By Tibor Grüll
Classica et Mediaevalia: Danish Journal of Philology and History, Vol. 61 (2010)
Abstract: The extremely complex apocryphal acta Pilati-tradition was comprised of four different phases. The first phase is the official record of the imperial magistrate. The second component of the tradition is definitely pagan in origin and was used in anti-Christian propaganda. Christian texts which may have arisen in response to the pagan forgeries can be considered the third component of the tradition. The Christian texts can be divided into two separate branches: the Western textual tradition written in Latin usually demonizes Pilate, while in the Eastern tradition Pilate’s character has totally metamorphosed: the praefectus became a confessor, saint, and martyr of the Church.
Introduction: Pontius Pilate was the fifth governor of the Roman province of Judea, holding office from ad 26-37. As prefectus Iudaeae Pilate was in charge of maintaining law and order in probably the smallest imperial province, overseeing legal matters and supervising the collection of taxes. Governors of Judea, as was customary in a relatively unimportant imperial province, were drawn from the equestrian order. Despite its small size, the province presented many difficulties, significant being the fact that it was composed of different ethnic groups, each with its own religious sensitivities. In order to uphold law and order, an equestrian governor had only auxiliary troops at his disposal. In Judea these amounted to five infantry cohorts and one cavalry regiment. On the occasions when these auxiliary forces were not able to check riots and disturbances amongst the people, the prefect would call upon the Syrian legate to intervene with his legions. A further aspect of the maintenance of law and order was the prefect’s supreme judicial power within the province. In Judea, the prefect had the authority to try and to execute provincials and probably also citizens within his area of jurisdiction. Due to his role in the trial of Jesus, Pilate became the most well known Roman provincial governor ever.
Pontius Pilate is, however, one of the New Testament characters about whom we have several literary descriptions from roughly contemporary non-Biblical sources. Our earliest surviving literary reference to Pontius Pilate is found in Philo’s Embassy to Gaius, which describes how Pilate offended against the Jewish Law by setting up gilded shields in Jerusalem. In his Jewish War, Josephus relates two incidents involving Pilate: one describing his introduction of iconic standards into Jerusalem, the other his appropriation of Temple funds to build an aqueduct in the city. The Antiquities contains four narratives involving Pilate. The first two – the standards and the aqueduct – were also found in the War (18.55-62). These are followed by the highly controversial text on Jesus and the Christians (18.63-64, cf. Tac. Ann. 15.44) and an incident involving Samaritans which culminated in Pilate’s departure to Rome on the orders of Vitellius (18.85-88). These last events have no parallel in the War. We are also in possession of significant archaeological material from Pilate’s term as governor. Bronze coins minted during his administration can be dated to three consecutive years, i.e. AD 29/30, 30/1 and 31/2. Perhaps the most dramatic archaeological evidence concerning Pilate is the stone found in 1961 in Caesarea, on which his name and title are clearly legible: [Pon]tius Pilatus / [praef]ectus Iuda[ea]e.