🔼The name Pilate in the Bible
There is only one man named Pilatos mentioned in the Bible (or all of recorded history, for that matter) and that is Pontius Pilate, the infamous Roman governor of Judea at the time of the public life of Christ (Matthew 27, Mark 15, Luke 23, John 18-19). But as simple as the literary character of Pilate tends to be summarized — to most and even serious commentators, Pilate was little more than the quintessential bad guy who let the Jews let the Romans kill Jesus — it's really phenomenally complex, and that in more ways than one.
To start with, governors of the forty-plus provinces of Rome remained in office one to three years while Pilate stayed on for a decade. That had to have a reason. The tasks of these local governors were so mundane — basically maintaining a region's financial revenues and directing these to Rome — that the names of only very few of them are known to us today. That means that the literary coverage that Pilate enjoyed, by several non-Biblical first century authors, is no less than phenomenal. Also indubitably for a good reason.
Nearly sixty years after the event allegedly took place, the famous historian Josephus felt compelled to submit that Pilate had been reprieved and sent to Rome by the governor of Syria, to explain to the emperor his brutal suppression of a Samaritan uprising. For reasons we'll discuss below, this is so obviously a lie that we can only conclude that Josephus engineered a slanderous ruse about someone who should have been considered a minor player more than half a century earlier. Clearly, Pilate had not been a mere minor player and his influence was still felt in the 90's AD.
Secondly, traditional history has always told the story of the ages by stringing the stories of its superstars together. Nowadays, however, we realize that the influence of superstars on the course of human history is only minute, and the real story is told by what buzzes the common populace. Julius Caesar, arguably one of the most super of superstars and father of Roman imperialism — the familiar Christian phrase "Son of God" was originally applied to Augustus; Julius being the implied paternal deity — was besides a general and statesman a prolific writer who wrote about pretty much everything, sometimes in critically acclaimed poetry. But the bulk of Caesar's work — the "Word of God", so to speak — has been lost!
For some reason, the nameless scribes and scholars of the ancient world preserved for us scores of poems by Solomon and David, who were minor kings (politically speaking), but couldn't be bothered to preserve the musings of the Father of the Modern World. These same scribes, however, began to copy the gospels and letters of Paul on such an industrial scale that we have countless different versions (due to minor copy errors and editorials) that date back to mere years after their original inception.
🔼The subtle art of effective resistance
Rome believed in the kind of theological food-chain that was either invented or perfected by the Egyptians and still dominates the world today. It dictates that the folks who comprise the large bottom layer of the social pyramid are virtually worthless, but the higher up, the holier you are. The most-holy king pin, the apex of the social pyramid, ruled in the stead of the divine, and whoever he ruled was to blindly obey his godly edicts. Those peoples that weren't ruled by the divine representative, who weren't part of the same pyramid, were subsequently dubbed heathens, barbarians, filthy and ignorant (and of course in modern times: evildoers and terrorists).
The gospel of Jesus Christ, on the other hand, teaches that every human individual is (1) anointed as high priest and thus equally close to God and in no need of vicarious intersession, and (2) anointed as king of his/her own life (and read our article on the name Antichrist for a further discussion of this).
Roman totalitarianism believes that if only everything is described by laws and all individual freedom is curtailed, all behavior checked and all human endeavor designed by bosses, paradise commences. The gospel teaches that personal freedom is every person's birthright, that personal freedom is required to both approach the Creator and bring out the intended divine nature of man, that Christ typically puts an end to all authority and dominion (1 Corinthians 15:24) and that paradise starts where people love their enemies and their neighbors as themselves, with a love that surpasses all knowledge (Ephesians 3:19).
Since the perpetuation of Roman Imperial Theology (human enslavement) depended then as much as now on people's ignorance about the gospel (human freedom), the Romans tried very hard to suppress and even demonize it. That means that all writings preserved in the New Testament are in fact highly controversial resistance communiqués, and are mostly written in a kind of code (read our article on Onesimus for more on this). Popular church history usually insists that in the fourth century AD emperor Constantine converted himself and the Roman Empire to the teachings of Jesus, but he did no such thing. In stead, he masterfully deflated a detrimental resistance movement that had been duly illegal for longer a time than exists between us and Benjamin Franklin, by grafting its key phrases onto the stem and structure of the signature Roman cult of Sol Invictus.
