is widely known that the Romans were the ones who actually crucified Yeshua
(also known as Jesus of Nazareth). Specifically, it was due to the decision
of just one Roman whose name was Pontius Pilate. His decision, however, was
made at the request of the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem. We offer here an explanation
for why he chose to do so.
Matthew, Mark, Luke and John disciples of Yeshua, recorded various aspects of this trial. Citations to these documents have been quoted in full where necessary. Their complete works can be found at the beginning of what's commonly called The New Testament. These records about Yeshua's life are often referred to as The Gospels.
At times in the past (prior to this trial; actually more like a summary execution), Pilate cared very little about the opinions of the Jews. So, why did Pilate seem to give in so easily to their demands? This is the same Pilate who had previously killed many Jews with little or no regard for any of their lives (see, for example, Luke 13:1).
One of Yeshua's disciples did a fine job of portraying Pilate's cynicism in John 18:38 and 19:6,10. He also shows us that Pilate was in some sort of vague way fearful of Yeshua due to the fact that Yeshua claimed to be related to deity (John 19: 7-8). Pilate's concern began when his wife informed him of a dream she had about Yeshua [...that righteous man (Matthew 27:19)]. But Pilate's final words at the trial, I am innocent of this man's blood... (Matthew 27:24) are almost pathetic. He was the Governor of all Judea, having the power of life and death over all, yet after he could find no good reason for Yeshua to be executed (cf. Luke 23:14-15, etc.) he went ahead and ordered it anyway! In his own word, Why...? (see Luke 23:22; cf. Mt 27:23; Mark 15:14). Why would he allow himself to be manipulated this way?
First, it's important to point out that Pilate did not care a great deal about justice, no matter how eloquent his words at this trial may appear! History shows that many of his actions as Procurator of Judaea were indeed very unjust. He was mainly concerned about his own career and keeping the social rank he had acquired as countless others who sought and gained positions of power have always been. So, why did he act the way he did at this time?
This is a case where the study of historical settings surrounding incidents in Scripture can be very helpful:
In CE 26/27, the emperor Tiberius retired to the island of Capri leaving Lucius Sejanus (head of the Praetorian Guard), practically in control of the government. Apart from his desire for even more power, Sejanus was also interested in exterminating the Jews (Philo, In Flaccum 1 and Legatio ad Gaium 150-60). Sejanus was a Roman type of that old Babylonian anti-Semite, Haman! (See Esther 3:6 ff. in the Hebrew Scriptures.)
Pilate had been appointed by Sejanus, and seemed intent upon carrying out his anti-Jewish policies. Pilate brought Roman standards (military insignia on poles) into the city of Jerusalem bearing images of the emperor, seized money from the Temple treasury, and had coins struck proclaiming the worship of the emperor. Apparently he was trying to provoke the Jews into war, and on some occasions would kill many of them (cf. Luke 13:1 again and be sure to read the footnote there). Any complaints that were sent to the emperor were simply destroyed by Sejanus.
By CE 30, Sejanus' influence had grown to such a degree that even the officials and senators in Rome thought of him as the emperor (Dio Cassius lviii.4.1). Meanwhile, Tiberius finally realized that Sejanus was not a loyal subject, and had him executed on October 18th, CE 31. Tiberius now figured that most of Sejanus' accusations against the Jews were false, and decided to change the empire's view of them. Thus, early in CE 32, we find Pilate had ceased from issuing coins that were offensive to the Jews (obviously under orders from Rome).
The statement by the Jews to Pontius Pilate in John 19:12, If you release this man, you are no friend of Caesar... now had a great deal of significance. Any reports from them to the emperor, would reach Tiberius himself, who was now aware of Pilate's past activities in Judaea.
So, the answer to our question about Yeshua's death is: Pilate was just following the wishes of the Jewish leaders in order to save his job. It's that simple! He was, of course, rather upset over being used in this manner, and seems to have found a bit of satisfaction against them when it came time to post the legal charges at the site of Yeshua's execution (see John 19:19-22).
After his many years of unbridled authority, Pilate couldn't quite make all of the necessary changes that his shaky position required. And a few years later, he was ordered back to Rome to stand trial for yet another incident of cruelty: In CE 36, he had many Samaritans killed on Mt. Gerizim; the Samaritans complained to Pilate's superior, Vitellius, the Governor of Syria, and he sent Pilate back to Rome. Tiberius died before Pilate arrived in Rome, but Pilate's career was already wrecked.
Pilate died a few years later, and may have committed suicide as a result of either despairing over his ruined career (perhaps having been exiled from Rome), or under orders from Tiberius; which were subsequently approved by the new emperor. It may appear to us that since Pilate was such a loser, no one cared enough to bother recording what really happened, but consider the fact that most rulers and emperors didn't encourage many people to record history; especially things that might reflect poorly upon an author's leaders! According to Eusebius, an early church historian, Pilate simply committed suicide (Historia Ecclesiastica, ii.7).
Well, hopefully you enjoyed this history lesson.
Some would disagree with the evidence presented here, saying it is not compelling
enough. Why? Because they would have to accept that Yeshua died
33 rather than
30 (as they prefer). There are many other reasons, however, for accepting the
later date of
CE 33. You'll
find a number of those reasons in the book, Chronological
Aspects of the Life of Christ by H.W. Hoehner (Zondervan, 1977).]
