“Pilate.” This is the first mention of Pontus Pilate in the Bible. Pilate was Prefect from 26-36 AD, the second longest rulership of any Prefect of Judea. It helps to know that because there is a lot of misinformation among Christians that Pilate was a horrible governor, but not according to Roman standards.
In order to really understand Pilate’s actions at the trial of Jesus Christ, it is helpful to understand another incident that occurred less than a year earlier. About half a year before the trial of Jesus, Pilate had set up some golden shields in his Jerusalem headquarters that had a dedication to Tiberias on them. The Jews protested the presence of these shields, but Pilate refused to remove them. The Jews took their case straight to Tiberias, the emperor of Rome at the time. The letter got to Tiberias as quickly as it did because it was sent through Herod Antipas, the Tetrarch of Galilee, who forwarded it from the Jews to Rome. No wonder Scripture says Pilate and Herod were hostile toward each other before the trial of Jesus (Luke 23:12).
Tiberias wrote a terse letter to Pilate, ordered him to move the shields to Caesarea, and warned him to uphold all the religious and political customs of the Jews. This letter was no doubt on his mind at the trial of Jesus, and when Pilate was about to let Jesus go, the Jews played their trump card and said, “If you release this man, you are not Caesar’s friend. Everyone who makes himself a king speaks against Caesar” (John 19:12).
What is not known by the average reader is that “Caesar’s Friend” is more than just a phrase; it is a name, a designation, a “badge of belonging” to a very exclusive group of people who were especially close to Caesar. If a person who was designated to be “Caesar’s Friend” officially displeased Caesar to the point of being kicked out of the club, so to speak, the consequence was compulsory suicide or exile from Rome.
When we closely follow the events in the trial of Jesus, we can see that the Jews knew about the letter from Tiberias to Pilate and Pilate’s position as “Caesar’s Friend,” and used them to their advantage to pressure Pilate. When Jesus first came before Pilate, the Jews accused him of being an evildoer (John 18:30), and tried to say things that would convince Pilate to crucify him because of Roman law and sensibilities, such as that he had been corrupting the nation and forbidding paying taxes to Caesar (Luke 23:2). Had Pilate complied, that would have ended the matter as far as the Jews were concerned. But when Pilate refused to crucify Jesus, saying he had not committed a capital crime, the Jews moved their reason to their religious customs and the charge of blasphemy, saying that Jesus needed to die because he made himself the Son of God (John 19:7). Of course, when Pilate heard that Jesus had called himself the Son of God, he tried even harder to let Jesus go, but that was when the Jews, in a less than subtle way, made it clear it was going to be Pilate or Jesus. Besides, as Pilate continued to resist the Jews’ pressure to crucify Jesus, it got to the point a riot started to break out (Matt. 27:24). Preventing a riot was the reason the Roman governor came from Caesarea to Jerusalem during the feasts in the first place, and if there had been a riot, and if news of that got back to Tiberias, it would not go well for Pilate. Pilate realized that, in the face of the hatred and determination of the Jews, he was not accomplishing anything but stirring up a riot, something that would likely cost lives—including his own.
Pilate also realized that if he did not crucify Jesus, the Jews would write to Tiberias and say that Pilate had not obeyed Tiberias’ command that had come in the letter, because he had not been respectful of Jewish laws and customs about things such as blasphemy, and worse, he allowed a man to live who called himself a king and threatened the unity of the Jewish people and even the Roman Empire. At that point, most people would have done what Pilate did: save his own life. Pilate had Jesus crucified.
[For the order of the events of Jesus’ last days, see commentary on John 18:13.]
We know quite a bit about Pilate from Roman records. However, there was no physical evidence found in Israel for his governorship until 1961. An Italian team of archaeologists under the direction of Antonio Frova discovered a stone about two feet by three feet while excavating an ancient theater in Caesarea, the Roman capital of Israel. The stone tablet read in Latin: “Pontius Pilatus, Prefect of Judea, has presented the Tiberieum to the Caesareans.” The record that Pilate was a “Prefect” is correct; he was not a “Procurator” (despite the many reference works that say he was). Calling Pilate a “Procurator” is a historic anachronism, because it was not until later, under the Emperor Claudius (ruled 41-54) that the Roman governors of Judea were referred to as Procurators. The Prefects had more military responsibilities than the Procurators. We can correctly call Pilate a Prefect or a governor.
Pilate’s name tells us much about him. The family name, Pontius, was the name of a prominent clan among the Samnites, a group of people who lived along the Apennine Mountains southeast of Rome, and early on in Rome’s history the Samnites had fought a series of wars with Rome and almost conquered them. A fighter that was often seen in the gladiator arena was a person dressed as, and trained to fight as, a Samnite warrior. The Samnites were conquered and absorbed by Rome, their leading class becoming the Roman equestrian class (the Roman middle class). Pilates’ first name is typically Samnite, and means, “armed with a pilum.” The pilum was a javelin about 6 feet long that was half wooden spear handle and half pointed iron shaft. It was a very effective weapon, and quickly copied by the Romans and used in the legions.
[For more information on Pilate likely being at the Hasmonean Palace just west of the Temple, see commentary on Luke 23:7].