Pontius Pilate: The Man Who Sentenced Jesus Christ to Death

Pontius Pilate, the man who sentenced Christ to death, is one of the most controversial and mysterious figures in human history.

Dec 23, 2019By Vladislav Tchakarov, BA History
Christ before Pilate, Mihály Munkácsy, 1881, Hungarian National Gallery; Pilate washing his hands, by Nicolaus Mosman, after Matthias Stom, 1744-1787, The British Museum.

Pontius Pilate is one of the most controversial and at the same time mysterious figures in human history. Even though it was not his intention, his actions led to the creation of a world religion. Just think, if Jesus Christ had not been crucified, would Christianity exist today? At least on this scale?

In this article, you will find everything you need to know about Pilate and more.


Who Was Pontius Pilate?

Christ before Pontius Pilate, 493 – 526, Basilica of Saint Apollinaire Nuovo, via Europeana.

Pilate Pontius was a Roman prefect of Judea who is famous for condemning Christ to death. Unfortunately, historians have little confirmed information about the man who, according to the Gospel of Matthew, washed his hands before sending Christ to the cross.

There is little archaeological evidence of the governor’s existence. An inscription was discovered in the 1970s in the Roman city of Caesarea, in present-day Israel. Most of what is being said about this historical figure are legends and unconfirmed stories that stand on the borderline between history and faith.

The intrigues surrounding Pontius Pilate are many – they tell of a secret connection with Judas and the other apostles, or even of undisclosed secret conversations with Jesus Christ.

According to the four Gospels, Pilate condemns Jesus after charges from the Jewish people. Thus, the New Testament casts all the blame for the crucifixion of Christ on the Jews. This way, the Romans removed any possible blame from their hands and acted as if they were the people that would try to stop the crucifixion if there was any chance.

The Four Evangelists, Jacob Jordaens, ca. 1625-1630, The Louvre.

Greek and Roman sources, however, present another narrative complementing the image of Pilate Pontius. He was cruel, ruthless, and knew how to do his job. He ruled one of the most turbulent provinces of the Roman Empire – Judea, for 10 years which was an incredibly long period for these times. This gives enough evidence for his incredible leadership skills.



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Pontius Pilate In Judea

Roman aqueduct in Caesarea.

When he arrived in Judea, Pilate’s duties were primarily military. He maintained a peaceful environment in the Roman province. It is good to know that Caesarea Maritima was the capital and not Jerusalem, as you may think.

Like every Roman, Pilate Pontius was an extremely religious person. Two were the hallmarks of the Romans – they were merciless warriors during a battle and extremely pious regarding the observance of ordinances to their gods.

For the Romans, religion was the pivot of their existence, and Pilate was no different from that description. For all the rulers of the empire, the cult of gods and politics were completely merged.

Bronze coin of Pontius Pilate, 30-31 CE, The British Museum.

Among the few shreds of evidence of Pilate’s rule is an inscription erected in Caesarea during the time of Emperor Tiberius. Coins minted during this time also prove that Pontius Pilate is a historical figure.


Pontius Pilate’s First Orders In Judaea

Pilate washing his hands, by Nicolaus Mosman, after Matthias Stom, 1744-1787, The British Museum.

According to Roman sources, Pilate is far from the Christian image attributed to him in the Bible. He knew how to terrify the crowd and maintain order in a disobedient territory.

His first actions as a prosecutor in Judea almost ended in a blood bath. His orders were for Roman soldiers to be sent to Jerusalem. However, the flags they carried violated the first two of the Ten Commandments. The offended Jews protested in front of Pilate who planned ways of scaring them off.

The Roman quelled the discontent by staging a collision. Pilate ordered his soldiers to draw their swords as soon as he brought the Jews into his palace. His hopes were that they would flee. On the contrary, the Jews fell to their knees without trying to fight back or escape.

The meaning behind this was that they would rather perish than accept that the Romans could bring flags that offend Moses’ law. As his primary task was to maintain peace among the population, Pilate receded.


The Role Of Pilate In The History Of Jesus

The Sacrament of OrdinationNicolas Poussin, ca. 1636-1640, Kimbell Art Museum.

The truth is that Jesus was not the first Messiah to appear in Judea. There were others before him, with other new religious beliefs. The Romans knew about them and always followed them. The trial of Jesus began on the basis of accusations, sent by leading figures in society. This proves that the aristocracy in Jerusalem had a finger in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

After the Last Supper, Jesus was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane. There are many different versions of the actual conviction of Christ. According to one, he was convicted on the very next day on the orders of Pilate. After the verdict, Pilate washed his hands and read a few prayers to the gods, which was common practice for Roman rulers to start the day.

Christ before Pilate, Jacopo Tintoretto, 1566-1567, Scuola Grande di San Rocco

According to another, there were several trials before the actual conviction. More interestingly, it is said that Pilate almost agreed to release Jesus during one of the trials. Other sources claim that Pilate believed that Jesus was innocent and even said it when they arrested him. According to other stories, Pilate did not embrace the truth that Jesus was innocent simply because he was too afraid for himself and his position in the Roman Empire.

Little do we actually know about Pontius Pilate. However, what we do know, is that he existed and was the prefect of Judea at the time when Jesus was convicted and crucified. It is all up to historians and archeologists to reveal the real truth behind one of the most important figures in human history.


Pontius Pilate’s Disappearance

Christ before Pilate, Mihály Munkácsy, 1881, Hungarian National Gallery

There is almost nothing said about Pilate after his 10-year rule of Judea. He was sent back to Rome where he literally disappeared. Nothing was ever written about him after his return.

Some believe that he was executed by Emperor Caligula or was exiled after his latest years of rule were unsuccessful. Other stories tell that he eventually accepted Christianity and even tried to turn the emperor towards that same faith. For all we know, he could have even received another position and continued his life in the Roman Empire.


Pontius Pilate In Art

“What is truth?” Christ and Pilate, Ge Nikolay Nikolayevich, 1890, Tretyakov Gallery.

Depictions of Pontius Pilate in art have been very popular from early Christian times, mainly after the 4th century CE, and all the way till the present.

He is commonly depicted with Jesus Christ or washing his hands in guilt. Although there are many artworks adopting this theme, one of the most strange portrayals of Pilate washing his hands is a painting by J.M.W. Turner. The artwork was made in 1830 but its use of color could be called impressionist at a time when impressionism was non-existent.

Another famous and also controversial depiction of Jesus with Pilate is Nikolai Ge’s What is Truth (1890). This was one of the favorite artworks of the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy. Most critics, however, were shocked by the unconventional, shadowy figure of Jesus.

Furthermore, many have chosen to depict Pilate at the moment he shouts “Ecce Homo” (Behold the Man) while presenting Christ to the Jewish people shortly before the crucifixion. Notable works presenting this scene include paintings by Hieronymus Bosch, Titian, Mantegna, Caravaggio, Antonio Ciceri, and so many more.

Pilate has also appeared as a character in literature with a major role in medieval passion plays and multiple literary works dealing with the life of Christ.

Besides, he has appeared on the big screen in more or less popular films played by a long series of actors, the most unexpected of whom was David Bowie in Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988).



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By Vladislav TchakarovBA HistoryVladislav Tchakarov is a History student at Sofia University in Bulgaria and a contributing writer at TheCollector. Originally from Bulgaria, he moved to the Netherlands to work and study Business Management before realizing that his passion for history is too great which lead to his return to Bulgaria and the beginning of his History studies.