LIBERTY UNIVERSITY BAPTIST THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY
Biographical Study: Pilate
Submitted to Dr. Charles Powell, in partial fulfillment
of the requirements for the completion of the course
NBST-515 B10 – LUO
New Testament Orientation I
Woodly C. Fenelus
September 5, 2018
One of the least known characters of antiquity is Pontius Pilate. While he is primarily recognized for one major event in history, the trial of Jesus Christ, he has most recently been described as anti-Semitic, a convert, cruel, insensitive, without conviction, villain, or possibly a Saint. The evidence available for research biblically and extra-biblical, is limited. Warren Carter in “Pontius Pilate: Roman Governor” states, “Pilate emerges as a powerful figure who played a central role in Jesus death.” He further concludes, “Political dynamics pervade the scenes… he is not weak or coerced.” It seems there is a recent push in scholarly research that demonstrates Pilate as a cruel or insensitive leader.
Many have shed light on the troubling leadership style of the governor; his interactions with his Jewish inhabitants suggest a basic direction regarding his life. With the little information we can glean from Embassy to Gaius, Pro Flaccum, Legatio 299-305, Jewish War 2.169-77, Antiquities of the Jews 18.55-89, including an inscription found in Caesarea in 1961 depicting him as a “prefect;” Pilate had a greater impact on the development of Christianity through first-century Palestine than first realized. As Warren suggests, “His appointment as governor indicates that he came from a wealthy, powerful, elite Roman family.” It is problematic to think a person could attain the heights of the Governor of Rome as a weak leader; but was he a cruel or insensitive leader? Do recent writings go too far?
This paper set out to research a broad background of information. The methodology at first was random, focusing more on finding as much research material as possible. Slowly the project came into focus with some much-needed feedback. Not only will this paper utilize scholarly research, it will also have a focus on the historical records and writings of Josephus and Philo of Alexandria. In searching for the works, it was difficult to find an online database in which to query specific results. It was decided to purchase the complete works for the writer’s Logos program. While the cost was a good expense, it will be utilized in future research projects. In addition, the paper will reference online gatherings of these works.
In searching the recent scholarly journals, it was noted that most view the political figure in a predetermined way. This author wanted to review the material with a fresh set of eyes and decipher how each writer of antiquity presented the material. In doing a little background research on various writers, it helped to give perspective on their motives. While this paper will not spend time on the motives of ancient writers, it will interject obvious references to motives.
The Purpose of the Study
An initial deduction is that Pontius Pilate was a weak leader who succumbed to political pressure; this has been a central theme of recent scholarly thought. However, this author wanted to explore the concept further. We will attempt to demonstrate whether or not he was a weak political leader, his political interaction with the Jewish people, and the prevailing verdicts on his character, while making biblical conclusions on his impact in the Gospels. Therefore, the purpose of this paper is to give a brief biography on the life of Pontius Pilate, and suggest a two-fold Pilate in the writings and Scripture.
Initial Conclusions of the Study
In Matthew’s Gospel, he presents a silent Jesus before the Jewish Leaders. Matthew states, “But Jesus made no reply, not even to a single charge—to the great amazement of the governor.” The Bible further states, “He took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd” (Matt 27:24), signifying that Pilate was not responsible for the death of Jesus. Why was this interaction with Jesus so amazing to the Governor of Judah? It is difficult to believe that a prefect is weak and feckless if he recognizes the integrity of Jesus, even publicly denounces the crowd, using a Jewish illustration. This author believes at best Pilate was a neutral political leader, and at worse, he was weak and feckless as Governor.
Jewish Writings of Antiquity
Paul J. Achtemeier in Harper’s Bible Dictionary gives us some background on Pilate’s life when he writes, “Pilate, Pontius … Roman prefect of Judea, the fifth governor of the province and the second-longest holder of the office (a.d. 26-36).” Warren Carter in “Pontius Pilate: Roman Governor” states that Pilate was in office from a. d. 26-37. Whatever date you take as the legitimate time in office is of little consequence. What is worthy to note is that typical governor appointments lasted a fraction of Pilate’s service. If he were a weak leader, why would Tiberius continue his rule? One scholar suggests, “This ‘historical’ material Josephus’ writings, however, is filtered through the conventions of philosophical, moral rhetoric.” If true, Philo may call into question the validity of eyewitness accounts bearing the name of Josephus.
