How Pilate Became a Saint
Pontius Pilate has a terrible reputation. We tend to think of him as one of the New Testaments greatest cowards. Tragically, at Jesus trial, Pilate seems to recognize that a gross injustice is being done, yet he doesnt use his power as the Roman governor of Judea to stop it. According to the Gospel of Matthew, three times Pilate asks the crowd, What shall I do with Jesus who is called the Messiah? He seems to hope they will say, Release him! But they dont. Instead, the crowd insists that Pilate have Jesus crucified. So the governor famously washes his hands, claims he is innocent of this mans blood (Matthew 27:24
), flogs Jesus and then hands him over to the soldiers who lead him to his death. And in an act that suggests recognition of his terrible error, Pilate himself supplies the nameplate for the cross: Jesus Christ, King of the Jews.
The first-century C.E. Jewish historians Flavius Josephus and Philo of Alexandria also portray Pilate in a negative lightas autocratic, excessive, stubborn and indecisive. According to Josephus, Pilates ten-year stint as governor of Judea ended in 36 C.E., when he was sent back to Rome to answer charges of overstepping authority, provoking rebellion and persecuting the Jews.1
Philo reports on Pilates predilection for bribes, robbery, excesses and executions without trial.2
Yet, early Christians saw Pilate in a very different way. Augustine hailed Pilate as a convert. Eventually, certain churches, including the Greek Orthodox and Coptic faiths, named Pilate and his wife saints. And when Pilate first shows up in Christian art in the mid-fourth century, he is juxtaposed with Abraham, Daniel and other great believers.
The earliest images of Pilate appear on sarcophagus reliefs, where the Pilate story usually appears as one in a series of images of Jesus passion. Pilate is often seated at upper right, turned slightly away from the viewer, as on a late-fourth-century sarcophagus now in the Arles Antiquities Museum and the sarcophagus (now in the Vatican, but not shown here) of Junius Bassus, a Roman prefect who died in 359 C.E. He is usually shown washing his hands while Jesus stands before him.
It would be difficult to characterize these individual reliefs as positive or negative portraits of Pilate. But when we look at them in context, we find that the Pilate scene is often paired with (or balanced by) an image of Jesus washing the apostles feet, of Abrahams near-sacrifice of Isaac or, occasionally, Daniel saving Susannahsuggesting that early Christians drew a comparison between these events.
On the sarcophagus from the Arles Antiquities Museum, the footwashing scene appears at far left, the handwashing at far right. Early Christians associated both actsthe washing of feet and handswith baptism, innocence and the forgiveness of sin.
On a mid-fourth-century sarcophagus from the Lateran Museums and on the sarcophagus of Junius Bassus, Pilate again appears at far right; Abraham and Isaac appear at far left. A parallel between Jesus and Isaacbeloved sons whose fathers prepare to sacrifice themis often made in early Christian art and literature.a
The church father Tertullian wrote: Isaac, being led by his father to be a victim, and carrying himself the firewood, at that moment was a figure of Christs death, submitting himself to his father as a victim and lugging the [fire]wood of his own passion.3
As a result, the two men who oversaw the (near-) sacrificesPilate and Abrahamalso came to be seen as parallel figures. Pilate, like Abraham, came to be seen as an active agent, advancing Gods work of salvation.
On another mid-fourth-century sarcophagus also in the Arles Antiquities Museum, Pilate is paired not only with Abraham, but with Daniel, too. The sarcophagus is decorated with a variety of Old and New Testament scenes (as well as a circular portrait of the deceased), but it is popularly known as the Sarcophagus of the Chaste Suzanne, because it includes the story of Susannah, recorded in the Additions to the Book of Daniel. (The additions are found in the Greek Old Testament, called the Septuagint, but not the Hebrew Bible.)
According to the Additions to Daniel, when the chaste Susannah refuses the sexual advances of two elderly men, they falsely accuse her of adultery. For her supposed crime, she is sentenced to death. Daniel is disturbed by the outcome: I want no part in shedding this womans blood, he announcesa foreshadowing of Pilates later words. Daniel then steps in and interrogates the men separately. Their story falls apart (each claims the adultery occurred under a different tree), and Susannah is vindicated.
On the sarcophagus, the tale is told in two parts in the upper register. Just to the right of the portrait medallion, Susannah stands reading from the scroll of the Law while the two men spy on her from behind trees. The story picks up in the upper left corner of the relief, where Daniel appears seated with Susannah standing beside him. Just to the right, one of Susannahs false accusers receives a beating as punishment.