The resulting Constantinian Christendom was the theological equivalent of a sugar doused chemistry set with "Nutritious Health Bar" stamped on its label. The glass slipper of the gospel of Jesus Christ was forcibly shoehorned onto the clumpy hoof of Ecclesia's ugly stepsister: pagan deities were renamed but heir qualities remained and their demi-gods became a pantheon of "saints". Christian soldiers proverbially marched onward from crusades to inquisition, all the while never wondering what these atrocities might have to do with the love of Christ.
But contemplation required personal freedom and individual responsibility, and all that was strongly discouraged as mechanical order became a higher goal than the "chaos" of creation. The "church" became an instrument of social control, a pyramid with a papal apex and a bottom layer consisting of people who had to obey their clergy. Folks who were created to mill about and find their own way were told to stand (later sit) orderly like a legion in rows, while a salaried preacher told them what to think, or rather not to think at all. Thanks to "saint" and "holy" emperor Constantine, Christianity remained wholly pagan until the Reformation, when certain folks slowly began to realize that the Body of Christ is a naturally occurring, self-organizing social entity, and not a wafer.
The literary character of Pontius Pilate as deployed in the gospels should be viewed relative to the friction that existed between believers in Caesar's totalitarianism and pyramidal human enslavement, and believers in Christ's individual freedom and responsibility. And strikingly, Caesarian historians had little good to say about Pontius Pilate, whereas the authors of the New Testament spoke remarkably well of him (safe for perhaps Luke's enigmatic submission that Pilate had "mixed the blood of Galileans with their sacrifices", Luke 13:1, but that might have something to with the aqueduct incident; see below). This, counter-intuitive as it is, suggests that Pilate's moral pendulum was generally considered to swing more to Jesus' side than to Rome's.
The very fact that Caesarean authors even discussed Pilate demonstrates that they considered him an important player in the evolution of Rome, but on a par perhaps with Hannibal and especially opponents-from-within: Herman the German and the Illyrians and their ill-fated three-year massive revolt of 9 AD. But doubtlessly, the strongest and almost certainly deliberate association the Caesarean authors felt was that between Pontius Pilate and the Liberators, or in Latin: Liberatores:
🔼Setting the captives free
In the last century BC, Rome's time-honored Senate-governed Republic destabilized, and in a series of civil wars, the ruling power became held by less and less individuals. The first general to take control of the Roman realm by military force was a general-turned-dictator named Sulla. He had won the decisive Battle of Porta Collina (82 BC), during which he had gone head to head with a coalition of more democratically minded generals, among whom general Pontius Telesinus. It's highly significant that this plebs-loving general Pontius was of the same family as Pontius Pilate, as every informed person in the first century AD would have realized.
Sulla's example ignited the ambitions of other generals, who began to loot surrounding "barbarian" nations to fund their legions and steered those towards Rome in their bids for power. The last of these rogue generals was Julius Caesar, who first robbed the Gauls, then conquered Rome and appointed himself sole Dictator of what was soon to be an empire ruled by a divine emperor (the first one being Augustus).
A whopping eighty depowered senators, however, so abhorred the idea of a dictatorship that they clubbed up under the name the Liberators (namely Rome from slavery) and proceeded to stab Julius to death (44 BC). Among these murderous conspirators was one Lucius Pontius Aquila, who was also a member of the Pontius family. In other words: in the early first century AD, the name Pontius had the same regicidal ring to it as the names Booth and Oswald do in our time.
The two most famous Liberators were of course Cassius and Brutus, who were finally defeated at the Battle of Philippi (42 BC). But in between killing Julius and making a run for it, Brutus had found time to mint a coin (earlier in 42 BC). Coins were the first means of mass propaganda, and in order to explain the Romans why he had killed Julius, Brutus had fitted his denarius with a picture of two daggers flanking a "freedom cap" or pilleum. This pilleum was a specific head garment that was given to slaves upon their manumission. A person that wore a cap like that was called a pilleatus, which is one of the proposed sources of the name Pilate and certainly reminds of it.