Philo of Alexandria (25 BCE – A.D. 50) on Pilate
Philo seems to be the one most concerned with the dual nature of Pilate’s governorship. Philo gives a good picture into the nature and leadership of Pilate in his Embassy to Caligula. He describes Pilate as “A man of a very inflexible disposition, and very merciless as well as very obstinate.” In addition, Philo describes him as “At all times a man of most ferocious passions.” This is compounded with Philo’s statements on how Pilate ruled, especially as presented by the complaints of the Jewish leaders in the uprising of Judaea over the gilt shields:
He feared least they might in reality go on an embassy to the emperor, and might impeach him with respect to other particulars of his government, in respect of his corruption, and his acts of insolence, and his rapine, and his habit of insulting people, and his cruelty, and his continual murders of people untried and uncondemned.
As you read his statements it immediately stirs the researcher in a negative way. However, further statements by Philo paint another picture one that is more balanced. In addition, Philo gives us a glimpse into the motivations of the Governor.
Philo states, “He Pilate, not more with the object of doing honour to Tiberius than with that of vexing the multitude.” In the context, he was admitting Pilate is not interested in stirring up the crowd. Instead, he wants to pay homage to Tiberius. Philo continues with the contrasting viewpoint when he takes another approach to his counterpart Josephus regarding the “Idolatrous Shields.” Philo writes, “Which had no form nor any other forbidden thing represented on them except some necessary inscription.” This is an opposite written account to that of Josephus. Why would Philo differ and present Pilate in a different light? It is this author’s view that while Philo was critical of Pilate’s governorship, he was not malicious towards the prefect nor did Philo have an obvious motive like Josephus.
What make Philo’s writings, so profound are two key statements regarding the dual nature of conflict in Pilate. First, Tiberius made it a point to quell all rebellions and Philo states Pilate was “Sufficiently acquainted with the firmness of Tiberius on these points.” Second, Pilate refrained “To do anything that could be acceptable to his subjects.” The dual point here is that Pilate desires to keep the wishes of the Emperor, while not giving in to the rebellious crowd; otherwise the crowd may see Pilate as a weak and ask for more concessions.
There was an incredible find in Philo’s concluding statements. It sheds light into the motivation of Pilate. While I understand this suggestion comes with limitations, without question, Philo proves at a minimum a contrasting conflict within Pilate. He writes, “And in this way Everything Philo wrote he provided for two matters: both for the honor due to the emperor, and for the preservation of the ancient customs of the city.” Philo admits that Pilate was not a weak leader but a conflicted leader. The initial conclusions of this paper could retain some merit, but it seems another understanding is beginning to emerge. While the writings of Philo are limited, they contrast to his counterpart Josephus.
Three Actions of Pilate, by Flavius Josephus (37 – A.D.100)
Without a doubt, Josephus represents Pilate’s character especially negative in most of the Jewish sources. Primarily there are three key stories to help shed light on the man Pilate, 1) the idolatrous standards 2) the aqueduct riot and 3) the Samaritan massacre. Treating the information carefully will help us to glean the predisposed position of each writer. For example, Josephus himself was highly dedicated to the Jewish system and even fought against the Roman Army in The Jewish Revolt of a.d. 66 to 70. Does that mean he is solely interested in discrediting Pilate? More likely Josephus is interested in painting all Roman leaders negatively to further a personal agenda of overthrowing their abusiveness practices toward the Jewish people. This is a valid consideration in the discussion but most important is to look at the accounts objectively before we pass judgment on the man’s character. It can be stated that there is more than one reasonable explanation for the material.
Josephus reports in The Jewish War, Pilate brought Roman troops to Jerusalem from Caesarea. He committed an unprecedented violation of Jewish sensibilities allowing the troops to bring into the city military standards bearing the symbol of the Emperor. This was considered an idolatrous image and worse, it was done under the cover of night. Josephus writes, “…Considering their laws to have been trampled under foot, as those laws permit no image to be erected in the city; while the indignation of the townspeople stirred the countryfolk.” We conclude from the writings that Jewish law permitted no outside images in the city.
