This post is a continuation of our Top Ten Biblical Discoveries in Archaeology series. To see the complete series please click here.
Who is Jesus? You and I are sitting down in the Credo House, enjoying a delicious Luther Latte. We’re talking about the important questions of life and I lean forward asking you that simple question, “Who is Jesus?” What do you think about him? Is He everything the Bible communicates? Did He actually live, die for the sins of humanity, and rise from the dead? Do you consider Him your Lord? Is He the ultimate King of the Jews? Is He the King of Kings? These are important questions for all of mankind to consider.
One man, according to the Bible, was uniquely called upon to wrestle with the identity of Jesus. His name: Pontius Pilate. Pilate was the Prefect (governor) of the Roman province of Judea from 26-36 AD. The Jewish high priests at the time were unable to legally sentence a man to death. Most of the leading Jews wanted Jesus killed. In order for Jesus to be killed the death sentence had to be carried out under Roman law. The Jewish leaders needed Pontius Pilate to condemn Jesus to death. Early one morning a mob drives Jesus to Pilate. Pilate becomes responsible for deciding the fate of Jesus.
John 18 describes the scene:
So Pilate entered his headquarters again and called Jesus and said to him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?” Pilate answered, “Am I a Jew? Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered you over to me. What have you done?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” Then Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world – to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate said to him, “What is truth?” (John 18:33-38)
Wow, what an amazing dialogue. Jesus forces Pilate to wrestle with his identity. Where does the conversation go from here? Pilate tells the crowd he believes Jesus to be innocent. The crowd finds a loop-hole in the system asking for a criminal, Barabbas, to be released from prison and for Jesus to be found guilty. Pilate appeases the crowd by sending Jesus away to be flogged. After experiencing the horror of flogging, the Bible tells us Jesus is sent back to Pilate. Pilate and Jesus have another conversation described in John 19:
He entered his headquarters again and said to Jesus, “Where are you from?” But Jesus gave him no answer. So Pilate said to him, “You will not speak to me? Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?” Jesus answered him, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above. Therefore he who delivered me over to you has the greater sin.” (John 19:9-11)
Jesus speaks with determined clarity. Pilate continues to move in the direction of releasing Jesus. Those seeking the death of Jesus cry out to Pilate, “If you release this man, you are not Caesar’s friend. Everyone who makes himself a king opposes Caesar. (John 19:12)” Pilate eventually gives in and agrees to have Jesus crucified. Interestingly, the Bible explains, Pilate places on sign of the cross of Jesus which read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.”
Pilate Outside the Bible
What we know about Pontius Pilate comes primarily from the Bible. Three men named Tacitus, Josephus and Philo all lived around the time of Jesus and mention Pilate in their writings.
To dispel the rumor, Nero substituted as culprits, and treated with the most extreme punishments, some people, popularly known as Christians, whose disgraceful activities were notorious. The originator of that name, Christus, had been executed when Tiberius was emperor, by order of the procurator Pontius Pilatus. But the deadly cult, though checked for a time, was now breaking out again not only in Judea, the birthplace of this evil, but even throughout Rome, where all the nasty and disgusting ideas from all over the world pour in and find a ready following.
About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, for he was a performer of wonderful deeds, a teacher of such men as are happy to accept the truth. He won over many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. When Pilate, at the suggestion of the leading men among us, had condemned him to the cross, those who had loved him at the first did not forsake him; and the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct to this day.
Philo, more than the other men, speaks to the character of Pilate. He explains Pilate as, “a man of inflexible, stubborn and cruel disposition.” Philo explains several situations where Pilate provokes and is cruel to the Jewish people. The Bible and these three men speak plainly about Pilate, the world of Pontius Pilate, and the man from Nazareth whom He sentenced to be crucified. Pontius Pilate is seen by Tacitus, Philo and Josephus as the real governor of Judea and the real man who sentenced Jesus to be crucified.
In 1961 the archaeological world was taken back to the first century Roman province of Judea. A group of archaeologists, led by Dr. Antonio Frova were excavating an ancient Roman theater near Caesarea Maritima. Caesarea was a leading city in the first century located on the Mediterranean Sea. A limestone block was found there with a surprising inscription. The inscription, on three lines, reads:
The inscription is believed to be part of a larger inscription dedicating a temple in Caesarea to the emperor Tiberius. The inscription clearly states, “Pontius Pilate, Prefect of Judea.” The inscription is significant on several levels.
It makes sense for Pilate to be dedicating a temple in Caesarea Maritima. The prefect usually lived in Caesarea and only went to Jerusalem for special purposes. An inscription of Pilate found in Caesarea fits with the first century world described in the Bible.
The dating of the inscription, in connection with its mention of Tiberius (42 BC-37AD) places the governor Pontius Pilate at the same place and time as the Bible’s information about Jesus.
As with the Caiaphas Ossuary mentioned in a previous post, the vast significance of the Pilate Inscription is attached to the significance of the crucifixion of Jesus. The inscription does not prove the conversations between Pilate and Jesus. The inscription does not prove Pilate condemned Jesus to be crucified. The inscription does not prove the forgiveness of mankind’s sin through the death of Christ. The inscription does, however, support the historical reliability of the cross, as with the Caiaphas Ossuary, by supporting the existence of one of its central characters.
What do you think? Do you find the Pilate Inscription to be a significant discovery in archaeology? Join the conversation by commenting on the post. In the next post we look again at crucifixion from a completely different perspective.