Roman Law and the Trial of Christ -- By: R. Larry Overstreet

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 135:540 (Oct 1978)
Article: Roman Law and the Trial of Christ
Author: R. Larry Overstreet


Roman Law and the Trial of Christ

R. Larry Overstreet

[R. Larry Overstreet, Assistant Professor of Systematic and Practical Theology, Detroit Baptist Divinity School, Allen Park, Michigan.]

The trials of Jesus Christ which preceded His death by crucifixion have been the subject of many books and articles. Many of these deal specifically and in great depth with the Jewish trials of Christ, but few attempt to deal in any detail with the Roman law aspect of Christ’s trial before Pontius Pilate. It is the purpose of this article to consider this latter subject.

The approach followed will be to analyze Christ’s trial in view of what is known both of Roman law of that time and of the Roman governor Pilate. The four Gospels will be allowed to speak for themselves, and then it will be demonstrated that Roman law coincides with the Gospel accounts of the trial of Christ before Pontius Pilate.

Although it is readily admitted that some of the exact chronological order of the details of Christ’s arrest and trials is difficult to determine, fortunately the general outline is well agreed on by many writers.1

The Man Pontius Pilate

Before examining how Pilate conducted the trial of Christ, it will be helpful to gain an insight into the man himself.

Some writers have attempted to develop from Pilate’s name some information related to his descent. The following quotation is representative of this:

The nomen Pontius indicates the stock from which Pilate was descended. It was one of the most famous of Samnite names…. The name is often met with in Rom [sic] history after the Samnites were conquered and absorbed…. The cognomen Pilatus indicates the familia, or branch of the gens Pontius, to which Pilate belonged. It has been derived from pileus, the cap worn by freedmen; this is improbable, as Pilate was of equestrian rank. It has also been derived from pilum, a spear. Probably the name was one that had descended to Pilate from his ancestors and had long lost its meaning.2

In relation to this quotation, it should be noted that there are examples of freedmen’s descendants achieving equestrian rank in Rome.3 Some even achieved the status of senator. It is possible, therefore, that the derivation from pileus is accurate.

It is clear from historical records that Pilate was the fifth procurator of Judea, appointed by the emperor Tiberius, that he was procurator cum potestate ...

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