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.