The Historicity of Pontius Pilate-Part IV

Continuing with the discussion of Philo,  there is a brief reference by Josephus in his Antiquities of the Jews.  There Josephus tells of Philo’s selection by the Alexandrian Jewish community as their principal representative before the Roman Emperor Gaius  known more popularly as Caligula. He says that Philo agreed to represent the Alexandrian Jews in regard to civil disorder that had developed  in Alexandria.  Josephus describes Philo as being skilled in philosophy, and that he was brother to an official called Alexander the Alabarch, that is a customs official. According to Josephus, Philo and the larger Jewish community refused to treat the emperor as a god, to erect statues in honor of the emperor, and to build altars and temples to the emperor. Josephus says Philo believed that God actively supported this refusal.

Josephus’ complete comments about Philo:

“There was now a tumult arisen at Alexandria, between the Jewish inhabitants and the Greeks; and three ambassadors were chosen out of each party that were at variance, who came to Gaius. Now one of these ambassadors from the people of Alexandria was Apion, who uttered many blasphemies against the Jews; and, among other things that he said, he charged them with neglecting the honors that belonged to Caesar; for that while all who were subject to the Roman empire built altars and temples to Gaius, and in other regards universally received him as they received the gods, these Jews alone thought it a dishonorable thing for them to erect statues in honor of him, as well as to swear by his name. Many of these severe things were said by Apion, by which he hoped to provoke Gaius to anger at the Jews, as he was likely to be. But Philo, the principal of the Jewish embassage, a man eminent on all accounts, brother to Alexander the Alabarch,  and one not unskillful in philosophy, was ready to betake himself to make his defense against those accusations; but Gaius prohibited him, and bid him begone; he was also in such a rage, that it openly appeared he was about to do them some very great mischief. So Philo being thus affronted, went out, and said to those Jews who were about him, that they should be of good courage, since Gaius’s words indeed showed anger at them, but in reality had already set God against himself.”

The strongest evidence for the historicity of Pilate, however, is the so-called Pilate Stone, which was discovered in 1961 by archaeologist Dr. Antonio Frova in the amphitheater at Caesarea Maritima. The artifact is now in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem as inventory Number AE 1963 no. 104. This stone confirms the historicity, as well as the rank of Pontius Pilate as Prefect. The stone has been dated to 30 AD.  The stone bears the inscription which translated is:

To the Divine Augusti [this] Tiberieum …Pontius Pilate …prefect of Judea …has dedicated [this]

A photograph of the Pilate Stone can bee seen at the following website:

Note how clearly the word “Pilatus” can be read in the second line.

The Historicity of Pontius Pilate III

Other historians of the first century, such as Philo of Alexandria, also wrote of Pilate.

Philo of Alexandria, sometimes known as Philo Judaeus, was a first-century philosopher. Philo lived from 20 BC to 50 AD, although some historians have placed his birth date in the year 30 BC. He was thus a contemporary of both Pilate and of Jesus.  A member of the Jewish Diaspora, he was raised with a Jewish and Greek education.  For a number of reasons, he had an impressive status in a non-Jewish city like Alexandria.  First, Philo’s brother, named Alexander, was an alabarch, which is a customs official at a harbor. Second, Biblical tradition has it that Philo’s nephew Marcus Julius Alexander married Bernice, daughter of Herod Agrippa I (Acts 25:13; 23; 26:30).  Third, as Philo related about himself,  he was regarded by his people as having unusual prudence, due to his age, education, and knowledge.

In 40 AD, when he was about age 60, he was selected by the Jews of Alexandria to be the emissary to Caligula in Rome on behalf of the Jews. He was chosen to confront the emperor in the wake of Caligula’s introduction of his statues in Jewish synagogues. His selection demonstrates the stature he had among the Jews in Alexandria.

In the text known as the Embassy to Caligula (Legatio ad Caium, xxxviii), which was probably written after 41 AD, Philo of Alexandria includes a letter by the Jewish prince Herod Agrippa to the Emperor Caligula, in which the Caligula’s attempt to have his statue erected in the Temple at Jerusalem is compared to Pilate’s attempt to have shields with pagan inscriptions placed in his Jerusalem palace. According to the Philo,  Pilate was corrected by the emperor  Tiberius, because of this letter.

