One famous person in the New Testament, aside from Jesus Christ, is Pontius Pilate—the man who handed Jesus over to the Jews to be crucified. Contrary to popular belief, Pontius Pilate was not a high-ranking leader. He was a mere provincial government administrative officer who was destined to seal Jesus’ fate. But who was he, really?
We always hear his name every time we attend Mass and whenever we recite the Apostle’s Creed: “He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried…” He is also a main character in the story of the Passion of the Christ that we hear on Palm Sunday and on Good Friday. In other words, Pontius Pilate is a known and fundamental character—one who has garnered a bad reputation among Christians since time immemorial.
The Life of Pilate
But beyond what’s written in the New Testament, who really was Pontius? His name Pontius comes from an Italic language more ancient than Latin. It means “five.” Pilate on the other hand, means “armed with javelins.” Until today, it is still unclear where he was born. Various places in Italy compete to be his birthplace. Reports also say that he was a Samnite—a person who opposed the Romans in three wars between 343 and 295 BC.
Pilate was a prefect—not the governor or the procurator that he is sometimes referred to—of Judea. Emperor Tiberius sent him to administer that far away province and control its military, judiciary, and economy. His job was to preside over trials, set and collect taxes, mint coins, handle public expenditures, and most importantly, send money to Rome.
In the gospels, Pilate is presented as an unsure and fearful man. He is known for washing his hands during the trial of Jesus and leaving the fate of the latter in the hands of those who wanted to put Him to death. In the Roman and the Hebrew traditions, washing one’s hands was seen as a sign of purity and hygiene. But because of Pilate, the gesture evolved to portray a different meaning—to not pass any judgement, to take no interest in what happens, and to also wash one’s conscience, erase one’s guilt, or leave the past behind.
Pilate also uttered the famous expression “Ecce homo”—which means “Here is the man”—after Jesus was flagellated and scorned by his soldiers. He then addressed the mob and said, “His blood (Jesus’) will fall on us and our children.” This line contributed to the centuries old break between Judaism and Christianity.
A history or a legend?
Old historians describe Pilate as violent, corrupt, cruel, and a thief. They said he killed the Jews who revolted against him and condemned people to death without proper trial. He was later on “dismissed” by his superiors and is said to have committed suicide.
Text by Enzo Caffarelli.