By Lawrence S. Cunningham | Spring 2018

For nearly two millennia, the Christian creeds affirmed that Jesus “suffered under Pontius Pilate.” It has always struck me as odd that, apart from the Virgin Mary, this undistinguished Roman functionary should be the only human being who is remembered by name.

According to many non-Christian sources (he was discussed by Roman historian Tacitus and the Romano-Jewish historian Flavius Josephus), Pilate was either corrupt or incompetent, and ended his days in Rome under disgrace. The only record of him in Jerusalem is a limestone plinth discovered in 1961 that mentions him by name.

In the New Testament passion narratives, Pilate played a crucial role, since he is called upon to adjudicate Jesus based on charges brought by the Sanhedrin. It is clear that the Gospel writers thought that Pilate was reluctant to condemn Jesus on the face of the facts. But it is equally clear that he had no qualms about doing so in order to keep peace in the community during the volatile days of the Jerusalem Passover season.

After all, Pilate had two critical tasks as a Roman administrator: collect taxes and keep his captive people in check. All of the Gospels record dialogues between Jesus and Pilate, as well as Pilate’s encounters with the crowd outside his headquarters. In the end, Pilate literally washed his hands of the drama, despite his wife’s warning that in a dream she feared for his dealings with Jesus (Matthew 27:19). After the passion narratives, Pilate exited the drama of the last days of Jesus.

We all tend to prefer stories that have tidy endings, and that is surely the case with Pilate. The Roman Catholic tradition has been silent on the person of Pilate, but the Coptic Church insists that Pilate later became a Christian, and honors him and his wife as saints in its liturgy on June 25. The Orthodox tradition names Pilate’s wife as Claudia Procula and considers her a saint, honoring her on October 27. Other less reliable traditions place Pilate’s grave in places as various as Scotland and Northern Italy. One of the most interesting of these purported locations is Mount Pilatus near Lucerne in Switzerland where supposedly his spirit arises every year on Good Friday to wash his hands in a mountain stream.

Of course, the New Testament story of Pilate is highly dramatic. We have the encounter between Jesus and the Roman procurator; we see Pilate offering a deal to the angry crowd: Jesus or Barabbas? We can imagine him calling for a pitcher and ewer even as he surrenders Jesus. We can see his cynicism when he asks Jesus, “What is truth?”

Which, then, brings us back to the question: Why is the name of Pontius Pilate mentioned in the ancient creeds, and still known to this day?

It seems so — what is the word? — unworthy to be immortalized in the Christian memory. In the final analysis, it seems there is a profoundly theological explanation. The name of Pontius Pilate reminds us forcefully and precisely that the events of the life of Jesus were real events that happened in human history. The Jesus story did not occur “once upon a time” or “way back when.” The passion of Jesus occurred when there was a Roman procurator named Pontius Pilate and his life was recorded with discernible dates.

Behind that little phrase asserting that Jesus “suffered under Pontius Pilate” was a clear response to an important struggle in early Christianity. There was an influential movement in early Christianity known by the generic name of gnosticism. Critical among its beliefs was the core conviction that Jesus was not a real man, but only seemed to be one.

A consequence of this conviction was a logical deduction: Jesus did not die on the cross, but only “seemed” to have died. Gnostics resolutely resisted the idea that divinity or spiritual beings could be encased in something as gross as human flesh. (Incidentally, one finds an echo of this belief about the “seeming” crucifixion in the pages of the Quran.)

These dual convictions were derived from the gnostic belief that it was unworthy of divinity to be truly implicated in the materiality of flesh. In this view, Christ was at a minimum an angelic figure or a spirit, who possessed the secret knowledge (gnosis) that brought salvation by teaching the faithful a way of spiritual ascent. No gnostic would affirm the contention of the Gospel of John that the “Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14).

The simple addition of the name of Pontius Pilate, as unworthy in his own right as he may be, is a reminder that Jesus was born, lived, truly suffered, died on the cross and rose again — not in myth or legend, but in the dusty backwaters of the Roman Empire while an administrator named Pontius Pilate wielded the power of the emperor.

Pilate was an ironic figure, but he did not know it.

When he famously asked Jesus, “What is truth?” the answer he received was, “Truth is standing before you.” Christianity stands or falls on that answer.

Lawrence S. Cunningham is O’Brien Professor of Theology Emeritus at the University of Notre Dame.