Frank McLynn

Did He Wash His Hands?

Pontius Pilate: Deciphering a Memory


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Until recently Pontius Pilate was a household name; in modern, pagan Britain one can no longer be sure. He definitely existed: as well as in the Gospels, he is mentioned in the writings of Tacitus, Philo and Josephus and, perhaps most significantly, on the Pilate Stone, which was discovered at Caesarea in Israel in 1961. His life has interested many writers, including Nietzsche, Anatole France, Shaw and Bulgakov. Some of his alleged sayings (‘What is truth?’) have provoked thinkers down the ages. History has less to say. We know that at the time of the trial of Jesus and the Crucifixion, which Aldo Schiavone plausibly dates to the night of Thursday 6 April AD 30, he had been prefect of Judaea for four years and would rule for another six. He was of equestrian, not senatorial rank, probably aged around forty in the year 30, and a protégé of Sejanus, the great favourite of Tiberius, who famously overstepped his bounds and was executed in disgrace by the emperor. All historical evidence suggests that Pilate died in the reign of Caligula (37–41) and tradition has it that his place of death was Vienne in France. During his ten years in Judaea, Pilate had to deal with Rome’s most difficult subjects, the Jews, and by the time of the Crucifixion had already endured two major clashes with them: over the display of ‘heathen idols’ (the legionaries’ eagles) and the building of an aqueduct. The prefect of Judaea was always in a precarious position: he had just 3,000 soldiers under his command and, in times of serious trouble, had to call on support from his senior, the legate of Syria, who commanded four entire legions.

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