Romans often changed their names to make a point or to indicate their allegiance to a certain family — for instance: Gaius Octavius became Caesar Augustus in honor of Julius Caesar, and general Joseph ben Matiyahu became Titus Flavius Josephus in honor of emperor Titus Flavius Vespasianus. It's not clear whether Pontius Pilate was called such prior to his political career, but the chances are excellent that he (or perhaps folks who later discussed him) assumed this name to indicate his political leanings — a fact that would not have escaped anyone in the first century AD.
There can be little doubt that Pontius Pilate was recognized by his contemporaries as a flaming Liberator. If he hadn't been and his unfortunate name had been hereditary (from a family of which no other member is known to history), he would have surely changed it into something more conductive of a political career.
🔼Etymology of the name Pilate
There's no single straight explanation for the name Pilate, but there are several enticing possibilities:
🔼Pilate means "With Spears" or "With Pillars"
The name Pilatus is the same as a relatively rare adjective meaning "armed with javelins" or "spears in hand" or something like that. This adjective derives from the word pila, which is the plural of pilum, which denoted the heavy javelin used by the Roman infantry.
This javelin, however, was not named after its slender appearance or fact that it was thrown, but rather after the crushing effect that a volley of these items had on the enemy. According to Lewis and Short's A Latin Dictionary, the word pilum is a contraction of pis-lum, which comes from the verb piso (or pinso), meaning to beat, pound or crush. The same word pilum means a pounder or mortar; a device for grinding or pulverizing. In other words: when a Roman author mentions a column of soldiers "spear in hand", he literally speaks of a single battering instrument rather than a cluster of individuals ready for combat with weapons heaved. See for another important Roman name that may mean Spear our article on the name Quirinius.
An identical word pila — but this time short for pigla, taken from the root pig-, hence the verb pango, meaning to fix or set firmly — means pillar and is synonym of the word columna, from whence comes our English word "column". The related adjective pilatim means "with pillars", and see our article on the name Stoics for a possible significant association.
🔼Pilate means "Trifle" or "Freedman"
Another possible origin of our name Pilate is in the noun pilus, meaning "hair" (hence our English verb "to epilate"), and which possibly is closely related to the noun pilum meaning javelin. How the connection between pilus and pilum (and ultimately the verb piso) works isn't clear, but perhaps a marching column of javelin-carrying soldiers reminded of some bristly creature, and perhaps the Romans too saw parallels between waves pounding on rocks and hair waving in curves or in the wind.
The word pilus also served as the name of a certain subdivision of a legion, and a pilanus was a kind of soldier that formed the third rank in battle. These pilus and pilanus were not necessarily equipped with the pilum, but had functions that today would perhaps fall under the duties of the "storm trooper" or rather those following the first wave of assault and specialized in harvesting the battle field for loot. The related verb pilo curiously means either "to grow hairy" or "to deprive of hair/ grow bald" and hence "to plunder down to the last item" (we would say "to pick clean"), hence our words "pillage" and "pile".
Significantly, both a hair and a combat javelin are effective only when they are part of a significant collection. In classical literature, the individual hair became a symbol of insignificance, a trifle or small quantum of a larger effect, and featured in sayings such as "he is worth not a hair" or "he has not an honest (man's) hair on him". In the Bible this symbolic usage appears in statements such as "not a hair will fall to the ground" (1 Samuel 14:45, 1 Kings 1:52), or "perish" (Luke 21:18, Acts 27:34), or "can be made white or black" (Matthew 5:36), while all of them "are numbered" (Matthew 10:30).
As mentioned above, several commentators insist that the name Pilatus came from the derived word pilleum, which denoted a small felt hat or fez-like cap, which was either tightly woven or else worn tightly on the head. This cap was predominantly worn by manumitted slaves to indicate their former status, or rather their newly obtained freedom. A freed slave was hence known as pilleatus or pileatus, meaning "one of the pilleum" and thus "one of the hair", perhaps to indicate that one slave was like one hair or one javelin: an empire works only on a multitude of slaves (and note that both the names Julius and Caesar may have to do with hair).