Philo’s full account is as follows:

Pilate was an official who had been appointed  prefect of Judaea. With the intention of annoying the Jews rather than of honoring Tiberius, he set up gilded shields in Herod’s palace in the Holy City. They bore no figure and nothing else that was forbidden, but only the briefest possible inscription, which stated two things – the name of the dedicator and that of the person in whose honor the dedication was made.

But when the Jews at large learnt of this action, which was indeed already widely known, they chose as their spokesmen the king’s (Herod the Great) four sons, who enjoyed prestige and rank equal to that of kings, his other descendants, and their own officials, and besought Pilate to undo his innovation in the shape of the shields, and not to violate their native customs, which had hitherto been invariably preserved inviolate by kings and emperors alike.

When Pilate, who was a man of inflexible, stubborn and cruel disposition, obstinately refused, they shouted: ‘Do not cause a revolt! Do not cause a war! Do not break the peace! Disrespect done to our ancient laws brings no honor to the emperor. Do not make Tiberius an excuse for insulting our nation. He does not want any of our traditions done away with. If you say that he does, show us some decree or letter or something of the sort, so that we may cease troubling you and appeal to our master by means of an embassy.’

This last remark exasperated Pilate most of all, for he was afraid that if they really sent an embassy, they would bring accusations against the rest of his administration as well, specifying in detail his venality, his violence, his thefts, his assaults, his abusive behavior, his frequent executions of untried prisoners, and his endless savage ferocity.

So, as he was a spiteful and angry person, he was in a serious dilemma; for he had neither the courage to remove what he had once set up, nor the desire to do anything which would please his subjects, but at the same time he was well aware of Tiberius’ firmness on these matters. When the Jewish officials saw this, and realized that Pilate was regretting what he had done, although he did not wish to show it, they wrote a letter to Tiberius, pleading their case as forcibly as they could.

What words, what threats Tiberius uttered against Pilate when he read it! It would be superfluous to describe his anger, although he was not easily moved to anger, since his reaction speaks for itself.

For immediately, without even waiting until the next day, he wrote to Pilate, reproaching and rebuking him a thousand times for his new-fangled audacity and telling him to remove the shields at once and have them taken from the capital to the coastal city of Caesarea […], to be dedicated in the temple of  Augustus. This was duly done. In this way both the honor of the emperor and the traditional policy regarding Jerusalem were alike preserved.

 We will continue next week reviewing Philo of Alexandria.

The Historicity of Pontius Pilate Part II

Last week we reviewed the works of Josephus, now we turn to Tacitus, a first century Roman senator and historian, likewise mentions Pilate, in his Annals, as the man who ordered the crucifixion of Jesus.

Who was Tacitus? Publius (or Gaius) Cornelius Tacitus, c. AD 56 – after 117, was a senator and a historian of the Roman Empire. The surviving portions of his two major works—the Annals and the Histories—examine the reigns of the Roman Emperors Tiberius, Claudius, Nero as well as those who reigned in the Year of Four Emperors AD 69. These two works span the history of the Roman Empire from the death of Augustus in AD 14 to the years of the First Jewish Roman War in 70 AD. Tacitus is considered one of the greatest writers of the Silver Age of Literature of the Roman Empire.

The context of the portion of the Annals, which relates to Pilate, is the about the event of the great six day fire that consumed much of Rome.

Tacitus wrote of Pilate as follows:

Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judæa, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their center and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired. Annals of Tacitus Book 15, Chapter 44.  This excerpt was written in 116 AD.

Why should we credit this report?

Tacitus makes use of the official sources of the Roman state: the  acta senatus (the minutes of the session of the Senate) and the acta diurnal populi Romani (a collection of the acts of the government and news of the court and capital). He also read collections of emperors’ speeches, such as Tiberius and Cladius.  He is generally seen as a scrupulous historian who paid careful attention to his sources. The minor inaccuracies in the Annals may be due to Tacitus dying before he had finished (and therefore proof-read) his work.

