Pontius Pilate the Glaswegian

In 1899 the New York Times published an article reporting that Pontius Pilate hailed from south of Glasgow, Scotland. To the extent that such an idea appears ridiculous, it also serves to demonstrate how little was known at that time, and even now, about this man of international acclaim.

nytimespilateMuch has been said and done over the centuries to challenge the historicity of biblical accounts. I take the view that scrutinising their authenticity is an important endeavour. A multitude of people around the world base their faith upon these accounts, so it is only right that the texts are put to proof.

One way to do this is to test some of the facts within the account. If someone is prepared to fabricate an account, it is usually easier to catch them out on the small, unimportant details. For a long time, the apparent lack of evidence relating to the man Pontius Pilate posed a significant difficulty for the Christian adherents.

Outside of Christian literature, we know of only two contemporary authors who wrote about Pilate. One is a Jewish historian called Josephus; and another man called Philo of Alexandria, also a Jew. A third man, a Roman scholar called Tacitus, wasn’t a contemporary but did write about Pilate very shortly after his lifetime, in the early 2nd Century — close enough for our purposes to give consideration to.

Each of these historians, documenting the events of their own time, do not appear to have had a motive for recording details about either Jesus or Pilate to support the prevailing Christian narrative. Indeed, to the extent that they would write about it at all, their objective would be to denounce some of the more fanciful claims — including as to his miracles and resurrection.

Josephus wrote a series of very detailed accounts of the wars and history of the Jewish people over the centuries up to his own present day. His works weren’t entirely  objective — but then, no writing ever is — because he was something of a political turncoat, ultimately allying himself with Rome at the time when Jerusalem was under siege between 66-70AD.

Although much of his writing has been preserved, some has only been passed on through being quoted by others, who may have selectively quoted, or added their own comments to his original narrative. One famous account appears to endorse Jesus as the Christ and affirm that he appeared to the disciples alive again after his death on the third day.

Whether this is Josephus repeating only what it was that the Christ followers were saying, or a later historian inserting their own reflection on the writings of Josephus is unclear. What is widely accepted, however, is that Josephus did document this:

Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross.

If legitimate, and there is no reason to suspect this part of the account, it confirms that a man called Pilate existed; that he was approached by the leading Jewish authorities; and that he was invited, at their suggestion, to execute Jesus by crucifixion.

On these three factual points, Josephus is at one with the Gospel accounts — and writing at a time when had any aspect been untrue, it could have been contradicted by others for whom these matters were also within living memory.

In fact, these three details are supported by others, including Philo of Alexandria who refers to Pilate as the prefect of Judea and describes him as a man of “inflexible, stubborn and cruel disposition.

Other details concerning Pilate’s administration in Judea are provided by Philo, but he makes no reference to the encounter with Jesus. Whilst this could be used as an argument from silence to claim that Jesus didn’t exist (because Philo doesn’t mention him) it must strengthen the conviction that Pilate did exist — as he was not being written about to bolster the Christian account.

So then we turn to Tacitus, a Roman historian with no Christian conviction, yet who provides an insightful explanation of the Great Fire of Rome in around 64AD. Writing around 50 years after this, he describes how Emperor Nero attempted to pin the blame for the fire on Christians who followed:

Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus.

Pilate’s place in history therefore, quite aside from any Christian interpolation, is cemented by his contemporaries. And his role in condemning a man called Christus to death by crucifixion is also assured without reading a single Gospel text. It is not then unreasonable to assume that before issuing the writ of execution, some interaction took place before the Procurator and the Prophet.

Before we get into that conversation, however, it is fair to agree with the long held conclusion based on accounts like these that Pilate was a real historical figure and that he served in Judea as a Roman Governor under the reign of Tiberius between 26—36AD.

And that was before the discovery in Caesarea, Israel, in 1961 of an inscription carved in limestone, pictured earlier beneath, referencing Pontius Pilate as Prefect of Judea. Unlike the New York Times article above, its provenance is undisputed.