Pontius Pilate (7)

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

The Samaritan prophet

The sect of the Samaritans had its origins in a doctrinal conflict in Jerusalem in the age of Alexander the Great. One group of priests had left the city and started a new sect in the city of Samaria. One of their beliefs was that the prophet whose coming Moses had predicted,note would reveal his identity by showing Moses' sacred vessels. This (Messianic?) belief was shared by the members of the Sect of Qumran, who knew that a treasure could be found on top of this mountain.note

In 36, a man claimed to be Moses reincarnate and gathered an armed following. Pilate intervened immediately with some thousand soldiers, dispersed the crowd, and had - as in the previous incident - only the ringleaders executed. Nonetheless, the Samaritans considered his violence excessive and appealed to the Syrian governor, Lucius Vitellius (not to be confused with son, who became emperor). Pilate was pensioned off.

Flavius Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 18.85-89

The Samaritan nation too was not exempt from disturbance. For a man who made light of mendacity and in all his designs catered to the mob, rallied them, bidding them go in a body with him to Mount Gerizim, which in their belief is the most sacred of mountains. He assured them that on their arrival he would show them the sacred vessels which were buried there, where Moses had deposited them.
His hearers, viewing this tale as plausible, appeared in arms. They posted themselves in a certain village named Tirathana, and, as they planned to climb the mountain in a great multitude, they welcomed to their ranks the new arrivals who kept coming.
But before they could ascend, Pilate blocked their projected route up the mountain with a detachment of cavalry and heavily armed infantry, who in an encounter with the first comers in the village slew some in a pitched battle and put the others to flight. Many prisoners were taken, of whom Pilate put to death the principal leaders and those who were most influential among the fugitives.
When the uprising had been quelled, the council of the Samaritans went to Vitellius, a man of consular rank who was governor of Syria, and charged Pilate with the slaughter of the victims. For, they said, it was not as rebels against the Romans but as refugees from the persecution of Pilate that they had met in Tirathana.
Vitellius thereupon dispatched Marcellus, one of his friends, to take charge of the administration of Judaea, and ordered Pilate to return to Rome to give the emperor his account of the matters with which he was charged by the Samaritans. And so Pilate, after having spent ten years in Judaea, hurried to Rome in obedience to the orders of Vitellius, since he could not refuse. But before he reached Rome, Tiberius had already passed away.


If the crowd really "appeared in arms" in Tirathana (modern Khirbet ed-Duwara?), it is hard to see what Pilate did wrong. Worse, we can be certain that Josephus' remark that Vitellius ordered Pilate "to return to Rome to give the emperor his account of the matters", cannot be true. The governor of Syria simply could not dismiss his colleague in Judaea; that was the emperor's task. Maybe Vitellius just persuaded Pilate to retire - a retirement that was explained by the Jews as a dismissal.

Anyhow, it is not likely that the former governor had to fear the emperor's judgment; the fact that Caligula, the new ruler of the Roman Empire, did not reappoint the governor does not indicate that Pilate had fallen into disfavor. He had remained in office for more than ten years, where twelve or thirty-six months were usual. It is more probable that he was allowed to retire. he former governor of Judaea may have died soon after, because he could not oppose the slanders of the Jewish embassy to Caligula in 41 CE (above).