Professor Kevin Butcher, Classics and Ancient History
Published April 2014
In the late second century AD, a pagan intellectual called Celsus wrote an anti-Christian treatise. Not surprisingly, his main target was belief in Jesus Christ as the Son of God. If the Christians’ saviour really was the Son of God, he asked, then why hadn’t God punished Pontius Pilate, the man who crucified him? Why hadn’t Pilate been sent mad or torn to pieces like the characters in Greek myths? Why was it that nothing terrible had happened to him at all?
There are many claims about the fate of Pilate, both Christian and pagan, but none of them are credible. Celsus’ claim, and the initial Christian response to it, is the only real clue we have about the fate of this man, the Prefect of Judaea and one of the Roman Empire’s most infamous characters. If Celsus was right, Jesus of Nazareth suffered but Pontius Pilate did not.
Of course we might question whether Celsus, who was writing about a hundred and fifty years after the Crucifixion, had his facts right. The early Christian response, however, tends to suggest that the claim was true. There was no convincing tradition of a grisly fate for Pontius Pilate.
The last reliable statement we have about Pilate’s activities comes from the Jewish historian Josephus, writing about half a century after the events. At the end of AD 36, Pilate had been recalled from Judaea to Rome following his alleged mishandling of a riot involving the Samaritans. For this he would have expected to face a hearing before the Emperor Tiberius and if ever there was an opportunity to see Pilate punished this would have been it. However, before Pilate had finished his long journey back to Rome the aged Tiberius died. Perhaps Pilate was lucky; or perhaps he would have been acquitted anyway. Either way, that’s the last we hear of him. The rest is guesswork.
In Rome there was general euphoria at the demise of the grim and reclusive Tiberius, who had spent the last years of his reign in seclusion on the island of Capri, directing bloody culls of the aristocracy for lèse majesté. Rome had a new emperor, whose accession signalled hope for a bright future. The young man was called Gaius Caesar, but was otherwise known by the nickname Caligula. We all know how he turned out, but contemporaries agreed that the start of his reign looked promising, at least in contrast with the later years of Tiberius. ‘After an evil reign, the fairest dawn is the first’, the saying went.
When Pilate heard the news, did he sigh with relief? Did he meet with the new emperor, or was he shunned as a man tainted by the old regime? In the jubilation that accompanied Caligula’s accession, it’s entirely possible that Pilate’s hearing was put on hold, or simply forgotten. Or perhaps, after things had calmed down, the hearing went ahead and Pilate was acquitted. He may even have been given another commission, a chance to take command somewhere else. As I said, the rest is guesswork but there’s little evidence, from either Christian or pagan sources, that a post-Judaea calamity befell him.
To Christians, Pontius Pilate’s survival couldn’t be dismissed. God ought to have punished the one who condemned Jesus to die. It was the job of a Roman governor to arbitrate and pass judgement, and that included capital cases. So Pilate should have been guilty.
But in the early years of Christianity it was difficult to make such claims. If Christians wanted to avoid falling out with the Roman Empire, it was best not to accuse one of its officials of deicide. The canonical Gospels stressed that Pilate was not fully to blame, and that he could find no fault in Jesus. In Mark, Pilate guesses that the Jewish priests have handed over Jesus ‘out of envy’. ‘I have found in him no grounds for the death penalty. Therefore I will have him punished and then release him’, Pilate declares in Luke’s Gospel. Matthew is even more determined to exonerate Pilate. John has Pilate twice announce ‘I find no basis for a charge against him’. The apocryphal Gospel of Peter, thought by many scholars to be among the earliest Christian texts, went even further. In this Pilate and his soldiers play no part in mocking or torturing Jesus; it is the crowd and the Jewish priests who do this. Pilate himself declares ‘I am pure from the blood of the Son of God’ and, together with his soldiers, who guard the tomb of Jesus, he conspires to keep the miracle of the Resurrection secret from the priests.
This narrative, probably arising more from convenience than a desire to convey the facts, provoked a strange fascination on the part of early Christians with the figure of Pontius Pilate. The image of the guiltless governor, the chief witness of the Passion, became an important theme in early Christian writings.
Fake letters of Pilate, addressed to the Emperor, circulated as early as the second century. The Acts of Pilate, supposedly compiled from the governor’s records, possibly emerged at about the same time. In these, Pilate has become a believer himself, reporting the virgin birth and the miracles of Jesus. Tertullian, a late second-century Christian theologian, described Pilate as someone ‘who himself also in his own conscience was now a Christian,’ and alleged that the Emperor Tiberius was so convinced by Pilate’s report of the Passion that he would have been inclined to place Jesus among the Roman gods had not the Roman Senate refused. So influential were the various versions of the Acts of Pilate that in the early fourth century, the Roman state created and promoted an anti-Christian, pagan and ‘true’ version of the Acts of Pilate in an attempt to discredit the Christian versions.
Early Christian attempts to excuse Pilate, and turn him into a believer, might seem merely whimsical to us, but his absolution was achieved at a terrible cost to another group of people. For these Christian apologists, there was a perfectly good reason why Pilate wasn’t punished by God. He wasn’t really guilty. The real culprits, in their view, were the Jews.
In the third century a bishop called Origen wrote a response to Celsus. If you really want to know why Pilate wasn’t punished, Origen tells Celsus, you should read the Bible. You’ll see that Pilate wasn’t the one who killed Jesus. No, he said, the Jews killed him out of envy. They were the guilty ones, the whole lot of them. And if you want proof, he added, then see how God has punished the Jews by condemning their nation and dispersing them across the face of the earth.
