When we read the Gospel accounts we can be tempted to disconnect them from the historical context in which the life of Christ occurred. One of the several functions of this line in the Apostles’ Creed, “suffered under Pontius Pilate” is to reconnect the gospel accounts of the life of Christ to their surrounding context. Pilate was, according to an inscription in Caesarea, Prefect (Governor) of Judea (Praefectus Iudaeae).1 Tacitus (c. 115) mentions him in connection with the death of Christ.23 As Praefect Pilate was ruthless. He confiscated the temple treasury to build an aqueduct (the Romans were great plumbers and road builders, not that there’s anything wrong with that). Luke 13:1 records that he “mixed the blood of Galileans” with their sacrifices. His violence eventually offended even Roman sensibilities (they had rules about such things and strong sense of justice) and he was recalled to Rome in AD 36 to answer for his attack against the Samaritans. What happened to him after that is a matter of legend and speculation. Eusebius says he committed suicide. There was another suggestion that he was beheaded, but that seems unlikely. Both of these assume that the Romans came to see that the Christians were treated unjustly and responded accordingly. We may doubt that. What would have offended them was Pilate’s transgression of Roman law and procedure. There is a late 2nd century letter purporting to be by Pilate to the Emperor Claudius but its authenticity is rightly doubted. It was almost certainly fabricated by a well-meaning but misguided Christian in an attempt to show that even Pilate came to his senses and realized that the Christians were correct. Remarkably, certainly because of the legend of his conversion to Christianity, Pilate is remembered with a feast day by both the Ethiopian and Greek Orthodox traditions.
In Scripture Pilate appears as ruthless and calculating as he was said to be by extra-biblical sources. Luke 23 records our Lord’s trial before Pilate:
And Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” And he answered him, “You have said so.” Then Pilate said to the chief priests and the crowds, “I find no guilt in this man.” But they were urgent, saying, “He stirs up the people, teaching throughout all Judea, from Galilee even to this place.”
Discovering that Jesus was a Galilean, Pilate then sent him to Herod for disposition. After our Lord was brutally punished and shamefully mocked, Herod send Jesus back to Pilate. Strangely, according to Luke, the two men became friends during this episode. Luke writes
Pilate then called together the chief priests and the rulers and the people, and said to them, “You brought me this man as one who was misleading the people. And after examining him before you, behold, I did not find this man guilty of any of your charges against him. Neither did Herod, for he sent him back to us. Look, nothing deserving death has been done by him. I will therefore punish and release him.”
So far Pilate followed typical Roman custom and procedure. When the crowd, however, cried out for Bar-Abbas, a fellow who was a genuine threat to civil order, Pilate tried and failed to mollify the crowd.
So Pilate decided that their demand should be granted. He released the man who had been thrown into prison for insurrection and murder, for whom they asked, but he delivered Jesus over to their will.
The Apostle John adds a layer to the story
So Pilate entered his headquarters again and called Jesus and said to him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?” Pilate answered, “Am I a Jew? Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered you over to me. What have you done?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” Then Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate said to him, “What is truth?”
After he had said this, he went back outside to the Jews and told them, “I find no guilt in him. But you have a custom that I should release one man for you at the Passover. So do you want me to release to you the King of the Jews?” They cried out again, “Not this man, but Barabbas!” Now Barabbas was a robber.
Then Pilate took Jesus and flogged him. And the soldiers twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on his head and arrayed him in a purple robe. They came up to him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” and struck him with their hands. Pilate went out again and said to them, “See, I am bringing him out to you that you may know that I find no guilt in him.” So Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. Pilate said to them, “Behold the man!” When the chief priests and the officers saw him, they cried out, “Crucify him, crucify him!” Pilate said to them, “Take him yourselves and crucify him, for I find no guilt in him.” The Jews answered him, “We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die because he has made himself the Son of God.” When Pilate heard this statement, he was even more afraid. He entered his headquarters again and said to Jesus, “Where are you from?” But Jesus gave him no answer. So Pilate said to him, “You will not speak to me? Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?” Jesus answered him, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above. Therefore he who delivered me over to you has the greater sin.”
From then on Pilate sought to release him, but the Jews cried out, “If you release this man, you are not Caesar’s friend. Everyone who makes himself a king opposes Caesar.” So when Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus out and sat down on the judgment seat at a place called The Stone Pavement, and in Aramaic Gabbatha. Now it was the day of Preparation of the Passover. It was about the sixth hour. He said to the Jews, “Behold your King!” They cried out, “Away with him, away with him, crucify him!” Pilate said to them, “Shall I crucify your King?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but Caesar.” So he delivered him over to them to be crucified (John 18:33–19:16).
John makes is clear that Pilate was a cynic. “What is truth?” was nothing if not cynical. That he himself did not believe Jesus to be guilty of any crime and that he nevertheless turned Jesus over to the crowd, as it were, that he did not send away the Jewish authorities, that he did not say, “Caesar is not afraid of mobs” all supports the picture we have of Pilate as a vicious, self-seeking, climber. His disappearance into the shadows is more fitting than the more romantic ends proposed by legend.
All that we know from history and Scripture more than justifies the confession of the Reformed churches in Heidelberg Catechism question 38:
38. Why did He suffer “under Pontius Pilate” as judge?
That He, being innocent, might be condemned by the temporal judge, and thereby deliver us from the severe judgment of God, to which we were exposed.
Jesus was legally innocent under both God’s law and Roman civil law. He posed no threat to Pilate, Herod, or the empire. His kingdom, as he told Pilate, is not of this world. Had it been he would never have permitted himself to be so humiliated. He could have wiped out Pilate, Herod, and Caesar in a moment and one day he shall. At that day, Pilate, Herod, and all the Caesars of this world will bow their knees and confess that Jesus, not Caesar, is Lord (Phil 2:10).
Next time: Why Our Lord Permitted His Humiliation
1. A. N. Sherwin-White, s.v., “Pilate, Pontius,” ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley, The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1979–88), 867.
2. s.v. “Pilate, Pontius” in Allen C. Myers, The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987. Tacitus (Annals, 15.44) wrote:
But all human efforts, all the lavish gifts of the emperor, and the propitiations of the gods, did not banish the sinister belief that the conflagration was the result of an order. Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. 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, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judæa, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.
3. See both the ISBE and Eerdmans Bible Dictionary entries.