Pontius Pilate (; Latin: Pontius Pilatus; Greek: Πόντιος Πιλάτος, Pontios Pilatos) was the fifth prefect of the Roman province of Judaea, serving under Emperor Tiberius from AD 26/27 to 36/37. In Christian tradition, he is known for adjudicating on the trial and crucifixion of Jesus.
The sources for Pilate's life are an inscription known as the Pilate Stone, which confirms his historicity and establishes his title as prefect; a brief mention by Tacitus; Philo of Alexandria; Josephus; the four canonical gospels; the Acts of the Apostles; the First Epistle to Timothy; the Gospel of Nicodemus; the Gospel of Marcion; and other apocryphal works. Based on these sources, it appears that Pilate was an equestrian of the Pontii family, and succeeded Valerius Gratus as prefect of Judaea in AD 26. Once in his post he offended the religious sensibilities of his subjects, leading to harsh criticism from Philo, and many decades later, Josephus. According to Josephus, who wrote about it around AD 93, Pilate was deposed and sent to Rome by Lucius Vitellius after harshly suppressing a Samaritan movement, arriving just after the death of Tiberius which occurred on 16 March in AD 37. Pilate was replaced by Marcellus.
In all four gospel accounts, Pilate lobbies for Jesus to be spared his eventual fate of execution, and acquiesces only when the crowd refuses to relent. He thus seeks to avoid personal responsibility for the death of Jesus. In the Gospel of Matthew, Pilate washes his hands to show that he is not responsible for the execution of Jesus and reluctantly sends him to his death. The Gospel of Mark, depicting Jesus as innocent of plotting against the Roman Empire, portrays Pilate as reluctant to execute him. In the Gospel of Luke, Pilate not only agrees that Jesus did not conspire against Rome, but Herod Antipas, the tetrarch of Galilee, also finds nothing treasonable in Jesus' actions. In the Gospel of John, Pilate states "I find no guilt in Him [Jesus]," and he asks the Jews if Jesus should be released from custody.
Scholars have long debated how to interpret Pilate's portrayal in the sources. The significance of the Pilate Stone, an artifact discovered in 1961 that names Pontius Pilate, is similarly debated by scholars.
Historicity of Pilate
The only physical, archaeological evidence that confirms the existence of Pilate is the Latin inscription found on a limestone block relating Pilate's tribute to Tiberius. The artifact, sometimes known as the Pilate Stone, was discovered in 1961 by an archaeological team led by Antonio Frova. It was found as a reused block within a staircase located in a semicircular structure behind the stage house of the Roman theatre at Caesarea, the city that served as Rome's administrative centre in the province of Judaea. Roman governors were based in Caesarea and only visited Jerusalem on special occasions, or in times of unrest. The artifact is a fragment of the dedicatory inscriptions of a building, probably a temple, which was constructed, possibly in honour of the emperor Tiberius, dating to 26–36 AD. The dedication states that Pilate was prefect of Judaea, read praefectus Iudaeae. The early governors of Judaea were of prefect rank, the later were of procurator rank, beginning with Cuspius Fadus in 44 AD. The artifact is currently housed in the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, while a replica stands at Caesarea.
The remaining text reads (conjectural letters in brackets):
- [DIS AUGUSTI]S TIBERIÉUM
- [...PO]NTIUS PILATUS
- [...PRAEF]ECTUS IUDA[EA]E
- [...FECIT D]E[DICAVIT]
The translation from Latin to English for the inscription reads:
- To the Divine Augusti [this] Tiberieum
- ...Pontius Pilate
- ...prefect of Judea
- ...has dedicated [this]
Titles and duties
Pontius Pilate's title was traditionally thought to have been procurator, since Tacitus speaks of him as such. However, the inscription on the so-called Pilate Stone refers to Pilate as "Prefect of Judaea".
The title used by the governors of the region varied over the period of the New Testament. When Samaria, Judea proper and Idumea were first amalgamated into the Roman Judaea Province (which some modern historians spell Iudaea), from AD 6 to the outbreak of the First Jewish Revolt in 66, officials of the Equestrian order (the lower rank of governors) governed. They held the Roman title of prefect until Herod Agrippa I was named King of the Jews in 41 by Claudius. After Herod Agrippa's death in 44, when Judaea reverted to direct Roman rule, the governor held the title procurator. When applied to governors, this term procurator, otherwise used for financial officers, connotes no difference in rank or function from the title known as "prefect". Contemporary archaeological finds and documents such as the Pilate Inscription from Caesarea attest to the governor's more accurate official title only for the years 6 through 41: prefect. The logical conclusion is that texts that identify Pilate as procurator are more likely following Tacitus or are unaware of the pre-44 practice.