The fake letters, and the Christian versions of the Acts of Pilate, merely helped to confirm the claim of Origen and other apologists. They placed the blame squarely on the Jews for the crucifixion, and in the Acts the crowd even tells Pilate they willingly accept the blood guilt – an echo of the Gospel of Matthew, where early Christian readers could find the crowd saying ‘his blood be on us and on our children!’ It was almost inevitable that this ‘guilt’ should be used as an excuse for Christian persecution of the Jews right through to modern times. Such explicit anti-Semitism has proved an embarrassment in recent decades and Church leaders such as Pope Paul VI and Benedict XVI have emphasised Jewish innocence, arguing that Jesus suffered willingly in order to save humanity. Indirectly, then, even Pilate escapes full responsibility.
Why did the early Christians take such pains to absolve Pilate and blame the Jews? This was a time when the new religion was splitting from Judaism and relations between the communities were not always harmonious. In spite of its conflicts and wars in Judaea, the Roman state recognised the authority of the rabbis, whereas the position of Christian communities was more precarious. Judaism was traditional, and therefore acceptable, in Roman eyes; whereas Christianity was new and potentially subversive. Christian resentment of Judaism, and a desire to curry favour with the Roman state, were strong motives for emphasising Jewish complicity.
So the tradition of a ‘good’ Pilate was the product of specific religious and political circumstances. When the Roman Empire became a Christian state in the fourth century, there was no longer any need to emphasise Pilate’s innocence. The Nicene Creed, formulated under Emperor Constantine’s rule, stated bluntly that Christ ‘was crucified under Pontius Pilate’, and at the same time a less sympathetic interpretation of Pilate’s role emerged. Now it was acceptable to cast Pilate as a villain and a range of myths developed. The earliest myth, related by the church historian Eusebius in the fourth century, has Pilate commit suicide in Rome under Caligula due to unspecified (and therefore perhaps imaginary) misfortunes.
But for others, this was not enough. Pilate needed a more grisly fate. An anonymous medieval text, the Death of Pilate, has the Emperor forcing him to take his own life. Pilate’s body is then loaded with weights and thrown into the river Tiber, but the demons that possessed his corpse so terrified everybody that his remains were pulled out and sent north. After several attempts to rebury him, Pilate was cast into a pit in the Swiss Alps. Tradition identifies the location as a small lake on Mount Pilatus, near Lucerne. Here the governor’s malign influence persisted until overcome through exorcism in 1585.
However, some influential Christians still held Pilate to be innocent. For Saint Augustine, writing in the sixth century AD, when Pilate wrote on the cross ‘Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews’, he really meant it: ‘It could not be torn from his heart that Jesus was the King of the Jews.’ This was sufficient evidence of Pilate’s conversion.
Pontius Pilate: the first Gentile Christian? That accolade could be claimed by Pilate’s wife who, in the Gospel of Matthew, warned her husband not to harm Jesus. This was sufficient for Pilate’s wife to achieve sainthood in the Eastern Orthodox Church. Matthew does not give her a name, but tradition invented one: Claudia Procula (variants of the spelling of her name include Proculla and Procla) and it is by this name that the saint is labelled in icons.
In contrast to the western tradition of a ‘bad’ Pilate, the Eastern Orthodox Church generally preferred a sympathetic interpretation. Not only was Pilate a Christian; he was a Confessor and even a martyr. A fifth century Greek text, The Handing Over of Pilate, has Tiberius ordering the governor to be beheaded for having allowed the crucifixion to go ahead. First Pilate repents; and then a voice from heaven proclaims that all nations will bless him, because under his governorship the prophecies about Christ were fulfilled; and finally an angel takes charge of his severed head. In Coptic and Ethiopian versions, the martyr Pilate is crucified and buried with his wife and two children next to the tomb of Jesus – the ultimate piece of sepulchral real estate!
While Orthodox Christians venerated Pilate’s wife, the Copts and Christians of Ethiopia took the next step and canonised Pilate himself. In Egypt ‘Pilate’ even became an acceptable Christian name. In Ethiopia, a synaxarium or collection of hagiographies lists Pilate’s day as the twenty-fifth day of the summer month of Sanne. The washing of his hands (another detail introduced by Matthew) symbolises the governor’s innocence. He shares the day with his wife, St Jude, Peter and Paul.
In the western traditions Pilate is certainly no saint, and western unfamiliarity with the more sympathetic eastern tradition may explain why people are apt to find the idea of Saint Pontius Pilate curious or even absurd. But the fascination with Pilate never abates. From the Acts of Pilate to Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margerita (1967), the man who cross-examined and crucified Jesus remains an enigma, a shadowy metaphor for opposites: equivocation and stubbornness, cowardice and heroism, cruelty and clemency. His dilemma? Do the right thing or do the popular thing? And it is every ruler’s quandary. Perhaps that is why people can sympathise with Pilate: at some point in our lives we all face that kind of choice; though, fortunately for us, its consequences are usually much less momentous.
Kevin Butcher is a professor of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Warwick and author of The Further Adventures of Pontius Pilate. The historical novel is available in paperback and as an e-book. Professor Kevin Butcher received his PhD from the Institute of Archaeology, University College London, in the field of Roman numismatics. He is also the author of Roman Syria: And the Near East (J. Paul Getty Trust Publications, 2004). He joined Warwick in 2007, after a term as a Getty Visiting Scholar in Los Angeles, California.