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Who was Pontius Pilate Really? By William D. McEachern
By William D. McEachern
May 4, 2014 - 7:45:08 AM

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Shakespeare's Juliette asked the question: "What's in a name?" While her answer is pure poetry, names actually tell us a great deal about the person named.

In ancient Rome, most nobles had three names (the 'tria nomina'), for example, Gaius Julius Caesar. First names were limited to a few, such as Gaius, Marcus, Lucius, and Titus. Unlike in our era, the family name is in the middle, so Gaius Julius Caesar is of the Julii clan. Nicknames were usually in the third position. They were given for interesting or distinguishing bodily features, such as 'Caesar', which comes from the Latin word "caesaries" meaning luxuriant hair (here, a family nickname, because both Caesar's father and grandfather were so named), or for feats accomplished, like Scipio who, by defeating Hannibal conquered Africa, became Scipio Africanus.

Pontius is a distinguished Samnite family name. The Samnite people were a fierce, hardy, and very proud mountain tribe (the modern Abruzzo region). They resisted Rome in several wars. In the Social Wars of 90-88 BC, they were the last holdouts of all the allies. Gavius Pontius, a probable ancestor of Pilate, defeated the Romans at the Battle of Caudine Forks in 321 BC. Reinforcing this view of Pilate as a Samnite is an old tradition of Pilate being born in the town of Bisenti, which dates from Samnite times.

His third name, Pilate, is in the ordinal position where a nickname normally would be. Now, the Pontii clan was a military family. The name Pilate means very skillful with a pilum, a Roman spear. Thus his name, Pilate, probably means that he was an army champion with the pilum. The name Pilate grew to be so widely known, that Pilate's first name seems to have been eclipsed, although there is evidence that it was Lucius.

Evidence also supports Pilate being a member of the Praetorium Guard and serving under Lucius Aelius Sejanus. Sejanus was Emperor Tiberius' favorite and, in Tiberius' name, Sejanus ruled Rome from 21 to 32 AD.

How did Pilate become Prefect of Judea? In 26 AD, it would have been slightly unusual for a man of Samnite origins to be selected by Tiberius, particularly as one of the assassins of Gaius Julius Caesar was named Lucius Pontius Aquila. Nonetheless, probably two things combined to make him an attractive candidate: favor from Sejanus and support from a relative, Gaius Petronius Pontius Nigrinus (Nigrinus meaning 'black-haired'). Pontius Nigrinus was favored by Tiberius and was, in fact, consul in 37 AD, the year when Tiberius died.

There are contemporary written records of Pilate. First, Titus Flavius Josephus, who wrote his Antiquities of the Jews in 94-95 AD, identified Pilate as the Prefect of Judea who crucified Jesus.

Tacitus, a first century Roman senator and historian, likewise mentions Pilate, in his Annals, as the man who ordered the crucifixion of Jesus. Other Roman historians of the first century, such as Pliny the Younger and Philo, also write of Pilate. It is from these writers that we learn of the cruelty of Pilate, as well as how often his administration as Prefect (26 AD to 36 AD) nearly brought Judea to revolt.

The strongest evidence, however, is the so-called Pilate Stone, which was discovered in 1961 by archaeologist Dr. Antonio Frova in the amphitheater at Caesarea Maritima. This stone confirms the historicity, as well as the rank of Pontius Pilate as Prefect. The stone bears the inscription which translated is:

To the Divine Augusti [this] Tiberieum
...Pontius Pilate
...prefect of Judea
...has dedicated [this]

Pilate's death is shrouded in mystery. He likely died in 39 AD upon the orders of Emperor Caligula.

William D. McEachern
Author of "Casting Lots"

William D. McEachern,
author of "Casting Lots", is married with three children and lives in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida.

He earned his bachelor of arts in religion and psychology from Duke University, where he focused on early Christianity.

He is also a graduate of Fordham University School of Law J.D. and New York University School of Law LL.M. (Taxation). A practicing tax attorney for more than thirty-five years, McEachern has written numerous articles and several law treatises.

"Casting Lots" brings to life the authentic facets of ancient Roman life as Christianity unfolded. Aligning biblical history and faith with what we know to be true today is a way to hold up a mirror to society and bring about change.

"I have always wondered what it would have been like to live in the Roman Empire during early Christian times. It would have been fascinating to meet and talk with Peter and Luke," William McEachern. For more information, visit

"Casting Lots"
by William McEachern
ISBN: 978-1-4918-4244-7
Available in softcover, e-book
Available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and AuthorHouse

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