The procurators' and prefects' primary functions were military, but as representatives of the empire they were responsible for the collection of imperial taxes, and also had limited judicial functions. Other civil administration lay in the hands of local government: the municipal councils or ethnic governments such as—in the district of Judaea and Jerusalem—the Sanhedrin and its president the High Priest. But the power of appointment of the High Priest resided in the Roman legate of Syria or the prefect of Judaea in Pilate's day and until AD 41. For example, Caiaphas was appointed High Priest of Herod's Temple by Prefect Valerius Gratus and deposed by Syrian Legate Lucius Vitellius. Normally, Pilate resided in Caesarea but traveled throughout the province, especially to Jerusalem, in the course of performing his duties. During the Passover, a festival of deep national as well as religious significance for the Jews, Pilate, as governor or prefect, would have been expected to be in Jerusalem to keep order. He would not ordinarily be visible to the throngs of worshippers because of the Jewish people's deep sensitivity to their status as a Roman province.
Equestrians such as Pilate could command legionary forces but only small ones, and so in military situations, he would have to yield to his superior, the legate of Syria, who would descend into Palestine with his legions as necessary. As governor of Judaea, Pilate would have small auxiliary forces of locally recruited soldiers stationed regularly in Caesarea and Jerusalem, such as the Antonia Fortress, and temporarily anywhere else that might require a military presence. The total number of soldiers at his disposal would have numbered about 3,000. As regards the death of Pontius Pilate, Eusebius of Caesarea’s Ecclesiastical History says that Pilate killed himself on orders from the Emperor Caligula in about 39 AD.
According to the canonical Christian gospels, Pilate presided at the trial of Jesus and, despite stating that he personally found him not guilty of a crime meriting death, sentenced him to be crucified. Pilate is thus a pivotal character in the New Testament accounts of Jesus.
According to the New Testament, Jesus was brought to Pilate by the Sanhedrin, who had arrested Jesus and questioned him themselves. The Sanhedrin had, according to the Gospels, only been given answers by Jesus that they considered blasphemous pursuant to Mosaic law, which was unlikely to be deemed a capital offense by Pilate interpreting Roman law. The Gospel of Luke records that members of the Sanhedrin then took Jesus before Pilate where they accused him of sedition against Rome by opposing the payment of taxes to Caesar and calling himself a king. Fomenting tax resistance was a capital offense. Pilate was responsible for imperial tax collections in Judaea. Jesus had asked the tax collector Levi, at work in his tax booth in Capernaum, to quit his post. Jesus also appears to have influenced Zacchaeus, "a chief tax collector" in Jericho, which is in Pilate's tax jurisdiction, to resign.
Pilate's main question to Jesus was whether he considered himself to be the King of the Jews in an attempt to assess him as a potential political threat. Mark in the NIV translation states: "Are you the king of the Jews?" asked Pilate. "It is as you say", Jesus replied. However, quite a number of other translations render Jesus' reply as variations of the phrase: "Thou sayest it." (King James Version, Mark 15:2); "So you say". (Good News Bible, Mark 15:2). Whatever degree of confirmation modern interpreters would derive from this answer of Jesus, according to the New Testament, it was not enough for Pilate to view Jesus as a real political threat. The chief priests began hurling accusations toward Jesus, yet he remained silent. Pilate asked him why he did not respond to the many charges, and Jesus remained silent, so Pilate was "astonished".
Pilate appears to have been reluctant to allow the crucifixion of Jesus, finding no fault with him. According to Matthew 27:19, even Pilate's wife spoke to him on Jesus' behalf. According to the gospels, it was the custom of the Roman governor to release one prisoner at Passover, and Pilate brought out Barabbas, identified by Matthew as a "notorious prisoner" and by Mark as a murderer, and told the crowd to choose between releasing Barabbas or Jesus as per the custom, in the hopes of getting them to request the release of Jesus. However, the crowd demanded the release of Barabbas and said of Jesus, "Crucify him!" In Matthew, Pilate responds, "Why? What evil has he done?" The crowd continued shouting, "Crucify him!"
Pilate ordered a sign posted above Jesus on the cross stating "Jesus of Nazareth, The King of the Jews" to give public notice of the legal charge against him for his crucifixion. The chief priests protested that the public charge on the sign should read that Jesus claimed to be King of the Jews. Pilate refused to change the posted charge, saying "What I have written, I have written." ("Quod scripsi, scripsi"). This may have been to emphasize Rome's supremacy in crucifying a Jewish king; it is likely, though, that Pilate was offended by the Jewish leaders using him as a catspaw and thus compelling him to sentence Jesus to death contrary to his own will.
