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  2nd April, 2000


Pontius Pilate, The Roman Governor
     
John 19:1-16


There is new evidence concerning the facts of the life, judgement and death of Jesus, from archaeological and literary discoveries concerning the Roman Governor who sentenced Jesus to death: Pontius Pilate. The Australian historian Paul Barnett writes, "For an otherwise obscure governor of a minor province, with a small military command, Pontius Pilate is remarkably well attested in ancient sources". His dossier is more detailed than that of any other Roman governor of Judea.

1. Evidence Concerning Pilate.
Recently some coins Pilate had minted in 29 to 31AD have been found. They bear Roman religious symbols that the Jews despised so much. This caused one conflict between Pilate and the Jews. In 1961 two archaeologists excavating the Mediterranean port city of Caesarea uncovered a two-by-three foot inscription in Latin: "Pontius Pilate, Prefect of Judea, has presented the Tiberium to the Caesareans." Here was historical proof of the existence of Pilate. He is mentioned in the four Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles, but also by Josephus the Jewish historian, Philo, the Greek-speaking philosopher in Egypt and Cornelius Tactitus, the greatest Roman historian. Each of these three non-Christians lived during the century of Jesus and make mention of Pontius Pilate. They say he was a cruel and anti-Semitic governor. He provoked the Jews, defied their religious sensitivities and deliberately flouted the Roman convention of not causing trouble among conquered people. As administrator, Pilate had troops at his disposal-auxiliary units of infantry and cavalry that functioned more as police than as military forces.

Pilate was responsible for all aspects of the Roman administration of the province. He was head of its judicial system. He also collected the tributes and taxes, distribute funds for provincial needs, and forwarded the rest to Rome. On two occasions Pilate's Jewish subjects exerted pressure upon him by threatening to complain to Rome about him. Philo says the Jews reported Pilate to Emperor Tiberius, which brought Tiberius' wrath upon Pilate. Pilate had violently squashed a peaceful demonstration at Mt Gerazim by Samaritans, executing the ringleaders. His governorship was characterised by hostility and violence between the governor and his subjects. Josephus speaks of "tumult," and Philo describes "his venality, his violence, his thefts, his assaults, his abusive behaviour, his frequent executions of untried prisoners, and his endless savage ferocity. Pilate was suspended and sent to Rome in March 37AD. He committed suicide in 39AD.

Pilate was a harsh man who so flouted Jewish sensibilities that bloodshed ensued. Yet the Gospel writers speak of him as vacillating and uncertain. This was due to the timing of the trial of Jesus. Emperor Tiberias had then returned to Rome and reinstituted the soft policy towards the Jews, following a period of anti-Semitism under his prefect Sejanus. Sejanus was executed and the decree went out from the Emperor that Governors should treat the Jews with fairness. Pilate's behaviour towards the Jews changed dramatically. He was now bending over backwards to appease them. The Sanhedrin knew that, and threatened Pilate "If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar." John 19:16

2. Governor Pilate's Judgement.
During Passover, Jewish patriotism was at fever pitch, and the governor would be on the alert to suppress any sign of rebellion. Of the "many things" of which Jesus was accused before Pilate Mark 15:3 only three are named. Lk 23:2 (a) Perverting the nation by exciting the crowds. (b) Forbidding the giving of tribute to Caesar. (c) Claiming to be king. This accusation appears in all four gospels. Each repeats the word at least four times (John twelve times) in recounting Jesus' trial and crucifixion. John says the accusers avowed their own exclusive loyalty to Caesar. John 19:12,15 The gospels depict Pilate as perplexed, uncertain, and anxious to shift the decision to others. He sends Jesus to Herod Antipas, Luke 23:6-13 who was visiting Jerusalem, but he had no jurisdiction there. Pilate then seeks to release Jesus instead of Barabbas, but is overruled by the clamour of the mob stirred up by the priests. So Pilate washes his hands, disclaiming any responsibility for Jesus death. Matt. 27:24 Pilate appeased the Jews to save his own hide.

Three non-Christian writers mention Pilate's role in the death of Jesus. The Roman historian Tacitus states Pilate had Jesus executed. The Jewish historian Josephus, adds Pilate did so upon Jesus' being accused by prominent Jews of stirring up rebellion. Jesus posed no threat to Roman order and was not involved in any political activity but nevertheless this was why the Romans executed him. Luke reported 23:12 that after Jesus' trial Pilate and Herod Antipas became friends. Only recently Herod too had executed someone very similar to Jesus, John the Baptist, whose teachings were so popular. Pilate and Herod had similar problems.

3. The Face-Off Between Pilate And Jesus
Today, the judgement area of the palace of the Roman Governor Pilate has been excavated and is known as the Lithostratos, or Gabbatha, the place of judgement. The meeting has etched itself into the minds of people over generations. On the raised platform or bema stood the large judgement seat from which Roman justice was dispensed. Pilate was fetched from his slumbers as the first roosters crowed at the dawn of what was to be forever known as "Good Friday".