During the festival of Saturnalia, the pilleum was worn in jest by Roman citizens. Saturnalia was the Roman carnivalesque upside-down festival, during which gifts changed hands, masters served their slaves and everybody celebrated the light that wasn't there with candles and fires — Saturnalia was celebrated in the second half of December, up to the 23rd. Later these rituals passed over to the cult of Sol Invictus, and subsequently to Christianity; hence modern Christmas and New Year's Eve.
🔼The Führer and the peace
Rome prided itself in its Pax Romana, but as the Caledonian (Scottish) commander Galgacus famously lamented upon his defeat in 84 AD: "They create a wasteland, and call it peace" (Tacitus Agricola.1.30). It's no coincidence that Hitler adopted the house style of Rome, as his national socialistic ideology and social attitude was on a neat par with that of Rome.
People may wonder what would have happened if Hitler had won, but the answer is simple: the Roman empire would have been revived, with Hitler reprising the role of Julius Caesar. Adolf would have now been revered as Savior of the World, and any resistance deemed the work of misguided fools and perverts — the failed D-Day invasion would have been known as the Great American Revolt.
Some commentators today go as far as to urge that even though Hitler was deposed, the Second World War was indeed won by the Nazis, and that we're presently living in an age of corporate fascism. According to this particular grouping-of-terms, WWII wasn't fought between armies but rather between sponsoring companies (Ford, Hugo Boss, IBM, Shell, Standard Oil, etc) who needed a patsy (Adolf and co) to cripple the economy of Russia (hence Hitler's otherwise wholly daft invasion, and inexplicable access to a fully functioning war machine). This particular scheme suggests that all democratically elected governments of our world are patsies as much as Hitler was, but also results in the suggestion of parallels between certain modern anti-globalist and environmental movements and the Jesus movement in Roman times. The empire, in turn, goes through great lengths to perpetuate the nonsensical suggestion that Jesus of Nazareth is represented (or is a property owned) by the Christian church, but now you know that the truth is far more subtle and far more detrimental to the modern ruling elite.
Since totalitarianism and resistance against that are quintessential human endeavors, the rise of Rome and that of German national socialism were largely governed by the same natural forces, which worked the same both times and had similar effects. Resistance against Hitler occurred from the get go, but from behind a fractured front of fanatical individuals (Bonhoeffer, like Paul imprisoned and finally killed) and small, unrelated groups, ranging from civilian guerillas to academics (Einstein, Planck, Gödel and many more luminaries openly opposed Hitler) and even military conspiracies (most famously the 20 July 1944 plot). Then there were groups that didn't so much oppose Hitler's ideology but only his bellicosity (for instance the 1938 conspiracy led by German generals Oster and Beck) or his persecution of Jews (Oskar Schindler).
And as much as Hitler felt compelled to execute between 1933 and 1945 nearly eighty-thousand German civilians and military officers who resisted him to the point that they became dangers to him, so the top dogs of Rome ripped apart their opposition with pious, self-righteous tranquility. From their earliest victories over the local Italian peoples (including the Samnites — from whence came Pilate's family the Pontii — who battled the Romans for centuries, up until the first century BC), the Romans were hated by pretty much anybody that knew them. Resistance was everywhere, from fool-hearted armed revolts that nearly always resulted in defeat and bloody retaliation, to peaceful philosophical argumentation.
Much of the resistance came from outside the borders of the empire, but much too came from within. During the first century of the empire, the majority of Rome's emperors were killed and that by fellow Romans (or themselves). And many less violently inclined continued to carefully challenge the ways of Rome. Stoicism, for instance, pleaded for the humane treatment of every human being, including slaves and foreigners, and this certainly changed the way Rome operated.
🔼The King and the peace
For practical purposes, the movement around Jesus can be seen as one of a great many movements that aimed to change the world (that is: to somehow overthrow Rome in its existing form). Its signature attitude towards Rome was to simply not do anything other than stubbornly love one's neighbors and enemies alike, and pliantly keep whatever silly Roman law didn't violate God's law.
