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Bible Dictionaries

Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary


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It is not known of what country or family Pontius Pilate was, but it is believed that he was of Rome, or, at least, of Italy. He was sent to govern Judea in the room of Gratus, A.D. 26, or 27. He presided over this province for ten years, from the twelfth or thirteenth year of Tiberius, to the twenty-second of the same emperor. He is represented, both by Philo and Josephus, as a man of an impetuous and obstinate temper, and, as a judge, one who used to sell justice, and, for money, to pronounce any sentence that was desired. The same authors make mention of his rapines, his injuries, his murders, the torments that he inflicted upon the innocent, and the persons he put to death without any form of process. Philo, in particular, describes him as a man that exercised an excessive cruelty during the whole time of his government; who disturbed the repose of Judea; and was the occasion of the troubles and revolt that followed. St. Luke acquaints us, that Pilate had mingled the blood of the Galileans with their sacrifices; and that the matter, having been related to Jesus Christ, he introduced the subject into his discourse, Luke 13. The reason why Pilate treated them in this manner, while sacrificing in the temple, is not known. At the time of our Saviour's passion, Pilate made some attempts to deliver him out of the hands of the Jews. He knew the reasons of their enmity, against him, Matthew 27:18 . His wife, also, having had a dream that alarmed her, requested he would not stain his hands with the blood of that just person, Matthew 27:19 . He therefore attempted to appease the wrath of the Jews by scourging Jesus, John 19:1; Matthew 27:26; and also tried to take him out of their hands by proposing to deliver him or Barabbas on the day of the passover. Lastly, he thought to discharge himself from pronouncing judgment against him, by sending him to Herod, king of Galilee, Luke 23:7-8 . When he saw all this would not satisfy the Jews, and that they even threatened him in some manner, saying, he could be no friend to the emperor if he suffered Jesus to be set at liberty, John 19:12-15 , he caused water to be brought, and washed his hands before all the people, and publicly declared himself innocent of the blood of that just person, Matthew 27:23-24 . Yet at the same time he delivered him to his soldiers that they might crucify him. This was enough to justify Jesus Christ, as Calmet observes, and to prove that he held him as innocent; but it was not enough to vindicate the conscience and integrity of a judge, whose duty it was as well to assert the cause of oppressed innocence, as to punish the guilty. He ordered the inscription to be placed over the head of our Saviour, John 19:19; and when requested by the Jews to alter it, peremptorily refused. He also gave leave for the removal of our Lord's body, and to place a guard over the sepulchre, Matthew 27:65 . These are all the particulars that we learn concerning Pilate from the writers of the Gospels.

The extreme reluctance of Pilate to condemn Christ, considering his merciless character, is signally remarkable, and still more his repeated protestations of the innocence of his prisoner; although, on occasions of massacre, he made no scruple of confounding the innocent with the guilty. But he was unquestionably influenced by the overruling providence of God, to make the righteousness of his Son appear as clear as the noon day, even when condemned and executed as a malefactor, by the fullest, the most authentic, and the most public evidence:

1. By the testimony even of his judges, Pilate and Herod, after examination of evidence.

2. By the message of Pilate's wife, delivered to him on the tribunal.

3. By the testimony of the traitor Judas, who hanged himself in despair, for betraying the innocent blood.

4. By the testimony of the Roman centurion and guard, at his crucifixion, to his divinity and righteousness. And,

5. Of his fellow sufferer on the cross. Never was innocence so attested as his innocence.

Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Eusebius, and after them several others, both ancient and modern, assure us that it was formerly the custom for Roman magistrates to prepare copies of all verbal processes and judicial acts, which they passed in their several provinces, and to send them to the emperor. And Pilate, in compliance with the custom, having sent word to Tiberius of what had passed relating to Jesus Christ, the emperor wrote an account of it to the senate, in a manner that gave reason to judge that he thought favourably of the religion of Jesus Christ, and showed that he should be willing for them to confer divine honours upon him; but the senate was not of the same opinion, and so the matter dropped. It appears by what Justin says of these acts, that the miracles of Christ were mentioned there, and even that the soldiers had divided his garments among them. Eusebius insinuates that they spoke of his resurrection and ascension. Tertullian and Justin refer to these acts with so much confidence, as would make one believe they had read and handled them. However, neither Eusebius nor Jerom, who were both inquisitive and understanding persons, nor any other author who wrote afterward, seems to have seen them, at least not the true and original acts. For as to what we have now in great number, they are not authentic, being neither ancient nor uniform. There are also some pretended letters of Pilate to Tiberius, giving a history of our Saviour; but they are universally allowed to be spurious. Pilate being a man who, by his excessive cruelties and rapine, had disturbed the repose of Judea, during the whole time of his government, was at length deposed by Vitellius, the proconsul of Syria, A.D. 36, and sent to Rome to give an account of his conduct to the emperor. But, though Tiberius died before Pilate arrived at Rome, yet his successor Caligula banished him to Vienne in Gaul, where he was reduced to such extremity that he laid violent hands upon himself. The evangelists call him governor, though in reality he was nothing more than procurator of Judea, not only because governor was a name of general use, but because Pilate, in effect, acted as one, by taking upon him to judge in criminal matters, as his predecessors had done, and as other procurators in the small provinces of the empire, where there was no proconsul, constantly did.

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Bibliography Information
Watson, Richard. Entry for 'Pilate'. Richard Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary. 1831-2.

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