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After the deposition of the eldest son of Herod, Archelaus (who had succeeded his father as ethnarch), Judea was placed under the rule of a Roman procurator. Pilate, who was the fifth, succeeding Valerius Gratus in A.D. 26, had greater authority than most procurators under the empire, for in addition to the ordinary duty of financial administration, he had supreme power judicially. His unusually long period of office (A.D. 26-36) covers the whole of the active ministry both of St. John the Baptist and of Jesus Christ.
As procurator Pilate was necessarily of equestrian rank, but beyond that we know little of his family or origin. Some have thought that he was only a freedman, deriving his name from pileus (the cap of freed slaves) but for this there seems to be no adequate evidence, and it is unlikely that a freedman would attain to a post of such importance. The Pontii were a Samnite gens. Pilate owed his appointment to the influence of Sejanus. The official residence of the procurators was the palace of Herod at Cæsarea; where there was a military force of about 3,000 soldiers. These soldiers came up to Jerusalem at the time of the feasts, when the city was full of strangers, and there was greater danger of disturbances, hence it was that Pilate had come to Jerusalem at the time of the Crucifixion. His name will be forever covered with infamy because of the part which he took in this matter, though at the time it appeared to him of small importance.
Pilate is a type of the worldly man, knowing the right and anxious to do it so far as it can be done without personal sacrifice of any kind, but yielding easily to pressure from those whose interest it is that he should act otherwise. He would gladly have acquitted Christ, and even made serious efforts in that direction, but gave way at once when his own position was threatened.
The other events of his rule are not of very great importance. Philo (Ad Gaium, 38) speaks of him as inflexible, merciless, and obstinate. The Jews hated him and his administration, for he was not only very severe, but showed little consideration for their susceptibilities. Some standards bearing the image of Tiberius, which had been set up by him in Jerusalem, caused an outbreak which would have ended in a massacre had not Pilate given way. At a later date Tiberius ordered him to remove certain gilt shields, which he had set up in Jerusalem in spite of the remonstrances of the people. The incident mentioned in St. Luke 13:1, of the Galilaeans whose blood Pilate mingled with the sacrifices, is not elsewhere referred to, but is quite in keeping with other authentic events of his rule. He was, therefore, anxious that no further hostile reports should be sent to the emperor concerning him.
The tendency, already discernible in the canonical Gospels, to lay stress on the efforts of Pilate to acquit Christ, and thus pass as lenient a judgment as possible upon his crime, goes further in the apocryphal Gospels and led in later years to the claim that he actually became a Christian. The Abyssinian Church reckons him as a saint, and assigns 25 June to him and to Claudia Procula, his wife. The belief that she became a Christian goes back to the second century, and may be found in Origen (Hom., in Mat., xxxv). The Greek Church assigns her a feast on 27 October. Tertullian and Justin Martyr both speak of a report on the Crucifixion (not extant) sent in by Pilate to Tiberius, from which idea a large amount of apocryphal literature originated. Some of these were Christian in origin (Gospel of Nicodemus), others came from the heathen, but these have all perished.
His rule was brought to an end through trouble which arose in Samaria. An imposter had given out that it was in his power to discover the sacred vessels which, as he alleged, had been hidden by Moses on Mount Gerizim, whither armed Samaritans came in large numbers. Pilate seems to have thought the whole affair was a blind, covering some other more important design, for he hurried forces to attack them, and many were slain. They appealed to Vitellius, who was at that time legate in Syria, saying that nothing political had been intended, and complaining of Pilate's whole administration. He was summoned to Rome to answer their charges, but before he could reach the city the Emperor Tiberius had died.
That is the last we know of Pilate from authentic sources, but legend has been busy with his name. He is said by Eusebius (H.E., ii, 7), on the authority of earlier writers, whom he does not name, to have fallen into great misfortunes under Caligula, and eventually to have committed suicide. Other details come from less respectable sources. His body, says the "Mors Pilati", was thrown into the Tiber, but the waters were so disturbed by evil spirits that the body was taken to Vienne and sunk in the Rhône, where a monument, called Pilate's tomb, is still to be seen. As the same thing occurred there, 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, close to Lucerne. The real origin of this name is, however, to be sought in the cap of cloud which often covers the mountain, and serves as a barometer to the inhabitants of Lucerne. The are many other legends about Pilate in the folklore of Germany, but none of them have the slightest authority.
ARTHUR S. BARNES