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definitions - Pontius_Pilate

Pontius Pilate (n.)

1.the Roman procurator of Judea who ordered that Jesus be crucified (died in AD 36)

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Pontius Pilate (n.)


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Pontius Pilate

  Ecce Homo ("Behold the Man"), Antonio Ciseri's depiction of Pilate presenting a scourged Jesus to the people of Jerusalem.

Pontius Pilatus (Ancient Greek: Πόντιος Πιλᾶτος, Pontios Pīlātos), known in the English-speaking world as Pontius Pilate (play /ˈpɒnəs ˈplət/(US), play /ˈpɒnti.əs ˈplət/ (UK)[1]), was the fifth Prefect of the Roman province of Judaea, from AD 26–36.[2][3] He is best known as the judge at Jesus' trial and the man who authorized the crucifixion of Jesus. As prefect, he served under Emperor Tiberius.

The sources for Pilate's life are the four canonical gospels, Philo of Alexandria, Josephus, a brief mention by Tacitus, and an inscription known as the Pilate Stone, which confirms his historicity and establishes his title as prefect. Based on these sources, it appears that Pilate was an equestrian of the Pontii family, and succeeded Valerius Gratus as prefect of Judaea in AD 26. Once in his post he offended the religious sensibilities of his subjects, leading to harsh criticism from Philo and Josephus. According to Josephus,[4] he was ordered back to Rome after harshly suppressing a Samaritan uprising, arriving just after the death of Tiberius, which occurred on 16 March in the year 37. He was replaced by Marcellus.

In all four gospel accounts, Pilate avoids responsibility for the death of Jesus. In the Gospel of Matthew, Pilate washes his hands to show that he was not responsible for the execution of Jesus and reluctantly sends him to his death.[5] The Gospel of Mark, depicting Jesus as innocent of plotting against the Roman Empire, portrays Pilate as reluctant to execute Jesus.[5] In the Gospel of Luke, Pilate not only agrees that Jesus did not conspire against Rome, but Herod Antipas, the Tetrarch of Galilee, also finds nothing treasonable in Jesus' actions.[5] We find in the Gospel of John, Pilate states “I find no guilt in him [Jesus]” and he asks the Jews if Jesus should be released from custody.[6]

Scholars have long debated how to interpret Pilate's portrayal in the sources. Some Biblical scholars have argued that the Gospel accounts are not historically accurate. The significance of the Pilate Stone, an artifact discovered in 1961 that names Pontius Pilate, is debated by a few scholars.[7][8]


  Etymology of the cognomen

There are several possible origins for the cognomen Pilatus. A commonly accepted one is that it means "skilled with the javelin". The pilum (= javelin) was five feet of wooden shaft and two feet of tapered iron. Pontius Pilate's family name signifies he was from the tribe Pontii, an ancient Samnite name.[9]

  Historicity of Pilate

  Limestone cows block discovered in 1961 with Pilate's tribute in Latin to Tiberius. The words [...]TIVS PILATVS[...] can be clearly seen on the second line.

Little is known of Pilate. There is an old tradition linking the birthplace of Pilate with the small village of Bisenti, Samnite territory, in today's Abruzzo region of Central Italy.[10] It has been asserted that Pilate may have been born in Fortingall, Perthshire, in Scotland, the illegitimate son of a Roman ambassador sent to pacify the Picts and a Pictish girl, but the Romans did not invade Britain until some years after Pilate's birth and appear to have had relatively little contact with that part of Scotland even then. There are however alleged ruins of a Roman house known as "The House of Pilate in Bisenti."[11] Other places in Spain and Germany have also made similar claims about Pilate. Eusebius, quoting early apocryphal accounts, stated that Pilate suffered misfortune in the reign of Caligula (AD 37–41), was exiled to Gaul and eventually committed suicide there in Vienne.[10] The 10th century historian Agapius of Hierapolis, in his Universal History, says that Pilate committed suicide during the first year of Caligula's reign, i.e. AD 37/38.[12] Another legend places the place of his death at Mount Pilatus, in Switzerland.

The first physical evidence relating to Pilate was discovered in 1961, when a block of limestone, the Pilate Stone, was found in the Roman theatre at Caesarea Maritima, the capital of the province of Judaea (Iudaea). Bearing a damaged dedication by Pilate of a Tiberieum,[13] the dedication states that he was [...]ECTVS IUDA[...] (usually read as praefectus Iudaeae), that is, prefect of Judaea. The early governors of Judaea were of prefect rank, the later were of procurator rank, beginning with Cuspius Fadus in AD 44. The inscription was discovered by a group led by Antonio Frova and has been dated to AD 26–37. The inscription is currently housed in the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, while a replica stands at Caesarea.[14]

  Titles and duties

  Bronze prutah minted by Pontius Pilate.
Reverse: Greek letters TIBEPIOY KAICAPOC (Tiberius Emperor) and date LIS (year 16 = AD 29/30) surrounding simpulum (libation ladle).
Obverse: Greek letters IOYLIA KAICAPOC (Julia, the Emperor's (mother)), three bound heads of barley, the outer two heads drooping.

