Pontius Pilate (4)

Pontius Pilate: Roman prefect of Judaea from 26 CE to 36 CE, best known for the execution of Jesus of Nazareth.

The iconic standards

Pilate and his wife arrived at Caesarea in 26. Almost immediately, troubles started: soldiers had brought statues of the emperor into Jerusalem, and almost the entire population of Jerusalem marched to Caesarea, imploring the new governor to remove the effigies. There are three reports about the incident. The oldest is written by Philo in the forties and is extremely hostile to Pilate, for reasons explained above. Philo was not present, however; he was at Alexandria, and this distance may explain some discrepancies with the other reports. These are both written by Flavius Josephus, whose Jewish War appeared in the seventies and is (partially) based on oral sources. He retold his tale in the nineties, when he wrote his Jewish Antiquities, the third report.

Philo of Alexandria, The embassy to Caligula 299-305


Pilate was an official who had been appointed prefect of Judaea. With the intention of annoying the Jews rather than of honoring Tiberius, he set up gilded shields in Herod's palace in the Holy City. They bore no figure and nothing else that was forbidden, but only the briefest possible inscription, which stated two things - the name of the dedicator and that of the person in whose honor the dedication was made.
    But when the Jews at large learnt of this action, which was indeed already widely known, they chose as their spokesmen the king's [Herod the Great] four sons, who enjoyed prestige and rank equal to that of kings, his other descendants, and their own officials, and besought Pilate to undo his innovation in the shape of the shields, and not to violate their native customs, which had hitherto been invariably preserved inviolate by kings and emperors alike.
    When Pilate, who was a man of inflexible, stubborn and cruel disposition, obstinately refused, they shouted: "Do not cause a revolt! Do not cause a war! Do not break the peace! Disrespect done to our ancient laws brings no honor to the emperor. Do not make Tiberius an excuse for insulting our nation. He does not want any of our traditions done away with. If you say that he does, show us some decree or letter or something of the sort, so that we may cease troubling you and appeal to our master by means of an embassy."
    This last remark exasperated Pilate most of all, for he was afraid that if they really sent an embassy, they would bring accusations against the rest of his administration as well, specifying in detail his venality, his violence, his thefts, his assaults, his abusive behavior, his frequent executions of untried prisoners, and his endless savage ferocity.
    So, as he was a spiteful and angry person, he was in a serious dilemma; for he had neither the courage to remove what he had once set up, nor the desire to do anything which would please his subjects, but at the same time he was well aware of Tiberius' firmness on these matters. When the Jewish officials saw this, and realized that Pilate was regretting what he had done, although he did not wish to show it, they wrote a letter to Tiberius, pleading their case as forcibly as they could.
    What words, what threats Tiberius uttered against Pilate when he read it! It would be superfluous to describe his anger, although he was not easily moved to anger, since his reaction speaks for itself.
    For immediately, without even waiting until the next day, he wrote to Pilate, reproaching and rebuking him a thousand times for his new-fangled audacity and telling him to remove the shields at once and have them taken from the capital to the coastal city of Caesarea [...], to be dedicated in the temple of Augustus. This was duly done. In this way both the honor of the emperor and the traditional policy regarding Jerusalem were alike preserved.

Flavius Josephus, The Jewish War 2.169-174

Pilate, being sent by Tiberius as prefect to Judaea, introduced into Jerusalem by night and under cover the effigies of Caesar which are called standards.
    This proceeding, when day broke, aroused immense excitement among the Jews; those on the spot were in consternation, considering their laws to have been trampled under foot, as those laws permit no image to be erected in the city; while the indignation of the townspeople stirred the countryfolk, who flocked together in crowds.
    Hastening after Pilate to Caesarea, the Jews implored him to remove the standards from Jerusalem and to uphold the laws of their ancestors. When Pilate refused, they fell prostrate around his palace and for five whole days and nights remained motionless in that position.

The great stadium,where Pilate addressed the Jewish multitude
    On the ensuing day Pilate took his seat on his tribunal in the great stadium and summoning the multitude, with the apparent intention of answering them, gave the arranged signal to his armed soldiers to surround the Jews.
    Finding themselves in a ring of troops, three deep, the Jews were struck dumb at this unexpected sight. Pilate, after threatening to cut them down, if they refused to admit Caesar's images, signaled to the soldiers to draw their swords.
    Thereupon the Jews, as by concerted action, flung themselves in a body on the ground, extended their necks, and exclaimed that they were ready rather to die than to transgress the law. Overcome with astonishment at such intense religious zeal, Pilate gave orders for the immediate removal of the standards from Jerusalem.

