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Pontius Pilate (Latin: Pontius Pilatus) was the governor of the Roman Judaea Province from 26 until 36. In modern times he is best known as the man who, according to the canonical Christian Gospels, presided over the trial of Jesus and ordered his crucifixion, instigating the Passion.
Pilate's biographical details before and after his appointment to Judaea are unknown, but have been supplied by tradition, which include the detail that his wife's name was Procula (she is canonized as a saint in the Eastern Orthodox Church) and competing legends of his birthplace.
Historically, Pontius Pilate's title was thought to have been procurator. Tacitus speaks of him as such. However, an inscription on a limestone block — apparently a dedication to Tiberius Caesar Augustus — that was discovered in 1961 in the ruins of an amphitheater called Caesarea Maritima refers to Pilate as "Prefect of Judea". It is possible to assume that Pilate held both titles at different times. In any case, archaeologists believe the inscription to be genuine and thus settles the argument about the historicity of Pontius Pilate himself.
Most of the information about Pilate comes from the accounts of the first-century Jewish historian Josephus in Antiquities of the Jews and The Wars of the Jews. Pilate is said to have displayed some empathy for Jewish sensibilities by removing his soldiers ensigns from Jerusalem (Wars 2.9.2-3; Ant. 18.55-59).
However, most early Jewish accounts describe Pilate negatively. Philo of Alexandria states that on one other occasion Pilate dedicated some gilded shields in the palace of Herod Antipas in honor of the emperor. On these shields there was no representation of any forbidden thing, but simply an inscription of the name of the donor and of him in whose honor they were set up. The Jews petitioned him to have them removed; when he refused, they appealed to Tiberius, who sent an order that they should be removed to Caesarea (Philo, Legatio ad Gaium,, 38).
Pilate is also said to have appropriated Herod's Temple funds for the construction of an aqueduct (Josephus, Wars 2.175–177; Ant. 18.60–62). Pilate may possibly have responded so harshly to the ensuing unrest because the powerful neighbouring Roman province of Syria was unable to provide him military support. In approximately 36, Pilate used arrests and executions to quash what appears to have been a Samaritan religious procession in arms that may have been interpreted as an uprising (Ant. 18:85). Pilate's behaviour was so offensive to the morals of the time that, after complaints to the Roman legate of Syria, Pilate was recalled to Rome, where he disappears from historic record. Pilate's supposed suicide is merely a legend, and not derived from any historical account.
The first physical evidence relating to Pilate was discovered in 1961, when a block of black limestone was found in the Roman theatre at Caesarea Maritima, the capital of the province of Iudaea, bearing a damaged dedication by Pilate of a Tiberieum (The word Tiberieum is otherwise unknown: some scholars speculate that it was some kind of structure, perhaps a temple, built to honor the emperor Tiberius). This dedication states that he was [...]ECTVS IUDA[...] (usually read as praefectus iudaeae), that is, prefect/governor of Iudaea. The early governors of Iudaea were of prefect rank, the later were of procurator rank, beginning with Cuspius Fadus in 44.
The inscription is currently housed in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, where its Inventory number is AE 1963 no. 104. Dated to 26–37, it was discovered in Caesarea (Israel) by a group led by Antonio Frova.
According to the canonical Christian Gospels, Pilate presided at the trial of Jesus and, despite stating that he personally found him not guilty of a crime meriting death, handed him over to crucifixion. Pilate is thus a pivotal character in the New Testament accounts of Jesus.
According to the New Testament, Jesus was brought to Pilate by the Great Sanhedrin (an assembly of Jewish judges who constituted the supreme court and legislative body of ancient Israel), who had arrested Jesus, and questioned him themselves. The Sanhedrin had, according to the Gospels, only been given answers by Jesus that they considered blasphemous. The Gospel of Luke records that members of the Sanhedrin then took Jesus before Pilate where they accused him of sedition against Rome by opposing the payment of taxes to the Caesar and calling himself a king. Pilate's main question to Jesus was whether he considered himself to be the King of the Jews, and thus a political threat. Mark 15:2 in the NIV translation states: "Are you the king of the Jews?" asked Pilate. "Yes, it is as you say," Jesus replied. However, that is a debatable translation from Greek. The KJV has Jesus' reply as: "Thou sayest it"; the NRSV has: "You say so"; the Jesus Seminar's Scholars Version has: "If you say so."
Unlike the synoptic gospels, the Gospel of John states that Jesus said to Pilate that he (Jesus) is a king and "came into the world ... to bear witness to the truth; and all who are on the side of truth listen to my voice", to which Pilate famously replied, "What is truth?" (John 18:38)
The Synoptic Gospels and John then state that it had been a tradition of the Jews to release a prisoner at the time of the Passover. Pilate offers them the choice of an insurrectionist named Barabbas or Jesus, somewhat confusing because Barabbas had the full name Jesus Barabbas, and Barabbas (bar-Abbas) means Son of the Father, so the crowd had been given the choice of Jesus Son of the Father or Jesus. The crowd states that they wish to save Barabbas (i.e., Jesus Son of the Father). According to the Synoptics, Pilate is aware that the priests had handed Jesus over because they considered him a threat, but Pilate himself does not feel that Jesus is any threat to the Roman Empire and, upholding a Roman tradition of sparing the subjugated, asserts that Jesus is innocent of the charges.
Pilate is forced to condemn Jesus to crucifixion, due to the pressure of the crowd, who according to the Synoptics had been coached to shout against Jesus by the Pharisees and Sadducees. The Gospel of Matthew adds that before condemning Jesus to death, Pilate washes his hands with water in front of the crowd, saying, "I am innocent of this man's blood; you will see".
In all New Testament accounts, Pilate hesitates to condemn Jesus until the crowd insists. Some have suggested that this may have been an effort by Early Christian polemicists to curry favor with Rome by placing the blame for Jesus' execution on the Jews. Yet Pilate's ability to be swayed by the crowd and his subsequent unjust decision to execute the innocent man hardly seem complimentary of Rome. So perhaps to save face, he "washed his hands", said that his death was not on his hands, and let the crowd decide.