Pontius Pilate's title was traditionally thought to have been procurator, since Tacitus speaks of him as such. However, an inscription on a limestone block known as the Pilate Stone — a dedication to Tiberius Caesar Augustus — that was discovered in 1961 in the ruins of an amphitheater at Caesarea Maritima refers to Pilate as "Prefect of Judaea".[15]

The title used by the governors of the region varied over the period of the New Testament. When Samaria, Judea proper and Idumea were first amalgamated into the Roman Judaea Province (which some modern historians spell Iudaea),[16] from AD 6 to the outbreak of the First Jewish Revolt in 66, officials of the Equestrian order (the lower rank of governors) governed. They held the Roman title of prefect until Herod Agrippa I was named King of the Jews by Claudius. After Herod Agrippa's death in 44, when Iudaea reverted to direct Roman rule, the governor held the title procurator. When applied to governors, this term procurator, otherwise used for financial officers, connotes no difference in rank or function from the title known as prefect. Contemporary archaeological finds and documents such as the Pilate Inscription from Caesarea attest to the governor's more accurate official title only for the years 6 through 44: prefect. The logical conclusion is that texts that identify Pilate as procurator are more likely following Tacitus or are unaware of the pre-44 practice.

The procurators' and prefects' primary functions were military, but as representatives of the empire they were responsible for the collection of imperial taxes,[17] and also had limited judicial functions. Other civil administration lay in the hands of local government: the municipal councils or ethnic governments such as – in the district of Judaea and Jerusalem – the Sanhedrin and its president the High Priest. But the power of appointment of the High Priest resided in the Roman legate of Syria or the prefect of Judaea in Pilate's day and until 41. For example, Caiaphas was appointed High Priest of Herod's Temple by Prefect Valerius Gratus and deposed by Syrian Legate Lucius Vitellius. After that time and until 66, the Jewish client kings exercised this privilege. Normally, Pilate resided in Caesarea but traveled throughout the province, especially to Jerusalem, in the course of performing his duties. During the Passover, a festival of deep national as well as religious significance for the Jews, Pilate, as governor or prefect, would have been expected to be in Jerusalem to keep order. He would not ordinarily be visible to the throngs of worshippers because of the Jewish people's deep sensitivity to their status as a Roman province.

Equestrians such as Pilate could command legionary forces but only small ones, and so in military situations, he would have to yield to his superior, the legate of Syria, who would descend into Palestine with his legions as necessary. As governor of Iudaea, Pilate would have small auxiliary forces of locally recruited soldiers stationed regularly in Caesarea and Jerusalem, such as the Antonia Fortress, and temporarily anywhere else that might require a military presence. The total number of soldiers at his disposal numbered in the range of 3000.[18]

  Pilate in the canonical Gospel accounts

  Christ before Pilate, Mihály Munkácsy, 1881

According to the canonical Christian Gospels, Pilate presided at the trial of Jesus and, despite stating that he personally found him not guilty of a crime meriting death, handed him over to crucifixion. Pilate is thus a pivotal character in the New Testament accounts of Jesus.

According to the New Testament, Jesus was brought to Pilate by the Sanhedrin, who had arrested Jesus and questioned him themselves. The Sanhedrin had, according to the Gospels, only been given answers by Jesus that they considered blasphemous pursuant to Mosaic law, which was unlikely to be deemed a capital offense by Pilate interpreting Roman law.[19] The Gospel of Luke[20] records that members of the Sanhedrin then took Jesus before Pilate where they accused him of sedition against Rome by opposing the payment of taxes to Caesar and calling himself a king. Fomenting tax resistance was a capital offense.[21] Pilate was responsible for imperial tax collections in Judaea. Jesus had asked the tax collector Levi, at work in his tax booth in Capernaum, to quit his post. Jesus also appears to have influenced Zacchaeus, "a chief tax collector" in Jericho, which is in Pilate's tax jurisdiction, to resign.[22] Pilate's main question to Jesus was whether he considered himself to be the King of the Jews in an attempt to assess him as a potential political threat. Mark in the NIV translation states: "Are you the king of the Jews?" asked Pilate. "It is as you say," Jesus replied. However, quite a number of other translations render Jesus' reply as variations of the phrase: "Thou sayest it."(King James Version, Mark 15:2); "So you say." (Good News Bible, Mark 15:2). Whatever degree of confirmation modern interpreters would derive from this answer of Jesus, according to the New Testament, it was not enough for Pilate to view Jesus as a real political threat. The chief priests began hurling accusations toward Jesus, yet he remained silent. Pilate asked him why he did not respond to the many charges, and Jesus remained silent, so Pilate was "amazed".

Pilate appears to have been reluctant to allow the crucifixion of Jesus, finding no fault with him. According to Matthew 27:19, even Pilate's wife spoke to him on Jesus' behalf. It was the custom of the Roman governor to release one prisoner at Passover. Accounts in the gospels say that Pilate brought out Barabbas, identified by Matthew as a "notorious prisoner" and by Mark as a murderer, and told the crowd to choose between releasing Barabbas or Jesus as per the custom, in the hopes of getting them to request the release of Jesus. However, the crowd demanded the release of Barabbas and said of Jesus, "Crucify him!" In Matthew, Pilate responds, "Why? What evil has he done?" The crowd continued shouting, "Crucify him!"

Pilate ordered a sign posted above Jesus on the cross stating "Jesus of Nazareth, The King of the Jews" to give public notice of the legal charge against him for his crucifixion. The chief priests protested that the public charge on the sign should read that Jesus claimed to be King of the Jews. Pilate refused to change the posted charge, saying "What I have written, I have written." This may have been to emphasize Rome's supremacy in crucifying a Jewish king; it is likely, though, that Pilate was quite irritated by the fact that the Jewish leaders had used him as a marionette and thus compelled him to sentence Jesus to death contrary to his own will.

