Common Errors (18): Pilate

Pilate's inscription from Caesarea

Some ten years ago, two colleagues approached me with a request: could I read the general introduction to ancient history they had once written and was about to be reprinted? They wanted to seize the opportunity to remove all errors they might have made, and invited me to point out everything I could possible find.

Among the mistakes they refused to correct, was their qualification of Pontius Pilate as a procurator. True, this is what Tacitus writes in his Annals (15.44):

Christ, from whom the sect of the Christians has its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilate.

But Tacitus is wrong. An inscription from Caesarea, found in 1961, is our evidence. It contains several lacunae, but Pilate’s title is clearly legible:

[dis  avgvsti]S TIBERIEVM
[...  po]NTIVS  PILATVS
[praef]ECTVS  IVDA[ea]E
[fecit d]E[dicavit]
To the august gods, this temple of Tiberius, … Pontius Pilate, prefect of Judaea, erected and inaugurated.

There is no doubt about it: Pilate was a praefectus (a soldier), not a procurator (a civil official). This is not a mere triviality: the trial of Jesus was a matter of military urgency, not a civil trial.

<Overview of Common Errors>

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6 Responses to Common Errors (18): Pilate

  1. barcid says:

    Statler: “Have you ever seen a Witch Doctor?”
    Waldorf: “They’re all witch. Have you ever seen a poor doctor?”

  2. John Blair says:

    This is a consistent error, unfortunately. I’ve found it in a number of history books and historical novels. Even though, as you pointed out, we’ve had evidence to the contrary of Tacitus since 1961.

  3. Tim Stone says:

    If Vaspasian went from soldier to Emperor couldn’t Pilate have gone from soldier to procurator? Why can’t they both be correct, with a time distinction?

  4. Vespasian never was a soldier. He was from equestrin or senatorial birth.

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