In the summer of 1961, a team of Italian excavators working in the coastal town of Caesarea at the site of the Herodian theatre stumbled on a find no one would dare expect. In one of the theatre’s steps lay a large stone, chiseled away on the left side but with a legible Latin inscription on the right (caes0043). Antonio Frova and his team had made a discovery for the ages: this stone bore a dedication to the (in)famous Roman praefectus (or procurator, according to other sources2) Pontius Pilate, under whose authority Jesus was executed.3
In antiquity, a stone was a stone–regardless of whether or not it bore an inscription from an earlier time. Ancient inscriptions found today may have been reused as building materials many times throughout the ages. Indeed, Frova’s find was a prime example of this architectural recycling. While scholars disagree on the details, the inscription bearing Pilate’s name probably dedicated a temple built in honor of Emperor Tiberius (see the word “Tiberieum” on the inscription). It may have been used in several other buildings before being incorporated into the theatre during an expansion in the fourth century.4
Who was Pontius Pilate?
Pontius Pilate was a Roman governor who presided over the province of Judaea from 27 to 37 CE. However, until 1961, Pilate was a shadowy figure mentioned in a small handful of roughly contemporary literary sources.5 The most well-known of these is of course the New Testament. Pilate’s name appears in the four Gospels, although the various accounts differ in the way they present him and his involvement in Jesus’ execution. Other literary sources include those of Flavius Josephus, a 1st century CE historian born in Jerusalem; Philo, a philosopher from Alexandria, Egypt; and Tacitus, another 1st century CE historian from what is now southern France.
Ancient writers’ opinions of Pontius Pilate vary considerably. In his Legatio ad Gaium (The Embassy to Gaius6), Philo describes Pilate as “a man of inflexible, stubborn and cruel disposition” when he refuses to remove pagan statues from the Holy City of Jerusalem.7
The Gospel of John, however, describes Pilate as a man who bends to the whims of others:
As soon as the chief priests and their officials saw [Jesus], they shouted, “Crucify! Crucify!” But Pilate answered, “You take him and crucify him. As for me, I find no basis for a charge against him.”1
In this excerpt, Pilate himself has no malice towards Jesus. His reply gives no indication of cruelty. Instead, Pilate responds to the wishes of those he governs and gives his approval to their demands.8
Josephus describes him with relative neutrality.9 In Josephus’ The Jewish War, Pilate stages a show of force against a group of dissenting Jews, but gains respect for them when he recognizes their religious dedication and calls off his guards.10 He serves the Roman Emperor but is not inherently malicious or anti-Semitic. While none of these authors portrays Pilate as a hero, some groups throughout history have viewed Pilate in this light. In fact, the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church considers Pontius Pilate and his wife saints.11
In present day literature and film, depictions of Pilate cover a similar range. Monty Python’s “Life of Brian” (1979) portrays Pilate as an incompetent puppet of the Roman Empire with an effeminate appearance and a comical lisp. In contrast, “Ben Hur” (1959) depicts Pilate as a stereotypically masculine Roman leader who officiates chariot races. Here Pilate is just another Roman official, indistinguishable from the rest. Finally, “Jesus Christ Superstar” (1970) paints Pilate as a sympathetic and complex character: he orders Jesus whipped as a concession to the demands of the crowd but then feels sickened by the crowd’s bloodthirstiness and Jesus’ unwillingness to defend himself. It is striking that few films depict Pilate as a villain whose first impulse is towards cruelty.
Of all the governors…
What, then, are we to make of this enigmatic figure? Of all the provincial governors serving the frontiers of the Roman Empire, why does Pontius Pilate still capture our imaginations? From the New Testament to ancient historians and modern-day film, Pilate has been portrayed as everything from a lisping puppet to a ruthless dictator. We don’t know, truly, who he was. And maybe this mystery is what catches our eye and sparks our interest. Pontius Pilate is whomever we need him to be.
Josephus, Flavius. The Antiquities of the Jews. Trans. William Whiston. Accessed June 27, 2017. http://penelope.uchicago.edu/josephus/ant-18.html
Josephus, Flavius. The Wars of the Jews. Trans. William Whiston. Accessed June 27, 2017. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=J.%20BJ.
Maier, Paul L. The Fate of Pontius Pilate. Hermes 99, no. 3 (1971): 362–71.
McGING, BRIAN C. “Pontius Pilate and the Sources.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 53, no. 3 (1991): 416–38.
Vardaman, Jerry. “A New Inscription Which Mentions Pilate as ‘Prefect.’” Journal of Biblical Literature 81, no. 1 (1962): 70–71.
- John 19:6. ↩
- Both terms may be loosely translated into English as governor. ↩
- Vardaman, 70. ↩
- Vardaman, 70. ↩
- McGing, 416. ↩
- Gaius is better known in English as Caligula. Caligula was a nickname meaning little boots. ↩
- Philo of Alexandria, The Embassy to Gaius, 299-305. ↩
- McGing, 437. ↩
- McGing, 416-7. ↩
- Josephus, The Jewish War, 2.169-174. See also Josephus, The Antiquities of the Jews, book 18, chapter 3. ↩
- Maier, 362. ↩