The Gospel of Luke also reports that such questions were asked of Jesus; in Luke's case it being the priests that repeatedly accused him, though Luke states that Jesus remained silent to such inquisition, causing Pilate to hand Jesus over to the jurisdiction of Herod Antipas, namely Galilee which was not part of Roman Judea. Although initially excited with curiosity at meeting Jesus, of whom he had heard much, Herod (according to Luke) ended up mocking Jesus and so sent him back to Pilate. This intermediate episode with Herod is not reported by the other Gospels, which appear to present a continuous and singular trial in front of Pilate. Luke, however, made further reference to this involvement of Herod along with Pilate in Jesus' execution and linked it with the prophecy about the Messianic King found in Psalm 2, as we can read in Luke's other book, Acts 4:24–28. This could explain why he counted this episode important.
Compared with the synoptic gospels, the Gospel of John gives more detail about that dialogue taking place between Jesus and Pilate. In John, Jesus seems to confirm the fact of his kingship, although immediately explaining, that his "kingdom" was "not of this world"; of far greater importance for the followers of Christ is his own definition of the goal of his ministry on earth at the time. According to Jesus, as we find it written in John 18:37, Jesus thus describes his mission: "[I] came into the world...to bear witness to the truth; and all who are on the side of truth listen to my voice", to which Pilate famously replied, "What is truth?" ("Quid est veritas?") (John 18:38)...
Whatever it be that some modern critics want to deduce from those differences, the end result was the same for Jesus and Pilate, as it was in all the other three Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke). In the same chapter of John 18 verse 38 (King James Version, compare with other versions) the conclusion Pilate made from this interrogation was: "I find in him no fault at all".
Pilate agrees to condemn Jesus to crucifixion, after the Jewish leaders explained to him that Jesus presented a threat to Roman occupation through his claim to the throne of King David as King of Israel in the royal line of David. The crowd in Pilate's courtyard, according to Mark's gospel, were incited by the chief priests to shout against Jesus. The Gospel of Matthew adds that before condemning Jesus to death, Pilate washes his hands with water in front of the crowd, saying, "I am innocent of this man's blood; see you to it."
Responsibility for Jesus' death
In all gospel accounts, Pilate is reluctant to condemn Jesus, but is eventually forced to give in when the crowd becomes unruly and the Jewish leaders remind him that Jesus' claim to be king is a challenge to Roman rule and to the Roman deification of Caesar. Roman magistrates had wide discretion in executing their tasks, and some readers question whether Pilate would have been so captive to the demands of the crowd. Pilate was later recalled to Rome for his harsh treatment of the Jews.
With the Edict of Milan in AD 313, the state-sponsored persecution of Christians came to an end, and Christianity became officially tolerated as one of the religions of the Roman Empire. Afterwards, in 325, the First Ecumenical Council at Nicaea promulgated a creed which was amended at the subsequent First Council of Constantinople in 381. The Nicene Creed incorporated for the first time the clause was crucified under Pontius Pilate (which had already been long established in the Old Roman Symbol, an ancient form of the Apostles' Creed dating as far back as the 2nd century AD) in a creed that was intended to be authoritative for all Christians in the Roman Empire.
Pilate's reluctance to execute Jesus in the gospels has been seen by Anchor Bible Dictionary and critical scholars as reflecting the authors' agenda. It has thus been argued that gospel accounts place the blame on the Jews, not on Rome, in line with the authors' alleged goal of making peace with the Roman Empire and vilifying the Jews.
Jewish literature: Philo and Josephus
In chronicling the history of the Roman administrators in Judaea, ancient Jewish writers Philo and Josephus describe some of the other events and incidents that took place during Pilate's tenure. Both report that Pilate repeatedly caused near-insurrections among the Jews because of his insensitivity to Jewish customs.
Josephus notes that while Pilate's predecessors had respected Jewish customs by removing all images and effigies on their standards when entering Jerusalem, Pilate allowed his soldiers to bring them into the city at night. When the citizens of Jerusalem discovered these the following day, they appealed to Pilate to remove the ensigns of Caesar from the city. After five days of deliberation, Pilate had his soldiers surround the demonstrators, threatening them with death, which they were willing to accept rather than submit to desecration of Mosaic law. Pilate finally removed the images.
Philo describes a later, similar incident in which Pilate was chastened by Emperor Tiberius after antagonizing the Jews by setting up gold-coated shields in Herod's Palace in Jerusalem. The shields were ostensibly to honor Tiberius, and this time did not contain engraved images. Philo writes that the shields were set up "not so much to honour Tiberius as to annoy the multitude". The Jews protested the installation of the shields at first to Pilate, and then, when he declined to remove them, by writing to Tiberius. Philo reports that upon reading the letters, Tiberius "wrote to Pilate with a host of reproaches and rebukes for his audacious violation of precedent and bade him at once take down the shields and have them transferred from the capital to Caesarea."