That night, Jesus was dragged through a series of illegal trials by the Jewish religious system. Annas, the godfather of an ecclesiastical dynasty that had seen his five sons appointed High Priest, examined him in the High Priest's house. Jesus was then dragged next door and before the current High Priest, the crafty Caiaphas. He was the son-in-law of Annas. His burial box for his bones, with his name upon it, was discovered four years ago. After being abused, Jesus was roughly taken to the chamber of The Sanhedrin, where a hastily assembled group, met illegally in a pre-dawn assembly to hear the High Priest's report of his examination of Jesus. Before the Sanhedrin, Caiaphas declared that it was essential for the sake of the nation that Jesus be put to death immediately. He charged him with blasphemy, threatening to destroy the temple, threatening the peace, claiming to be king, and representing himself as the Son of God. They did not need a fair trial. What they needed was a verdict! The Sanhedrin had no power to execute Jesus. So they sought the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate to grant execution quickly. They wanted the end before the people were aware what was happening.

Jesus was quickly dragged, still bound, from the Sanhedrin past the Temple area to the Tower of Antonia in the first light before sunrise. The Jews handed Jesus over the Roman guards to take him into the Roman Governor, then stepped back lest they defile themselves by walking on Roman territory. Little matter they were already defiling themselves by walking all over human rights in this travesty of justice!

Pilate examined Jesus. He then sent Jesus back to the Jews declaring he could find no fault in Jesus, nothing worthy of death. But the Jews sent him back, with the threat that if Pilate did not find Jesus guilty of destroying the peace and sentence Him to death, then the High Priests and Sanhedrin would themselves report Pilate to Rome as being indifferent to the threat of Roman security in the region. Pilate tried to avoid the issue of having the visiting Herod make the decision. But while Herod would amuse himself with the well-known prisoner, Herod was not going to make an unpopular decision when Jesus was really in Pilate's territory.

Pilate tried to release Jesus, as part of an amnesty granting a prisoner release each Passover. But the Jews would have no part of that. They would rather have a patriot, Jesus Barabbas, arrested for offences against the Romans, released instead of Jesus. They did not know Pilate had his own inner struggle. Pilate's wife urged him to release Jesus, as she dreamed of trouble if anything was done to Jesus. But faced with the blackmail of the scheming priests, he dismissed his wife's fears and handed Jesus over to be crucified. The Governor had shown he wanted peace at any price.

4. Truth On Trial.
There on the Lithostratos, the viceregal Pilate, clothed in his leather, purple robe and brass, faced his prisoner, whose hands were bound, his head and face bloodied, wearing only a seamless, homespun robe. Their eyes were steady for they each knew Pilate would deny justice rather than be questioned by his superiors from Rome. Truth, justice, integrity were being sacrificed for expediency and Pilate's personal safety.

Pilate asked: "Are you the king of the Jews?" Jesus answered, "Does this question come from you or have others told you about me?" Pilate replied: "Do you think I am a Jew? It was your own people and chief priests who handed you over to me. What have you done?". Jesus said: "My Kingdom does not belong to this world; if My Kingdom belonged to this world, My followers would fight to keep me from being handed over to the Jewish authorities. No, my Kingdom does not belong here!" So Pilate asked him: "Are you a king then?". Jesus answered, "You say that I am a King. I was born and came into the world for this one purpose, to speak about the truth. Whoever belongs to the truth listens to me." "And what is truth?" Pilate asked. Without waiting for an answer, he walked out to the Jews and washed his hands of the whole matter. 18:33-38

Jesus response and Pilate's question are as valid today as at anytime in human history. Truth was integral to the nature and purpose of Jesus "I was born and came into the world for this one purpose, to speak about the truth. Whoever belongs to the truth listens to me." Pilate was concerned for his own skin not for truth.

Jesus was a person of total integrity. He advocated living a life of truth. So His followers are committed to truth. Further His task was to speak about the truth. "...this one purpose, to speak about the truth." No one ever accused Jesus of speaking a lie. But this means more: it means not only speaking the truth but speaking about the Truth. Like Jesus, we should witness to God whose very nature is truth and to Jesus who said: "I am the Way, the Truth and the Life." Further still, His followers would listen to truth. "Whoever belongs to the truth listens to Me." Jesus claimed that those who belonged to truth would listen to His word, and those who sought after truth would ultimately find Him. Those who live by the values of this world sneer at the necessity of truth. "And what is truth?" they ask with Pilate. Their characters are untouched by truth. Their tasks do not take truth into account. Neither do they listen to truth. Politicians and businessmen particularly seem to ignore truth.

Christian people must choose to live a life of truth like that of Jesus, rather than a life of expediency like that of Pilate. How many people do you know who say one thing but when the test is on, vacillate and go the other way? How many people in our nation cannot be relied upon to stand up for what they know to be true? When the tough times comes, many melt into the crowd. In church and politics, at work and among friends, choose to be like Jesus and listen to truth and speak truth, stand up for truth and witness bravely. Compromisers and appeasers surround us and fill places of importance like Pilate. Regardless of the personal cost, stand up with Jesus who is truth and integrity.


  Jesus and the Rise of Early Christianity. P.Barnett IVP 1999.
Pontius Pilate. Helen K Bond CUP 1998
Jesus and the Victory of God. Fortress 1996
The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible. 1962
Anchor Bible Dictionary. CD ROM 1992

Rev Dr Gordon Moyes



Send an e-mail to Gordon Moyes - gkmoyes@wesleymission.org.au

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