The Gospel of Luke also reports that such questions were asked of Jesus; in Luke's case it being the priests that repeatedly accused him, though Luke states that Jesus remained silent to such inquisition, causing Pilate to hand Jesus over to the jurisdiction (Galilee) of Herod Antipas. Although initially excited with curiosity at meeting Jesus, of whom he had heard much, Herod (according to Luke) ended up mocking Jesus and so sent him back to Pilate. This intermediate episode with Herod is not reported by the other Gospels, which appear to present a continuous and singular trial in front of Pilate. Luke, however, made further reference to this involvement of Herod along with Pilate in Jesus' execution and linked it with the prophecy about the Messianic King found in Psalm 2, as we can read in Luke's other book, Acts 4:24–28. This explains why he counted this episode important.

Unlike the synoptic gospels, the Gospel of John gives more detail about that dialogue taking place between Jesus and Pilate. In John, Jesus seems to confirm the fact of his kingship, although immediately explaining, that "[his] kingdom [was] not of this world"; of far greater importance for the followers of Christ is his own definition of the goal of his ministry on earth at the time. According to Jesus, as we find it written in John 18:37, Jesus thus describes his mission: " [I] came into the world ... to bear witness to the truth; and all who are on the side of truth listen to [my] voice", to which Pilate famously replied, "What is truth?" (John 18:38)...

  Nikolai Ge, Christ and Pilate ("What is truth?"), 1890.

Whatever it be that some modern critics want to deduce from those differences, the end result was the same for Jesus and Pilate, as it was in all the other three Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke). In the same chapter of John 18 verse 38 (King James Version, compare with other versions) the conclusion Pilate made from this interrogation: "I find in him no fault at all".

Pilate agrees to condemn Jesus to crucifixion, after the Jewish leaders explained to him that Jesus presented a threat to Roman occupation through his claim to the throne of King David as King of Israel in the royal line of David. The crowd in Pilate's courtyard, according to the Synoptics, had been coached by the Pharisees and Sadducees to shout against Jesus. The Gospel of Matthew adds that before condemning Jesus to death, Pilate washes his hands with water in front of the crowd, saying, "I am innocent of this man's blood; you will see."

  Responsibility for Jesus' death

In all gospel accounts, Pilate is reluctant to condemn Jesus, but is eventually forced to give in when the crowd becomes unruly and the Jewish leaders remind him that Jesus's claim to be king is a challenge to Roman rule and to the Roman deification of Caesar. Roman magistrates had wide discretion in executing their tasks, and some readers question whether Pilate would have been so captive to the demands of the crowd. Pilate was later recalled to Rome for his harsh treatment of the Jews.[23][24]

With the Edict of Milan in AD 313, the state-sponsored persecution of Christians came to an end, and Christianity became officially tolerated as one of the religions of the Roman Empire. Afterwards, in 325 the First Ecumenical Council at Nicaea promulgated a creed which was amended at the subsequent First Council of Constantinople in 381. The Nicene Creed incorporated for the first time the clause was crucified under Pontius Pilate (which had already been long established in the Old Roman Symbol, an ancient form of the Apostles' Creed dating as far back as the 2nd century AD) in a creed that was intended to be authoritative for all Christians in the Roman Empire.

Pilate's reluctance to execute Jesus in the gospels has been seen as reflecting the authors' agenda.[25][26] It has thus been argued that gospel accounts place the blame on the Jews, not on Rome, in line with the authors' alleged goal of making peace with the Roman Empire and vilifying the Jews.[25][26]

  Pilate in Jewish literature

In chronicling the history of the Roman administrators in Judaea, ancient Jewish writers Philo and Josephus describe some of the other events and incidents that took place during Pilate's tenure. Both report that Pilate repeatedly caused near-insurrections among the Jews because of his insensitivity to Jewish customs.

Josephus notes that while Pilate's predecessors had respected Jewish customs by removing all images and effigies on their standards when entering Jerusalem, Pilate allowed his soldiers to bring them into the city at night. When the citizens of Jerusalem discovered these the following day, they appealed to Pilate to remove the ensigns of Caesar from the city. After five days of deliberation, Pilate had his soldiers surround the demonstrators, threatening them with death, which they were willing to accept rather than submit to desecration of Mosaic law. Pilate finally removed the images. The incident proved to be an early example of effective resistance to tyranny by aggressive, nonviolent means.[27][28]

Philo describes a later, similar incident in which Pilate was chastened by Emperor Tiberius after antagonizing the Jews by setting up gold-coated shields in Herod's palace in Jerusalem. The shields were ostensibly to honor Tiberius, and this time did not contain engraved images. Philo writes that the shields were set up "not so much to honour Tiberius as to annoy the multitude." The Jews protested the installation of the shields at first to Pilate, and then, when he declined to remove them, by writing to Tiberius. Philo reports that upon reading the letters, Tiberius "wrote to Pilate with a host of reproaches and rebukes for his audacious violation of precedent and bade him at once take down the shields and have them transferred from the capital to Caesarea."[29]

Josephus recounts another incident in which Pilate spent money from the Temple to build an aqueduct. When Jews again protested his actions, Pilate had soldiers hidden in the crowd of Jews while addressing them. After giving the signal, Pilate's soldiers randomly attacked, beat, and killed scores of Jews to silence their petitions.[30]

In describing his personality, Philo writes that Pilate had "vindictiveness and furious temper," and was "naturally inflexible, a blend of self-will and relentlessness." He writes that Pilate feared a delegation that the Jews might send to Tiberius protesting the gold-coated shields, because "if they actually sent an embassy they would also expose the rest of his conduct as governor by stating in full the briberies, the insults, the robberies, the outrages and wanton injuries, the executions without trial constantly repeated, the ceaseless and supremely grievous cruelty."[29]

