If you were to name just one evil, wicked, mean-spirited and nasty villain from out of history, you might be likely to choose Pontius Pilate. Everyone remembers that Pontius Pilate was the Roman ruler who sent Christ to his death by crucifixion, but what other intriguing facts do we know about this man? Pontius Pilate was the fifth Roman procurator of Judea, serving from A.D. 26 to 36. As procurator during those years, he allowed the execution of Jesus of Nazareth. An understanding of Pilate's background helps bring to life his role in that pivotal event.
Little is known of Pilate's early life. He was born in Seville, Spain, but switched allegiance to the Romans after they conquered his mother country. Seeking his fortune in Rome, Pilate married 15-year-old Claudia, the youngest daughter of Julia. (Julia was Augustus Caesar's only child and she was the second wife of Tiberius Caesar, who was the Roman emperor at the time of Christ's trial.) Because Claudia was the granddaughter of Augustus Caesar, Pilate hoped his marriage to her would result in an imperial appointment. This ambition was fulfilled when, as a wedding gift, Tiberius presented Pilate with a commission as procurator of Judea.
Pilate's new commission probably left him somewhat disappointed, since Judea was not a prestigious appointment. It was simply a way for Tiberius to remove Pilate and Claudia as far from Rome as possible, because he was not overly fond of them. If you look at a map, you will see that in the Roman Empire, Judea was about as far away from Rome as any area in the Empire.
Although not prestigious, filling the role of procurator of Judea was no easy task. Prior to Pilate, Roman procurators had been careful not to offend the Jews. This courtesy included avoiding any public display of Roman flags and emblems. When Pilate took office, he lacked the political savvy to continue that practice of discretion. He was not careful to accommodate the Jews. He entered Jerusalem with standards emblazoned with the images of the Emperor Tiberius, making his job as procurator more difficult than it had been for his predecessors.
Pilate's arrogance offended and infuriated the Jews. Their second commandment dictated against worldly images, and they were wroth to witness Pilate's flagrant display of contempt for their Holy City. For five days they petitioned him to remove the offensive standards, but he refused to hear their arguments, let alone consider them. When Pilate finally admitted the Jews to the judgment seat to be officially heard, he ordered his soldiers to surround them, and then he threatened them with instant death if they did not stop bothering him over the matter. The citizens of Jerusalem called his bluff. In open defiance, the outraged Jews threw themselves to the ground and bared their necks for the Roman swords, preferring to die rather than submit to the violation of their sacred laws. Outmaneuvered and outclassed — and not willing to kill so many — Pilate yielded and withdrew the standards. This political blunder at the beginning of his appointment highlighted his lack of talent and discretion. This one act embarrassed him and had a residual influence on all the actions of his subsequent career.
Having learned little, Pilate later appropriated funds from the temple treasury and used them to complete an aqueduct that was to bring water to Jerusalem. Because the Jews reverenced the corban, or temple money, they were highly offended that their sacred funds had been used for this worldly purpose. Once again, Pilate faced a crowd of Jews, gathered in clamor against him. But this time Pilate did not ignore them for days or threaten their death. Instead, he ordered soldiers to disguise themselves as Jews and mingle with the crowd. On his signal, the soldiers attacked the unarmed Jews, beating them severely and quelling the riot. As one might expect, hatred for Pilate grew and festered in the hearts of his subjects.
In a further attempt to establish his authority, Pilate later adorned his palace with gilded shields dedicated to the Emperor Tiberius. Outraged, the Jewish leaders circumvented their enemy-leader, petitioning directly to Tiberius, stating that the shields were hung less for his honor than for the annoyance of the Jewish people. Tiberius granted their request, ordering the removal of the shields from the palace in Jerusalem. Pilate had these images transferred to the temple of Augustus at Caesarea.
This Pilate is the man who, after the trials by the Jewish leaders, represented Rome in the final judgment of Jesus Christ. The Great Sanhedrin, all too quickly after its deliberations arose, "... bound him [Jesus] ... and delivered him to Pontius Pilate the governor."
In an outward display of piety on this feast day, the members of the Sanhedrin "... went not into the judgment hall, lest they should be defiled ...." (John 18:28) Considering that the entire 24-hour period surrounding Gethsemane and Golgotha was replete with the Sanhedrin's cruelties, lies, illegalities, and even murder, it seems absurd that it now feared defilement and its consequence — being denied the Passover feast. That moment of waiting outside the judgment hall was laden with irony.
Pilate held court concerning Christ. He made his findings and had rendered his judgment, and, thus, the final part of the Roman trial — the Decision — had concluded. Or should have. Since Pilate was the extension of Tiberius Caesar, his authority was absolute. When Pilate rose and pronounced the verdict, "I find in him no fault at all," it was an acquittal. Christ should have been let free. Case closed. Over. Done. Finished. Any future proceedings on those same charges would be illegal — as in trying a man twice for the same offense. Pilate would go on to send Jesus to Herod, try to use Barabbas and the tradition of releasing a prisoner at the feast, and have Jesus' scourged. These were all attempts to disassociate himself from Jesus' crucifixion.
However, when Pilate saw that strict justice for Christ would threaten his position, he reluctantly and shamefully gave way to the demands of the Jews, sending Jesus to his death on the cross by washing his hands of the matter. Pilate should have followed his first inclinations and dismissed the case, but was not strong enough to carry out the correct decision. Jesus' illegal trials (Roman and Hebrew) opened for all mankind the precious gifts of mercy and fairness.
After this life in which we all experience moments of great sorrow and unfairness, we will each be judged by Christ — the same Christ who suffered all things with us and who knows and understands our hearts and desires. And without exception, for at least that one moment in our lives, we can all count upon perfect fairness. Christ's judgment of us will be fair, unbiased, just. And as we kneel before him and observe the marks on his feet, we will all realize that our very salvation was made possible because of the illegal, unfair trial that Christ — our Lord and Savior, the Redeemer of all mankind — endured in Judea at the hands of Pontius Pilate.