Pilate’s encounter with Jewish leadership at Jesus’s trial was not the Roman governor’s first experience navigating the complexities of Judean politics. Extra biblical references to Pilate reveal a leader who became vulnerable to the emperor’s criticism as Pilate proved himself increasingly incapable of providing regional stability. This vulnerability was a factor in how he handled Jesus’s trial. Pilate should have upheld Roman justice and released Jesus. In the end, however, Pilate did what was best for Pilate.
In Jesus’s day, Judea was under the governance od Roman procurators, a role in which Pilate served from AD 26 to 36. A procurator was a governor whom the emperor appointed directly; he was to manage military, financial, and judicial operations of strategically sensitive regions of the Roman Empire. The Roman government established a procurator’s residence at the harbor city of Caesarea Maritima, located on the Mediterranean coast.
Five incidents reported in biblical and extra biblical sources set the context for the accounts of Pilate’s involvement with Jesus’s crucifixion.
1 The first incident took place immediately after his being appointed governor. The Jewish historian Josephus reports that Pilate’s soldiers posted standards bearing the emperor’s image within sight of the temple in Jerusalem. Regarding the act as idolatrous, the Jews demanded the standards be removed. When Pilate threatened then with execution, the protestors bared their necks in defiant willingness to die rather than back down. Pilate was the one to back down. He removed the standards to Caesarea Maritima.
2 In the second incident, Pilate killed some Galileans who were offering sacrifices (Luke 13:1).
3 Next, Pilate used money from the temple treasury to construct an aqueduct, which the Jews protested. He would have them beaten.
4 Fourth, according to the Jewish philosopher Philo, Pilate had votive shields hung in Herod’s Jerusalem palace, which the Jewish people believed bore the name of the emperor as a deity. This time, the Jews took their complaint straight to Tiberius Caesar, who ordered Pilate remove the shields, and later reprimanded him for the unnecessary controversy.
5 Lastly, Josephus reports that Pilate ordered the execution of a number of Samaritan villagers who had followed a rebellious leader to Mount Gerizim. This led to Pilate being recalled to Rome and being replaced by Marcellus.
These incidents point to three patterns in Pilate’s life, and they are clear during his interactions with Jesus: general incompetence, vacillation, and vulnerability to imperial criticism. To read more about these patterns and to dig deeper into the incidents mentioned above, be sure to read the attached PDF excerpted from the CSB Holy Land Illustrated Bible.