Tacitus cites some of his sources directly, among them Cluvius Rufus, Fabius Rusticus and  Pliny the Elder, who had written Bella Germaniae and a historical work which was the continuation of that of Aufidius. Tacitus also uses collections of letters (epistolarium). He also took information from exitus illustrium virorum. These were a collection of books by those who were antithetical to the emperors. They tell of sacrifices by martyrs to freedom, especially the men who committed suicide.

Tacitus’ historical style owes some debt to Sallust. The Annals, however, are written from source or primary documents, and his intimate knowledge of the Flavian period, and are therefore thought to be more accurate. His historiography offers penetrating insights into the psychology of power politics, blending straightforward descriptions of events, moral lessons, and tightly focused dramatic accounts. Tacitus’s own declaration regarding his approach to history, Annals 1, I, is well known:

“inde consilium mihi … tradere … sine ira et studio, quorum causas procul habeo.”

my purpose is to relate … without either anger or zeal, motives from which I am far removed.


The Historicity of Pontius Pilate Part I

The historicity of Pilate deals with the issue of analyzing the historical record to determine whether Pilate lived, as well as whether the crucial event of Christianity, the crucifixion, actually happened.

Historicity is to be distinguished from reconstructing the historical life of Pilate. Historicity deals with an examination of historical records to determine whether a person is a historical person as differentiated from a person of myth or legend. In this case, we are solely looking at the issue of whether there is historical evidence of Pilate, apart from the Gospels. I say apart from the Gospels, because a skeptic could easily say that the Gospels were written with an agenda in mind and thus may be biased. For the same reason, I have excluded the numerous writings of First and Second Century AD Christian clerics who wrote of Pilate. We are in this lecture solely looking at historical records from sources other than the Gospels or early Christian writers.   In addition, we will look at archaeological evidence, if any, concerning Pontius Pilate.

Now why is historicity so important? Christianity is a religion which is founded upon a specific person, Jesus, who lived, and who engaged in doing specific acts, and who died. The crucial event is the crucifixion and the instrumental person involved in the crucifixion is Pontius Pilate. If Pilate did not exist, then one of the basic foundation stones of Christianity is removed. Does Christianity survive if Pilate did not exist?

So let us determine if Pilate existed.

There are many contemporary written records of Pilate.  We shall review the works of Josephus, Tacitus, Philo of Alexandria, and Pliny the Younger.

The first is by Titus Flavius Josephus, who wrote The Jewish Wars around 75 AD and the Antiquities of the Jews in 94-95 AD.

First as background: Joseph ben Matthias, later Titus Falvius Josephus, was born in Jerusalem around 37 AD, just a few years after the crucifixion of Jesus. His father was of priestly descent and his mother claimed royal descent.  As a general, he fought against the Romans in the First Roman Jewish War. He surrendered after the siege of Jotapata to Vespasian about whom Josephus made the prophecy that Vespasian would rule the world. Vespasian kept Josephus as a hostage and as a translator.  Later, after Vespasian became Emperor, Josephus was granted his freedom and took the Flavian family name.  He became close friends with Vespasian son, Titus, and fully defected to Rome.  Thereafter, as Titus besieged Jerusalem, Josephus acted as his translator.  With this background, as a Jew who defected to Rome, it is highly unlikely that Josephus would write accounts of Pilate, if Pilate were not a historical personage.  In addition, a person who grew up in Judea just a year after Pontius Pilate was forced from his Prefecture, he would have heard stories of the brutal Prefect from relatives, friends, and elders.   Josephus clearly identified Pilate as the Prefect of Judea who crucified Jesus.

Josephus wrote in Chapter 3, Book XVIII of his Antiquities:

Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man; for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was [the] Christ. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.

