Thousand Years of Jewish History - Maurice Harris

Pilate the Procurator.

Procurators in general.

The Procurators fall into two groups, with a Jewish king intervening. The table above is the first group of these administrators of Judea. Their seat of government was Caesarea, a city that had become Jerusalem's rival. The Jews had a certain freedom under this regime. "The oath of allegiance to the Roman emperor was more an oath of confederates than of subjects." The Sanhedrin was still supposed to be the governing body for home affairs with the High Priest as its president. But the arbitrary appointment and removal of High Priests by the procurator, placed these powers at the mercy of his caprice, and ultimately the Jews were robbed of these prerogatives altogether. The procurator then could always interfere with the carrying out of Jewish law. It is important that these facts should be borne in mind in the events of the next chapter. Even in religious offenses where the High Priest with the Sanhedrin could pronounce the death sentence, the confirmation of the procurator was required for the execution. So heavily were the people taxed that the tax-gatherers (called publicans) were looked upon with opprobrium. Doubtless many of them dishonestly abused their power.

Still Judea was the only province in which the worship of the emperor was not compulsory. The reason is obvious. To pagan communities it was a command which they could obey complacently; to the monotheistic Jews recognizing one sole spirit God, it was simply impossible. It was attempted by the Emperor Caligula, but failed. Even the local coinage bore no figure, nor were the standards bearing the likenesses of the emperor tolerated, as such was regarded as an offense by the strict interpreters of the second commandment. One tyrant tried and failed to force these banners on Judea. They violently opposed a census in the year 7 both on religious and on political grounds, as they regarded it as an infringement of their sacred rights and the precursor of slavery. But Joezer, the High Priest, quieted them and induced them to submit.

Still, from such incidents the stern determination of the Jews may be inferred. Judas of Gamala, a Galilean, and a religious enthusiast, went about preaching the duty of rebellion and the sin of submission. Gradually these malcontents formed themselves into a new party of extremists—the Zealots, who believed in using the sword against the heathen to hasten the Messianic realization. They already began nursing the smouldering embers of rebellion.

Pilate in Particular.

Such was the status under the procurators in general. We will treat in detail the regime of only one—Pontius Pilate. It is characteristic of all, but especially eventful in many ways.

The Jewish historian, Josephus, and the Jewish philosopher, Philo, have much to tell of his doings. From the trustworthy Philo we are told that he was of "an unbending and recklessly hard character." "He has been charged with corruptibility, violence, robberies, ill-treatment of the people, continued executions without even the form of trial, endless and intolerable cruelties."

On his first entry into Jerusalem he determined to outrage the religious sensibilities of the people he was sent to protect, by bidding his Roman soldiers hoist a flag with the Emperor's likeness. They petitioned for its removal. He refused. For five days they stood outside the palace urging their request. When the soldiers with drawn swords stood ready to slay at his signal, the people bared their necks, preferring death to toleration of this idolatrous emblem. Such was the intensity of the Jews of these last years of their national life, such was the stuff of which they were made. Even tyrants reach limits beyond which they dare not pass. The emblem was sullenly withdrawn.

At another time he appropriated the Temple treasures, sacredly set aside for religious purposes, for the building of an aqueduct to Jerusalem. This time he resorted to violence to quell the opposition, many lives being sacrificed.

With the purpose only of annoying the people, he put up votive shields inscribed with the emperor's name. But they appealed to Tiberius who not only ordered them removed, but rebuked Pilate for raising them.

On another occasion the Samaritans, to whom Gerizim had all the sanctity that Sinai had for Israel, because the Mosaic Blessings were announced from its heights (see Deut, xi, 29, Joshua, viii, 33), gathered there on a rumor that sacred vessels were hidden in its soil. Pilate sent soldiers wantonly to slaughter them. This led to his recall by Tiberius.


The Emperor Tiberius decided that it was kinder to the Jews to appoint procurators for long terms than to make frequent changes. It meant the greed of a smaller number to be satisfied. But, on the whole, his attitude was less friendly than that of his predecessor, Augustus. This may have been due to the fact that many Romans of high birth had, unsolicited, accepted the Jewish faith, and had sent gifts to the Temple at Jerusalem. Among these converts was Fulvia, wife of a Roman senator. This led to the banishment from Rome of many thousands of Jews to a dangerous climate. Here was the beginning of a religious persecution.

The incident, however, shows that the worthier Romans were becoming more and more distrustful of pagan cults and were looking for something better. We shall see later how zealous Jews from Judea, and more particularly from Alexandria, began making converts to Judaism all through Asia Minor. The influence of these converts on future events was farther reaching than their sponsors ever dreamed.


Read "A Procurator of Judea" in Mother of Pearl, by Anatole France. Trans., N. Y., John Lane, 1908.

Theme for discussion:— (a) Does official Judaism discourage conversion? (b) Why did the Jews oppose a census on religions grounds? See II. Sam. xxiv, and article Census in Jewish Encyclopedia, vol. iii.