Finding Pilate...

It's always fun when folks in the Bible show up outside of the Bible. Pontius Pilate is a good example.

You remember Pilate. The gospels call him the Roman governor of Judea (Matthew 27:2; Luke 3:1). In Matthew's account, he's the one who releases Jesus to the demanding crowd, quite literally washing his hands of the matter (Matthew 27:24), and claiming innocence of any bloodshed related to Jesus. Overall, I think it's accurate to say the gospels portray Pilate in his brief appearance as a fair, albeit somewhat weak, ruler (but check out Luke 13:1 in your free time). In the gospel accounts, it seems more important to Pilate to maintain peace than to maintain justice.

David Bowie played Pilate in The Last Temptation of Christ. Kinda cool. Willem Dafoe played Jesus. Kinda weird.

A man named Josephus also wrote about Pilate. Josephus was a Jew who lived in the 1st century AD. Details of his life are sketchy but certainly interesting. He was part of a Jewish revolt against Roman rule that took place between 66-74 AD. He eventually surrendered, spent some time in jail, and offered intelligence to Rome, later rising to a position of prominence within the empire.

Aside from his wavering loyalties, Josephus was a prolific author. In addition to two other books, he wrote a seven volume work called The Jewish War about the Jewish revolt, and a twenty volume work called Jewish Antiquities, an introduction to Jewish history and culture. A large part of Jewish Antiquities is simply a walkthrough and paraphrase of the Hebrew Bible.

In both of these ambitious works, Josephus mentions Pilate, and it's not very flattering. He describes how Pilate had no regard for Jewish law against graven images and in the dead of night brought Roman flags into Jerusalem bearing the image of the Caesar, the first in his position to do so. Similarly, Philo of Alexandria, also writing in the 1st century AD, tells how Pilate offended Jews by placing shields bearing the emperor's name in Herod's Jerusalem palace.

Josephus also records that Pilate used funds from the temple treasury to build an aqueduct, killing many who protested his actions. According to Josephus, Pilate's cruelty wasn't limited to Judea. When a Samaritan messianic movement was gaining momentum, Pilate killed a number of its followers, and many who were taken prisoner were later executed. Because of his actions, he was summoned to Rome and never returned to his position of power. If you want to read the Josephus material on your own, check out sections 3 and 4 here. For Philo, check out section 38 here.

In 1961, another source with information about Pontius Pilate was discovered, this one etched in stone. Archaeologists working at the site of Caesarea Maritima (the town in Acts 10) found a Latin inscription with Pilate's name on it. Check it out below. It's in the second line. You can see "ius" (the last few letters of "Pontius") immediately followed by "Pilatus" (Latin for Pilate).

Here's a picture of the original stone in the Israel Museum. I didn't take this picture.

This replica is at Caesarea Maritima. I took this picture, so that's fun.

It was probably written as a dedication for a building called the Tiberium. This may have been a temple built in honor of Emperor Tiberias by Pilate. Nothing remains of that building, and the dedicatory inscription was actually recycled and used for a 4th century AD staircase repair job in a theater built by Herod the Great some 300 years earlier. Yep. Part of a staircase. I guess people have been repurposing for a very long time.

Turns out, Pontius Pilate has gotten a decent amount of attention outside the New Testament, including Jewish history written in Greek and Roman plaques written in Latin. It can be hard to take the Bible seriously. It seems so very far away. It's nice when outside sources and archaeology make things a little more concrete (or limestone) for us.


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