Historically, little is known about Pontius Pilate. He was Procurator of Judaea from A.D. 26 to 36 and was recalled in the year in which the Emperor Tiberius died. The activities of John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth took place towards the end of the first half of his term of office. There are references to him in the Jewish historian Josephus and the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria, and there are the accounts of the trial of Jesus which are offered by the writers of the Gospel narratives. None of these is a completely trustworthy authority.
The two Jewish chroniclers are witnesses for the prosecution. It is as though an Indian Swarajist or an Irish Sinn Feiner were the only authority on which posterity were asked to base its judgment of an English Governor. Even a slight examination of the incidents describe in Josephus, such as the seizure of the Temple-tribute to pay for a new aqueduct and the sending of the images of the Caesars into Jerusalem on the standards of the soldiers, indicates that Pilate had other qualities than those of the mere persecutor, a view which is confirmed by the length of his Procuratorship, for although it was the policy of Tiberius not to change the provincial governors rapidly, it is unlikely that one of them would have been maintained in office for ten years had he been consistently guilty, as is alleged about Pilate in Philo's pages, of corruption, violence, robbery, illegal executions and 'never-ending inhumanity.'
On the other hand, the writers of the Gospels were also concerned to make out a case. Their aim was to present an account of the trial which would represent Pilate as a just and humane but timorous Governor who, finding no evil in the Holy One, sought by various expedients to save him from the death designed for him by the real culprits, the Jewish hierarchy, the Pharisees and lawyers.
The truth lies somewhere between or beneath the existing accounts of Pilate's character and actions.
The 'Letters' were addressed by Pilate to his friend Lucius Annaeus Seneca the younger, who was later to be the tutor of the young Emperor Nero (and to commit suicide at his order), and who is known to posterity as liberal philosopher and writer of moral essays and tragedies which few men read. It appears from the 'Letters' that even in his early manhood Seneca was interested in the difficult problem which Pilate had to handle: the problem of a militant Power ruling a subject people whose religion not only was the prime object of its loyalty, but actually rejected the idea of a foreign over-lordship and its symbols.
The 'Letters' describe only the first half of Pilate's administration. They close with the Death of Jesus at the Easter of A.D. 30. We should expect to find in them some answer to the many questions which occur to anyone who reads intelligently the 'authorities' on Pilate, and especially the Gospel narratives.
With what mind and policy did Pilate approach his task as Procurator of Judaea? How did he confront a suspicious and refractory people, the hostile Pharisees, the supple Sadducees? What were his relations with Herod Antipas? What did he know and think of John whom we call 'the Baptist'? How much had he, the keeper of the Roman peace, heard of Jesus of Nazareth before he came, in the last days, to Jerusalem, and in what mood did he await his coming? What is the truth about his attitude to Jesus and to the accusers at the trial? To these and other similar questions the 'Letters' furnish a reply.
It is for the reader to say how far they may be regarded as authentic; how far, that is, they can be accepted as an account of the period which is not only credible in itself, but at important points more credible than the existing narratives.
The 'Letters' are arranged in chronological order but are undated, and in view of the uncertainty attaching to the chronology of this period I have not attempted to date them. Letters I-XI, however, describe the early days of the Procuratorship. Letters XII-XXXIII belong to the period which covered the preaching and the death of John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth. In some cases, as in that of the former High Priest Annas, I have kept the form of the names with which we are familiar.
W. P. C.