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Pontius Pilate

Pontius Pilatus (known in English as Pontius Pilate) was the governor of the small Roman province of Judea from 26 CE until 37, although Tacitus believed him to be the procurator of that province. His biographical details before and after this time are unknown.

Pilate is famous primarily as a crucial character in the New Testament account of Jesus, but most of our knowledge of him comes from the account of the Romano-Jewish historian Flavius Josephus.

Pilate is said to have displayed a serious lack of empathy for Jewish sensibilities, for example by displaying Roman battle standards -- considered minor deities in the Roman religion -- and by appropriating Temple funds for the construction of an aqueduct. He then responded harshly to the resulting unrest, possibly because, due to political machinations, the powerful neighboring Roman province of Syria was unable to provide him military support.

In approximately 36, Pilate used arrests and executions to quash a Samaritan religious uprising. After complaints to the Roman legate of Syria, Pilate was recalled to Rome; he is believed to have committed suicide.

In 1961, a block of limestone was found in the Roman theatre at Caesarea, the capital of the province of Judea, bearing a damaged dedication by Pilate of a Tiberieum. This dedication states that he was prefectus (usually seen as praefectus), that is, governor, of Judea. 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 inscription is currently in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

Table of contents
1 Pilate in the Gospels
2 The question of responsibility for Jesus' death
3 Pilate in mythology

Pilate in the Gospels

According to the New Testament, Jesus was brought to Pilate by the Jewish authorities in Jersusalem after they had arrested him, questioned him, and received answers from him that they considered blasphemous.

Pilate's main question to Jesus was whether he considered himself to be the "king of the Jews."

In the continuing interrogation by Pilate, related in the Gospel of John, Jesus states that he "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 replies, "What is truth?" Pilate then offers the Jews the choice of a prisoner to release said to be a Passover tradition and they choose a rebel named Barabbas over Jesus. John 18 makes it apparent that Pilate could not have cared less about the conflict between Jesus and the priests, or about executing Jesus; he certainly does not seem to see Jesus' "kingdom" as any sort of a threat to Rome.

In the Gospel of Matthew, after condemning Jesus to death, Pilate washes his hands with water in front of the crowd, who had demanded that Jesus be crucified, and says, "I am innocent of this man's blood. It is your concern."

The question of responsibility for Jesus' death

In all New Testament accounts, Pilate hesitates to condemn Jesus until the (Jewish) crowd insist. 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. Nevertheless, the Nicene Creed states unambiguously that Jesus "was crucified under Pontius Pilate".

Since the Second Vatican Council, the Roman Catholic Church has stated clearly that "neither all Jews indiscriminately at that time, nor Jews today, can be charged with the crimes committed during [Jesus'] Passion...." Nor does the church consider Pilate responsible. Instead, it holds that all sinners are responsible for Christ's sufferings.

Pilate in mythology

Little enough is still known about Pilate, but mythology has filled the gap. A body of fiction built up around the dramatic figure of Pontius pilate, about whom the Christian faithful hungered to learn more than the canonical gospels revealed. Eusebius (Historia Ecclesiae book ii: 7), quotes some early apocryphal accounts that he does not name, which already relate that Pilate fell under misfortunes in the reign of Caligula (37 - 41 A.D.), was exiled to Gaul and eventually committed suicide there, in Vienne. Other details come from less respectable sources. His body, says the Mors Pilati ('Death of Pilate') was thrown first into the Tiber, but the waters were so disturbed by evil spirits that the body was taken to Vienne and sunk in the Rhone: a monument at Vienne, called Pilate's tomb, is still to be seen. As the waters of the Rhone likewise rejected Pilate's corpse, it was again removed and sunk in the lake at Lausanne. Its final disposition was in a deep and lonely mountain tarn, which, according to later tradition, was on a mountain, still called Pilatus (actually pileatus or 'cloud-capped'), close to Lucerne. Every Good Friday the body re-emerges from the waters and washes its hands. There are many other legends about Pilate in the folklore of Germany, and his death was (unusually) dramatized in a medieval mystery play cycle from Cornwall, the Cornish Ordinalia.

Pilate's role in the events leading to the crucifixion lent themselves to melodrama, even tragedy, and Pilate often has a role in medieval mystery plays.

Acts of Pilate

The 4th century forgery, called the Acts of Pilate presents itself in a preface (missing in some mss) as derived from the official acts preserved in the praetorium at Jerusalem. Though the alleged Hebrew original of the document is attributed to Nicodemus, the title Gospel of Nicodemus for this fictional account is even later in origin.Nothing in the text suggests that it is in fact a translation from Hebrew.

This forgery gained wide credit in the Middle Ages, and has considerably affected the legends surrounding the events of the crucifixion, which, taken together, are called the Passion. Its popularity is attested by the number of languages in which it exists, each of these being represented by two or more variant 'editions': Greek (the original), Coptic, Armenian and Latin versions. The Latin versions were printed several times in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

One class of the Latin manuscripts contain as an appendix or continuation, the Cura Sanitatis Tiberii, the oldest form of the Veronica legend.

The Acta Pilati consist of three sections, whose styles reveal three authors at three different times.

The first section (i-xi) contains a fanciful and dramatic circumstantial account of the trial of Jesus, based upon Luke, xxiii.

The second part (xii-xvi) regards the Resurrection. An appendix, detailing the Descensus ad Infernos was added to the Greek text. This 'Harrowing of Hell' has chiefly flourished in Latin, and was translated into many European versions. It doesn't exist in the eastern versions, Syriac and Armenian, that derive directly from Greek versions. In it, Leucius and Charinus, the two souls raised from the dead after the Crucifixion, relate to the Sanhedrin the circumstances of Christ's descent to Limbo.

The well-informed Eusebius (325), although he mentions an Acta Pilati that had been referred to by Justin and Tertullian and other pseudo-Acts of this kind, shows no acquaintance with this work. Almost surely it is of later origin, and scholars agree in assigning it to the middle of the fourth century. Epiphanius refers to an Acta Pilati similar to our own, as early as 376, but there are indications that the current Greek text, the earliest extant form, is a revision of an earlier one.

Minor Pilate literature

There is a forged letter reporting on the crucifixion, purporting to have been sent by Pontius Pilate to the Emperor Claudius embodied in the pseudepigraphic forgery known as the Acts of Peter and Paul, of which the Catholic Encyclopedia states, "This composition is clearly apocryphal though unexpectedly brief and restrained." There is no internal relation between this feigned letter and the 4th century Acts of Pilate (Acta Pilati).

This Epistle or Report of Pilate is also inserted into the Pseudo-Marcellus Passion of Peter and Paul. We thus have it in both Greek and Latin versions.

More of Pilate's fictional correspondence is found in the minor Pilate apocrypha, the Anaphora Pilati ('Relation of Pilate,'), an 'Epistle of Herod to Pilate; and an 'Epistle of Pilate to Herod,' spurious texts that are no older than the fifth century.