To the right of this scene (and left of the portrait medallion) is the sacrifice of Isaac. But on The Sarcophagus of the Chaste Suzanne, it is the parallel between Susannah and Jesusboth innocents condemned to death by the elders of Israeland between Daniel and Pilatewho try to protect themthat is highlighted. Seated in the two upper corners of the sarcophagus, Daniel and Pilate mirror each other in pose.
How and why did Pilate gain such a good reputation that early Christian artists likened him to the Old Testament heroes Daniel and Abraham?
Given Pilates key role in the New Testament, we shouldnt be surprised to learn that early Christian imagination made much of him. Pilate appears in all four Gospels; and in each he wants to let Jesus go free but succumbs to the crowds pressure to have him crucified. In each gospel account, he has his heroic moments: In all four Gospels, he tries to release Jesus (Matthew 27:16
; Mark 15:9
; Luke 23:16
; John 19:12
). He declares Jesus innocent of any punishable crime. In Luke, he tells the crowd: You brought me this man as one who was perverting the people; and here I have examined him in your presence and have not found this man guilty of any of your charges against him. Neither has Herod, for he sent him back to us. Indeed, he has done nothing to deserve death. I will therefore have him flogged and release him (Luke 23:1416
). But the crowd insists that Jesus die. The Gospel of Matthew (see Jesus Before Pilate, sidebar to The Dark Side of Pilate
in this issue) indicates Pilate (or at least his wife) was guided by a miraculous vision. While Pilate is sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sends word to him: Have nothing to do with that righteous [i.e., just, innocent] man, she warns, for today I have suffered a great deal because of a dream about him (Matthew 27:19
). Pilate subsequently declares Jesus to be an innocent man and absolves himself of responsibility for his death (Matthew 27:24
In the Gospel of John, Pilate proclaims Jesus innocent and presents him to the crowd with the famous words Ecce Homo
, Behold the man (John 19:5
). Pilate himself carves the plaque for the cross reading Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews (John 19:19
). When a bystander suggests Pilate amend the text to read This man said I am King of the Jews, Pilate refuses. What I have written I have written, he declares (John 19:22
). Finally, it is Pilate who turns Jesus body over to Joseph of Arimathea for burial before the sun goes down (John 19:3839
These more savory details informed the extrabiblical legends about Pilate that circulated from the second century on. These apocryphal tales made Pilate out to be an early gentile convert, one who recognized not only Jesus innocence, but also his divine nature. For example, the church historian Tertullian, in the late second century, wrote that Pilate became a Christian in his own convictions. According to Tertullian, Pilate even sent word of Jesus to the Roman emperor Tiberius (1437 C.E.), who also would have converted if only emperors were allowed to become Christians.4
Echoes between the stories of Pilate and Daniel were noted by early Christian exegetes, including Hippolytus of Rome in the third century C.E. and Jerome in the early fifth. For example, in his commentary on Daniel, Hippolytus wrote that Daniel cried out, I am innocent of her blood (Additions to Daniel 46
), so that he would not be held responsible for her death along with the other elders of Israel, and added that Pilate acted in such a manner when he washed his hands and said, I am innocent of his blood.5
The second-century bishop Irenaeus reported that the Carpocratians (a Gnostic Christian sect from Alexandria) claimed to possess a portrait of Jesus painted by Pilate: [The Carpocratians] maintain that a likeness of Christ was made by Pilate at that time when Jesus lived among them. They crown these images, and set them up along with the images of the philosophers of the world.6
Although Irenaeus condemned this kind of image worship, he didnt actually dispute the sects claim to own an authentic from life portrait of Jesusor that Pilate might really have painted such a picture!
Augustine suggested that Pilate not only recognized Jesus innocence, he also recognized his divinityand converted to Christianity. Augustine compared Pilate with the magi, claiming that while the magi were the first to recognize Jesus divinity at his rising, or birth,b
Pilate was the first to recognize his divinity at his setting, or death.7
By washing his hands of Jesus blood, Pilate was suggesting that Jesus blood would wash away our sins, Augustine wrote.
