Tuvia Book
Author, educator, Tour-Guide, artist

The Real Pontius Pilate

Pontius 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.

(Mathew 27:24)

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 an 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)

Pontius Pilate coin at the Roman amphitheatre in Beit Shean. Photo (c) T. Book, 2020

Pilate was eventually recalled to Rome following repeated complaints by Jews and Samaritans. His tenure closed in disgrace, after he ordered massacres affecting the Jewish and Samaritan populations. The Emperor determined that Pilate’s malevolent and violent reign was counterproductive to Roman interests. Legend holds that Pilate committed suicide.

Illustration (c) Tuvia Book, 2020

Archaeological evidence further deepens our understanding of the real Pontius Pilate. In addition to the famous “Pontius Pilate Inscription” found in secondary use in the Roman theatre in Ceasaria, the prutah coins minted by Pilate provide an understanding to who Pilate was, and not the theologically romanticised version that has survived in popular imagination.

Whereas the coin of the previous procurators depicted plant symbols compatible with the Jewish religious feelings, Pilate’s coin is exceptional in that depicts a pagan symbol, the lituus.  It also depicts a laurel wreath, which is a symbol of power and victory, and figures on various ancient Greek and Roman coins.

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 2000 years: A momentous event which has to a great extent fashioned the world we know.

Material: Bronze Denomination: Prutah Date: 30-32 CE Ruler: Pontius Pilate Mint: Judea (Jerusalem) Obverse: TIBEPIOY KAICAPOC (of Tiberius Emperor) with a lituus (augurs’ wand) Reverse: The date (between 30-32 CE) within a laurel wreath Size and Weight: 14mm, 1.35g.  Photo (c) Tuvia Book, 2020

Dr. Tuvia Book is the author of “For the Sake of Zion, A Curriculum of Israel Education” (Koren, 2017).   His forthcoming book on the Second Temple Period,  will be published by Koren next year.  He also is a  Ministry of Tourism licensed Tour Guide, Jewish educator and a Judaica artist.  www.tuviabook.com 

In order to own your own certified genuine ancient coins and literally touch the past, go to; www.temple-coins.com

About the Author
Dr. Tuvia Book was born in London and raised in both the UK and South Africa. After making Aliya at the age of 17 and studying in Yeshiva he volunteered for the IDF, where he served in an elite combat unit. Upon his discharge he completed his BA at Bar-Ilan University, as well as certification in graphic design. He then served as the Information Officer at the Israeli Consulate of Philadelphia, while earning a graduate degree in Jewish Studies. Upon his return to Israel, Dr. Book graduated from a course of study with the Israeli Ministry of Tourism, and is a licensed tour guide. Tuvia has been working in the field of Jewish Education, both formal and informal, for many years. He has guided and taught Jewish students and educators from around the English-speaking world for some of Israel’s premier educational institutions and programs. Tuvia has been guiding groups for Birthright Israel since its inception and, in addition, has lectured throughout North America, Australia, Europe and South Africa. Tuvia served as a Shaliach (emissary) for the Jewish Agency for Israel as the Director of Israel and Zionist Education at the Board of Jewish Education of Greater New York (Jewish Education Project). He was a lecturer/educational guide at the Alexander Muss Institute for Israel Education (AMIIE) in Israel for a decade. Tuvia has lectured at both Bar Ilan University and Hebrew University. He is the author (and illustrator) of the internationally acclaimed Zionism curriculum; “For the Sake of Zion; A Curriculum of Israel Education” (fifth edition, 2017, Koren) and is at present working on his next book, a history of the Jewish people. Tuvia has a doctorate in Israel education. His dissertation title is: “Through the Soldiers’ Eyes: Exploring the Influence of a Birthright Mifgash on the Israeli Soldier Participants.”
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