Pontius Pilate’s date of birth is unknown. He is believed to have hailed from the Samnium region of central Italy. Pontius Pilate served as the prefect of Judaea from 26 to 36 A.D. He convicted Jesus of treason and declared that Jesus thought himself King of the Jews, and had Jesus crucified. Pilate died 39 A.D. The cause of his death remains a mystery. An artifact found in 1961 proved his existence.
Prefect of Judea
In 26 A.D. the Roman Emperor Tiberius appointed Pontius Pilate prefect of the Roman provinces of Judaea, Samaria and Idumæa, although Pilate is best known for his leadership of Judaea. While the typical term for a Roman prefect was 1–3 years, Pilate was to hold his post as the fifth Roman procurator for 10 years. In assuming his position, Pontius Pilate succeeded Valerius Gratus.
As a Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate was granted the power of a supreme judge, which meant that he had the sole authority to order a criminal’s execution. His duties as a prefect included such mundane tasks as tax collection and managing construction projects. But, perhaps his most crucial responsibility was that of maintaining law and order. Pontius Pilate attempted to do so by any means necessary. What he couldn’t negotiate he is said to have accomplished through brute force.
As governor of Judaea, Pontius Pilate faced a conflict of interests between the Roman Empire and the Sanhedrin Jewish council. When Pontius asked Jesus if he was King of the Jews, he claimed that Jesus embraced the title, which he never did. This accusation was considered an act of treason by the Roman government. According to some sources, Pontius Pilate collaborated with Jewish leaders—who viewed Jesus's claim to power as a political threat—in prosecuting Jesus.
In the Gospel accounts of The Trial of Jesus, Philo and Joseph described Pontius Pilate as having been cruel and unfair. All four of the Gospels describe him as weakly succumbing to the Jewish authorities' pressure on him to execute Jesus. The Gospels indicate Pontius Pilate's indecision, citing that he conceded to letting Jesus go at one stage of the trial, but later rescinded the offer.
Of the Gospels, only Matthew 27:19 describes Pontius Pilate as refusing involvement in Jesus's crucifixion: 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)
Since according to the rules of the Roman Empire, calling oneself king was grounds for treason, Pontius Pilate ordered that the initials INRI be inscribed on Jesus's tomb after the crucifixion. In Latin, INRI stood for Jesus's name and his title of King of the Jews. Some believe the title was meant derisively, to mock Jesus for his lofty claim.
The circumstances surrounding Pontius Pilate’s death in circa 39 A.D. are something of a mystery and a source of contention. According to some traditions, the Roman emperor Caligula ordered Pontius Pilate to death by execution or suicide. By other accounts, Pontius Pilate was sent into exile and committed suicide of his own accord.
Some traditions assert that after he committed suicide, his body was thrown into the Tiber River. Still others believe Pontius Pilate’s fate involved his conversion to Christianity and subsequent canonization. Pontius Pilate is in fact considered a saint by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.
Regardless of what truly became of Pontius Pilate, one thing has been made certain—that Pontius Pilate actually existed. During a 1961 dig in Caesarea Maritima, Italian archeologist Dr. Antonio Frova uncovered a piece of limestone inscribed with Pontius Pilate’s name in Latin, linking Pilate to Emperor Tiberius’s reign.
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