The Pilate Inscription from Caesarea
An archaelogical find adds to our understanding of Pilate’s character and his seminal role in Jesus’ crucifixion.
by Marc Turnage
In A.D. 6, at the request of the Jewish people, the Romans removed Herod Archelaus, the son of Herod the Great, as ethnarch of Samaria, Judea, and Idumea. At the same time, Rome reorganized Judea as a Roman province with Caesarea on the Mediterranean coast as its headquarters. A Roman prefect, under the jurisdiction of the governor of Syria, presided over Judea. From A.D. 26–36, Pontius Pilate was the Roman prefect who resided at Caesarea.
In 1961, while excavating the theater of Caesarea, excavators discovered an inscription of a temple to the Roman emperor Tiberius dedicated by Pontius Pilate, the Roman prefect of Judea (praefectus Iudaeae).1
The Latin inscription reads:
[Dis Augusti]s Tiberieum
Prefect of Judaea
This inscription provides a significant contribution to our understanding of Pilate’s character and his seminal role in Jesus’ crucifixion (cf. Tacitus, Annales XV, 44:2,3).
Pilate’s tenure as prefect overlapped with the reign of the Emperor Tiberius. This makes his dedication of the temple to Tiberius, while the emperor was still alive, exceptional. Traditionally people deified Roman emperors after their deaths. In the provinces, local, non-Roman rulers could build temples and sanctuaries to a living emperor as a sign of their devotion and loyalty. For example, Herod the Great built three temples within his kingdom to his patron Caesar Augustus, one of which he erected in Caesarea. The Pilate inscription discovered in Caesarea identifies Pilate as the only known Roman official to build a temple to a living emperor.
Roman emperors reacted differently to the cult of emperor worship; Augustus permitted it within the provinces (e.g., Judea), but did not allow it in Rome. Tiberius, however, did not appreciate the worship of himself. According to the Roman historian Suetonius (Tiberius, chapter 26), Tiberius forbade people to dedicate temples to himself. Tiberius would have strongly disapproved of Pilate building a “Tiberium” in Caesarea, especially since Pilate was a Roman official.
Pilate’s dedication of a temple to the living Emperor Tiberius displayed an exaggerated devotion that betrays a certain psychological weakness in Pilate. The ancient historical accounts of Pilate’s rule as prefect of Judea attest to other instances of Pilate’s exaggerated devotion to the emperor. The first-century Jewish historian Philo of Alexandria described Pilate as “a man of an inflexible, stubborn, and cruel disposition” (Embassy to Gaius 38:301). Pilate sought to display his strength by being brutal; yet, because of his weakness, others could pressure him to acquiesce and abandon his plans.
Ancient historians also recount Pilate’s strong antagonistic feelings toward the Jewish people and Judaism. The coins Pilate minted attest that these ancient historians did not exaggerate their accounts. Most Roman governors were careful not to offend Jewish religious sensitivities when they minted coins. They refrained from stamping their coins with figures of men or animals or of pagan objects connected with pagan cults. Pilate, however, minted coins that bore pagan symbols, like an augur’s staff and other sacred pagan vessels. Thus, he sought opportunity to provoke his Jewish subjects by specifically treading on their religious feelings.
Josephus recounts the first serious clash between Pilate and the Jewish masses. Pilate brought military standards bearing the image of the emperor into Jerusalem — an act subverting the Jewish practice forbidding the making of images (Ant. 18:55–59). According to Josephus, prior Roman prefects, when entering Jerusalem, used standards that did not have the image of the emperor out of sensitivity for Jewish religious feelings.
In response to Pilate’s actions, a large crowd of Jews assembled before him in Caesarea beseeching him to remove the standards. Initially, Pilate refused because to do so would have been an outrage to the emperor; but when he saw that the Jews were willing to die rather than have their faith profaned, he eventually acquiesced and moved the images from Jerusalem back to Caesarea.
On another occasion, Pilate took money from the temple treasury to finance the building of an aqueduct to bring water to Jerusalem (Josephus, Ant. 18:60–62; War 1:175–177). This was an act of sacrilege even from the Roman point of view since the temple tax was untouchable according to law. Tens of thousands of Jews gathered to protest his action. Pilate, however, ordered Roman soldiers to dress in common garb and mix with the crowd. Equipped with clubs, at Pilate’s signal, the plain-clothed soldiers struck against the crowd. The result was that many of the unarmed members of the Jewish crowd died. In this instance, Pilate compensated for his character weakness by exercising extreme cruelty and brutality.
Philo of Alexandria records another conflict between Pilate and the Jews (Philo, Embassy to Gaius 38:299–305). Pilate dedicated shields gilded with gold to the Emperor Tiberius in Herod’s palace in Jerusalem. Again, the Jewish people sent a delegation, including Herod’s four sons, to Pilate imploring him to remove the shields from Jerusalem. Pilate, because of his “self-will and relentlessness,” refused the Jewish delegation’s request. The Jews, however, threatened to make an appeal to Caesar. This threat put Pilate “in a difficult position; for he had neither the courage to take down what he had once set up, nor the desire to do anything which would please his subjects” (Embassy to Gaius 38:303). Pilate was particularly concerned that the Jews would make known his conduct as prefect — namely “the briberies, the violence, the robberies, the tortures and wanton injuries, the executions without trial constantly repeated (cf. his actions against Jesus), the ceaseless and supremely grievous cruelty” (Embassy to Gaius 38:302). Seizing on the precariousness of Pilate’s situation, the Jewish delegation “wrote a letter to Tiberius pleading their case as forcibly as they could” (Embassy to Gaius 38:306). According to Philo, Tiberius responded forcefully, rebuking Pilate and ordering him to move the shields to Caesarea, to be dedicated in the temple of Augustus.