This perceived insult initiated the protests against Pilate’s decision and secret addition of the standards. So strong was their protest, instead of obeying the directive of Pilate to disperse, they were willing to stand their ground amidst threats of public execution. This additional proof of a healthy tension by the Governor balancing two difficult tasks continues to erode our initial claim that he was weak. Exploring the protests further may lend a hand to our understanding.
The protests suggest 1) Pilate was unaware of the Jewish law as the new prefect, 2) he intentionally stirred up the people, or, 3) he was carefully balancing the wishes of Rome and the Jewish subordinates. About the idea that Pilate was unaware of the Jewish customs and laws, there seems to be a clue in the concluding remarks of Josephus when he writes about the Governor’s reaction toward the Jews. Instead of complying with the wishes of Rome, the Jews choose to die rather than break their laws. “Overcome with astonishment at such intense religious zeal, Pilate gave orders for the immediate removal of the standards from Jerusalem.” Josephus details that Pilate, “…Introduced the standards into Jerusalem by night and under cover.” We can safely suggest Pilate was completely informed of his actions.
While some scholars argue that Pilate stirred up the people as an insensitive leader, it would stand opposed to his political ambition to seduce the people toward rebellion. As Governor of Judaea, he was charged with keeping Rome’s interests intact and keeping the order of the people. Brian McGing informs us in “Pontius Pilate and The Sources,” that provincial leaders must maintain a healthy balance. Pilates dual role as Governor was tenuous and problematic as Judeans historically were hard to rule.
A claim that deserves further scrutiny is when Carter suggests, “He Pilate shared an insensitivity to Jewish customs that was typical of elite Roman prejudices toward provincials.” Carter further claims Governors of Rome “Exercised military, political, social, judicial, and economic control, often in exploitative and harsh ways.” Adding to the scholarly volumes on Pilate it can be suggested here that Pilate was prejudice toward the Jewish people.
This could account for the continual strife he created with his decisions and give credence to his seemingly tepid approach in varying situations. We have learned as recently as the twenty-first century, how those who are prejudice can at times are friendly, and yet utterly cruel. This line of thought should be the highlight of scholarly research in the near future.
It seems that even in the writings of Josephus, though he tries to paint Pilate in a negative way, a dual approach in our understanding is emerging. Recent suggestions on Pilate’s rule as Governor shows a juxtaposed viewpoint of 1) yielding to the wishes of Rome, 2) while reminding the Jewish people that Rome is in charge. It is fairly benign to say at some level Pilate wanted to honor Tiberius. Pilate was well aware of his political opponents potential outburst, and desiring favor from Tiberius, seems to be a plausible initiative against Herod.
On the one hand Pilate needs to keep the peace and citizenry content. On the other hand, he is intent on improving his standing in the Roman leadership and remaining faithful to Tiberius. This two-fold Pilate may be reasoning enough for the seemingly erratic decisions during his rule. As stated earlier, the material, thus far, does not paint Pilate in a weak manner.
A second dramatic event can be found in the writings when Josephus states that extreme protests broke out after Pilate used Temple funds (Corban) to build an aqueduct for Jerusalem. Josephus writes, “After this he Pilate raised another disturbance, by expending that sacred treasure which is called Corban upon aqueducts, whereby he brought water from the distance of four hundred furlongs about 54 miles.” Why was Pilate taking on such a large task? It seems something can be gleaned from the earlier writings. Josephus states, “And now Herod the tetrarch, who was in great favor with Tiberius, built a city of the same name.” Unlike Herod, Pilate missteps in that he stole the money from the temple to build his life’s achievement. In essence, Pilate does not make this decision primarily to inflame the Jews but to compete with Herod for the favor of Rome.
Most provincial Governors held a lavish lifestyle and therefore taxation practices would not have been enough to build an aqueduct. What I find odd is the contrasting reports in the writings in regard to the size and scope of the project.
