“[Jesus Christ . . .] suffered under Pontius Pilate.” With these words, the Apostles’ Creed has enshrined the name of Pilate in infamy for all ages. He certainly did not intend or anticipate this on that fateful day when he condemned the Lord of glory, goaded on by the Jewish leaders. But condemn Jesus he did. While the history of that event is clear, there are some questions about this dark deed. For example, when did it take place and why did Pilate bother crucifying Jesus who was no real threat to him? Let us look at these two questions in order.
The dates of many, many ancient events outside the city of Rome and many inside it are notoriously difficult to determine precisely. Part of this is due to different dating techniques used in various places in antiquity and part is simply due to the scarcity and ambiguity of our sources. Accordingly, ancient historians are used to dating events to within windows of a few months or years.
Take, for instance, Herod the Great who is said to have died in the year of a lunar eclipse before a Passover. One such candidate date for this is the night and early morning of March 12, 4 BC when a known eclipse would have been visible in Judea. Another date has been advanced, however, on the night of another lunar eclipse, which might have been even more visible in Judea than the earlier one, on January 9, 1 BC. There are issues with both dates which occupy researchers, and the implications for the date of the birth of Christ make this a prominent issue, yet it illustrates the kind of difficulty we encounter when we try to date things from the ancient world.
The date of Christ’s death has been dated with a similar kind of three-year range as his birth to either April 7, 30 or April 3, 33. We know that Pontius Pilate was the governor (“prefect”) from AD 26 to 36, so using his occupation of office in Judea does not help to pinpoint the date of our Lord’s crucifixion. Now things get interesting, though, because when we look at the biblical account of Jesus’ trial before Pilate, we might be able to use the why of Pilate’s condemnation of Jesus for the question of the when.
Our story of the why connects with a man named Aelius Sejanus and the emperor Tiberius Caesar (ruled AD 14 to 37). Sejanus was an interesting character. He was the prefect of the Praetorian Guard charged with protecting the emperor in Rome. When Tiberius retired in AD 26 to rule from nearby Campania in central Italy and then to the island of Capri never to return to Rome, Sejanus slowly but surely grew in power back in Rome. The sources might exaggerate a bit when they say that Sejanus sacrificed to his own statue as well as to that of the emperor, but the reality of his overreach led the notoriously paranoid emperor Tiberius to finally employ subterfuge to have Sejanus imprisoned and abruptly executed on October 18, 31.
What followed the fall of Sejanus is of interest to us. It seems that something of a reign of terror descended on Rome. People who used to fawn over Sejanus now renounced him and applauded his downfall in hopes of avoiding the purge of the emperor. It did not always work. For some it was too little, too late as the ax fell on many leading men of Rome and their families due to mere rumor, as the increasingly suspicious and morose emperor ruled from his distant island villa, perpetually worrying his court astrologers about his safety.
For us, this episode of Tiberius and Sejanus is just the kind of thing that has explanatory power for the actions of Pontius Pilate. At this point I would ask you to read John 19:1–16. There we find that Pilate starts out treating Jesus with the same indifference as he would any criminal. Next, he clearly hopes to snub the Jewish leaders with whom he had a long and stormy relationship: “Take him yourselves and crucify him, for I find no guilt in him” (John 19:6). This strikes me as Pilate mocking the Jews, for only the governor had power to execute in Roman provinces, not local authorities (John 18:31).
Now Jesus becomes a pawn between Pilate and the Jews (John 19:7–11), and when Pilate actually speaks to Jesus, he grows increasingly uneasy with the man. But the contest between Pilate and the Jewish leaders comes to a head quickly when they pull out the clinching argument: “If you release this man, you are not Caesar’s friend. Everyone who makes himself a king opposes Caesar” (John 19:12; emphasis added). What follows is carefully choreographed politics: “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 19:15–16).
The turning point above comes when the Jewish leaders (often simply called “the Jews” in John) essentially warn the Roman governor that if he does not follow their desire to crucify this reputed king who might possibly threaten Caesar’s rule, word might get back to paranoid Tiberius that Pilate is not his friend. If this had taken place in the AD 30 date, Sejanus, not the emperor Tiberius, was still active and controlling affairs in Rome. So, the Jews’ threat was likely not that concerning to Pilate. But if we are in the later April 33 date, Pilate’s actions are perfectly understandable. The purge of Tiberius’ real, imagined, or rumored enemies following Sejanus’ overthrow was still going on and Pilate would have felt exposed. The whispers of delatores (“denouncers”) to Tiberius are said to have been enough to send the leading men of Rome to the gallows or to cause their suicide.
Some scholars posit that Aelius Sejanus had been Pontius Pilate’s patron, and others do not. In either case, the state of affairs for the Roman ruling groups was tenuous enough in the years after Sejanus that Pilate’s quick change of heart regarding Jesus aligns well with an AD 33 date when mention of not being a friend of Caesar was made.
Beyond the issue of the dating of the crucifixion, this historical background to Pilate’s actions helps to show that the source of John’s Gospel account was quite attuned to the politics of the day. John’s narrative in John 19:1–16, which no apostle witnessed firsthand, is both accurate and believable as an historical Gospel account based on credible and often eyewitness sources. And it was no accident that beginning with the Apostles’ Creed, Pontius Pilate was mentioned in connection with the crucifixion of Jesus our Lord. We do not follow “cleverly devised myths” (2 Pet 1:16) or generic timeless truths, but historical, eyewitness testimony to the Son of God (John 19:7) “who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary; suffered under Pontius Pilate . . .” to save his people from their sins.
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