Pontius Pilate: A Character Sketch

Although his birthdate is unknown, Pontius Pilate was born to the Pontii clan, possibly in what was known as the Samnium region of central Italy, as Marcus Pontius Pilates. He was the prefect, or governor, of Judaea under the reign of the emporer Tiberius.

We know little more than this. But much of what we do know comes from the Bible, which depicts him as a strict, headstrong authoritarian. But also as weak and vascillating, easily swayed by crowds or when placed under pressure.

Secular historians actually doubted his existence until a limestone inscription of his name was uncovered during a 1961 archeological dig in Caeserea Maritima, Israel.

Best known for Christ’s death

He is best known for presiding over Christ’s trial and execution.

As governor he was required to protect Rome’s interests, while also attempting to keep peace in a volatile region, with little military support. Therefore, Pilate became adept at trying to appease both sides.

So when the Jewish authorities took Christ to Pilate for execution, accusing him of being a political threat, he choose what was at that moment most politically expedient. Placating the crowd to prevent a riot, he sent Christ to be crucified.

His duties as governor

According to tradition, Pilate was a Roman knight, which were described by Cicero as “the strength of the republic” or as “the most upright and respected of men”. But in Palestine, where they were publicans, or tax collectors, the Rabbis ranked them with harlots, heathens, highwaymen, and murderers.

As governor, in fact, Pilate was required to oversee tax collection and construction projects, as well as maintain order in the territory. He accomplished this by any means necessary, including cruelty and executions.

As oppressive foreign rulers, Roman officials were already greatly disliked in Israel. But Pilate was particularly resented after he ordered his troops to carry ensigns with worship images of the emporer, and inscribed coins with pagan religious symbols. Both of which went against Jewish religious convictions.

After his particularly cruel attack on the Samaritans at Mount Gerezim in 36 AD, Pilate was sent to stand trial in Rome for cruelty, oppression, and executing men without proper trials.

His death

According to the historian Eusebius of Ceaserea, Pilate was then ordered by the emporer Caliluga to kill himself. Other accounts, however, claim that he may have simply been executed, or that he committed suicide after being exiled from Rome. His death is presumed to have taken place around 39 AD.

Others hold that his death was related to his later conversion to Christianity. Both he and wife are venerated by the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church as saints, and their feast day is June 25.

However, as no proof of conversion exists, this notion is probably based on the episodes of Pilate’s wife telling him to have nothing to do “with that innocent man,” and Pilate washing his hands as a claim to his innocence of Christ’s blood.

His relationship to truth

We do know from the book of John that Pontius Pilate was cynical of truth. When asked if he was a king, Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this reason I have been born, and for this reason I have come into the world, that I should testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.”

To which Pilate derisively responded, “What is truth?” (John 18:37-38 WEB.) And then delivered Christ up to be crucified.

Although we cannot know for sure if Pilate ever did find the truth he was so skeptical of, we do know that, sadly, he has gone down in history as a calculating politician who chose political correctness over truth.

May Pilate’s life be a lesson to us in these times of political correctness. We can choose to be on the politically correct side or on God’s side. We can’t have it both ways.

The fear of man lays a snare, but whoever trusts in the Lord is safe.

Proverbs 29:25 ESV


Images of Pilate: First two from by | 3rd by by Antonio Ciseri.

2 replies on “Pontius Pilate: A Character Sketch”

This is absolutely fascinating. That Pilate was tried for such cruelty, dying either by his own hand or execution, and that he might have been considered a saint is incredible. It still begs the question–how could anyone confronted with God Incarnate, holy and pure, powerful in His truth and love for people, walk away from Him?


I too was surprised too, Dayle, that some consider him a saint. If Eusebius reported correctly, it doesn’t seem he would have had the time to become a Christian. But then, both historical and Biblical accounts are often condensed. Years can pass between one chapter and the next, so it could be possible. And we know that God is willing to forgive even henious acts, as for the apostle Paul. I also found it interesting that secular historians doubted his existence. Yet the Bible continues to be proven true, over and over! And yes, you’re right – how can anyone just walk away from such great truth?


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