“Suffered under Pontius Pilate.”

In both the Nicene and Apostles Creed, a Roman governor gets mentioned by name—specifically so the creeds can cement Christ Jesus’s death at a specific point in history: Σταυρωθέντα τε ὑπὲρ ἡμῶν ἐπὶ Ποντίου Πιλάτου/stavrothénta te ypér epí Pontíu Pilátu, “and he was crucified for us under Pontíus Pilátus.” This was the guy who ruled Jerusalem and Judea on behalf of Rome for a decade, from the years 26 to 36. The way Romans did names was family name (nomen) first, so in English he’d actually be Pilatus Pontius. But English-speakers just tend to call him by his cognomen, his nickname: Pilate.

Pontius was the fifth governor of Judea. The reason we know so much more about him than his predecessors or successors, is obviously ’cause Jesus was executed under his rule. We know of him from the gospels, from Flavius Josephus, from Philo of Alexandria, and from Publius Cornelius Tacitus.
The Pilate stone, on display in Jerusalem. Wikimedia
Plus in 1961 archaeologist Antonio Frova found the Pilate stone, a limestone block with “Pilatus” on it, dating from Pontius’s term, and confirming he’s not fiction.

Unfortunately after Jesus’s death and resurrection, a lot of Christians made up a lot of fanfiction about him. It means Pontius’s history thereafter isn’t all that reliable. But I’ll briefly go over what we have.

Pontius pɑn'ti.us was a member of the Pontii family, a plebeian-caste family from south central Italy. A number of Pontii held high positions in the Roman government, including consul; a few later became leaders in the ancient Christian church, and are considered saints. Pilatus pi'læt.us was his cognomen, a nickname which distinguished one Pontius from another. Since it means “skilled with a javelin,” he might’ve got it by his military skill—’cause he did have to be serve in the Roman cavalry before he could hold office. He was married, Mt 27.19 and later Christian tradition named her Prókla (Latin, Prócula) and made a saint of her. Even later traditions named her Claudia, and claimed she was related to the Caesars… although probably just to write dramatic fiction.

Pontius took office in 26. That’s the same year Tiberius Caesar retired to Capri and left his job largely to his Praetorian prefect, Lucius Aelius Sejanus. So there’s some question whether Sejanus appointed Pontius instead of Caesar… but after Caesar had Sejanus executed for treason in 31, he didn’t prosecute or fire Pontius, so clearly he didn’t consider Pontius to be mixed up in Sejanus’s business.

Pontius’s rule.

When Augustus Caesar split Israel into provinces and decided he’d rule Judea instead of any of the squabbling Herod brothers, he obviously didn’t rule it in person: He sent military governors. The job wasn’t seen as a prestigious one, since it was so far away from Rome; plus the governors didn’t answer directly to the emperor, but to the legate of Syria. But it was seen as a profitable one: The governor got to choose Jerusalem’s head priest, and it seems you could get the job if you outbid all your competitors with the very best bribes. Hence Israel went through a lot of head priests after the Romans took over—though Pontius actually had the same head priest, Joseph Caiaphas, throughout his term.

Pontius apparently held two titles: Prefect at first, procurator later. The bible just calls him ἡγεμόνι/ighemóni, “leader” (KJV “governor”). Mt 27.2 Didn’t really matter what title he held: His job was to keep the peace. The direct rule of Jerusalem and Judea fell to the Judean senate, who applied the Law of Moses to the people as best they could without violating Roman interests. Governors were there to remind everyone these were Roman provinces, they paid Roman taxes, and that Rome would defend them from outside enemies… and if they ever became Rome’s enemies, Rome would crack down on them and crucify them all.

