Know My Faith is all about opening up the historical, cultural context behind some of the best-known passages in the Bible so that the next time you read them, they are not just words on a page, but are in living colour with surround sound.
When I was in Israel with my family in 2017 I was intrigued to find the Pilate Stone in the Ancient port city of Caesarea. Caesarea replaced Jerusalem as the administrative capitol of the province in AD 6 and this stone is significant because it is an authentic 1st century artifact bearing an inscription mentioning the name Pontius Pilate.
The Inscription reads;
“To the Divine Augustus Tiberium
…prefect of Judea
…has dedicated [this]”
The Pilate Stone takes on special significance for us as Christians when we look into Pilate’s relationship with Tiberius, as detailed in secular history, and realise that Pilate was certainly not the poster boy of the Roman Empire.
In each of the Gospels we find an account of Jesus’s interaction with the Roman Procurator, so as you read the information that follows, consider that these things were well known by all the players on that Passover morning. You will also begin to understand Pilate’s dilemma so much more.
The Good Shepherd
Physically, Pontius Pilate was short and muscular, bald with an oval face, weathered skin from many military campaigns, small, close set eyes and a natural sneer. His disposition wasn’t much better. He was stubborn and inflexible.
Pilate was a soldier. He understood the chain of command. He knew how to give orders and he knew how to receive orders. He had served as a member of the Praetorian Guard under a man called Sejanus during the days when the Emperor Tiberius still lived in Rome. The Praetorian Guard was created in 27BC by Augustus as a bodyguard for the emperor, but under Sejanus it became the Roman equivalent of the KGB and Men in Black all rolled into one.
When Tiberius withdrew to Capri in 26AD, the very powerful and very ambitious Sejanus was left in control of the empire. It was around this time that Pilate was dispatched to Judea as prefect, his task was to serve as the personal representative of Caesar, with strict orders to keep the peace and contain the Jews. The Roman emperors were very aware of the Maccabean uprising which saw the Jews successfully throw off the cloak of the ruling Greeks a century earlier. Because of this, the Jews were the only people in the entire Roman Empire who were allowed to continue their own religious practices and did not have to worship the Emperor as god.
Provincial governors were required to keep commentarii, a register of the administrative acts of the emperor (or his representative) and included constitutions, rescripts, letters, and edicts etc., all set down with official authority and reported back to the Senate with excerpts copied to the emperor. Tiberius had once said: “Boni pastoris est tondere pecus, non deglubere”. The role of a shepherd, (or prefect), in the province is to shear his sheep, not to flay the skin off them”. A governor could act with brutal force if necessary, to keep the peace, but the goal was to be a good shepherd. Nobody would have used that phrase to describe Pontius Pilate.
Tiberius continually feared assassination (the main reason he fled to Capri) and, in 31AD, amidst suspicions of conspiracy against the emperor, Sejanus suddenly fell from favour and was arrested and executed along with his followers. And remember Pilate was one of his protégés. This is just before the events described in the Gospels.
Pilate made two serious mistakes early in his prefecture.
The first occurred shortly after he arrived in Judea. He ordered the troops stationed in Jerusalem to display the standards of the Roman army, which included the image of Caesar Augustus, on the walls of Antonia Fortress which overlooked the Temple. Pilate’s predecessor, Valerius Gratis, more mindful of Jewish sensitivities to graven images, had left the standards in the capitol, Caesarea. In the middle of winter, thousands of Jews walked the sixty-five miles from Jerusalem to Caearea to confront Pilate. They stood outside his palace for five days imploring him to take the standards down. Pilate refused and, when his patience drew thin, he ordered his soldiers to surround the contingent and draw their swords threatening to kill them if they didn’t back down. The Jews lay on the ground and bared their throats, daring the soldiers to do it. Pilate ended up being the one who backed down and he gave the order to remove the standards from Jerusalem. And, I’m sure reluctantly, sent a report to the Emperor.
In another incident Pilate offended the Jews by using up the temple treasury to pay for a new aqueduct to Jerusalem. When a mob formed outside the praetorium in Jerusalem, Pilate, who had hidden his men among the crowds, ordered his troops to beat them with clubs; many died from the blows or from being trampled by horses, but the mob was dispersed. And a report was sent to the Emperor.
In Luke 13:1 Jesus mentions the Galileans “whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices”. And reported to Tiberius on the island of Capri.
And don’t forget, just before the events recorded in the Bible we have Barabbas and his cohorts sitting in prison for a recent insurrection and murder in Jerusalem. And a report on that sent to the Emperor.
So now where do you think Pilate was on the emperor’s fleece vs flay scale?
Keep the peace. Do not upset the Jews. Remember what happened to the Greeks 150 years ago when they offended Jewish Religious traditions. Do NOT, under ANY circumstances and threat of major consequences, UPSET THE JEWS!!!!
Now, just before you pick up your Bible and read the account of Jesus and Pilate you need to be aware of one more thing. Tiberius’ stepfather, Augustus, was the adopted son of Julius Caesar who had been deified after his assassination in 42BC as divus Iulius “the divine Julius”. Augustus thus became known as divi Iuli filius (son of the divine Julius) or more commonly in the shortened form divi filius (the son of the god).
So, here are the three main points you need to remember.
Pilate’s mentor, Sejanus, had been executed by Tiberius for conspiring against the emperor.
The emperor’s father was known as the son of god.
Pilate had already screwed up at least three times in his role as procurator.
So with that background, stop reading this, pick up your Bible and read the story of Jesus and Pilate. You can find it in Matthew 27:2, Mark 15:1, Luke 23:1, and John 18:28. When you’ve read it, come back and read the conclusion.
(Don’t read further until you have read the Gospel account, it will only take you about five minutes)
Conclusion and Perspective
This historical information sheds a new light on the dilemma Pilate was in. He was under an enormous amount of pressure, but the truth remains – that truth that Pilate wondered about – the right thing to do was to let an innocent man go free. Pilate had many opportunities to do the right thing. He even literally tried to wash his hands of the whole incident and claim he was not responsible. Instead Pilate chose what he thought was the safest course of action for him personally. And isn’t that at the root of all sin? Thinking of ourselves first? Not doing the right thing because we think it will be detrimental to us? Not putting ourselves out for others because it’s inconvenient?
After I delivered this message at Kaipaki Church we sang Robin Mark’s song Jesus, All For Jesus. The lyrics say “All of my ambitions, hopes and plans… all I am, and have, and ever want to be”. Pilate had ambitions, hopes and plans. Sadly, he did not factor the one true God into those plans.
Does God want us to have dreams and plans? Of course He does. What loving father does not want that for his children? One of my favourite scriptures is Psalm 37:4-5, it says “Delight yourself in the Lord and HE WILL GIVE YOU the desires of your heart. Commit your way to the Lord, trust also in Him and He will bring it to pass.” But that is not to be our focus. Jesus said in Matthew 6:33 (Rob’s paraphrase) “Put God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness ahead of your own ambitions, hopes and plans and God will sort out the other stuff.