In A Nutshell
Calling Pontius Pilate a saint would sound incongruous to modern Christian ears. How can this man, the Roman prefect who ordered Jesus to be flogged and handed him over to be crucified, be considered a saint? Yet, that was exactly how some early Christians viewed him—a Christian convert who was ultimately martyred for his faith.
The Whole Bushel
We know of the historical Pontius Pilate, prefect of Judea from 26–36 B.C., from the writings of Jewish historian Josephus and Philo of Alexandria. Their portrait of this Roman official shows him as utterly contemptuous of the sensibilities of his Jewish subjects. One time, according to Josephus, Pilate tried to smuggle effigies of the Emperor into Jerusalem, provoking an outcry from the Jews who considered such images idolatrous. Pilate threatened the protesters with death, but gave in and removed the images when he saw the Jews were ready for martyrdom. Philo reports that Pilate’s administration was one long litany of “briberies, insults, robberies, outrages, wanton injustices, constantly repeated executions without trial, and ceaseless and grievous cruelty.” His brutal regime was what ultimately got him into trouble. Pilate was removed from office and summoned back to Rome to face accusations of excessive cruelty. He was exiled to Vienne, France.
But the Gospels paint a different picture of Pilate. Here, we see a pusillanimous, vacillating prefect reluctant to condemn an accused rabble-rouser. Pilate does not defy the Jewish mob; on the contrary, he is intimidated by it. Jesus is tossed back and forth between Pilate and Herod like a hot potato. In the end, the Gospels are ambivalent on who really is responsible for Jesus’s death. Though Pilate literally washes his hands of the affair, Jesus is still crucified—a Roman, not Jewish, form of execution.
Early Christians began to build legends around Pilate’s apparent unwillingness to condemn Jesus. From the second century onward, we hear of apocryphal tales relating how Pilate not only recognized Jesus’s innocence, but also his divinity. Tertullian wrote that Pilate became a Christian convert and even tried to persuade the Emperor Tiberius to the faith.
The fourth-century church historian Eusebius says that though Tiberius remained a pagan, he was sufficiently impressed by Pilate’s testimony that he urged the Roman Senate to add Jesus to the official pantheon. Tiberius made any attack on Christians punishable by death. However, his successor, Caligula, was not similarly swayed and ordered Pilate to commit suicide. Bishop Irenaeus of Lyons relates that the sect of Carpocratians possessed an image of Jesus painted by Pilate himself. There was even in circulation a document called the Acts of Pilate which implied that Pilate was an instrument of God for allowing Jesus to die. This fifth-century fabrication also unmistakably shows Pilate expressing genuine sympathy for the grief-stricken Jews who did not want Jesus crucified. St. Augustine numbers Pilate among the prophets in one of his sermons. Early Christian artists likened him to Old Testament heroes Daniel and Abraham. Pilate’s refusal to condemn Jesus was paralleled with Daniel’s refusal to condemn Susannah; Abraham leading Isaac as a sacrificial offering was mirrored in Pilate leading Christ to his atoning death.
Historians theorize that the Gospels downplayed Pilate’s role in the trial of Jesus in order to conciliate the Romans to the new religion. With the conversion of numerous Romans culminating in Constantine’s acceptance of Christianity, Pilate became the model of a Roman who refused to persecute Christians. He was proof that the Romans were instrumental to the plan of salvation.
No one knows what happened to Pilate after his dismissal. One old tradition says that he killed himself. Eusebius records that Pilate committed suicide out of remorse for his part in Jesus’s execution. But the Ethiopian church believes the former prefect was martyred and has canonized him and declared June 25 as his feast day.