In Antiquities Josephus states, the aqueduct was “two-hundred furlongs.” However, in Wars, Josephus states it was “four-hundred furlongs.” A scholar by the name of Uriel Rappaport has suggested in “Josephus’ Personality and The Credibility of His Narrative,” the varying reports amounts to inaccuracies in the writings; therefore, Josephus must not be a reliable historical source. More soundly is the idea that he was not concerned about size of the project so much as the nature in which the project started. Josephus is not a Roman engineer and therefore could have simply misstated the total length. In this matter, Uriel goes too far.
The response of the people was expected; Josephus states, “They came about his tribunal, and made a clamor of it.” Pilate knew of the potential problems as Josephus suggests, “When he Pilate was apprized aforehand of this disturbance, he mixed his own soldiers in their armor with the multitude, and ordered them to conceal themselves under the habits of private men.” This prearrangement of the Roman soldiers signals Pilate’s desire to squash any open rebellion.
With clubs at the ready, soldiers violently attacked the Jews and inflicted mass casualties.
The result, “Many of them, perished by the stripes they received, and many of them perished as trodden to death by themselves.” The cruelty upon the crowd caused them to hold their peace and return home. We can safely conclude this is another example where Pilate was balancing his charge to build the glory of Rome, while maintaining order among the inhabitants.
The Samaritan Massacre
A third story on Mt. Gerizim seems to paint Pilate in a most damming way. Samaritan leaders, “Thought lying a thing of little consequence,” So they entreated people to gather together to view sacred artifacts left by Moses. Josephus plainly tells his readers these reports were lies. However, the masses gathered in a great “multitude” and agreed to arrive at Tirathaba, a village in Samaria. Upon their sojourn “Pilate prevented they were going up, seizing upon file roads with a great band of horsemen and foot-men” A large-scale rebellion of the Samaritans under Pilate’s charge would be tantamount to a dereliction of duty.
Josephus declares “When it came to action, some of them Samaritans they slew, and others of them they put to flight, and took a great many alive.” In response, the Samaritans sent an embassy to complain to Vitellius. Tiberius was already dead, and thus, Vitellius ordered “Pilate to go to Rome.” This scene seems to show that in the end, Pilate’s overtly cruel nature won out. If our study, thus far, has produced anything, it is that various beholders chose to present Pilate in a particular way. The prickly practices in which Pilate rules give us an opportunity to see his conflicted decisions, prejudicial motives, and the difficult task of ruling obstinate people. From the writings we have established our initial conclusion needs to be updated from a leader who is weak, to one who is conflicted, possible even prejudicial. Would the scholars agree?
Five Scholarly Verdicts on Pilate
Warren Carter in Pontius Pilate: Portraits of a Roman Governor, gives a nice overview of the five scholarly verdicts on Pilate. I will attempt to generalize his research and writings. Carter presents five conclusions that Pilate is 1) a beloved Saint, 2) Christian convert, 3) insensitive Roman official, 4) villain: cruel and anti-Jewish, or 5) weak and without conviction.
A Beloved Saint
Carter states that many who claim Pilate was a Christian believe he was also a martyr. For instance, according to Carter and Elliot in Apocryphal New Testament 222-24, Pilate sends Herod a letter depicting his sorrow and suffering for crucifying Jesus. According to a later tradition, Pilate “Describes numerous tragedies that have befallen his family.” This later tradition has come under scrutiny and as of yet, no one can produce a credible or unchallenged source. However, since the view presents Pilate as a Christian and martyr, some scholars believe Pilate committed suicide; there are others who claim he was a Saint.
This is one of the older verdicts rendered to Pilate by scholars. Primarily rooted in Pilate’s reluctance to condemn Jesus to die on the cross, this viewpoint tends to move the ownership of Christ’s crucifixion to the Jews. According to carter, “This view came to the fore in the late second century…” and “The early church leader Tertullian… claimed that the emperor Tiberius… and Pilate’s boss, received and believed a report ‘from Syria Palestine which had revealed the truth of Christ’s divinity.'” This viewpoint has come under fire and is untenable.
