Each Sunday Christians everywhere make as part of their confession two names: Mary and Pontius Pilate. That the former should be included as part of Christian creeds should come as no surprise. The Virgin Birth has long been a centerpiece of Christology. However, there is something jarring about the inclusion of Pilate in the creeds. Karl Barth claimed that running into Pilate’s name in the recitation of the creed was akin to the movement of “a dog into a nice room.” Yet we must take the inclusion as essential.
The significance of Pilate’s inclusion comes into focus when one considers that the creeds bypass the life and deeds of Christ’s life, save for his death and resurrection. All the aspects of contemporary Jesuology—to ask what Jesus would do, to take his words as a code for life, and so forth—are ignored in favor of the simple declaration that, after he was born, He suffered under Pontius Pilate, casting an ignominious pall over the latter’s name.
Reciting Pilate’s name requires we face the challenge of faith which asks us to see a prisoner as God and to identify ourselves with Pilate: “Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee? Alas my treason, Jesus hath undone thee. ‘Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied Thee. I crucified Thee.” Placing Pilate in the creed forces us to face our own culpability in Christ’s suffering, and the frailty of our own faith.
We don’t know much about Pilate, at least not from the Biblical narrative itself. We know that he was a Roman prefect in charge of Judea, and we know that he was married. There did emerge, in the first century after Christ’s death, stories concerning Pilate’s fate. St. Justin Martyr, Origen, and Tertullian all give due acknowledgement to these reports, which include stories about Pilate’s death by his own hand.
While the early Church struggled against paganism, credence was given to the stories that show Pilate affirming the miracles of Christ, proclaiming His deeds as greater than those performed by Rome’s own gods. Such proclamations, even if apocryphal, point to the central purpose of Pilate’s inclusion in the creeds: as providing an historical record for the man Jesus Christ.
Ecce Homo: behold the man. In beholding the man, we behold God. Dorothy Sayers wrote that the importance of Christ in front of Pilate is that we no longer behold God-in-his-thusness, as transcendent, abstract, one, and universal, but rather God-in-his-thisness, as embodied in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, as immanent, concrete, triune, and particular. Indeed, we are brought face-to-face with the scandalous particularity of the Christian faith, made more scandalous by God’s weakness and poverty.
Christ’s passion before Pilate reveals the other side of the dynamic of human sinfulness and Divine Justice, for in taking upon himself the wrath of God, Christ removes our guilt. But now the roles are reversed: we are Pilate, and Christ judges us. Even as Socrates turns the table on his Athenian accusers so it is they who are really on trial, so also Christ turns the tables on Pilate, letting him know that Pilate has no authority “except it has been given from above.” Also like Socrates, the threats of those in power mean nothing to those prepared to die, to those who know that dying and suffering is not the worst thing we do as human beings. The truth rests with those who, in humility, are not afraid because they know what is beyond life.
In the process, a new and different history is revealed, one where the apparently free action of Pilate—and it is only apparently so, for he works not in the interest of justice but cowers under the influence of both Caesar and the mob—is brought into the economy of salvation. Given, as we read in John 18:4, that Jesus knew what was to befall him, we now face the mysteries of a general providence. Barth wrote, “He suffers, but he does not protest against Pilate having to utter the judgment upon Him. In other words, the State order, the polis, is the area in which his action too, the action of the Eternal Word of God, takes place.”
In the confrontation between Christ and Pilate, the battle between the powers of this world and divine power comes to a climax, with Christ generously recognizing Pilate’s limited culpability. Indeed, when Christ tells Pilate “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above,” Pilate takes this not as insolence but as innocence (“Upon this Pilate sought to release him”).
The testimony of Christ confused Pilate, who couldn’t take the words of the man in front of him to be either sedition or blasphemy. Conflicted by his belief in the prisoner’s innocence, his wonder at the strange answers he receives, and his inability to see Christ as God, Pilate’s reflections turn back on themselves and the only pole he can grasp is the fear generated when the crowd accuses him of not being Caesar’s friend. Oliver O’Donovan has argued that only the pathology of the modern mind could view Pilate sympathetically, but I think he is wrong about that. Who of us would not behave like Pilate?
This squares with the interpretation of Pilate put forward by Mikhail Bulgakov in his play The Master and Margarita, a unique contrapuntal presentation of the stories of Pilate and Faust. Bulgakov’s Pilate in Yeshua Ha-Notsri (Jesus of Nazareth) longs for a holiness which transcends the dull, insipid, migraine-inducing world he inhabits, and he longs for what he only inchoately perceives: friendship with the condemned man. Alas, it is cowardice that prevents him from doing so. Pilate in the afterlife “always sees the same thing – a path of moonlight. He desires to walk along it and talk to his prisoner, Ha-Notsri, because he claims he had more to say to him on that distant fourteenth day of Nisan. But he never succeeds in reaching that path and no one ever comes near him.” Not until the end does Pilate walk along the moonlit path to be with Yeshua: “On the night of Sunday, the day of the Resurrection, pardon had been granted to the astrologer’s son, fifth Procurator of Judea, the cruel Pontius Pilate.” For all our mendacity, cowardice, and lack of faith, we too must seek pardon if we are to be in communion with Christ.
Christ tells Pilate he came to the world to give witness to the truth about God Himself, and derivatively the truth about who we are: that we only know ourselves when we know God, and only know God when we know the man Jesus Christ. “Pilate’s question: ‘What is truth’ reflects the distressing perplexity of a man who no longer knows who he is, whence he comes, where he is going” (Veritatis Splendor). Such a person, a stranger to himself, uncomprehending and confused, can hardly fulfill the freedom proper to human life.
The acceptance of God’s revelation in Christ is freedom: in giving Himself, Christ gives back to us our true selves as creatures of God, spared from His wrath by His love. Pilate, like Boethius, has a passion for justice, but “has forgotten who he is” and can recover that only with the help of Lady Wisdom, whose wisdom consists in understanding how all things are under the governance of God and the law of love.
Jesus of Nazareth knew the plan of divine governance, and knew he had to drink the cup that was offered to his lips. Yet, knowing that, he did not, for our sake, avoid his lot. As Augustine argues in Contra Faustus, knowing that Judas would betray him did not keep Christ from choosing Judas as a disciple. He who was Truth and spoke Truth stripped the justice of this world of its pretensions by becoming for us a holy and living sacrifice. So too, we, recognizing our true selves only in the light of Christ’s testimony, now see how genuine authority and justice—bound by Truth and Love—can come from faith in God alone.
Pilate’s mystification does not exonerate him. But we, knowing the Truth, know that Pilate too suffered: from illusion, performing injustice, and, we imagine, self-contempt. Pilate’s attempt to wash himself clean of his own sin must have looked pitiable to the condemned Man, who alone knew that Pilate, like us, could only be cleansed by the blood of the cross. The path of faith that leads to salvation opened up before Pilate: choose Christ, or choose Caesar (the things of this world). So also it remains open for us, for we stand in Pilate’s place, bear his guilt, share his fears, and think we can extend grace to ourselves. Christ did not just suffer under Pilate, he suffered for him as well.
Jeffrey Polet is a Professor of Political Science at Hope College in Holland, Michigan.