Some of these anti-Rome movements were so akin the gospel that they could be easily absorbed by the Jesus movement (the school of John the Baptist, for instance — John 1:37, Acts 19:3), while others were considered fraternal (for instance the Sons of Light, a once militant group known from Qumran's War Scroll and which Jesus held in high regard — Luke 16:8) or deformed by corruption (for instance the Pharisees of which quite a few crossed over to Jesus: Paul, Nicodemus, and possibly Gamaliel and Joseph of Arimathea).
The familiar name Christian was probably not invented to accurately describe the followers of Jesus, but was most probably already in use, namely to describe militant monarchists who, since the fall of the Maccabean dynasty to Rome in 63 BC were bent on restoring a descendant of David on an autonomous throne of Israel. This rightful king of Israel wasn't crowned but anointed and was therefore known as the Anointed One (or christos in Greek, hence our word Christ). When Jesus began to explain that the true "king of Israel" was every liberated individual, folks erroneously understood that He and His followers were earthly monarchists. In Syrian Antioch the followers of Jesus began to be formally equated with Christians, as the author of Acts grimly notes (Acts 11:26), which made it all the more easier for Constantine to pervert the whole thing into a Roman death machine.
But the fact that Jesus called Himself king in the hearing of Pilate while Pilate did not acknowledge this as high treason against Caesar can only mean that Pilate was among the very few people who understood that Jesus was neither a political king nor any threat to Roman authority in a military sense.
In those days there were boisterous hooligans called Zealots, whom Josephus held responsible for the destruction of the temple in 70 AD. The Zealots were probably not organized, al least not under that name, but they hated Rome and everybody who didn't hate Rome and who didn't resist Rome in the exact same way they did. The stories are sketchy and biased but it seems clear that most of the Zealots' victims were fellow Jews who didn't meet the Zealots' standards and were subsequently knocked over — for instance the much debated Zacharias, son of Berechiah, mentioned in Matthew 23:35, and read our article on the name Zacharias for a closer look at this character.
Militant Zealots were doubtlessly hated both for their anthropophagous cruelty and Romanesque obstinacy, as well as for frequently provoking the Romans to intervene, with more innocent victims as result. These victims were customarily crucified; a countless multitude was crucified — for instance six-thousand slaves were crucified in the wake of the Third Servile War of 73 - 71 BC, two thousand Jews were after the revolt of 4 BC and up to five hundred per day during the Siege of Jerusalem of 70 AD. These crucifixions stopped because the Romans ran out of wood.
Public crucifixion, it must be stressed, was not just a method of execution but was specifically designed as instrument to instill fear in the spectating masses. Crucifixion was not directed at the victim but at the viewers. Its intention was not to prolong someone's suffering (what's the point when someone's going to die anyway?) but to create a lasting impression; to keep slaves and the productive rungs of society docile and subservient (misbehaving property-owners were fined or exiled). The Roman historian Tacitus referred to crucifixion as supplicium servile or "the making servants kneel".
It seems that in the epithet "Crucified One", Jesus personifies the entire layer of society that was and still is subdued by fear and violence, but will never stop resisting the oppression this causes. Note that "be not afraid" is the single most repeated command in the Bible (Matthew 10:31, 14:27, 17:7, 28:5, 28:10, Mark 5:36, 6:50, Luke 1:13, 1:30, 2:10, 5:10, 8:50, 12:7, 12:32, John 6:20, 12:15, Acts 18:9, 27:24, Revelation 1:17, 2:10).
🔼A kingdom divided against itself
People of Jesus' days were arguably more scared of Jewish trouble makers than of the Romans who weren't all bad all the time, and only flared up when provoked. There were also benevolent Romans, who for apparently self-evident reasons "loved" the Jews and did great things for them — for instance the unnamed centurion of Capernaum, who loved the Jewish nation and had built a synagogue (Luke 7:5), or the devout and generous centurion Cornelius (Acts 10:1-2).
