Easter and Pontius Pilate
This blog post was written by guest author Dr Tuvia Book.
Easter is coming, whatever calendar Christians around the world follow (Julian of Gregorian). The Easter week follows the last moments of Jesus’s life, his crucifixion and his ultimate resurrection and is the theological foundation of Christianity. One of the “stars” of the story is Pontius Pilate. Pilate is probably the best known of the procurators (governors), as he served at the time of Jesus (26-36 CE). As fateful as Jesus’s crucifixion was for the future history of the world, not to mention Jewish history, it was only one of many incidents reflecting the brutal Roman administration of Judea during this period. According to the New Testament, Jesus was crucified (on Passover eve, according to the Gospel of John, or following the Passover Seder, the “Last Supper,” according to the Synoptic Gospels) after a summary trial, by a nervous administration headed by Pilate. The events of Pilate’s tenure have come down to us from three main sources: Josephus, Philo, and the New Testament. The last of these, the New Testament, has coloured the popular perception of Pilate. According to the Gospel of Mathew, Pilate refused to condemn Jesus of Nazareth, but was forced to execute him by a hysterical Jewish crowd:
When Pilate saw that he could not prevail, but rather that a tumult was starting, he took water, and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of this [righteous] man’s blood: you see to it yourselves.
The Gospels are theological treatises written in the last decades of the first century. They portray a well meaning, but weak, Pilate. Philo and Josephus’s accounts of Pilate’s actions, including his use of revenue from the Temple to fund the building of an aqueduct to bring water to Jerusalem and the Temple, suggest that he may have shared insensitivity to Jewish customs that was typical of Roman elites, who held prejudices toward provincials.
At another time he used the sacred treasure of the Temple, to pay for bringing water into Jerusalem by an aqueduct. A crowd came together and clamoured against him; but he had caused soldiers dressed as civilians to mingle with the multitude, and at a given signal they fell upon the rioters and beat them so severely with staves that the riot was quelled.
(Josephus, Wars 2:175–77, Antiquities 18:60–62)
Pilate’s enormous power of life and death should shape how the Gospel narratives of Jesus’s crucifixion are read. Historians have concluded that Pilate was not a neutral, weak, or minor character. The Jewish leaders of Jerusalem did not force him against his will to crucify Jesus, rather, he chose to crucify Jesus because it was in Rome’s interests to do so, interests he was charged with protecting and furthering.
He was cruel by nature and hard hearted and entirely lacking in remorse. [His rule was one of] bribes, vainglorious and insolent conduct, robbery, oppression, humiliations, men often sent to death untried, and incessant and unmitigated cruelty.
(Philo, On the Embassy to Gaius 38)
Temple Coins has a limited amount of genuine Pontius Pilate coins. To see the available collection, click here.
About the coins:
Date: 30-32 CE
Ruler: Pontius Pilate
Mint: Judea (Jerusalem)
Whereas the coin of the previous procurators (governors) depicted plant symbols compatible with the Jewish religious feelings, Pilate’s coin is exceptional in that depicts a pagan symbol, the lituus. The laurel wreath is a symbol of power and victory, and figures on various ancient Greek and Roman coins.
A Prutah is a Hebrew word that appears in the Mishna and Talmud. A loaf of bread was worth about ten prutot (plural). The Prutah was the most commonly minted coin of the Jewish kings and Roman procurators.
Pontius Pilate himself designed and put the coins into circulation, and of course he was the man who conducted the trial and ordered the crucifixion of Jesus. So it is that everyone, whether a believer or simply a lover of history or of numismatics, will find in these coins direct evidence of and witness to an episode the memory of which has survived 2,000 years: A momentous event which has to a great extent fashioned the world we know.