In Yeshua's love, hoping this will equip Believers in the truth and inform those who seek Him
Though there have been many imitative writings
claiming that later on in his life Pilate became a believer in Messiah,
there is no truth to these tales; many of which contain gross historical inaccuracies.
Most of these are actually differing 'groups of documents' that have been titled, Acta Pilati (The Acts of Pilate), although some copies after the 10th century are titled The Gospel of Nicodemus instead. Like so many of the fraudulent claims foisted upon the public of our own day, the content is woefully lacking in what some writers have called the ring of truth. For example, it claims that when Yeshua was brought before Pilate, the images on the 'military standards' somehow paid reverence to Him against the will of the standard-bearers. But, it's a known fact that these images were kept outside of Jerusalem until 70 CE; something the writer either didn't know or never really cared about when composing his tale. [See F.F. Bruce, Jesus and Christian Origins Outside the New Testament (Copyright©1974 by F.F. Bruce. Eerdmans), Page 94.]
Like a number of the other apocryphal writings produced after many had read the New Testament Gospel works, this tale contains arguments against an early Jewish accusation: that Yeshua was of illegitimate birth. But it's preposterous to think that such a charge would have had any place in a Roman trial for sedition against the emperor; let alone allowing a dozen Jews to testify that it wasn't true (as if anyone but the closest family members might have had anything relevant to say about it). John 7:45-52 describes a timid Pharisee who suggested to the others they should make certain what was happening before passing judgment. Well, this same Nicodemus is shown in the tales as defending Yeshua before Pilate; thus its alternate title. If he was there, then why isn't this mentioned in any of the Gospels? John surely would have known this since he points out that Nicodemus helped with the burial of Yeshua's body (see John 19:39). John also mentions that none of the Pharisees entered ...into the Praetorium in order that they might not be defiled, but might eat the Passover (John 18:28b). If any Jew, especially Nicodemus, had appeared before Pilate, we would certainly expect some kind of comment from John in light of this statement.
A number of other events are proclaimed in these tales, but our point should be clear by now: When these stories finally get around to saying that Pilate himself became a believer in Yeshua, how could we possibly accept that as true when so many other statements are very questionable and some easily proven to be false?
History contians many examples that teach us important points about human character, and we should always remember this: If there are enough people who want to know the answer to a question that simply has none. Or people keep asking, Whatever happened to X ? (X being perhaps some minor character mentioned in a famous work of history), then sooner or later someone will arise who either:
1) Convinces himself/herself psychologically that he/she can reveal that lost knowledge to the rest of the world,
2) Decides that a "little white lie" would be best for everyone else, or
3) Thinks that telling everyone what they want to hear is a very good way to separate fools from their money! (Many books have been published following this premise. And at times, whole organizations have been based upon this idea.)
On the other hand, I do not want you to think that every letter or artifact concerning the past must always be lies and forgeries! Occasionally, as in the now famous discovery of some manuscripts stored in caves near the Dead Sea (Israel, beginning c. 1947), historians have been able to gain knowledge of previously unknown facts; in this case about a Hebrew sect living in a place called Qumran. However, the most important find among those manuscripts for many are large portions from the book of Isaiah that were about a thousand years older than any copies previously discovered. For anyone who considers Isaiah to have been a true prophet of God, their significance is the fact there's little difference between the passages found in this very old copy (c. 100 BCE) compared to much younger ones we had up to that time! (This is solid evidence concerning the accuracy of copies of the Hebrew Scriptures.)
NOTE: The next time you get a chance to study in a college library, try
looking for the book, Herod Antipas, by Harold W. Hoehner (Cambridge,
©1972). Pages 172-183 of that work are devoted to the rule of Pilate
and his trial of Yeshua. This was my primary source for the information presented
here about Pilate's life as the Governor of Judea.
Matthew and John were Disciples (with a capital "D", one of the original 12 chosen to personally witness all of Yeshua's ministry; both public and private). They lived what they later wrote about. Mark may have listened to some of Yeshua's public messages, but most of this Gospel's contents seem to have been written with the assistance of the Apostle Peter. Luke, who was also the author of the Book of Acts, compiled the events in his Gospel from various sources; including eyewitness testimony (Luke 1:1-4).
Philo. Translated by F.H. Colson, G.H. Whitaker, and Ralph Marcus. 10 vols. The Loeb Classical Library, 1929-1953.
Dio Cassius, Roman History. Translated by Earnest Cary. 9 vols. The Loeb Classical Library, 1914-1927.
Eusebius, The Ecclesiastical History. Translated by Kirsopp Lake and J.E.L. Oulton. The Loeb Classical Library, 1926-1932.
F.F. Bruce, New Testament History (Copyright©1969 by F.F. Bruce. Anchor Books, Doubelday, 1972). Chapter 3, section 2, pages 34-38 on the governorship of Judea by Pontius Pilate and chapter 15 on the Trial of Jesus; especially pages 199-202.
may satisfy the thirst of the curious masses,
but I'd rather have a concentrated dose of truth any day!
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Last Update: 6 March 2006.