The fourth-century church historian Eusebius of Caesarea claimed that Pilate not only converted to Christianity but tried to convince the Roman emperor Tiberius to convert, too (see the second sidebar to this article). Tiberius didnt abandon paganism, but, according to Eusebius, he was so impressed by Pilates account of Jesus wonders and resurrection that he urged the Roman Senate to add Jesus to the official pantheon. Furthermore, Tiberius threatened death to anyone who accused or attacked Christians.8
However, Tiberiuss successor, Caligula (3741 C.E.), was not similarly persuaded. According to Eusebius, he ordered Pilate to commit suicide.9
Outside the New Testament and the writings of the church fathers, Pilate is mentioned in many apocryphal gospels and books of acts, as well as in the early creeds (where he and the Virgin Mary are the only humans mentioned) and other documents. In these postcanonical texts, Pilate is not just a Roman governor who felt pushed into handing over an innocent man for execution. He is a Christian convert who dies a Christian martyr.
The popularity of these texts throughout the Roman Empire may well have inspired a backlash among pagan Roman leaders. Eusebius mentions a set of early-fourth-century memoirs that were attributed to Pilate but that he believed were actually concocted by pagan persecutors of the Christians in order to stain Pilates reputation. According to Eusebius, these counterfeit Memoirs of Pilate and Our Savior were filled with unspeakable lies designed to refute Pilates Christian persuasion. Eusebius states that the memoirs were exhibited on bronze tablets in public squares throughout the empire and were given to teachers for the indoctrination of children.10
These false memoirs themselves may have inspired the well-known Acts of Pilate (see the first sidebar to this article), a lengthy account of Jesus trial and resurrection that was likely generated in the mid-fourth century at the urging of Eusebius or someone like him as a means of countering the blasphemous forged memoirs.c
The apocryphal Acts of Pilate is in two parts, the first of which purports to be an eyewitness account of Jesus trial. (The second describes the Resurrection.) According to the prologue, the original Hebrew text was purportedly rediscovered in its entirety sometime between 400 and 450 A.D. by a Roman convert to Christianity named Ananias, who then translated it into Greek. Ananias also claims that he was able to authenticate the documents and to determine that they were by Nicodemus, a Jewish leader who defended Jesus before the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling body (John 7:5052
), and who later provided vast quantities of spices for Jesus burial (John 19:3940
). Nicodemus delivered his report to the high priest Caiaphas, who then turned it over to Pilate himself, as a record of the legal proceedings.
The apocryphal Acts of Pilate depends heavily on the various gospel accounts but expands the dialogue between Pilate and the Jewish crowd and adds certain unique and miraculous details. For example, the Roman messenger who leads Jesus to Pilate begins to worship Jesus and treats him as if he were a king. When Jesus enters the chamber, the (inanimate) imperial standards bearing the official images bend over in reverence before him. The crowd of Jews that gathers before Pilate is divided over whether Jesus should be put to death. Some claim that Jesus was born from fornication and thus should be executed. But not all the multitude desired that he should be put to death. Several Jews weep at the thought and join Pilate in support of Jesus. Among them are the woman with an issue of blood (Matthew 9:2022
; Mark 5:2534
; Luke 8:4348
), the paralytic whom Jesus told, Take up your bed and walk (Mark 2:11
; John 5:8
) and several other New Testament figures who were healed by Jesus or who witnessed his miracles.
In the end, Pilate relies on Jesus own advice. He asks Jesus, What shall I do with you? and Jesus responds, Do as it has been given to you
Moses and the prophets foretold my death and resurrection. The crucifixion is part of Gods greater plan, Jesus suggests. Pilate must not stop what has already been put in motion. Thus by allowing Jesus to die, Pilate serves God.
Given Pilates prominence in the New Testament and the writings of the church fathers, it is not surprising that Pilate found a favored place in fourth-century Christian art and literature, like the Acts. But there may be another reason Pilate became especially popular at this time: He provided a model for the new Roman Christians of the fourth century.
In 313 C.E., the emperor Constantine proclaimed the Edict of Milan, which allowed Christians to worship freely. Christianitys subsequent transition from persecuted cult to imperially patronized religion opened a placeeven a needfor a representative Roman official who refused to persecute Christians and became a convert. As a Roman ruler who refused to persecute Christians and who, legend had it, instead converted to Christianity, Pilate served as a kind of prototype for Constantine. He also provided proof to the Roman people that the Romans were an instrumental part of Gods plan for salvation. Why else would God have selected a Roman to preside at the crucifixion?
Two good recent books on Pilate are Pontius Pilate in History and Tradition, by Helen Bond (New York: Cambridge Univ., 1998); and Pontius Pilate: Portraits of a Roman Governor, by Warren Carter (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2003).
History of Christianity