The image of Pilate that emerges from the ancient writers, his coins, and the dedicatory inscription from Caesarea present a picture congruent with his actions in Jesus’ crucifixion recounted in the Gospels. In Luke 13:1, Jesus mentioned an unknown event in which Pilate’s brutality and anti-Jewish feelings were on display when he murdered some Galileans while they offered sacrifices in the temple. Yet, within the Gospel narratives, when Jewish leaders brought Jesus before him, Pilate acquiesces to the desires of the chief priests and the Sadducean authorities. According to John’s Gospel, when Pilate thought about releasing Jesus, the chief priests led by Caiaphas cried out, “If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar” (19:12). On hearing this, Pilate gave the order execute Jesus.
Roman governors depended on local influential groups, often the local aristocracy, to help them in their mission of governing the territories of Rome’s vast empire. In Judea, the chief priests and temple hierarchy — led by Caiaphas at the time of Jesus’ death (cf. Luke 3:1,2) — provided the link between Judea and the Empire. This is why Pilate listened to the request made by Caiaphas and his allies.
At the same time, the Gospels attest to the accuracy of Philo’s list of Pilate’s corruptions, namely “the executions without trial constantly repeated” (Embassy to Gaius 38:302), for Jesus never stood trial before Pilate: no verdict was ever handed down. Pilate merely presided over a clandestine hearing in which the chief priests led by the high priest Caiaphas asked for Jesus’ execution, a request that Pilate was all too willing to oblige.
Eventually, Pilate’s heavy-handed tactics led to his removal as prefect of Judea in either late A.D. 36 or early 37. Josephus records that the end of his tenure came about because of a Samaritan protest brought on by his brutal attack against the Samaritans (Josephus, Ant. 18:84–89). The Samaritan council complained to Vitellius, the Roman governor of Syria. Vitellius sent Pilate to Rome to give an account to the Emperor Tiberius concerning his actions against the Samaritans. By the time Pilate arrived in Rome, Tiberius had died; Pilate’s final end is unknown.
At the same time that Vitellius removed Pilate as prefect of Judea, he also removed Caiaphas as high priest in Jerusalem. In place of Caiaphas, Vitellius appointed Caiaphas’ brother-in-law Jonathan, the son of Ananus, as his replacement. According to Josephus’ account of Vitellius’ removal of Pilate and Caiaphas, Vitellius sought to restore Jewish confidence in Roman rule by his actions. Clearly, he did not disapprove of the high priestly family, as he appointed Caiaphas’ brother-in-law Jonathan to follow him. Josephus does not explicitly state why Vitellius removed Caiaphas; but it seems possible that, as part of his attempt to restore Jewish confidence in Roman rule, he also had to remove Caiaphas, Pilate’s loyal ally. To this end, it may be significant that Josephus did not mention Caiaphas in connection with Pilate’s actions of bringing the military standards with the busts of the Emperor into Jerusalem (Ant.18:55–59) or Pilate’s use of the funds from the temple treasury to build the aqueduct for Jerusalem (Ant. 18:60–62): two events we would expect the high priest as a leader of the people to play a significant part. Pilate’s seizure of funds from the temple treasury, which Josephus identifies as “the sacred treasure known as Corbonas” (War 2:175; cf. Mark 7:11), especially, should have elicited a response from the high priest. Is it possible that Caiaphas played a role in giving Pilate access to the Korban? Josephus does not say, but Caiaphas’ silence in the matter is striking.
The connection between Pilate’s removal from office and Caiaphas’ removal as high priest suggests a closeness in relationship between these two individuals. In describing the career of a later high priest Ananus II (A.D. 48–59), Josephus notes the close relationship between the high priest and the Roman governor of Judea, a relationship cemented through the bribery of the high priest (Ant. 20:205–207; cf. Philo’s description of Pilate’s corruption, Embassy to Gaius 38:302). It seems that a similar relationship existed between Pilate and the high priest Caiaphas, two similarly motivated individuals who sought to protect each other’s spheres of influence — neither of whom was opposed to relying on ferocious brutality to secure their desired outcomes. It is no accident, then, that the early Apostles’ Creed names Pilate in connection with the crucifixion of Jesus (cf. Tacitus, Annales, XV, 44:2,3).
1. The theater of Caesarea, which was originally constructed by Herod the Great, underwent renovations in the 3rd–4th centuries A.D. At this time, Pilate’s dedicatory inscription was reused as a step in the renovated theater, where archeologists later discovered it.
David Flusser,Jesus, 3rd ed. (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 2001), 155–166.
Emil Schürer, History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ, ed. G. Vermes, et. al., vol. 1 (Edinburg: T&T Clark, 1973), 358, 383–87.
E. Mary Smallwood, The Jews Under Roman Rule (Leiden, The Netherlands: E.J. Brill, 1976), 160–174.
Menahem Stern, The Jewish People in the First Century, Compendia Rerum Iudaicarum, vol. 1 (Assen, The Netherlands: Van Gorcum, 1974), 316, 349–54.
James VanderKam, From Joshua to Caiaphas: High Priests After the Exile (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004), 426–36.