Pontius Pilate

The Pilate stone: Caesarea - Pontius Pilate inscription
Pilate Inscription: Copy of inscription found at Caesarea Maritima mentioning Pontius Pilate as prefect of Judaea and connecting him with the reign of Tiberius. CC Flickr User heatkernel

Definition: The dates of Pontius Pilatus (Pontius Pilate), prefect of the Roman province of Judaea, aren't known, but he held office from A.D. 26-36. Pontius Pilate has come down in history because of his role in the execution of Jesus and because of his mention in the Christian statement of faith known as the Nicene Creed where it says "... crucified under Pontius Pilate...."

The Pilate Inscription From Caesarea Maritima

An archaeological find made during an excavation, led by Italian archaeologist Dr. Antonio Frova, effectively put to rest the doubt that Pilate was real. The artifact is now in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem as inventory Number AE 1963 no. 104. There had also been literature, both Biblical and historical and even contemporary with Pilate, testifying to his existence, but it is filled with religious biases, so the 20th-century find was important. Pilate appears in Latin on a 2'x3' (82 cm x 65 cm) limestone inscription found in 1961 at Caesarea Maritima that links him to the reign of Emperor Tiberius. It refers to him as prefect (a Praefectus civitatium) rather than procurator, which is what the Roman historian Tacitus calls him.

Pilate vs. The King of the Jews

Pilate worked with Jewish leaders to try the man known by the title the King of the Jews, a position that posed a political threat. In the Roman Empire, a claim to be king was treason. The title was put on the Cross on which Jesus was crucified: The initials INRI stand for the Latin for the name of Jesus and his title King of the Jews (I[J]esus Nazarenus Rex I[J]udaeorum). Maier thinks the use of the title on the Cross conveys derision.

Other Incidents Involving Pilate

The Gospels record Pilate's actions with respect to Jesus. Pilate was more than the Roman official at the trial, though. Maier says there are five incidents involving Pontius Pilate known from secular sources. The last incident was his recall by Roman proconsul Vitellius (father of the emperor of the same name) and his arrival in Rome in 37 A.D. after Emperor Tiberius died.

Our secular sources for the blunders blamed on Pontius Pilate are less than objective. Jona Lendering says Josephus "tries to explain to the non-Jewish public that misgovernment by certain governors added fuel to a smoldering fire...." Lendering says Philo of Alexandria had to portray Pilate as a monster in order to portray the Roman emperor as a good ruler by comparison.

Tacitus (Annals 15.44) also mentions Pontius Pilate:

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 Judaea, 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.
Internet Classics Archives - Tacitus

The Mystery of Pilate's End

Pontius Pilate is known to have been a Roman governor of Judaea from about A.D. 26-36, which is a long tenure for a post that normally lasted only 1-3 years. Maier uses this observation to support his concept of Pilate as a less than awful prefect (Praefectus Iudaeae). Pilate was recalled after he was said to have slaughtered thousands of Samaritan pilgrims (one of the four incidents of maladministration). Pilate's fate would have been decided under Caligula since Tiberius died before Pilate reached Rome. We don't really know what happened to Pontius Pilate -- other than that he was not reinstated in Judaea. Maier thinks Caligula used the same clemency he used for others accused under Tiberius of treason, although popular versions of what happened to Pilate are that he was sent into exile and committed suicide or that he committed suicide and his body was tossed in the Tiber. Maier says Eusebius (4th century) and Orosius (5th century) are the earliest sources for the idea that Pontius Pilate took his own life. Philo, who was a contemporary of Pontius Pilate, does not mention a punishment under Caligula or suicide.

Pontius Pilate may have been the monster he has been painted or he may have been a Roman administrator in a difficult province who happened to have been in office at the time of the trial and execution of Jesus.

Pontius Pilate References:

  • "The Fate of Pontius Pilate," by Paul L. Maier; Hermes; Vol. 99, No. 3 (1971), pp. 362-371
  • "The Inscription on the Cross of Jesus of Nazareth," by Paul L. Maier; Hermes Vol. 124, No. 1 (1996), pp. 58-75
  • Jona Lendering - Pontius Pilate
  • Pilate Inscription


Examples: Suggested reconstruction of the 4-line (Pontius) Pilate Inscription, from K.C. Hanson's site:


As you can see, the evidence that Pontius Pilate was "prefect" comes from the letters "ectus". The ectus is just the end of a word, most likely coming from the past participle of a facio-compound verb like prae+facio > praeficio, whose past participle is praefectus. At any rate, the word is not procurator. The material in square brackets is the educated reconstruction. The idea that it was a dedication of a temple is based on such reconstruction (which includes knowledge of the common purposes for such stones), since the word for gods is the bracketed "dis" and even most of the verb for dedicate is reconstruction, but Tibereium is not. With those provisos, a suggested reconstruction of the inscription is [© K. C. Hanson & Douglas E. Oakman]:

To the honorable gods (this) Tiberium
Pontius Pilate,
Prefect of Judea,
had dedicated
mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Gill, N.S. "Pontius Pilate." Learn Religions, Sep. 20, 2021, learnreligions.com/pontius-pilate-biography-120414. Gill, N.S. (2021, September 20). Pontius Pilate. Retrieved from https://www.learnreligions.com/pontius-pilate-biography-120414 Gill, N.S. "Pontius Pilate." Learn Religions. https://www.learnreligions.com/pontius-pilate-biography-120414 (accessed June 2, 2023).