Pilate's term as prefect of Judaea ended after an incident recounted by Josephus. A large group of Samaritans had been persuaded by an unnamed man to go to Mount Gerizim in order to see sacred artifacts allegedly buried by Moses. But at a village named Tirathana, before the crowd could ascend the mountain, Pilate sent in "a detachment of cavalry and heavy-armed infantry, who in an encounter with the firstcomers in the village slew some in a pitched battle and put the others to flight. Many prisoners were taken, of whom Pilate put to death the principal leaders and those who were most influential."[31] The Samaritans then complained to Vitellius, Roman governor of Syria, who sent Pilate to Rome to explain his actions regarding this incident to Tiberius. However, by the time Pilate got to Rome, Tiberius had died.[32]

  Pilate in the apocrypha

Little enough is known about Pilate, but tradition has tried to fill the gap. A body of legend grew up around the dramatic figure of Pontius Pilate, about whom the Christian faithful hungered to learn more than the canonical Gospels revealed. Eusebius (Historia Ecclesiae ii: 7) quotes some early apocryphal accounts that he does not name, which already relate that Pilate fell under misfortunes in the reign of Caligula (37–41), was exiled to Gaul and eventually committed suicide there in Vienne.

Other details come from less credible sources. His body, says the Mors Pilati ("Death of Pilate"), was thrown first into the Tiber, but the waters were so disturbed by evil spirits that the body was taken to Vienne and sunk in the Rhône: a monument at Vienne, called Pilate's tomb, is still to be seen. As the waters of the Rhone likewise rejected Pilate's corpse, it was again removed and sunk in the lake at Lausanne. The sequence was a simple way to harmonise conflicting local traditions.

The corpse's final disposition was in a deep and lonely mountain tarn, which, according to later tradition, was on a mountain, still called Pilatus (actually pileatus or "cloud capped"), overlooking Lucerne. Every Good Friday, the body is said to reemerge from the waters and wash its hands.

There are many other legends about Pilate in the folklore of Germany, particularly about his birth, according to which Pilate was born in the Franconian city of Forchheim or the small village of Hausen only 5 km away from it. His death was (unusually) dramatised in a medieval mystery play cycle from Cornwall, the Cornish Ordinalia.

Pilate's role in the events leading to the crucifixion lent themselves to melodrama, even tragedy, and Pilate often has a role in medieval mystery plays.

In the Eastern Orthodox Church, Claudia Procula is commemorated as a saint,[33] but not Pilate, because in the Gospel accounts Claudia urged Pilate not to have anything to do with Jesus. In some Eastern Orthodox traditions, Pilate committed suicide out of remorse for having sentenced Jesus to death.

In Switzerland, near Lucerne, is Mount Pilatus. An old tradition is that Pilate went here and was banished to the mountain as a punishment for his crime against Christ.

The island of Ponza in the Bay of Naples, Italy, is believed to be named after Pontius Pilate; his family built grottoes named after him.

  Gospel of Peter

The fragmentary apocryphal Gospel of Peter exonerates Pilate of responsibility for the crucifixion of Jesus, placing it instead on Herod and the Jews who, unlike Pilate, refuse to "wash their hands". After the soldiers see three men and a cross miraculously walking out of the tomb they report to Pilate who reiterates his innocence: "I am pure from the blood of the Son of God". He then commands the soldiers not to tell anyone what they have seen so that they would not "fall into the hands of the people of the Jews and be stoned".

  Acts of Pilate

The 4th century apocryphal text that is called the Acts of Pilate presents itself in a preface (missing in some MSS) as derived from the official acts preserved in the praetorium at Jerusalem. Though the alleged Hebrew original of the document is attributed to Nicodemus, the title Gospel of Nicodemus for this fictional account only appeared in mediaeval times, after the document had been substantially elaborated. Nothing in the text suggests that it is in fact a translation from Hebrew or Aramaic.

This text gained wide credit in the Middle Ages, and has considerably affected the legends surrounding the events of the crucifixion, which, taken together, are called the Passion. Its popularity is attested by the number of languages in which it exists, each of these being represented by two or more variant "editions": Greek (the original), Coptic, Armenian and Latin versions. The Latin versions were printed several times in the 15th and 16th centuries.

One class of the Latin manuscripts contain as an appendix or continuation, the Cura Sanitatis Tiberii, the oldest form of the Veronica legend.

The Acts of Pilate consist of three sections, whose styles reveal three authors, writing at three different times.

  • The first section (1–11) contains a fanciful and dramatic circumstantial account of the trial of Jesus, based upon Luke 23.
  • The second part (12–16) regards the Resurrection.
  • An appendix, detailing the Descensus ad Infernos was added to the Greek text. This legend of a Harrowing of Hell has chiefly flourished in Latin, and was translated into many European versions. It doesn't exist in the eastern versions, Syriac and Armenian, that derive directly from Greek versions. In it, Leucius and Charinus, the two souls raised from the dead after the Crucifixion, relate to the Sanhedrin the circumstances of Christ's descent to Limbo. (Leucius Charinus is the traditional name to which many late apocryphal Acta of Apostles is attached.)

Eusebius (325), although he mentions an Acta Pilati that had been referred to by Justin and Tertullian and other pseudo-Acts of this kind, shows no acquaintance with this work. Almost surely it is of later origin, and scholars agree in assigning it to the middle of the 4th century. Epiphanius refers to an Acta Pilati similar to this, as early as 376, but there are indications that the current Greek text, the earliest extant form, is a revision of an earlier one.