Josephus recounts another incident in which Pilate spent money from the Temple to build an aqueduct. Pilate had soldiers hidden in the crowd of Jews while addressing them and, when Jews again protested his actions he gave the signal for his soldiers to randomly attack, beat and kill – in an attempt to silence Jewish petitions.
In describing Pilate's personality, Philo writes in the 1st century that Pilate had "vindictiveness and furious temper", and was "naturally inflexible, a blend of self-will and relentlessness". Referring to Pilate's governance, Philo further describes "his corruption, and his acts of insolence, and his rapine, and his habit of insulting people, and his cruelty, and his continual murders of people untried and uncondemned, and his never ending, and gratuitous, and most grievous inhumanity".
Pilate's term as prefect of Judaea ended after an incident recounted by Josephus. A large group of Samaritans had been persuaded by an unnamed man to go to Mount Gerizim in order to see sacred artifacts allegedly buried by Moses. But at a village named Tirathana, before the crowd could ascend the mountain, Pilate sent in "a detachment of cavalry and heavy-armed infantry, who in an encounter with the firstcomers in the village slew some in a pitched battle and put the others to flight. Many prisoners were taken, of whom Pilate put to death the principal leaders and those who were most influential." The Samaritans then complained to Vitellius, Roman governor of Syria, who sent Pilate to Rome to explain his actions regarding this incident to Tiberius. However, by the time Pilate got to Rome, Tiberius had died.
Non-canonical Christian literature
Little is known about Pilate, but tradition has tried to fill the gap. A body of legend grew up around the dramatic figure of Pontius Pilate, about whom the Christian faithful hungered to learn more than the canonical Gospels revealed.
There is an ancient tradition linking his birthplace with the small village of Bisenti, Samnite territory, in today's Abruzzo region of Central Italy. There are ruins of a Roman house in Bisenti alleged to be the house of Pontius Pilate. There is also a tradition in Scotland that Pilate was born in Fortingall, a small village in the Perthshire Highlands. Other places such as Tarragona in Spain and Forchheim in Germany have been proposed as Pilate's birthplace, but it is more likely that he was a Roman citizen, born in central Italy.
Eusebius, quoting early apocryphal accounts, stated that Pilate suffered misfortune in the reign of Caligula (AD 37–41), was exiled to Gaul and eventually killed himself there in Vienne. The 10th-century historian Agapius of Hierapolis, in his Universal History, says that Pilate killed himself during the first year of Caligula's reign, in AD 37/38.
Other details come from less credible sources. His body, says the Mors Pilati ("Death of Pilate"), was thrown first into the Tiber, but the waters were so "disturbed by evil spirits" that the body was taken to Vienne and sunk in the Rhône: a monument at Vienne, called Pilate's tomb, is still to be seen. As the waters of the Rhone likewise rejected Pilate's corpse, it was again removed and sunk in the lake at Lausanne. The sequence was a simple way to harmonise conflicting local traditions.
The corpse's final disposition was in a deep and lonely mountain tarn, which, according to later tradition, was on a mountain, still called Pilatus (actually pileatus or "cloud capped"), overlooking Lucerne. Every Good Friday, the body is said to reemerge from the waters and wash its hands.
Gospel of Peter
The fragmentary apocryphal Gospel of Peter exonerates Pilate of responsibility for the crucifixion of Jesus, placing it instead on Herod and the Jews who, unlike Pilate, refused to "wash their hands". After the soldiers see three men and a cross miraculously walking out of the tomb they report to Pilate who reiterates his innocence: "I am pure from the blood of the Son of God." (GoP 46) He then commands the soldiers not to tell anyone what they have seen so that they would not "fall into the hands of the people of the Jews and be stoned". (GoP 48–9)
Acts of Pilate
The 4th century apocryphal text that is called the Acts of Pilate presents itself in a preface (missing in some manuscripts) as derived from the official acts preserved in the praetorium at Jerusalem. Though the alleged Hebrew original of the document is attributed to Nicodemus, the title Gospel of Nicodemus for this fictional account only appeared in medieval times, after the document had been substantially elaborated.
This text gained wide credit in the Middle Ages, and has considerably affected the legends surrounding the events of the crucifixion, which, taken together, are called the Passion. Its popularity is attested by the number of languages in which it exists, each of these being represented by two or more variant "editions": Greek (the original), Coptic, Armenian and Latin versions. The Latin versions were printed several times in the 15th and 16th centuries.
One class of the Latin manuscripts contain as an appendix or continuation, the Cura Sanitatis Tiberii, the oldest form of the Veronica legend.
The Acts of Pilate consist of three sections, whose styles reveal three authors, writing at three different times.
