🔼The name Pontius in the Bible
There's only one man named Pontius in the Bible, namely the notoriously bad-tempered Roman governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate, who was incumbent from 26 AD to 36 AD, that is at least from the beginning of the ministry of John the Baptist (Luke 3:1) until the trial and execution of Jesus of Nazareth (Matthew 27:2, Acts 4:27, 1 Timothy 6:13; see full concordance).
Pontius Pilate was a mere minor cog in the huge Roman administrative machine, and it's a bit of a mystery why he received so much attention from Roman historians. In our article on the name Pilate we take a closer look at this complicated character, who in stead of the spineless puppet of popular perception may in fact have been a major instigator of the ultimate Great Jewish Revolt of 66 - 70 AD.
To Pontius Pilate, his trial of Jesus would have been little more than just another day at the office if his office hadn't been in Caesarea. When Jesus was arrested, Pontius was conveniently in Jerusalem due to the festivities surrounding Pesah.
According to Josephus, at the end of his reign Pontius needlessly brutalized a group of Samaritans, after which the governor of Syria sent him to Rome to be tried by the emperor, which would have been Tiberius, if he hadn't died that same time. How the freshly instated emperor Caligula proceeded to deal with Pontius Pilate isn't known for sure, since further details of Pontius' life diverge into a delta of legends, mostly concerned with which gruesome end Pontius finally befell. In our article on the name Pilate we show that even Josephus's story of the end of Pilate was most likely part of a defamation campaign and most likely not based on facts.
The very little evidence of Pontius' actual historicity was spectacularly augmented in 1961, when in Caesarea a limestone block was found to have Pontius' full name carved on it. On that stone Pontius Pilate speaks of himself as prefect, which was a magisterial title of substantial weight, yet Roman historians who mentioned Pontius Pilate mostly dub him procurator, which was a financial manager without magisterial power; a secretary, and note the parallel between the literary characters of Pontius Pilate and Judas Iscariot.
🔼What's eating Pontius Pilate?
The name Pontius Pilate is somewhat curious, and theories that try to explain this name abound. To start, our name only consists of two parts while a full Roman name would commonly consist of three:
- The praenomen or first name, chosen by the parents: Tom, Dick or Harry.
- The nomen or surname, copied from the name of the family or gens: Smith
- The cognomen, which is a specialization of the surname, to distinguish a certain family within a larger clan: Harry Smith the Brave, and his family of Brave-Smiths.
The -ius part of the name Pontius would identify Pontius as nomen; it roughly means "of", and is somewhat like the Mc in McDonald, or son in Johnson. The name Pilate would then probably be the cognomen, since it was then as much as now more proper to leave an important person's first name out of a written report than part of his last name (Mister Smith the Brave in stead of Mister Brave Harry, or something like that).
It's by no means certain that Pontius Pilate was actually born into the Pontius family, because it was very common for folks to adopt others into their family, or even for others to simply hijack a good-ringing last name and apply it to themselves — Caesar Augustus was Julius Caesar's biological grandnephew but posthumously adopted son, and the Roman historian Josephus Flavius was once a Jewish general who had assumed the nomen Flavius (and job of writer) in honor of emperor Flavius Vespasian.
But, whether by birth or adoption, it can be reasonably assumed that Pontius Pilate was a member of the known Roman Pontius family, of which one tribune Lucius Pontius Aquila famously vexed Julius Caesar into verbal outbursts, and then, even more famously, helped assassinate him.
Our article on the cognomen Pilate explains why Pontius Pilate may have been an adopted rather than a home-made son of the Pontii: the name Pilate may mean Freedman and denote freed slaves. The Pilate cognomen was very rare and the Pilate family had most probably only very recently come into prominence. It's perfectly likely that either Pontius Pilate or his father had been enslaved but had somehow attained freedom, and that Pilate was scouting for ways to exonerate the family. Pilate's subsequent zeal for the empire and brutal oppression of those who were once his fellow servants would certainly be explained by his gratitude.
🔼Etymology of the name Pontius
The Pontii had originated as part of the Samnite people. Over the centuries, the Samnites had competed with the Etruscans, Latins and other groups over the supremacy in Italy, but when that supremacy was established after series of all-consuming wars, the Samnites too had become Roman citizens.
Where the gens (Roman family name) Pontius came from and what it means is no longer clear, but there are two main candidates, the first one being pentas in Latin and πεντε (pente) in Greek, both meaning five. This may seem a bit odd a root for a name, but in the Roman world there was a thin line between numbers and names — think of names like Tertius, Quartus, Septimus and of course Octavian (the original name of emperor Augustus, meaning "Eighth"):
🔼Increments of five
Modern enthusiasts may be tempted to connect evil Pontius to the pentagram and thus to Baphomet and all those kinds of goings on, but that's quite nonsensical and ultimately unproductive. There's nothing particularly spooky about the number five, although it is clearly referenced to in the New Testament, and in connection with Pontius Pilate.
Take into account that:
- Pontius Pilate was incumbent from 26 to 36 AD, and was the fifth Roman governor of Judea, counting from 6 AD when ethnarch Herod Archelaus was deposed.
- His nomen sounded like it meant Fifth or To Do With Five. This may not be just a cute coincidence, as there are known cases of Roman officials who assumed a nomen or cognomen to match their perceived status.
- His cognomen sounded like it belonged to someone whose enslaving debt had somehow been annulled.
- His title as reported of by Tacitus showed he was a mere financial manager, but with the title he gave himself he indicated his zeal to achieve greater things.
- His cruel enthusiasm demonstrated either a need to prove himself or else show gratitude to whoever had given him his position.
When Jesus told His parable of the two debtors, one who owned five-hundred dinari and the other who owned fifty, and who were both acquitted to the greater and lesser love towards their creditor (Luke 7:41-42), only the dimmest members of Jesus' original audience would have failed to realize that Jesus was speaking not only of financial manager Pontius Pilate, but also of the very working principle of the Roman empire: the Stockholm-syndrome tendency of most trustees to become much more fiercely defensive of their masters' operation than any regularly hired goon would ever be.
It's how totalitarian regimes up to those of Hitler and Stalin controlled their subjects: by selecting and promoting the most vicious among them, and turning them onto the very people they arose from and now have learned to despise.
🔼Omnia pontus erant
The other candidate for the origin of the name Pontius lies in the word pontus in Latin and ποντος (pontos) in Greek; both meaning sea:
The name Pontius either means Fifth or Belonging To The Sea.
Here at Abarim Publications we'd like to additionally point out that the most dominant sub-tribe of the Samnites were the Pentri, whose name is thought to derive from the Celtic pen-, meaning peak (hence words like pin, point and even pinnacle).
Perhaps the family name Pontius is somehow related to the name Pentri but had cosmetically gravitated towards either the word pontus or pentius. In that case Pontius is a name like Vandeberg or Bergman.