Their Presentation of Pontius Pilate? Available.
2.White, A. 1964 Review of A. Frova, L’iscrizione di Ponzio Pilato a Cesarea. p. 258)
3. Reed, J. 2002. Archaeology and the Galilean Jesus: a re-examination of the evidence. p. 18. & Evans, C. 1998. Studying the historical Jesus: evaluations of the state of current research. p. 465.
4. BBC. 2001. Pontius Pilate: Man Behind the Myth. Available.