Roman procurator of Judea who condemned Jesus to be crucified. He was a Roman equestrian of the Samnite clan of the Pontii; hence his nomen Pontius. The meaning of his cognomen Pilatus is uncertain; his personal or first name is not known. In a.d. 26 the Roman Emperor tiberius appointed him procurator of Judea, Samaria, and Idumea, subject to the legate (governor) of Syria. In 1961 a Latin inscription containing the words Pontius Pilatus praefectus Judaeae was discovered at caesarea in palestine [see Journal of Biblical Literature 811 (1962) 70–71].
Soon after his arrival in Palestine, Pilate offended the religious sensibilities of the Jews by having Roman troops carry into Jerusalem military standards bearing the emperor's image. The outraged Jews forced him to remove the images after five days (Josephus, Bell. Jud. 2.9.2–4; Ant. 18.3.1–2). When he hung votive shields inscribed with the emperor's name in Herod's palace in Jerusalem, Herod's four sons protested to Tiberius, who ordered the shields to be taken to a temple in Caesarea (Philo, Leg. ad Gaium 38). His other crimes against the inhabitants of Palestine included the financing of a Jerusalem aqueduct with money from the Temple treasury (Josephus, Ant. 18.3.2), the slaughtering of some Galileans who were subjects of herod antipas (Lk 13.1;23.12), the minting of coins bearing pagan religious symbols, and, in a.d. 36, the attacking of armed Samaritans on Mt. Garizim. The Samaritans appealed to Vitellius, Legate of Syria, who ordered Pilate back to Rome to stand trial for cruelty and oppression. The Jewish attitude toward Pilate is further shown in a letter from Herod Agrippa I to Caligula, describing him as inflexible, merciless, and corrupt, and accusing him of executing men without proper trial (Philo, Leg. ad Gaium, 38). According to an uncertain tradition reported by Eusebius, Pilate killed himself on orders from Caligula in a.d. 30 (Ecclesiastical History 2.7; Chronicles ad annum 39 AD ).
Philo and Josephus were very likely prejudiced, but Pilate's cruelty and injustice are exemplified also in the Gospel accounts of the trial of jesus. All four Gospels describe Pilate's weak submission to the unjust accusations against Jesus and do not excuse Pilate in order to curry Roman favor. They portray him as superstitious, vacillating, and hostile to the Jews.
Justin (Apol 1.35.9; 1.48.3) and Tertullian (Apol. 5.2;21.24) mention an official report sent by Pilate to Tiberius purporting to be about the life and death of Jesus. It is doubtful if a genuine report of such a nature ever existed. In any case, the so–called reports of Pilate to the Roman emperors that are contained in the apocrypha are certainly spurious. The chief apocrypha about Pilate are the Acts of Pilate, Letter of Pilate to Claudius, Letter of Pilate to Tiberius, Anaphora Pilati, and Paradosis Pilati. The legends in these works led the Abyssinian Copts to honor Pilate as a saint (feast, June 25). His wife, traditionally called Claudia Proc(u)la, is venerated as a saint by the Greeks (feast, Oct. 27).
Bibliography: Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible 1856–57, 1880. j. blinzler et al., Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche 2 8:504–506. j. blinzler, The Trial of Jesus, tr. I. and f. mchugh (Westminster, MD 1959) 3–9, 177–184.
[f. j. buckley]
Pilate was later recalled to Rome following a massacre of Samaritans in 36. According to one tradition he subsequently committed suicide.
The apocryphal text known as the Acts of Pilate (4th cent. at the earliest) can hardly derive from any official records of Jesus' trial.