Flavius Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 18.55-59

Now Pilate, the prefect of Judaea, when he brought his army from Caesarea and removed it to winter quarters in Jerusalem, took a bold step in subversion of the Jewish practices, by introducing into the city the busts of the emperor that were attached to the military standards, for our law forbids the making of images.
    It was for this reason that the previous prefects, when they entered the city, used standards that had no such ornaments. Pilate was the first to bring the images into Jerusalem and set them up, doing it without the knowledge of the people, for he entered at night.
    But when the people discovered it, they went in a throng to Caesarea and for many days entreated him to take away the images. He refused to yield, since to do so would be an outrage to the emperor; however, since they did not cease entreating him, on the sixth day he secretly armed and placed his troops in position, while he himself came to the speaker's stand. This had been constructed in the stadium, which provided concealment for the army that lay in wait.
    When the Jews again engaged in supplication, at a pre-arranged signal he surrounded them with his soldiers and threatened to punish them at once with death if they did not put an end to their tumult and return to their own places.
    But they, casting themselves prostrate and baring their throats, declared that they had gladly welcomed death rather than make bold to transgress the wise provisions of the laws. Pilate, astonished at the strength of their devotion to the laws, straightway removed the images from Jerusalem and brought them back to Caesarea.


There are two striking differences between these stories. To start with, Philo knows about a petition by four sons of king Herod and tells us nothing about the sit-down action that has Josephus' interest. The other difference is that Flavius Josephus thinks that army standards were involved, whereas Philo mentions gilded shields with an inscription. Differences like these are to be expected in any society in which the spoken word is the most important form of communication. Both authors had different spokesmen, which explains the discrepancies. We can be a little bit more precise about one of these spokesmen: Philo was related to the Herodian dynasty and will have heard the story from one of the members of the embassy.note

Whatever their differences, Philo and Flavius Josephus have one thing in common. They do not tell the story from Pilate's point of view, but tell a Jewish story, which is extremely hostile to the governor. But it is unlikely that Pilate deliberately provoked the Jews. Only an anti-Semite would have done so, and the emperor Tiberius was far too clever to send an anti-Semite to Judaea. The Romans could be harsh masters, but they were not stupid. Besides, we have already seen that Pilate accepted Judaism and paganism as equals (above). It must have been an accident.

A clue to the interpretation is given by the remark from Flavius Josephus' Jewish Antiquities that the soldiers were brought in from Caesarea and were removed to winter quarters in Jerusalem. The sequence in which Flavius Josephus places the story strongly suggests that the incident took place immediately after Pilate's arrival. It is likely that he brought some fresh troops with him and immediately sent these men to Jerusalem. (We know that among the occupying forces were at least two Italian regiments, the Cohors Secunda Italica Civium Romanorum and the Cohors Prima Augusta.) The soldiers simply did not know that it was forbidden to bring their standards (or the shields) into the holy city. If they covered the distance between the two cities - 90 km - in three days, it is not strange to read that the blasphemous objects were introduced into the city during the night.

Next morning, the Jerusalem population discovered what had happened, and decided to implore the new governor to remove these effigies. The first to arrive in Caesarea will have reached it on the evening of the third day, and it is unlikely that the governor allowed an audience to these few people. When the crowd grew, he ordered his soldiers to guard the multitude. He had no reliable (i.e., Roman) report of what had happened and will have sent a messenger to Jerusalem. Meanwhile, the Herodian princes had discovered that their subjects were almost revolting, and hurried to Pilate to advise him on this matter. Flavius Josephus tells us that the strikers had to wait until the sixth day; probably this is the time Pilate needed to hear the answer of his messengers, and to send a new messenger to order the removal of the statues (or gilded shields).

It is remarkable that Pilate addressed the crowd in person (probably in Greek, a language that neither he or his audience had as a native tongue); it would have been easier to inform their representatives about his decision. Flavius Josephus' report that his soldiers seemed ready to kill all those present must be a misinterpretation: the tired men and women from Jerusalem unexpectedly saw the guard and the governor and were scared. That they "bared their throats" must be a rhetorical exaggeration from either Flavius Josephus or his source; it should be remembered that Flavius Josephus probably heard this story and did not read about it. It is possible that Josephus' spokesman was influenced by another story - that of the protests against the Syrian governor Petronius, whose encounter with Jewish peasants offering their lives is well attested.

After the incident, Pilate must have written a letter to the emperor, to which was attached the request by the four Jewish leaders. It was common practice that a governor reported incidents and asked guidance from the monarch; the letters written by the governor of Bithynia-Pontus, Pliny the Younger, to Trajan are known to us and show us that the emperor was consulted frequently, and for matters of far less importance than the incident with the gilded shields (or the iconic standards). Philo must have known about Pilate's letter to Tiberius, but he can never have read it. He certainly did not know the answer, which must have been friendly: Pilate was to be governor for another ten years.