Session #15  (Most quotes are NIV)


Sanhedrin members (the Jewish Council) must approach Pontius Pilate with the prisoner, Jesus, in order to get an order to crucify.  Before we examine what was said, we need to know something about this man Pontius Pilatus (the Latin version of “Pilate!”)  What was his rank?  How much power did he have?  What was he like?

We do not know his first name—it is completely missing from history!  His 2nd name indicates that he was of equestrian rank, which was of middle-level nobility (not a horse rider!) with an estate or bank account of a certain value.  We know he was married (Matt. 27:19   While Pilate was sitting on the judge’s seat, his wife sent him this message: “Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man…” ) but we do not know her name for sure; according to the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, legend has ascribed to her the name Claudia Porcula. Everything about her is pure legend, speculation and even some “wishful thinking” by the Church that said she had become a convert.


Pilate was in charge of the province of Judea from 26 A.D. to 36 A.D.  Judea was an Imperial province which means that Pilate answered directly to Caesar!  The other type of province was called a Senatorial province.  Governors of Senatorial provinces answer to the Roman Senate and these governors were called “Proconsuls.”  The Imperial governors were called “Prefects” or simply “governors” at the time of Jesus.  In the mid 40’s A.D., the name was changed to “Procurator.”

Why were there two types of Provinces?   Senatorial Provinces were “safe,” that is, they were located in areas that were either very pro-Rome or that were not very important.  Some Senatorial Provinces were Greece, Southern Spain, North Africa, most of Italy.

Imperial Provinces were either trouble spots, on the edge of the Empire, or of great importance.  Examples include England (on the edge), Gaul (trouble with the Germanic tribes), Egypt (the important bread basket of the Roman Empire), and Judea (constant trouble!)  Problems in these provinces required Caesar to act quickly and ruthlessly if necessary.  Waiting for the Senate to play politics with a problem was not in the best interest of Rome’s Empire.

Since Pilate was an Imperial Governor, this placed additional power in Pilate’s hands.  He was the representative of Tiberias Caesar, and had all the power which Caesar had.  Generally, there was a “Legate” between the imperial governor and Caesar to handle minor issues.  The Prefect of an Imperial province had the power of life and death; he was the only man in the province who could sentence a man to hard labor in the mines or to exile someone.  He had additional Roman Legions to back up his power!  In General, only the Roman citizen was protected under Roman Law.  But as a general rule, the Prefects (and the Proconsuls) allowed the locals to govern themselves with their own laws—at least within reason.  Rome’s policy was “Be a good dictator and stay out of the local troubles if you can.”

As far as local religions were concerned, Rome had first to acknowledge these religions as legitimate, and then they were protected as a legally allowed religion within the Empire.  Not only was Judaism legally recognized, but Rome actually accommodated them beyond all reason in order to pacify the burdensome and unruly Jewish state.

Pilate had received his position through a man named Lucius Aelius Sejanus, who was also an equestrian, a close friend of Pilate, and the Prefect of the Praetorian Guard (the Roman Legion who protected the life of Caesar).   Both Sejanus and Pilate were notoriously anti-Semitic.  It is a fair guess that Sejanus thought it would be “funny” to have his buddy ride the Jews hard as their governor.  (MUCH MORE about Pilate and Sejanus later—it plays a crucial role in the trial of Jesus!)  Historically, Pilate got into trouble more than once for his rough-handling of the Jews.  Some of the incidents are Biblical, some historic, and some perhaps shear fantasy.  But Pilate managed to earn his reputation as anti-Semitic.

What do we need to know about Pilate?  He lasted 10 years in a province notoriously difficult to rule!


Governors often began their docket at sunrise, and would therefore prepare for the day in the early hours.  Vespasian, a later Procurator of Judea who also became Caesar, was rumored to begin his desk work around midnight.  Seneca, a contemporary statesman of Pilate, reported that people were in the streets before dawn in order to “get in line” to be heard by the judge. Pliny the Younger, a first century administrator, reportedly finished his paperwork “around the 4th or 5th hour.”

John 18:28 gives us a glimpse of the historical accuracy of the Biblical writers: Then the Jewish leaders took Jesus from Caiaphas to the palace of the Roman governor. By now it was early morning, and to avoid ceremonial uncleanness they did not enter the palace, because they wanted to be able to eat the Passover.”  “It was early morning” is the translation of that little Greek word πρωΐ again:  “alpenglow, the crack of dawn!”

What else does that little verse tell us?  Εἰς τὸ πραιτώριον “into the Praetorian.”  This was the palace of the Roman governor, and the Jewish leaders would not go inside.  Why?  Gentiles were guilty of abortion, and rumors floated around that dead fetuses were buried in the house.  If a Jew came in contact with a tomb—even accidently—they would be “unclean” and could not participate in the High Feast of Passover.  The closing Holy Sabbath of the Feast was the following day, and it would not do for the High Priest to be “unclean” and sidelined for the services!

Also, John’s little verse tells us they “wouldn’t be able to eat the Passover.”  Obviously, the actual meal had been eaten the previous night.  “Eat the Passover” might mean “participate” in the Passover celebration overall.  It might also refer to the Chagigah, a special sacrifice of joy held on Friday.  See 2 Chronicles 30, especially verses 23 to the end, for an Old Testament reference to these.  The Chagigah (or Hagigah) cannot be the Passover meal.  These sacrifices are not roasted, nor do they follow the Passover regulations.  They are “Festival Offerings.”  Some have concocted impossible Holy Week timelines because they don’t understand this.

Roman Procedural Law:  (material assembled by Dr. Erich Kiehl)

1) the trial was held publicly, with the governor sitting on his judgment seat called the “Bema,” an elevated platform above where prosecutors and the public were gathered.  (I stood below the Bema in Corinth, where Paul had appeared before Gallio, Acts 18.  In Corinth, the reconstructed Bema was 22 feet above the pavement!  We don’t know how high the Jerusalem Bema was.)

2) the charges must be presented formally and to the defendant’s face.  Usually no more than 2 or 3 prosecutors were allowed to speak.

3) the defendant had the right to speak in his own defense.  IF he remained silent, the judge must give him three chances to change his mind

4) the judge could converse with the gathered crowd—although this was rare, and a 1st century papyrus warns that this is a very bad idea!

5) the judge/governor could seek outside advice from a group of people (called a consilium)

6) if the defendant was guilty, the judge would sit on the bema and pronounce judgment:

a) fustes:  this was a light whipping, as a warning “Don’t do it again!”

b) flagella:  a heavier whipping for a crime of more serious import

c) verbera:  this whipping is reserved for capital punishment—40 lashes.  You do NOT want this punishment!  This was done with a cat-o-nine-tails style whip with metal barbs imbedded into the ends of the leather straps.  The barbs would sink into the flesh, and when withdrawn they would take chunks of flesh with it.  Half of those receiving a verbera did not live through it.  Perhaps this was a blessing, because if you lived, you were about to be crucified!