I was listening to a sermon this afternoon on the topic of absolute truth. The reference was John 18:33-38 which is Jesus’ encounter with Pilate. The speaker said something that caught me off guard. He said that Pilate committed suicide three years after Jesus was crucified. I had never heard that so being my curious self, I investigated.
Pilate does not benefit from a huge amount of ancient evidence outside of the Bible. The first reference we have of him is from the historian Tacitus in one of the popular extra-biblical references to Jesus. It just says that Christ was “put to death by Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea in the reign of Tiberius.” There was also a stone with Pilate’s name carved in it found in the 60s which is the only archaeological evidence of Pilate with his title in the New Testament (prefect).
Then we have various stories from Josephus about Pilate’s failure to effectively deal with the religious society that was Judea. In one story, Pilate used sacred treasure to pay for aqueducts to bring water into Jerusalem. When a crowd gathered to protest, Pilate ordered some soldiers to dress in civilian clothes and sneak into the crowd. When Pilate gave the signal, the soldiers turned on the crowd and beat them until they scattered.
According to Josephus, Pilate’s downfall was when a Samaritan man claimed to be able to show the Samaritans where Moses hid some sacred vessels. When a large group assembled to climb the mountain where they were hidden, Pilate’s calvary attacked them and many were killed. The Samaritans complained to the legate of Syria, Vitellius, that Pilate was guilty of murder. Vitellius removed Pilate from office and ordered him to travel to Rome to stand trial under the emperor Tiberius. During his journey to Rome Tiberius died, so Pilate escaped judgment in the confusion.
That is the last somewhat credible source we have on Pilate. There are various later writings from the 3rd to 5th century where the stories of his suicide come from. That story says that Pilate arrived to stand trial in front of the emperor wearing Jesus’ seamless robe from John 19:23-24. Because Pilate was wearing the robe, Caesar could not say a harsh word to him. However it was later taken off of Pilate and the emperor sentenced him to death. Pilate didn’t wait and committed suicide.
While it would be a nice sermon additive to say that the anguish over allowing Jesus’ crucifixion was too much for Pilate, we just do not have enough credible evidence that this is true. I respect the pastor that made this error, so I guess I’ll let him slide….this time.