Insensitive Roman Official
Brian McGing in Pontius Pilate and The Sources, concludes “The governors of Judaea… constantly displayed a general lack of sensitivity, tact, and knowledge.” Carter suggests “Pilate as trying to fulfill the roles and requirements of being Roman governor of the difficult province of Judea as ably as he can.” Both scholarly giants believe Pilate to be a mere shadow compared to the greatness of the emperors of ancient Rome. Carter and McGing share parts of this view together but not exclusively of the others.
Villain: Cruel and Anti-Jewish
This view sees Pilate as a co-conspirator in the death of Jesus. Carter suggests this view is a “Consequence of his cruel hatred of Jewish people.” It has been argued in this viewpoint that Sejanus was a very anti-Semitic individual and as such, appointed Pilate, as governor in hopes the Jews would revolt so that Rome could crush and exterminate the race completely. Carter claims some in a scholarly world identify the conflicts in Rome as the primary evidence that Pilate wanted to provoke a violent disagreement. This viewpoint has a mixed review among recent scholarly work; however, further research may have some merit.
Weak and Without Conviction
This is the viewpoint held by many scholars due to the way the Gospels tell the story. Carter states the primary thought is that “He Pilate has noble intentions to release the ‘innocent’ Jesus, but he is too weak, lacks conviction, and gives into stronger voices.”
Many casual readers easily identify with this view because of the Gospel writings.
The Gospel Presentations on Pilate
The New Testament references where Pilate plays a central role in the events surrounding the trial and crucifixion of Jesus (Matt. 27:1-2, 11-26; Mark 15:1-15; Luke 23:1-25; John 18:28-19:16; Acts 3:13; 4:27; 13:28; 1 Tim. 6:13), is paramount to our understanding of Pilate’s life. While it’s true that the writings and sources depict Pilate in a negative light, we have in the Gospels another image of his leadership and role at the trial of Jesus.
“All of them said, “Let him crucified!” Then he asked, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Let him be crucified!” (Matt 27:23; cf. Mark 15:13-14).
“I find no basis for an accusation against this man… and here I have examined him in your presence and have not found this man guilty of any of your charges against him…” And Pilate, wanting to release Jesus, addressed them again, but they kept shouting, “Crucify, Crucify him!” A third time he said to them, “Why, what evil has he done? I have found in him no ground for the sentence of death. I will therefore have him flogged and then release him.” (Luke 23:4, 14, 22).
“Pilate went out again and said to them, “Look, I am bringing him out to you to let you know that I find no case against him.” (John 19:4, 6).
If one takes Griesbach’s two-document theory of Matthean priority, then Luke, Mark and John would naturally follow, and the order in the presentation of Pilate is clear. Just like we learned from our sources above, it seems each writer presents Pilate uniquely in the Gospels. This uniqueness should not be viewed with skepticism, but rather understood in the broader context that each writer had a point and a target audience.
First in Matthew’s Gospel, we see a detailed account of Pilate, Jesus, and the rebellious crowd. Matthew 27:1-2, 11-26 introduced Pilate’s wife, unnamed in the Gospel but called Procla or Procula in a later tradition. She confronts Pilate to have nothing to do with ‘that righteous man,’ about whom she has had a dream. Matthew’s Gospel is the first to introduce a hand-washing illustration whereby Pilate vindicates himself from the sins of the people (27:24-25).
Matthew’s Gospel gives us the most detailed description of the events. This seems logical given the well-known fact that scholars believe Matthew’s audience was largely Jewish. Therefore, it would seem important for Matthew to emphasize the rebellion of the Jewish leaders, along with emphasizing the guilt of the nation, in order to contrast the innocence of Jesus. Moreover, the added details and warnings from Pilate’s wife, along with the hand washing illustration, give credence to the idea of a literary device the author uses to overly emphasize Israel’s guilt and their rejection of Christ.
In the account of Mark 15:1-15, he presents Pilate in a peculiar manner. The Bible says, “Pilate questioned Him again, saying, “Do you not answer? See how many charges they bring against you!” But Jesus made no further answer; so Pilate was amazed” (vs. 4-5 NASB). Mark adds to Matthew’s account inserting a tradition during the feast; Pilate would release a prisoner of the crowd’s choosing. Many scholars have claimed Pilate was too weak to defend a just man, and this is the reason he sent Jesus to the cross and freed Barabbas. However, as shown in our research above, Pilate is carefully walking the line between maintaining the interests of Rome while keeping the order of the people. Once Pilate realizes the people will not relent, he gives in to their wishes.
