Saturday, April 15, 2017

"Quid est veritas?" What is the truth about Pontius Pilate?

Christ before Pilate by Duccio di Buoninsegna, Sienna, 14th century AD.
The weak, vacillating and ultimately cruel and cowardly figure of Pontius Pilate is one of the most enigmatic figures in Sacred Scripture. From the Gospel accounts, he seems to be a man who almost wants to be a hero, to defend the innocent victim, Jesus, against the murderous lynch mob besetting Him. Indeed, Pilate is urged by his wife to "have nothing to do with that just man." In the end, however, he lacks the courage to act virtuously. He condemns Christ to a horrible death, despite knowing with certainty that He is innocent.

But who was Pontius Pilate? Did he even exist? Or is he a figment of the evangelists' imagination, as some modern anti-Christian polemicists claim with anything associated with the historicity of Sacred Scripture?

Interestingly, two of the earliest sources who mention Pontius Pilate are both Jews. Philo of Alexandria, writing in the first half of the first century AD—that is, roughly contemporary with the time of Jesus—offers the following account which is instructive regarding the character of Pilate:
Pilate was one of the emperor's lieutenants, having been appointed governor of Judaea. He...dedicated some gilt shields in the palace of Herod, in the holy city; which had no form nor any other forbidden thing represented on them except some necessary inscription, which mentioned these two facts, the name of the person who had placed them there, and the person in whose honor they were so placed there.
But when the multitude heard what had been done, and when the circumstance became notorious, then the people...entreated him to alter and to rectify the innovation which he had committed in respect of the shields...
But when he steadfastly refused this petition (for he was a man of a very inflexible disposition, and very merciless as well as very obstinate), they cried out: "Do not cause a sedition; do not make war upon us; do not destroy the peace which exists. The honor of the emperor is not identical with dishonor to the ancient laws; let it not be to you a pretence for heaping insult on our nation. Tiberius is not desirous that any of our laws or customs shall be destroyed. And if you yourself say that he is, show us either some command from him, or some letter, or something of the kind, that we, who have been sent to you as ambassadors, may cease to trouble you, and may address our supplications to your master."
But this last sentence exasperated him in the greatest possible degree, as he feared lest they might in reality go on an embassy to the emperor, and might impeach him with respect to other particulars of his government, in respect of his corruption, and his acts of insolence, and his rapine, and his habit of insulting people, and his cruelty, and his continual murders of people untried and uncondemned, and his never ending, and gratuitous, and most grievous inhumanity. Therefore, being exceedingly angry, and being at all times a man of most ferocious passions, he was in great perplexity, neither venturing to take down what he had once set up, nor wishing to do any thing which could be acceptable to his subjects, and at the same time being sufficiently acquainted with the firmness of Tiberius on these points.
And those who were in power in our nation, seeing this, and perceiving that he was inclined to change his mind as to what he had done, but that he was not willing to be thought to do so, wrote a most supplicatory letter to Tiberius. And he, when he had read it, what did he say of Pilate, and what threats did he utter against him!...Immediately, without putting any thing off till the next day, he wrote a letter, reproaching and reviling him in the most bitter manner for his act of unprecedented audacity and wickedness, and commanding him immediately to take down the shields and to convey them away from the metropolis of Judaea to Caesarea... [Philo, On the Embassy to Gaius, XXXVIII, 299]
This anecdote is fascinating because the description of Pilate's character corresponds well with the Pilate who appears in the Gospels: a man of violent passions and stubborn, but only up to the point when his personal power and comfort is threatened. At that point, he becomes craven and fickle.

The Pilate Stone discovered in Caesarea in 1961, containing a 1st century AD
inscription referencing Pontius Pilate. Now in the Israel Museum, Jerusalem.
The great Jewish historian, Josephus, writing in the late first century AD, mentions Pontius Pilate several times. One of his passages which references Pilate is the famous and controversial Testimonium Flavianum as follows:
Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man; for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was [the] Christ. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day. [Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book XVIII, Chapter 3] 
In another interesting passage, Josephus details how Pilate's ten-year term of office in Judea came to an end. An unnamed rabble-rouser had convinced the Samaritans that he knew the location of the mountain where Moses had secreted certain sacred vessels. When they gathered to collect the vessels, Pilate intervened with violence:
So they came thither armed, and thought the discourse of the man probable, and as they abode at a certain village, which was called Tirathaba, they got the rest together to them, and desired to go up the mountain in a great multitude together; but Pilate prevented their going up, by seizing upon file roads with a great band of horsemen and foot-men, who fell upon those that were gotten together in the village; and when it came to an action, some of them they slew, and others of them they put to flight, and took a great many alive, the principal of which, and also the most potent of those that fled away, Pilate ordered to be slain. 
But when this tumult was appeased, the Samaritan senate sent an embassy to Vitellius, a man that had been consul, and who was now president of Syria [later emperor for a short time], and accused Pilate of the murder of those that were killed; for that they did not go to Tirathaba in order to revolt from the Romans, but to escape the violence of Pilate. So Vitellius sent Marcellus, a friend of his, to take care of the affairs of Judea, and ordered Pilate to go to Rome, to answer before the emperor to the accusations of the Jews. So Pilate, when he had tarried ten years in Judea, made haste to Rome, and this in obedience to the orders of Vitellius, which he durst not contradict; but before he could get to Rome Tiberius was dead. [Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book XVIII, Chapter 4] 
Why Pilate decided to attack the Samaritans here is left unsaid. Josephus also doesn't offer any additional information on the fate of Pilate after he returned to Rome. For this, the most reliable surviving record is that of Eusebius Pamphilus from the early 4th century. Drawing on more ancient sources, he records:
The so-called "Tomb of Pilate" in Vienne.
It is worthy of note that Pilate himself, who was governor in the time of our Savior, is reported to have fallen into such misfortunes under Caius [Caligula], whose times we are recording, that he was forced to become his own murderer and executioner; and thus divine vengeance, as it seems, was not long in overtaking him. This is stated by those Greek historians who have recorded the Olympiads, together with the respective events which have taken place in each period. [Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, Book II, Chapter 7]
Interestingly, the Roman pyramid at Vienne in southeastern France was traditionally called the tomb of Pilate. There is, however, very little actual history that supports this identification and the association of Pontius Pilate with this structure is probably a later legendary interpolation.

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Sarah Coleman said...
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