The latter lived in Caesarea, which was the capital of Roman Judea, where Pilate worked and lived. Since Pilate only had a few hundred soldiers at his direct disposal, dispersed among several stations, Cornelius and Pilate must have been close colleagues who in all likelihood met daily. It's unthinkable that Cornelius would have been engaged in activities that in any way embarrassed Pilate.
Contrary to common perception, there was never a unified Jewish front against a clearly defined Roman enemy, but rather a wide delta of Judaisms (of which Jesus' movement was just one) that mostly opposed each other rather than the wide delta of Romanisms. According to Josephus, even during the siege of Jerusalem, a great portion of the Jewish deaths were caused by Jewish Zealots who executed whomever they thought wasn't sufficiently poised against the Romans outside the walls.
The much discussed entreaty of the Jewish elite to crucify Jesus should be understood against the backdrop of that fear-fueled Judaic civil cold war. Their statement that they had "no other king than Caesar" (John 19:15) stems solely from fear of Roman retaliation, and Pilate's statement that he saw no fault in Jesus was nothing other than an attempt to convince the Jewish elite that Jesus' form of Judaism didn't merit Roman military intervention.
A few decades before the gospels were produced, Philo had stated that Pilate had been of "inflexible, stubborn and cruel disposition" and "a spiteful and angry person", known by the Jews for "his venality, his violence, his thefts, his assaults, his abusive behavior, his frequent executions of untried prisoners, and his endless savage ferocity" (Emb.303). Curiously though, as often pointed out by critics, this same Philo never mentioned Jesus of Nazareth. More curiously, however, (as rarely mentioned by critics), of the 23 governors that ruled Judea in the first century AD, only one stayed in office longer than Pilate. His predecessor Valerius Gratus hung on for 11 years while Pilate stayed for 10, and if he hadn't been retired off for obscure reasons, he would have probably stayed longer. That had to have had a reason.
The evangelists, who were surely familiar with Philo's work, portrayed Pilate ostensibly benevolent. Their Pilate was respectful and generous and continuously trying to maintain the precious peace. Their Pilate conceded with everything folks asked for (except for amending the Titulus Crucis — John 19:22 — via which Pilate literally confessed Jesus to be king; the stripping of Jesus corresponds to the rite of Spolia Opima, a lex regia). Pilate sent Jesus to Herod Antipas, who had been Pilate's enemy until then, but who sent Jesus back to Pilate along with his warmest personal regards (Luke 23:12). Of Antipas we know that his nephew Agrippa accused him of conspiring against Caligula (in 39 AD), because of which Antipas was exiled to France.
According to both Philo (40's AD) and Josephus (70's AD), Pilate had arrived at Caesarea in 26 AD, and some of his soldiers had foolishly brought some mildly offensive items into Jerusalem — plain gilded shields with small lettered inscriptions, said Philo; Caesarean effigies, said Josephus. But whatever these things were, their presence caused the Jews to rise up, and confront Pilate in a way that was clearly preludial to the better known story of Jews pleading with commander Petronius in protest of Caligula's daft idea to install a statue of himself in the temple in Jerusalem. Historians generally agree that had Caligula not been assassinated, the Great Jewish Revolt would have happened in the early forties in stead of the late sixties.
According to Philo, in Pilate's first week on the job, the angered Jews wrote a letter to Tiberius, who directly sent a message back in which he violently and lavishly scolded the newly appointed prefect. But Philo fails to explain why Tiberius would leave such a nasty prick in such a delicate office for a decade. Josephus added that during the five days this incident took to unfold, the Jews had demonstrated a willingness to rather die than see their laws violated, and that thus "overcome with astonishment at such intense religious zeal" (JW.2.174) and "astonished at the strength of their devotion to the laws" (Ant.18.59) Pilate ordered the items removed. Some years later, when Pilate tried Jesus, he famously "washed his hands in innocence," which doubtlessly catered to the Pharisaic sense of ablution (Mark 7:3).