Josephus shared these stories about Pontius:

1. In the winter of 27, Pontius sent Roman troops to Jerusalem for garrison duty in Antonia, the fort which overlooked the temple. As usual, the troops carried Roman standards—eagles, and images of the emperor—and displayed them in the fort. Apparently Romans hadn’t done such a thing before, and the Judeans loudly objected, ’cause Romans worshiped these images, and they understandably didn’t want pagan idols overlooking their temple. Protesters went to the governor’s office in Cæsarea to protest, and after six days Pontius told them to go home or he’d sic his soldiers on them. They called his bluff and dared him to kill them right there. So he backed off and had the standards taken down. Antiquities 18.3.1

Philo of Alexandria told a similar story about Pontius putting up some gilt shields which likewise outraged the Judeans, Embassy to Gaius 38-39 which is either the same incident with some details mixed up, or Pontius actually tried doing this more than once.

2. In 28, Pontius decided to divert a stream of water to Jerusalem, and pay for it with temple taxes. Again protesters; tens of thousands of them. This time he did sic his soldiers on them, and “a great number” were killed and wounded. Antiquities 18.3.2 Possibly this is what Luke meant by the Galileans “whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices,” Lk 13.1 KJV though for all we know, that could be another, different crackdown.

3. In 33, Pontius had Jesus killed. Historians are entirely sure some Christian later edited this story, ’cause we seriously doubt Josephus wrote “He was Christ.” So we don’t know what’s original, and what’s updated. We only know Jesus’s death did get a mention. Antiquities 18.3.3

4. In 36, a Samaritan decided he was gonna storm the Samaritan temple, take the sacred vessels which Moses had supposedly put there, and show them to the people. He got together a large group of armed Samaritans, but the night before they were about to invade, Pontius and his troops came in and killed a bunch of them. The Samaritan senate believed Pontius murdered them for other, political reasons—and went over his head to the Syrian legate, Lucius Vitellius Veteris, who had Pontius recalled to Rome. Antiquities 18.4.1-2

Pontius may not have been popular with the Judeans, and I doubt he cared so much about that; he was more interested in keeping Tiberius Caesar happy by keeping the peace, and keeping the taxes flowing. The fact Pontius remained in office till Caesar’s death indicates he did just fine in the job, as far as the Romans were concerned.

Pontius’s retirement.

When Vitellius sent Pontius to Rome, it was so the emperor could decide over the Samaritan incident. Tiberius Caesar had died, so the case went to his successor, Gaius Caesar (a.k.a. Caligula), who by most accounts hadn’t gone mad yet. And here’s where we lose track of him.

The popular story of Pontius going mad and obsessively washing his hands for the rest of his life? The idea was swiped from Lady Macbeth losing it in William Shakespeare’s Macbeth; it’s a modern invention. But Christians love the irony of the idea, and spread it everywhere.

According to Eusebius of Cæsarea, Pontius was obligated to kill himself. Church History 2.7 Either he found his situation so humiliating, his sense of honor forced him to; or because Caesar ordered it. Thing is, Eusebius is the only one who tells this story. The pagan apologist Celsus, and Origen of Alexandria who wrote a book refuting Celsus, both writing two centuries before Eusebius, stated Pontius hadn’t died any shameful or humiliating death. And of course neither Josephus, Philo, nor Tacitus say anything one way or the other.

Ancient Christians began to circulate “letters” which claimed to be Pontius reporting to Rome about what went down during Jesus’s trial, or from other officials (like Tiberius Caesar writing at the time, or Nero Caesar commenting years later) rebuking Pontius for it. Some of them denounce Jesus and Christianity; some report miracles which “prove” Jesus is Lord, like the Acts of Pilate. Some of them exonerate Pontius of any guilt he might have for sending Jesus to his death, choosing to blame the Judean senate and people instead; some even claim Herod, not Pontius, had Jesus killed. Various ancient Christians read them—and apparently believed them. St. Justin Martyr made a reference to Pontius’s trial documents in one of his second-century writings, and Tertullian of Carthage had read ’em and came away convinced Pontius had become Christian.

Fact is we don’t know what became of him. Likely he just retired, and lived the rest of his life comfortably, thanks to all those bribes he racked up as governor. It’d be nice if Pontius became Christian, but human nature being what it is, he’d likely never, ever want to imagine himself being responsible for Christ’s death; he’d choose to forget the whole thing. But who knows?—maybe Jesus ultimately got to him. Grace can do that, y’know.