Profile of Pontius Pilate, Roman Governor of Judea

Learn why Pontius Pilate ordered the execution of Jesus Christ

Pilate Washing His Hands
Pilate Washing his Hands, c. 1650. Found in the Collection of Musée du Louvre, Paris.

Heritage Images / Getty Images

Pontius Pilate was a key figure in the trial of Jesus Christ, ordering Roman troops to carry out Jesus' death sentence by crucifixion. As Roman governor of Judea and supreme judge in the province from 26-37 AD, Pilate had the sole authority to execute a criminal. This soldier and politician found himself caught between the unforgiving empire of Rome and the religious scheming of the Jewish council, the Sanhedrin.

Pontius Pilate

Known for: Roman prefect of Judea (AD 26–37) who authorized Jesus Christ's crucifixion.

Hometown: Pilate's family is traditionally believed to have come from the region of Samnium in central Italy.

Bible References: Pontius Pilate is mentioned in Matthew 27: 2, 11, 13, 17, 19, 22-24, 58, 62, 25; Mark 15:1-15, 43-44; Luke 13:1, 22:66, 23:1-24, 52; John 18:28-38, 19:1-22, 31, 38; Acts 3:13, 4:27; 13:28; 1 Timothy 6:13.

Occupation: Governor of Judea under the Roman Empire.

Family Tree: Matthew 27:19 mentions Pontius Pilate's wife, but we have no other information on his parents or any children.

Who Was Pontius Pilate?

Little is known of Pontius Pilate before he arrived in Judea in AD 26. He was likely a Roman knight who rose to prominence through military service. As governor, his primary task was to maintain law and order. Pilate lived in the Roman headquarters at Caesarea Maritima with a small support staff and company of auxiliary troops. During Jewish feasts and festivals, he would visit Jerusalem to keep peace in the city.

Pilate is best remembered for his role in sentencing Jesus to death. All four Gospels include Christ’s trial in front of Pilate, although the details of the accounts differ some.

Jesus was arrested on the order of Joseph Caiaphas, the high priest of the temple in Jerusalem at the time. Caiaphas and other members of the Sanhedrin had accused Jesus of blasphemy, a crime punishable by death under Jewish law. But the Sanhedrin, or high council, of which Caiaphas was president, did not have the authority to execute people. So Caiaphas turned Jesus over to Pontius Pilate, who held power as governor to carry out a death sentence. Caiaphas tried to convince Pilate that Jesus was a threat to Roman stability and had to die to prevent a rebellion.

Caiaphas owed his position to Rome and had a good working relationship with Pilate. Both he and Pilate wanted to keep the peace, especially in a crowded city at Passover. Since there was no set legal precedent for a case such as Jesus, it was up to Pilate as governor to decide how to handle the situation and what sentence to enforce. Pilate likely saw Jesus as a troublemaker. He ordered Jesus to be crucified under the ironic and sarcastically mocking title "King of the Jews."

Jesus Christ is questioned by Pontius Pilate
What Is Truth? Jesus Christ is questioned by Pontius Pilate, prefect of the Roman province of Judaea. Painting, also known as 'Quid Est Veritas?' Artist Nikolay Ge. The Print Collector / Getty Images

Accomplishments

Pilate was assigned to collect taxes, oversee building projects, and keep law and order. He maintained peace through brute force and subtle negotiation. Pontius Pilate's predecessor, Valerius Gratus, went through three high priests before he found one to his liking: Joseph Caiaphas. Pilate retained Caiaphas, who apparently knew how to cooperate with the Roman overseers.

Strengths and Weaknesses

Pontius Pilate was probably a successful soldier before he received this appointment through patronage. In the gospels, he is portrayed as finding no fault with Jesus and symbolically washes his hands of the matter.

Pilate was afraid of the Sanhedrin and a possible riot. He knew Jesus was innocent of the charges against him yet gave in to the crowd and had Jesus crucified anyway.

Life Lessons

What is popular is not always right, and what is right is not always popular. Pontius Pilate sacrificed an innocent man to avoid problems for himself. Disobeying God to go along with the crowd is a very serious matter. As Christians, we must be prepared to take a stand for God's laws.

Key Bible Verses

Matthew 27:24
So when Pilate saw that he was gaining nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, "I am innocent of this man's blood; see to it yourselves." (ESV)
Luke 23:12
And Herod and Pilate became friends with each other that very day, for before this they had been at enmity with each other. (ESV)
John 19:19-22
Pilate also wrote an inscription and put it on the cross. It read, "Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews." Many of the Jews read this inscription, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city, and it was written in Aramaic, in Latin, and in Greek. So the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, "Do not write 'The King of the Jews,' but rather, 'This man said, I am King of the Jews.'" Pilate answered, "What I have written I have written." (ESV)

Sources

  • Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, Second Edition (p. 679).