It seems clear that Pilate had somehow become deeply amoured with the Jews and their zest for righteousness, and several clues indicate that he kept excellent relations with the Jewish elite (read our article on Annas). That would explain his reluctance to kill an innocent man (and his wife's troubled dream) but also why he ultimately allowed the Jewish establishment to go ahead with it. Pilate was tasked with navigating the very narrow divide between exerting too much force and not enough, while he simultaneously tried to establish which of two among countless many forms of Judaism was more beneficial to his own agenda: that of the fearful Jewish elite, or the brave "king" Jesus who would bow down for no man, even when tortured and killed; something that must have filled Pilate with great "astonishment" and respect.
🔼Barabbas and Azazel
Jews and Romans alike realized that a revolt would be costly for everybody, and the majority on both sides sought for ways to maintain the peace. The Jewish elite, consequently, requested from their Roman governor to keep their own population terrified and thus subdued and calm. They seem to have argued that without fear to control it, their own population would spin out of control. And although they have been condemned for this for centuries, in modern times we watch scary movies and eagerly ogle the evening anchors blather on about terrorists, simply because in the end it makes us feel safe and docile. There's nothing scarier than the realization of one's own responsibility for what goes on in the world. But Pilate saw no armed revolt in the making in the movement surrounding Jesus, or else he would have arrested and executed Jesus' henchmen, as per common Roman procedure.
These common Roman procedures also included the swift death of anyone, including well-meaning governors, who helped arrested insurrectionists and murderers escape. The idea that freeing rioting murderers once a year was in any way agreeable to Rome is so preposterous that Barabbas' remission would have been recognized by any member of the evangels' original audience as a comedic insert; something that obviously never happened in a historical sense, and which profundity lay solely in literary reality.
By the time the evangelists wrote (possibly just before the destruction of the temple in 70 AD but more probably in the wake of it), the true dialogue between Pilate and the Jewish elite was likely deemed subversive and illegal, which is why it was cast as a comic tragedy. But take away the slapstick, and it becomes clear that the Jews recognized that Jesus' message of peaceful resistance was far more corrosive than the odd insurrectionist.
What also must have been crystal clear to anyone but a snooping Roman censor is that the story of Barabbas, besides reminding of the upside-down festival of Saturnalia, only makes sense in light of the ritual of the scapegoat (Leviticus 16:7-10, or see our article on the name Azazel), which doesn't only identify Jesus as sin-offering, but also Pilate as high priestly Aaron.
🔼The Pilate legacy
Much to ongoing excitement, in 1961 a limestone block was found in Caesarea with the inscription [...]S TIBERIEVM [PO]NTIVS PILATUS [PREA]CTVS IVD[EA]E. What a Tiberieum was isn't clear but it was probably some kind of building dedicated to the still living emperor Tiberius. Architectural tributes like this were common in the empire, and Pontius, like all respectable Roman rulers, sported a modest building program.
Another project of his involved an aqueduct, for which he appropriated moneys from the temple. This act still infuriated Josephus half a century later (JW.2.175-177), but for utterly obscure reasons. The money Pilate used was a fund called Corbanas, or Corban, which was specifically raised from the temple donations for public works. The aqueduct blessed a great many people with fresh water, and fresh water was not only needed for consumption but also as essential element of Jewish religious rites. The building of this aqueduct was ordered by Herod the Great and inaugurated by Agrippa, after Pilate's departure.
In the year 36 AD, Pilate appears to have been retired but it's not clear why. Josephus wants us to believe that a contingent of Samaritans had aimed to march onto their sacred mountain Gerizim (Deuteronomy 11:29, see John 4:20) to look for some obscure Mosaic treasure, but was brutally beaten down by Pilate's men. This caused such consternation with the governor of neighboring Syria that the latter had his colleague arrested and shipped off to Rome to answer to Tiberius. But this story is so deliberately nonsensical that it merely illustrates how mysterious the whole Pilate affair is.