Justin the Martyr – The First and Second Apology of Justin Chapter 35-"And that these things did happen, you can ascertain from the Acts of Pontius Pilate."

The Apology letters were written and addressed by name to the Roman Emperor Pius and the Roman Governor Urbicus. All three of these men lived between 138–161.

  Minor Pilate literature

There is a pseudepigrapha letter reporting on the crucifixion, purporting to have been sent by Pontius Pilate to the Emperor Claudius, embodied in the pseudepigrapha known as the Acts of Peter and Paul, of which the Catholic Encyclopedia states, "This composition is clearly apocryphal though unexpectedly brief and restrained." There is no internal relation between this feigned letter and the 4th-century Acts of Pilate (Acta Pilati).

This Epistle or Report of Pilate is also inserted into the Pseudo-Marcellus Passio sanctorum Petri et Pauli ("Passion of Saints Peter and Paul"). We thus have it in both Greek and Latin versions.

The Mors Pilati ("Death of Pilate") legend is a Latin tradition, thus treating Pilate as a monster, not a saint; it is attached usually to the more sympathetic Gospel of Nicodemus of Greek origin. The narrative of the Mors Pilati set of manuscripts is set in motion by an illness of Tiberius, who sends Volusanius to Judaea to fetch the Christ for a cure. In Judaea Pilate covers for the fact that Christ has been crucified, and asks for a delay. But Volusanius encounters Veronica who informs him of the truth but sends him back to Rome with her Veronica of Christ's face on her kerchief, which heals Tiberius. Tiberius then calls for Pontius Pilate, but when Pilate appears, he is wearing the seamless robe of the Christ and Tiberius' heart is softened, but only until Pilate is induced to doff the garment, whereupon he is treated to a ghastly execution. His body, when thrown into the Tiber, however, raises such storm demons that it is sent to Vienne (via gehennae) in France and thrown to the Rhone. That river's spirits reject it too, and the body is driven east into "Losania", where it is plunged in the bay of the lake near Lucerne, near Mont Pilatus – originally Mons Pileatus or "cloud-capped", as John Ruskin pointed out in Modern Painters — whence the uncorrupting corpse rises every Good Friday to sit on the bank and wash unavailing hands.

This version combined with anecdotes of Pilate's wicked early life were incorporated in Jacobus de Voragine's Golden Legend, which ensured a wide circulation for it in the later Middle Ages. Other legendary versions of Pilate's death exist: Antoine de la Sale reported from a travel in central Italy on some local traditions asserting that after death the body of Pontius Pilate was driven to a little lake near Vettore Peak (2478 m in the Sibillini Mountains) and plunged in. The lake, today, is still named Lago di Pilato.

In the Cornish cycle of mystery plays, the "death of Pilate" forms a dramatic scene in the Resurrexio Domini cycle. More of Pilate's fictional correspondence is found in the minor Pilate apocrypha, the Anaphora Pilati (Relation of Pilate), an Epistle of Herod to Pilate, and an Epistle of Pilate to Herod, spurious texts that are no older than the 5th century.


The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church recognized Pilate as a saint in the 6th century, based on the account in the Acts of Pilate,[34] as it does his wife, Claudia Procula, whose strange dream of Christ induced her to try to stop his crucifixion.


Plays and films dealing with life of Jesus Christ often include the character of Pontius Pilate due to the central role he played in the final days of Christ's life. Writers have found various reasons to make Pilate a main character and to fill in any unknown details of his life. Pilate has been portrayed in a number of different ways by various writers:

  1. A weak and harried bureaucrat
  2. A hard governor who rules with an iron fist
  3. A man who clearly sees how the story of Jesus will affect human history
  4. A man who regrets his role in Jesus' death (to greater or lesser extents, depending on the work)
  5. A man who is oblivious to the significance of the Galilean he condemns to death
  6. A tired governor who doesn't care and wants Jesus out of his hands
  • Pilate appears in the Mystery Plays and Passion Plays, the most notable being in the Cornish cycle in which he is summoned to Rome by Tiberius and sentenced to death for killing Jesus because this crime cannot be contained by earth, sea or water and so immediately proceeds (body and soul, rather than just soul) to hell.
  • In the Vestibule of Hell in Dante's Divine Comedy, a figure is seen "who made the great refusal". This is interpreted to be either Pontius Pilate or Pope Celestine V.
  • Pontius Pilate is portrayed in Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita as being ruthless, complex, and yet human; the novel describes his meeting with Jesus the Nazarene, his recognition of an affinity with and spiritual need for him, and his reluctant but resigned and passive handing over of him to those who wanted to kill him. Here Pilate exemplifies the statement "Cowardice is the worst of vices", and thus serves as a model, in an allegorical interpretation of the work, of all the people who have "washed their hands" by silently or actively taking part in the crimes committed by Joseph Stalin.
    • This novel inspired the The Rolling Stones 1968 song "Sympathy for the Devil". The song's title and lyrics may have been derived from Bulgakov's portrayal of the Devil. Pilate is referenced in the verse: "And I was around when Jesus Christ / had his moment of doubt and pain / made damn sure that Pilate / washed his hands, and sealed his fate".[35][36] Due to Soviet censorship, the book was not fully published in Russian until 1966 and the first UK translation, by Michael Glenny, appeared in London in 1967.[37] It was an immediate success d'estime and a favourite of (Jagger's then girlfriend) Marianne Faithfull, who pressed a copy into Jagger's hands. Thus the timeline (and, to anyone familiar with the directions from which Culture passed into the Stones circle) seems likely.[original research?]
    • The Master and Margarita and Pilate are also referred to in the Pearl Jam song "Pilate", on the album Yield.
  • Pilate appears in three stories in Karel Čapek's collection Apocryphal Tales. In "Pilate's Evening", the weary governor wonders why Jesus' friends and relatives did not come to try and save him, and wishes that they had. "Pilate's Creed" features a dialogue between Pilate and Joseph of Arimathea. Their argument reflects the conflict between sceptical humanism (Pilate's famous "What is truth?") and religious certainty (Joseph's reply, "The truth in which I believe"). "The Crucifixion" features a world-weary Pilate disgusted with the political machinations that led to Jesus' condemnation.
  • In Roger Caillois' short novel Pontius Pilate (1961), Pilate is portrayed as a vacillating colonial administrator who, during the day after Jesus' arrest, receives advice from his wife, from Judas Iscariot and from a Chaldaean friend who has amassed an immense knowledge of the world's various religions. In the end, he is shown as "a man who despite every hindrance succeeded in being brave".
  • In The Flame and the Wind, a novel by John Blackburn, the aged Pilate is wracked by guilt over Jesus' death and directs his heir to find out if Jesus was really the Son of God.
  • In the Anatole France short story The Procurator of Judaea, Pilate has retired to Sicily to become a gentleman farmer. This story is an example of the "oblivious" interpretation of Pilate. He has forgotten everything about Jesus and the part that he (Pilate) played in his trial.
  • The Dutch writer Simon Vestdijk's 1938 novel De nadagen van Pilatus (The Last Days of Pilate) presents an account of Pilate's life after the crucifixion.
  • Ann Wroe's Pontius Pilate: The Biography of an Invented Man is an attempt to provide the obscure official with a biography suitable to the man who is so influential to the Christian story. **The Royal Shakespeare Company debuted a performance piece called The Pilate Workshop in the summer of 2004, which attempted to cast Wroe's research in the form of a mystery play.
  • Pilate is mentioned in the theme song for Marvel Comics' Nextwave series in a list of enemies, along with a monster, a pirate, an electric emu, a giant sky-rat, and a midget Hitler.[citation needed]
  • Retired California politician James R. Mills wrote a novel titled Gospel According to Pontius Pilate in 1978. Pilate is described as an ordinary, cynical politician whose primary concern is to keep the local population content and maintain social order, rather than particular sense of rightness.
  • In the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar, Pilate has three songs. In "Pilate's Dream", he foresees that history will mention his name and leave him the blame of Jesus' death. In the song "Pilate and Christ", an arrogant and mocking Pilate perhaps realizing manipulation by the Sanhedrin, tries to prevent Jesus' death by sending Jesus to Herod. "You're Herod's race! You're Herod's case!". In the song "Trial Before Pilate", a sympathetic Pilate pleads with Jesus to speak to him, saying that he believes the accused has "done no wrong" but "ought to be locked up" for insanity. Receiving no answer from the silent Jesus, Pilate eventually grows exasperated and tells him, "Die if you want to, you misguided martyr." Barry Dennen played Pilate on the "Brown Album", on Broadway and in the 1973 film version of the musical, directed by Norman Jewison, with Fred Johanson taking the role in the 2000 revival, directed by Gale Edwards.
  • The Collection of Short Stories The Night Chicago Died by Tom Wessex contains a story entitled "An Afternoon on Skull Hill", in which the author supposes that Gestas, one of the thieves crucified with Christ, was in fact Pilate's illegitimate son.
  • Pontius Pilate is mentioned in the drama The Crucible by Arthur Miller. Protagonist John Proctor yells "Pontius Pilate! God will not let you wash your hands of this!", to Reverend Hale as Proctor's wife is being arrested.
  • "Pontius Pirate" in Asterix and the Black Gold is clearly a reflection of Pontius Pilate
  • In Nicolas Notovith's "The Lost Years of Jesus" (1894), an apocryphal Gospel he claims to have found in the Leh lamasery, Ladak, Pilatus is seen as an evil man and the Jews as mild and compassionate.
  • In the 2004 Superman storyline "For Tomorrow", a story with strong messianic themes, a priest dying of cancer (and a confidant of Superman) is transformed into a biological war machine, codenamed "Pilate", and rampages through a paradise dimension created by Superman. He retains enough of his humanity to regret his murders and sacrifices himself.
  • In Jeffrey Archer's 1980 collection of short stories A Quiver Full of Arrows, one of the stories, "The First Miracle" tells of how a 12-year-old Pontius Pilate meets Joseph and Mary as they arrive in Bethlehem, and gives them the food that his mother had sent him to buy.
  • In Toni Morrison's book Song of Solomon, Pilate is the name of Macon Dead's sister
  • Friedrich Nietzsche wrote that Pilate is the one powerful personality in the Gospels.
  • Hungarian psychologist Péter Popper wrote a novel in 1997 Peloni or the Testament of Pilate in which Pilate portrays himself as a cultivated Roman bewildered by Judea and the Jews, who experienced some of the divine power of Jesus and executed him on Jesus's own impulse.
  • Pilatus is the central figure in The Karma Killers a 2009 novel by Angelo Paratico[38]
  • In the 2006 musical event Pilate is portrayed by Keith Allen[39]
  • The preface to George Bernard Shaw's On the Rocks includes a dramatization of the meeting between Jesus and Pilate.

