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.

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