The Samaritans had free access to Gerizim and could dig all they wanted, especially if their motivations were of a religious nature (a "Mosaic treasure" can hardly be anything other than something intellectual). And even if Pilate had seen fit to stop them, it would have been his perfect right. And even if he had executed the ringleaders, not a single Roman official would have thought anything of it. And even if the Syrian governor had cared at all, he had no jurisdiction in Judea or Samaria (although there was some administrative overlap between the realms of Syria and Judea; they shared a legion for instance). If the governor of Syria had complaints, he would have had to write a letter to Tiberius, informing him about he matter and perhaps a polite request for his colleague's retirement. Because even if Pilate had done something that required an audience with the emperor, he would not necessarily have forfeited his long held position. That would have only happened if he was somehow found undermining the state.
Why Josephus became so upset with Pilate isn't clear beyond the obvious link he crafts between the latter and the Great Jewish Revolt and subsequent siege of Jerusalem, thirty years after Pilate's removal. But it was during that same siege that Jewish general Joseph's life was spared on the proviso that he became Flavius Josephus the Roman historian, in service of emperor Vespasian, who in 67 AD as general Vespasian had began the battle against the revolt, and his son general Titus (later emperor) who ended it in 70 AD. Vespasian had been pronounced emperor while he was in Galilee fighting Zealots, and had become amoured with Joseph when the latter informed his captor that the Jews believed that the Messiah and King of the World would come from that same region. And so it did, Josephus went on to explain.
🔼The flames of withering injustice
The evangelists too elaborated on the link between Jesus and the destruction of the temple, even to the extent that most commentators are fairly sure that they wrote with the memory of the destruction fresh in mind. Pilate's Tiberieum, whatever it might have been, was evidently so void of luster or otherwise deemed offensive, that it was dismantled without as much as a footnote in the histories. Its materials were recycled and Pilate's prideful plaque found its final resting place in the 4th century as part of a set of stairs towards the public tribune of a local theatre, face down and chiseled to size, in precise reversal of the famous capstone mentioned in Psalm 118:2.
It's no far fetch to conclude that Josephus identified Pontius Pilate as the original catalyst of the revolt, not just as some bad manager who had antagonized the local populace, but rather as the founder of a movement, whose disciples finally gained such critical mass that they ignited the revolt: enemies of both the Roman empire and the peaceful debate between Jewish and Roman philosophers. The name "Pilate" is a cognomen, which is a sort of middle name, except that it's not a second first name but rather a specification of one's last name. Pilate, therefore, didn't only mean Freedman, it also served to specify a collective rather than an individual within the Pontius family.
And sure enough, some years after both Jesus and Pontius Pilate were removed from Judea, Jesus' disciples appear to have collided with a group that may very well have been Pilate's disciples: when men from "what was called the Synagogue of the Freedmen" (Λιβερτινος, Libertinos) — at this time an international affair with members from Cyrene, Alexandria, Cilicia and Asia — indicted Stephen the Deacon and ultimately had him stoned (Acts 6:9; and note that at this time, the Jews apparently could get away with murder; something that they couldn't during Pilate's tenure).
No other source mentions this Synagogue of the Freedmen and we don't know what this movement was about. Most scholars appear to assume that the Synagogue of the Freedmen was an ordinary synagogue for Jewish ex-slaves, but that's by no means certain. Why would ex-slaves want their own synagogue, and if they did, why does no ancient author mention that, and why was it so important to the author of Acts which particular Jewish sect challenged Stephen that he mentions this? The word "synagogue" comes from the verb sunago, which means to assemble in general and not specifically for religious reasons.
Ergo: it's perfectly likely that the Synagogue of the Freedmen was in fact a Liberatores Front, and was first assembled by Pontius Pilate. Rome was divided against itself by people who wanted Rome to be as totalitarian as it could get (Imperialists, most notably the Caesarians), versus folks who wanted Rome ruled by a Senate (Republicans, among which the Pontius family). The followers of Jesus loved even the worst of the Imperialists but still aimed to convince them of the merits of people's individual freedom.
Pilate hated the Imperialists and wanted to kill them, being a Liberator himself. Subsequently, he liked the Jesus' people for opposing the empire, but hated them for not hating the Imperialists. He deeply admired Jesus' resolve but detested His refusal to revolt. In the end, Pilate crucified peaceful diplomacy for its eagerness to forgive.