- The first section (1–11) contains a fanciful and dramatic circumstantial account of the trial of Jesus, based upon Luke 23.
- The second part (12–16) regards the Resurrection.
- An appendix, detailing the Descensus ad Infernos was added to the Greek text. This legend of a "Harrowing of Hell" has chiefly flourished in Latin, and was translated into many European versions. It doesn't exist in the eastern versions, Syriac and Armenian, that derive directly from Greek versions. In it, Leucius and Charinus, the two souls raised from the dead after the Crucifixion, relate to the Sanhedrin the circumstances of Christ's descent to Limbo. (Leucius Charinus is the traditional name to which many late apocryphal Acta of Apostles is attached.)
Eusebius (325), although he mentions an Acta Pilati that had been referred to by Justin and Tertullian and other pseudo-Acts of this kind, shows no acquaintance with this work. Almost surely it is of later origin, and scholars agree in assigning it to the middle of the 4th century. Epiphanius refers to an Acta Pilati similar to this, as early as AD 376, but there are indications that the current Greek text, the earliest extant form, is a revision of an earlier one.
Justin Martyr – The First and Second Apology of Justin. Chapter 35 – "And that these things did happen, you can ascertain from the Acts of Pontius Pilate."
The Apology letters were written and addressed by name to the Roman Emperor Pius and the Roman Governor Urbicus. All three of these men lived between 138–161.
Minor Pilate literature
There is a pseudepigraphic letter reporting on the crucifixion, purporting to have been sent by Pontius Pilate to the Emperor Claudius, embodied in the pseudepigrapha known as the Acts of Peter and Paul, of which the Catholic Encyclopedia states, "This composition is clearly apocryphal though unexpectedly brief and restrained." There is no internal relation between this feigned letter and the 4th-century Acts of Pilate (Acta Pilati).
This Epistle or Report of Pilate is also inserted into the Pseudo-Marcellus Passio sanctorum Petri et Pauli ("Passion of Saints Peter and Paul"). We thus have it in both Greek and Latin versions.
The Mors Pilati ("Death of Pilate") legend is a Latin tradition, thus treating Pilate as a monster, not a saint; it is attached usually to the more sympathetic Gospel of Nicodemus of Greek origin. The narrative of the Mors Pilati set of manuscripts is set in motion by an illness of Tiberius, who sends Volusanius to Judaea to fetch the Christ for a cure. In Judaea Pilate covers for the fact that Christ has been crucified, and asks for a delay. But Volusanius encounters Veronica who informs him of the truth but sends him back to Rome with her Veronica of Christ's face on her kerchief, which heals Tiberius. Tiberius then calls for Pontius Pilate, but when Pilate appears, he is wearing the seamless robe of the Christ and Tiberius' heart is softened, but only until Pilate is induced to doff the garment, whereupon he is treated to a ghastly execution. His body, when thrown into the Tiber, however, raises such storm demons that it is sent to Vienne (via gehennae) in France and thrown to the Rhone. That river's spirits reject it too, and the body is driven east into "Losania", where it is plunged in the bay of the lake near Lucerne, near Mont Pilatus – originally Mons Pileatus or "cloud-capped", as John Ruskin pointed out in Modern Painters – whence the uncorrupting corpse rises every Good Friday to sit on the bank and wash unavailing hands.
This version combined with anecdotes of Pilate's wicked early life were incorporated in Jacobus de Voragine's Golden Legend, which ensured a wide circulation for it in the later Middle Ages. Other legendary versions of Pilate's death exist: Antoine de la Sale reported from a travel in central Italy on some local traditions asserting that after death the body of Pontius Pilate was driven to a little lake near Vettore Peak (2478 m in the Sibillini Mountains) and plunged in. The lake, today, is still named Lago di Pilato.
In the Cornish cycle of mystery plays, the "death of Pilate" forms a dramatic scene in the Resurrexio Domini cycle. More of Pilate's correspondence is found in the minor Pilate apocrypha, the Anaphora Pilati (Report of Pilate), an Epistle of Herod to Pilate, and an Epistle of Pilate to Herod, spurious texts that are no older than the 5th century.
The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church recognized Pilate as a saint in the 6th century, based on the account in the Acts of Pilate, as it does his wife, named Procla, whose strange dream of Christ induced her to try to stop his crucifixion.
There are many other legends about Pilate in the folklore of Germany, particularly about his birth, according to which Pilate was born in the Franconian city of Forchheim or the small village of Hausen only 5 km away from it. His death was unusually dramatised in a medieval mystery play cycle from Cornwall, the Cornish Ordinalia.
Pilate's role in the events leading to the crucifixion lent themselves to melodrama, even tragedy, and Pilate often has a role in medieval mystery plays.