  Portrayals in film

  • In the 1935 film The Last Days of Pompeii, Pilate (played by Basil Rathbone) is portrayed as a man consumed with guilt over having crucified Jesus.
  • Richard Boone played a calm and stern, though, slightly guilt-ridden Pilate in The Robe (1953). His action in condemning Jesus is particularly singled out as unjust by the principal character Marcellus.
  • Frank Thring portrayed a somewhat jaded though shrewd Pilate in Ben-Hur (1959). He is a good friend of Judah Ben-Hur's Roman adoptive father Quintus Arrius, but he reminds Ben-Hur that he wields the emperor's own authority to keep peace in Judea.
  • Hurd Hatfield portrayed Pilate in Nicholas Ray's film King of Kings (1961). The film portrays an overtly militaristic Pilate – his caravan is attacked by Barabbas and his followers in the movie – and he is also characterised as being vain and aloof. His interest in the life and actions of Jesus before his trial and crucifixion, listening to detailed reports, is fanciful historically.
  • Jean Marais portrayed Pilate in Irving Rapper's film Pontius Pilate (1962).
  • Telly Savalas portrayed Pilate in George Stevens' film The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) as a gruff strongman. Although Pilate would prefer to crucify Barabbas rather than Jesus, he is not portrayed as being especially sympathetic towards Jesus. As Jesus is led out to crucifixion, Pilate is portrayed as thinking the words of the Apostles' Creed: "suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried." Angela Lansbury played his wife Claudia Procula in one of the many cameo roles in the film.
  • Barry Dennen, in Norman Jewison's musical Jesus Christ Superstar (1973), portrayed a cruel Pilate who after suffering a prophetic dream (which in the Gospel of Matthew is dreamed by Pilate's wife) is very reluctant to put Christ to death, but succumbs to mob pressures.
  • Rod Steiger portrayed Pilate in Franco Zeffirelli's TV miniseries Jesus of Nazareth (1977). In this version, Pilate is angered by Jesus' refusal to defend himself. After condemning Jesus to death, Pilate is told by one of his aides that he cannot release Barabbas, "an assassin and enemy of Rome." Pilate replies, "I wonder...Who is the real enemy?" In Anthony Burgess's novel Man of Nazareth, based on Jesus of Nazareth, Pilate is portrayed as being more sympathetic towards Jesus, recognising the validity of his doctrine and even telling Jesus he is free to go, although Jesus tells Pilate he has to condemn him to death.
  • In the comedy film Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979), Pilate is portrayed by Michael Palin as a foolish man who has trouble pronouncing the letter "r" (pronouncing it like a "w"). He is also unable to remember who is in his prisons, and seems to be easily offended, as in the scene where he feels his guards are "insulting" his friend Biggus Dickus when they laugh at his name. Pilate later chides the Jewish crowds for laughing at Biggus Dickus' lisp, telling them "This man commands a cwack legion!" and "He wanks as high as any in Wome!" It has also been speculated that his impediment is the reason the crowd chose Barabbas over Jesus in the Passion narrative.[40]
  • David Bowie portrayed Pilate in Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), based on the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis. In the film, Pilate is portrayed as world-weary and somewhat sympathetic towards Jesus, but believes he has to die to preserve the local status quo.
  • In the 1999 film Jesus, Pilate is played by Gary Oldman as a cynical manipulator of the events surrounding Christ's death.
  • In the 2000 re-make of Jesus Christ Superstar for video, Pilate was played by Dutch-born actor Fred Johanson. Johanson's portrayal was different from Dennen's, as he was portrayed as a more Nazi-style macho figure, the costume utilized was noted by critics to be similar to that of Street Fighter villain M. Bison.
  • In Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ (2004), Pilate is played by Bulgarian actor Hristo Shopov. Pilate speaks fluent Aramaic as well as Latin (his first language) in this film. He is extremely reluctant to sentence Jesus to death and appears very sympathetic to him. This is partly because of his wife Claudia's strange dreams and the value he places on superstition. As a result, he only condemns Jesus to death when he feels that he has no other option. He is visibly shocked and frightened of the Jewish mob's relentlessness when he is asked to crucify Jesus and release Barabbas.


  Primary sources

The references to Pilate, outside the New Testament:

  Secondary sources

  • Bond, Helen K., Pontius Pilate in History and Interpretation (2004).
  • Carter, Warren, Pontius Pilate: Portraits of a Roman Governor (2003).
  • Taylor, Joan E. "Pontius Pilate and the Imperial Cult in Roman Judaea," New Testament Studies 52 (2006) 555–582.
  • Wroe, Ann, Pilate: The Biography of an Invented Man (1999).