Josephus wrote in The Jewish War 2.169-174 about the greatest atrocity Pilate committed against the Jews:

Pilate, being sent by Tiberius as prefect to Judaea, introduced into Jerusalem by night and under cover the effigies of Caesar which are called standards.     This proceeding, when day broke, aroused immense excitement among the Jews; those on the spot were in consternation, considering their laws to have been trampled under-foot, as those laws permit no image to be erected in the city; while the indignation of the townspeople stirred the country folk, who flocked together in crowds.     Hastening after Pilate to Caesarea, the Jews implored him to remove the standards from Jerusalem and to uphold the laws of their ancestors. When Pilate refused, they fell prostrate around his palace and for five whole days and nights remained motionless in that position.     On the ensuing day Pilate took his seat on his tribunal in the great stadium and summoning the multitude, with the apparent intention of answering them, gave the arranged signal to his armed soldiers to surround the Jews.     Finding themselves in a ring of troops, three deep, the Jews were struck dumb at this unexpected sight. Pilate, after threatening to cut them down, if they refused to admit Caesar’s images, signaled to the soldiers to draw their swords.     Thereupon the Jews, as by concerted action, flung themselves in a body on the ground, extended their necks, and exclaimed that they were ready rather to die than to transgress the law. Overcome with astonishment at such intense religious zeal, Pilate gave orders for the immediate removal of the standards from Jerusalem.

Josephus writes further concerning Pilate in The Antiquities: 18.55-59:

Now Pilate, the prefect of Judaea, when he brought his army from Caesarea and removed it to winter quarters in Jerusalem, took a bold step in subversion of the Jewish practices, by introducing into the city the busts of the emperor that were attached to the military standards, for our law forbids the making of images.   It was for this reason that the previous prefects, when they entered the city, used standards that had no such ornaments. Pilate was the first to bring the images into Jerusalem and set them up, doing it without the knowledge of the people, for he entered at night.   But when the people discovered it, they went in a throng to Caesarea and for many days entreated him to take away the images. He refused to yield, since to do so would be an outrage to the emperor; however, since they did not cease entreating him, on the sixth day he secretly armed and placed his troops in position, while he himself came to the speaker’s stand. This had been constructed in the stadium, which provided concealment for the army that lay in wait.  When the Jews again engaged in supplication, at a pre-arranged signal he surrounded them with his soldiers and threatened to punish them at once with death if they did not put an end to their tumult and return to their own places.  But they, casting themselves prostrate and baring their throats, declared that they had gladly welcomed death rather than make bold to transgress the wise provisions of the laws. Pilate, astonished at the strength of their devotion to the laws, straightway removed the images from Jerusalem and brought them back to Caesarea.

On one occasion, when the soldiers under his command came to Jerusalem, he caused them to bring with them their ensigns, upon which were the usual images of the emperor. The ensigns were brought in privily by night, put their presence was soon discovered. Immediately multitudes of excited Jews hastened to Caesarea to petition him for the removal of the obnoxious ensigns. For five days he refused to hear them, but on the sixth he took his place on the judgment seat, and when the Jews were admitted he had them surrounded with soldiers and threatened them with instant death unless they ceased to trouble him with the matter. The Jews thereupon flung themselves on the ground and bared their necks, declaring that they preferred death to the violation of their laws. Pilate, unwilling to slay so many, yielded the point and removed the ensigns. (The Standards- Josephus, War 2.169-174, Antiq 18.55-59)

At another time he used the sacred treasure of the temple, called corban (qorban), to pay for bringing water into Jerusalem by an aqueduct. A crowd came together and clamored against him; but he had caused soldiers dressed as civilians to mingle with the multitude, and at a given signal they fell upon the rioters and beat them so severely with staves that the riot was quelled. (The Aqueduct- Josephus, War 2.175-177, Antiq 18.60-62)

Why  should we believe the accounts of Josephus?  First, as  Jew he might be considered to be antagonistic to Christianity.   Second, as a member of the Flavian family, he is clearly antagonistic to Christianity.  He became thoroughly Roman and adopted their views and attitudes.  He was present at the siege of Jerusalem assisting the  Romans in the siege.  His stated position throughout his histories is to record events accurately.  Note his correct usage of the word “Prefect” for the title of Pilate in Judea.  Note also that Josephus was born just after the departure of Pilate form Judea and thus wrote of things that were within living memory.  Finally, did he have a reason to lie?  If so, I can not discern it.