In the Eastern Orthodox Church, Pilate's wife is commemorated as a saint, but not Pilate, because according to tradition Claudia urged Pilate not to have anything to do with Jesus. In some Eastern Orthodox traditions, Pilate committed suicide out of remorse for having sentenced Jesus to death.
In Switzerland, near Lucerne, is the mountain of Pilatus. An old tradition is that Pilate went there and was banished to the mountain as a punishment "for his crime against Christ".
The island of Ponza in the Bay of Naples, Italy, is believed to be named after Pontius Pilate; his family built grottoes named after him.
The Pilat massif, in the French Massif Central to the south of Saint-Étienne, is also named after him.
Portrayals in literature / music
- Pilate appears in the Mystery Plays and Passion Plays, the most notable being in the Cornish cycle in which he is summoned to Rome by Tiberius and sentenced to death for killing Jesus because this crime cannot be contained by earth, sea or water and so immediately proceeds (body and soul, rather than just soul) to Hell.
- In the Vestibule of Hell in Dante's Divine Comedy, a figure is seen "who made the great refusal". This is interpreted to be either Pontius Pilate or Pope Celestine V.
- In Anatole France's short story The Procurator of Judaea, Pilate has retired to Sicily to become a gentleman farmer. This story is an example of the "oblivious" interpretation of Pilate. He has forgotten everything about Jesus and the part that he (Pilate) played in his trial.
- Pontius Pilate is portrayed in Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita as being ruthless, yet complex in his humanity; the novel describes his meeting with Jesus the Nazarene (Yeshua Ha Nozri in the novel) his recognition of an affinity with and spiritual need for him, and his reluctant but resigned and passive handing over of him to those who wanted to kill him. Here Pilate exemplifies the statement "Cowardice is the worst of vices", and thus serves as a model, in an allegorical interpretation of the work, of all the people who have "washed their hands" by silently or actively taking part in the crimes committed by Joseph Stalin. In Bulgakov's novel, Pilate owns a title of the Fifth Procurator of Judae and the Knight of the Golden Lance.
- This novel inspired The Rolling Stones' 1968 song "Sympathy for the Devil". The song's title and lyrics may have been derived from Bulgakov's portrayal of the Devil. Pilate is referenced in the verse: "I was around when Jesus Christ / had his moment of doubt and pain / made damn sure that Pilate / washed his hands, and sealed his fate". Due to Soviet censorship, the book was not fully published in Russian until 1966 and the first UK translation, by Michael Glenny, appeared in London in 1967. It was an immediate success d'estime and a favourite of Mick Jagger's then-girlfriend Marianne Faithfull, who pressed a copy into Jagger's hands.
- In Robert Graves's novel King Jesus, Pilate is an unscrupulous opportunist who tries to prevent Jesus' death by convincing Jesus to become the King of the Jews (in reality a puppet monarch of Rome) because, in the novel, Jesus is the son of Mary, who is of a royal Jewish line and the daughter of the last Hasmonean and Antipater, the son of Herod the Great. Jesus refuses the offer because his kingdom "is not of this world". Pilate eventually grows exasperated and leaves him to die.
- Pilate appears in three stories in Karel Čapek's collection Apocryphal Tales. In "Pilate's Evening", the weary governor wonders why Jesus' friends and relatives did not come to try and save him, and wishes that they had. "Pilate's Creed" features a dialogue between Pilate and Joseph of Arimathea. Their argument reflects the conflict between sceptical humanism (Pilate's famous "What is truth?") and religious certainty (Joseph's reply, "The truth in which I believe"). "The Crucifixion" features a world-weary Pilate disgusted with the political machinations that led to Jesus' condemnation.
- In the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar, Pilate has three songs. In "Pilate's Dream", he foresees that history will mention his name and leave him the blame of Jesus' death. In the song "Pilate and Christ", an arrogant and mocking Pilate, perhaps realizing manipulation by the Sanhedrin, tries to prevent Jesus' death by sending Jesus to Herod. "You're Herod's race! You're Herod's case!". In the song "Trial Before Pilate", a sympathetic Pilate pleads with Jesus to speak to him, saying that he believes the accused has "done no wrong" but "ought to be locked up" for insanity. Receiving no answer from the silent Jesus, Pilate eventually grows exasperated and tells him, "Die if you want to, you misguided martyr." Barry Dennen played Pilate on the "Brown Album", on Broadway and in the 1973 film version of the musical, directed by Norman Jewison, with Fred Johanson taking the role in the 2000 revival, directed by Gale Edwards.
- Pontius Pilate is mentioned in the drama The Crucible by Arthur Miller. Protagonist John Proctor yells "Pontius Pilate! God will not let you wash your hands of this!", to Reverend Hale as Proctor's wife is being arrested.
