The New Testament refers to Pontius Pilate 60 times. Two of the references add the title “governor” to his name ( Matthew 27:2, and Luke 3:1).  Historians, following Josephus, have generally added the rank of Procurator to his name when describing him, but this title is not in accordance with Roman law and custom, nor does it appear in the text. Rome was the dominant power in the Middle East from the first century BCE.  The Roman Empire had always preferred to govern the provinces it had captured through local kings who would pay the required taxes and enforce the will of the Emperor and Senate.  Herod the Great was one such vassal king, ruling Judea from 37 BCE until his death in 4 BCE.  His kingdom was broken up into three tetrarchies after his death, given to three of his sons.

Archelaus, one of Herod’s sons, was appointed ruler over Judea after his father’s death.  He was ambitious, inept, wasteful and cruel – and soon earned the hatred of the Jewish community.  His behavior led to massive complaints from Judea to Rome, which in turn led the Emperor Tiberius to dismiss Archelaus (in 6 CE), and exile him to Gaul (modern-day France), where he died in obscurity.  Rome then ruled Judea directly through appointed governors after the exile of Archelaus.

The appointed ruler of each Roman province was a Legate, responsible directly to either the Senate or the Emperor. The Legate appointed various officials to run the various local areas. One of these officials was the Prefect. Another was the procurator, a lesser official, whose original task was to collect taxes and oversee the finances of the area in question. The four rulers of Judea, all serving under the supervision of the Legate in Syria, Quirinius ( in Luke 2:2 one of them)  served for periods of approximately ten years. Later in the century, the title Prefect, which is what Pilate called himself, became confused with Procurator. Later histories used the title Procurator for Pilate, even though this wasn’t exactly correct. That title of Procurator has stuck to Pilate ever since that time.

An exquisitely replicated reproduction of the Pontius Pilate stele, discovered in Caesarea, is available at Biblical, which is  licensed by the Israel Antiquities Authority.

Author:  Walter Zanger