  1. ^ Wells, John C. (1990). Longman pronunciation dictionary. Harlow, England: Longman. ISBN 0-582-05383-8.  entry "Pontius Pilate"
  2. ^ "Britannica Online: Pontius Pilate". Britannica.com. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/460341/Pontius-Pilate. Retrieved 21 March 2012. 
  3. ^ Jona Lendering. "Judaea". Livius.org. http://www.livius.org/jo-jz/judaea/judaea.htm. Retrieved 21 March 2012. 
  4. ^ Flavius Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 18.89.
  5. ^ a b c Harris, Stephen L., Understanding the Bible. Palo Alto: Mayfield. 1985.
  6. ^ "John 18:38-39 ESV – My Kingdom is Not of This World". Bible Gateway. http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=John%2018:33-40&version=ESV. Retrieved 9 June 2012. 
  7. ^ Jerry Vardaman, A New Inscription Which Mentions Pilate as 'Prefect' , Journal of Biblical Literature Vol. 81, 1962. pp 70–71.
  8. ^ Craig A. Evans, Jesus and the ossuaries, Volume 44, Baylor University Press, 2003. pp 45–47
  9. ^ "Pilate Inscription – Biblical Archaeology in Israel (Bible History Online)". Bible-history.com. http://www.bible-history.com/empires/pilate.html. Retrieved 21 March 2012. 
  10. ^ a b Eusebius, Historia Ecclesiae ii: 7
  11. ^ Marcello De Antoniis. "Cenni Storici" (in (Italian)). Bisenti.eu. http://www.bisenti.eu/ilterritorio/cennistorici/index.html. Retrieved 21 March 2012. 
  12. ^ Agapius, Universal History trans. A. Vasiliev, 1909. http://www.tertullian.org/fathers/agapius_history_02_part2.htm
  13. ^ The word Tiberieum is otherwise unknown: some scholars speculate that it was some kind of structure, perhaps a temple, built to honor the emperor Tiberius.
  14. ^ Inventory number is AE 1963 no. 104
  15. ^ Herry Vardaman, "A New Inscription Which Mentions Pilate as "Prefect,"" Journal of Biblical Literature 81 (1962) 70–71.
  16. ^ H.H. Ben-Sasson, A History of the Jewish People, Harvard University Press, 1976, ISBN 0-674-39731-2, page 246: "When Archelaus was deposed from the ethnarchy in 6 AD, Judea proper, Samaria and Idumea were converted into a Roman province under the name Iudaea."
  17. ^ Doug Linder. "law.umkc.edu". law.umkc.edu. http://www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/jesus/jesuskeyfigures.html. Retrieved 21 March 2012. 
  18. ^ "Administrative and military organization of Roman Palestine". http://www.usd.edu/~clehmann/erp/Palestine/administ.htm. Retrieved 24 December 2008. 
  19. ^ "The trial of Jesus: illustrated from Talmud and Roman law – Septimus Buss". Google Books. http://books.google.com/books?id=ElINAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA92&lpg=PA92&dq=classical+roman+law+blasphemy&source=bl&ots=CyKy2iZbQN&sig=kD9puUh_WZSXd5mBEUYJYoG8c_s&hl=en&sa=X&oi=book_result&resnum=7&ct=result#PPA111,M1. Retrieved 21 March 2012. 
  20. ^ "Luke 23:1–2 NIV – Then the whole assembly rose and led". Bible Gateway. http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=luke%2023:1-2&version=31. Retrieved 21 March 2012. 
  21. ^ "LacusCurtius • Roman Law – Majestas and Perduellio (Smith's Dictionary, 1875)". Penelope.uchicago.edu. http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/secondary/SMIGRA*/Majestas.html. Retrieved 21 March 2012. 
  22. ^ "Luke 19:1–9 ; NIV; – Zacchaeus the Tax Collector – Jesus". Bible Gateway. http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke%2019:1-9%20;&version=31;. Retrieved 21 March 2012. 
  23. ^ Miller, 49–50.
  24. ^ Wise, Isaac Mayer (1880). History of the Hebrews' Second Commonwealth: With Special Reference to Its Literature, Culture, and the Origin of Rabbinism and Christianity. v. 41; v. 992. Bloch & co.. http://books.google.com/?id=Cpx86I5IapMC&pg=PA253&lpg=PA253&dq=pilate+slaughter+of+Samaritans. 
  25. ^ a b Anchor Bible Dictionary vol. 5. (1992) pg. 399–400. Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc.
  26. ^ a b Funk, Robert W., Roy W. Hoover, and the Jesus Seminar. The five gospels. HarperSanFrancisco. 1993.
  27. ^ Josephus, Jewish War 2.9.2–4
  28. ^ Jewish Encyclopedia article on Pilate, retrieved 5 May 2009
  29. ^ a b Philo, On The Embassy of Gauis Book XXXVIII 299–305
  30. ^ Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 18.3.2
  31. ^ Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 18.4.1
  32. ^ Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 18.4.2
  33. ^ "Coptic Orthodox Diocese of the Southern United States – Q&A". Suscopts.org. http://www.suscopts.org/q&a/index.php?qid=1120&catid=564. Retrieved 21 March 2012. 
  34. ^  "Pontius Pilate". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 1913. 
  35. ^ Cruickshank, Douglas. ""Sympathy for the Devil" - Douglas Cruickshank". Dir.salon.com. http://dir.salon.com/story/ent/masterpiece/2002/01/14/sympathy/index.html. Retrieved 21 March 2012. 
  36. ^ /sympathy_for_the_devil "News". Rolling Stone. http://www.rollingstone.com/news/story/6595877 /sympathy_for_the_devil. Retrieved 21 March 2012. 
  37. ^ Harvill Press, London, 1967
  38. ^ "THE KARMA KILLERS: A Novel (9781440142659): ANGELO PARATICO: Books". Amazon.com. http://www.amazon.com/dp/1440142653. Retrieved 21 March 2012. 
  39. ^ http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0795422/
  40. ^ "Monty Python's Life of Brian Movie Review – The Immaculate Edition of Life of Brian". Classicfilm.about.com. 29 February 2012. http://classicfilm.about.com/od/comedies/fr/Life_of_Brian.htm. Retrieved 21 March 2012. 

  External links

Pontius Pilate
Preceded by
Valerius Gratus
Prefect of Iudaea
Succeeded by



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