- In Jeffrey Archer's 1980 collection of short stories A Quiver Full of Arrows, one of the stories, "The First Miracle" tells of how a 12-year-old Pontius Pilate meets Joseph and Mary as they arrive in Bethlehem, and gives them the food that his mother had sent him to buy.
- Friedrich Nietzsche wrote that Pilate is the one honorable personality in the New Testament.
- Pilatus is the central figure in The Karma Killers a 2009 novel by Angelo Paratico. His birthplace is given at Bisenti in South Italy, where he retired meeting every Easter with Longinus in the nearby town of Lanciano.
- The preface to George Bernard Shaw's On the Rocks includes a dramatization of the meeting between Jesus and Pilate.
- A song by UK-based songwriter Howard Dobson called This Is Jesus (King of the Jews) looks at the Passion of Christ from Pilate's perspective.
- In October 2012, a Spanish journalist speculated on the possibility of Pontius Pilate, as well as some of the soldiers who murdered Jesus, being of Catalan descent.
- In 1928 William Percival Crozier published a novel, Letters of Pontius Pilate written during his Governorship of Judæa to his friend Seneca in Rome. Although a work of historical fiction, Crozier's book is occasionally mistaken for a genuine record of correspondence between Pilate and Seneca.
Portrayals in film / television
- The 1927 silent epic, The King of Kings directed by Cecil B. DeMille featured Victor Varconi as Pilate, a Roman bewildered by the Jewish belief in the One God, who attempts to save Jesus but is ultimately thwarted by his own cowardice.
- In the 1935 film The Last Days of Pompeii, Pilate (played by Basil Rathbone) is portrayed as a harried politician who, at first, sees the necessity of crucifying Jesus but becomes a man consumed with guilt reflecting on his judgment.
- Lowell Gilmore was featured as Pilate several times in 1950s: The Living Christ Series (his character was on hand from 1952 to 1957), I Beheld His Glory (1952), and Day of Triumph (1954).
- Richard Boone played Pilate in The Robe (1953), wearied by the quarreling of "factions" surrounding his sentencing of Christ to the cross. His action in condemning Jesus is particularly singled out as unjust by the principal character Marcellus Gallio (Richard Burton). An interesting touch is that he asks again to wash his hands, forgetting he had done so at the conclusion of the trial of Jesus.
- Frank Thring portrayed Pilate in Ben-Hur (1959). He is a good friend of Judah Ben-Hur's Roman adoptive father, Quintus Arrius, but he reminds Ben-Hur that he wields the emperor's own authority to keep peace in Judea.
- Hurd Hatfield portrayed Pilate in Nicholas Ray's film King of Kings (1961). The film portrays an overtly militaristic Pilate – his caravan is attacked by Barabbas and his followers in the movie – and he is also characterised as being vain, aloof, cynical and overly legalistic. He and his wife, Claudia Procula (Viveca Lindfors), are also shown as having an interest in the life and actions of Jesus before his trial and crucifixion.
- Barabbas was released in 1961. in which the murderer and revolutionary (Anthony Quinn) is pardoned in place of Christ by a cynically amused Pilate Arthur Kennedy who is perfectly aware that he is releasing the wrong man. Pilate is equally confident that Barabbas will be arrested once more.
- George Schaefer's television production of Give Us Barabbas for the Hallmark Hall of Fame was shown in 1961. While different from the Anthony Quinn movie, it covers much the same ground. Dennis King plays Pilate as an older, cold, world-weary aristocrat condemned by the Emperor to keep the peace in the least sophisticated backwater of the Roman Empire. To him the condemnation of Jesus is just another crucifixion in a land that, for him, is not worthy of being a province of the Empire.
- Jean Marais portrayed Pilate in Irving Rapper's film Pontius Pilate (1962) supported in his administration by his wife, Claudia Procula (Jeanne Crain) and opposed by the high priest, Caiphas (Basil Rathbone who played Pilate in Last Days of Pompeii - see above).
- Telly Savalas portrayed Pilate in George Stevens' film The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) as a gruff strongman. Although Pilate would prefer to crucify Barabbas rather than Jesus, he is not portrayed as being especially sympathetic towards Jesus. As Pilate watches Jesus led away to crucifixion a narrator underscores the scene by repeating the words of the Apostles' Creed and the Nicene Creed: "suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried". Angela Lansbury has a cameo as his wife Claudia Procula.
- Barry Dennen, in Norman Jewison's musical Jesus Christ Superstar (1973), portrayed a cruel Pilate who after suffering a prophetic dream (which in the Gospel of Matthew is dreamed by Pilate's wife) is very reluctant to put Christ to death, but succumbs to mob pressure.
