One famous person in the New Testament, aside from Jesus Christ, is Pontius Pilate. Everyone knows him as the man who handed Jesus over to the Jews to be crucified.
At Mass, we always hear his name whenever we recite the Apostle’s Creed: “He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried…” He is also the 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 in the history of Christianity— one who has garnered a bad reputation among the faithful since time immemorial. (Read: Meet the ‘Main Characters’ That Every Belen Should Have)
But beyond what’s written in the New Testament and what we recite every Holy Mass, who really was Pontius Pilate? My Pope Philippines investigates!
The Life of Pontius Pilate
Until today, it is still unclear where Pontius Pilate 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.
Contrary to popular belief, Pontius Pilate was not a high-ranking leader of society. He was a mere provincial government administrator whom Emperor Tiberius sent to Judea to 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. (Read: World’s Oldest Cookbook Gives Glimpse at Ancient Roman Dining)
In the gospels, Pontius 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 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 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.” He then addressed the mob and said, “His blood (Jesus’) will fall on us and our children” — a line that 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 “dismissed” by his superiors and is said to have committed suicide. (Read: The 500-Year History of Catholicism in the Philippines)
In Christian traditions, however, Pontius Pilate is believed to have converted to Christianity. In fact, he and his wife Claudia Procula (who wanted to save Christ) are considered saints by the Ethiopian and Coptic churches. Claudia is canonized by the Greek-Orthodox Church.