In the Luke 23:1-25 version of the event, Pilate is sent to Herod Antipas for further treatment. In Herod’s presence soldiers mock him, beat him, and yet Herod finds no fault in Jesus. Once done with his questions, Herod sends Jesus back to Pilate for the final verdict. Luke states, “And Herod with his soldiers, after treating Him with contempt and mocking Him, dressed Him in a gorgeous robe and sent Him back to Pilate. Now Herod and Pilate became friends with one another that very day; for before they had been enemies…” (vs. 11-12 NASB). This one verse sheds some light into the relationship between Pilate and Herod.
For the first time, we have credible evidence the two were at odds with each other. The story of the Aqueduct begins to make sense. It is justifiable that Pilate extends the waterway in contrast to the Herod’s city. It is safe to reason they were in competition for the favor of Rome.
Interestingly enough there is a weird statement found in Luke 13:1, “Of the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices,” In my limited study I found no extra biblical support for this claim. While one of our writers we have studied may have alluded to this statement, it seems an obscure passage and possibly a later addition. There may have been a few authors of antiquity that discussed this matter, however, no such writing could be found. Regardless, it doesn’t appear to be too far-fetched given the details of the Samaritan massacre.
Finally, in the account of John 18:28-19:16, one writers suggest it was “An elaborate scheme of ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ scenes, carrying even further the idea that Pilate, who did not wish to condemn Jesus, was a helpless pawn.” John is not remotely concerned with the person of Pilate as his focus remains on Jesus and his kingdom ministry from God. All through the passages there are many statements about the kingship of Jesus. It crescendos when Jesus declares, “You say correctly that I am a king. For this, I have been born, and for this I have come into the world, to testify to the truth” (v 37). For John, kingship of Christ takes precedence over how the reader views Pilate.
Interestingly enough John’s Gospel presents a different version than Luke. In John’s account the scourging, mistreatment, and the purple robe come from Pilate. Moreover, there are many attempts to release Jesus. Consequently, John portrays Pilate as a shrewd leader waiting for the crowd to narrow in the statements of Jesus and Pilate tests the Jews fidelity to Rome. The crowd is more than happy to oblige and states, “If you release this Man, you are no friend of Caesar; everyone who makes himself out to be a king opposes Caesar.” (v 12 NASB). On that basis, Pilate is forced to give in to the crowd and turns Jesus over to be crucified.
Summary and Conclusion
As we poor over the sum of the material, we have effectively showed that Philo was balanced in his approach and treatment of Pilate. At first glance it seems he was completely negative toward his governorship, in context, his writings remain fairly neutral. The most credible statement and what summarily change the direction and outcome of this paper is when Philo wrote, “And in this way he Pilate provided for two matters: both for the honor due to the emperor, and for the preservation of the ancient customs of the city.” This statement does not show Pilate as a weak and timid leader. Therefore, our initial conclusion needed to adjust.
Josephus, on the other hand, seems to have an agenda and motive behind his writings. It is fascinating and odd that out of nearly ten years of rule, Pilate is only mentioned a few times and in the most negative way. When you take the whole of Josephus’ work, and look at history portraying him as a leader in The Jewish Revolt, one cannot help but speculate that his chief aim is to paint Rome negatively in order to facilitate a large-scale rebellion. As hard as Josephus tries to discredit Pilate as a merciless tyrant, the Gospel treatments seem to contradict his observations.
In the Gospels, there seems to be a washed over presentation. Pilate is neither cruel nor benevolent. He is neither merciful nor weak. The statement in Luke 13:1 could be a later addition to the text. None of the Gospels displays him as a weak leader but rather accommodating. Therefore, it can be concluded that our initial conclusions must be changed to the two ideas found in this paper. Pilate is 1) conflicted as a leader, desiring to adhere to the wishes of Rome; while keeping the peace of its citizens, and 2) Pilate is an elite leader with prejudice toward the Jews. These two suggestions need further criticism and research in the near future.
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