- Rod Steiger portrayed Pilate in Franco Zeffirelli's TV mini-series Jesus of Nazareth (1977). In this version, Pilate is angered by Jesus' refusal to defend himself. After condemning Jesus to death, Pilate is told by one of his aides that he cannot release Barabbas, "an assassin and enemy of Rome." Pilate replies, "I wonder...Who is the real enemy?" In Anthony Burgess's novel Man of Nazareth, based on Jesus of Nazareth, Pilate is portrayed as being more sympathetic towards Jesus, recognising the validity of his doctrine and even telling Jesus he is free to go, although Jesus tells Pilate he has to condemn him to death.
- In the comedy Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979), Pilate is portrayed by Michael Palin as a clumsy man who has trouble pronouncing the letter "r" (pronouncing it like a "w"). He is also unable to remember who is in his prisons and seems to be easily offended.
- The 1980 TV film, The Day Christ Died based on Jim Bishop's best selling book, featured Keith Michell as Pilate politically aligned with Caiphas (Colin Blakely) working with him to rid the land of Jesus. Hope Lange portrayed Claudia.
- The 1986 film The Inquiry has Harvey Keitel portraying Pilate as a suspicious, nervous yet ruthless bureaucrat, certain that Titus Valerius Taurus (Keith Carradine) has been sent by Tiberius to investigate him rather than the possibility of the Resurrection of Christ.
- David Bowie portrayed Pilate in Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), based on the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis. In the film, Pilate is portrayed as world-weary and somewhat sympathetic towards Jesus (Willem Dafoe), but believes he has to die to preserve the local status quo.
- In the 1999 film Jesus, Pilate is played by Gary Oldman as a cynical manipulator of the events surrounding Christ's death, in an effort to overawe the locals.
- Pilate was portrayed in both Russian film adaptations of The Master and Margarita: by Mikhail Ulyanov in the 1994 film and by Kirill Lavrov in the 2005 mini-series.
- In the 2000 remake of Jesus Christ Superstar for video, Pilate was played by Dutch-born actor Fred Johanson.
- In the animated film The Miracle Maker, Ian Holm voices Pilate. He is a stern figure, with a dislike for the Jews and respect for a tribune (Lennie James) who has overseen the crucifixion of several hundred of them. However, he is reluctant to put Jesus to death after meeting him and is only moved to do so after Caiaphas (David Schofield) warns him that Rome will see him as a traitor for protecting this so-called Messiah.
- For the biographical film on Jesus titled The Gospel of John in 2003, actor Stephen Russell portrayed the role of Pontius Pilate.
- In Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ (2004), Pilate is played by Bulgarian actor Hristo Shopov. Pilate speaks fluent Aramaic as well as Latin (his first language) in this film. He is extremely reluctant to sentence Jesus to death and appears very sympathetic to him. He is portrayed as struggling with pressures from Rome, and under pressure to stop an uprising.
- The Paulist Productions television movie, Judas in 2004. Tim Matheson plays the role of Pilate.
- Greg Hicks plays the role of Pilate in the 2013 television mini-series The Bible, and the theatrical release entitled Son of God in 2014, as a stern and ruthless governor determined to keep the peace in Judea. In this depiction, fearing that Tiberius Caesar would blame him for any uprisings, Pilate massacres mobs of Jewish dissenters and threatens the Jewish religious authorities that he will cancel Passover and institute martial law in Jerusalem if disturbances continue, thus pushing them to persecute Jesus in order to avoid even more bloodshed. In turn, he feels pushed to accede to the demands of Caiaphas to have Jesus crucified despite his wife's warnings of the disturbing dreams she has had which convince her that Jesus is an innocent man. While he feels Jesus has too high an opinion of himself and is shown to be both a brutal governor and rabidly bigoted against the Jews, Pilate is uneasy about the persecution of Christ. He is initially hesitant toward applying a Roman punishment to a man who has committed no crime under Roman law, and even seems perturbed that the Jews would choose to release Barabbas over the preacher.
- Vincent Regan plays the role of Pilate in the 2015 television mini-series A.D. The Bible Continues.
- In 2016, actor Peter Firth played the role of Pilate in the theatrical film Risen. The story centers around a Roman soldier's pursuit in locating the missing body of Jesus following his burial and crucifixion.
- Pilou Asbæk portrayed Pilate in the 2016 adaptation of Ben-Hur. In this version of the story, he takes the place of Gratus in the parade of the Roman legion through Jerusalem. There is no mention of any relationship with Quintus Arrius; instead, Pilate is more closely linked to Messala, having helped the soldier rise to the position of tribune. Pilate is also present when the Sheik Ilderim negotiates his bid for the chariot race.