When Pontius Pilate accepted the post of Governor of Judaea, he never could have imagined that he’d cross paths with God Incarnate, or that his name would end up in the creed recited by millions of Christians every Sunday.
And yet Pontius Pilate is in both of the main Christian creeds, the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed (see here for a side-by-side comparison).
Both creeds assign a similar role to Pilate. Here’s what the Nicene version says:
For our sake he was crucified
under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered died and was buried.
The Apostles Creed is comparable:
He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended into hell.
As Catholics, we recite the Nicene Creed every Sunday without giving much thought to the pagan in the creed. Pilate is, after all, an integral part of the story of Jesus. Nevertheless, his place in the creed is curious. Everything else in the two creeds is a person, object, or belief of the faith. As far as we know, Pilate never came to the faith and, even if he did, that’s not why he’s in the creed.
We simply cannot accept the explanation that he was casually thrown in. Remember, the early Christians fiercely debated the truths of the faith down to the very letter. At one point, the division between Arians and orthodox Christians hinged on whether the letter “i” should be added to the Greek word homoousious. Without the additional letter, the word declared that Jesus was the ‘same in being’ or ‘consubstantial’ with the Father. The change in spelling, however, would have changed its meaning to say that Christ was only ‘alike’ in being to the Father.
So no, Pilate is not in the creed by accident.
First, Pilate’s existence reinforces the historicity of the Incarnation. His reference confirms that Jesus walked this earth and died on it at a specific time and place. The story of Jesus is anchored in concrete events. God entered history itself and Pilate’s presence in the drama reminds us of this. (This is the explanation preferred by patristic commentator Rufinus, who says of the framers of the creed, “They who have handed down the Creed to us have with much forethought specified the time when these things were done.”)
Witness to Innocence of Jesus
Second, Pilate stands as a witness to Jesus’ innocence. In the gospel accounts, Pilate is the closest thing to an impartial judge Jesus was going to get. He examines Jesus and acquits Him of the charges. Luke 23:14-15 recounts his words this way:
You brought this man to me and accused him of inciting the people to revolt. I have conducted my investigation in your presence and have not found this man guilty of the charges you have brought against him, nor did Herod, for he sent him back to us. So no capital crime has been committed by him.
This is a crucial aspect of Jesus’ atoning sacrifice on our behalf: He was innocent. He was the ‘the sinless, spotless Lamb of God’ offered for our sake (1 Peter 1:19).
Pilate’s overall significance extends beyond the two reasons outlined above. In bringing him to mind, the creed beckons us to look closer into the role he plays in the gospel story.
Witness to the Emptiness of the World
We can begin by noting that Pilate marks an interesting contrast with the Jewish opponents of Jesus. Both parties represent opposite approaches to worldly government. If the Jewish leaders in the story were overly zealous for the reconstitution of an earthly Jewish state, Pilate was completely dispassionate and indifferent. He is the personification of the bored bureaucrat who can’t be bothered to take a position on right and wrong. All four gospel account portray his decision to execute Jesus as an act meant to mollify angry crowds (see Matthew 27, Mark 15, Luke 23, and John 18). In Matthew, Pilate even washes his hands in front of the crowd in any effort to shirk any responsibility.
The World’s Rejection of Jesus
It seems necessary that Jesus’ rejection be as complete as possible. His people—at least a sizable portion of them—had rejected Him. Pilate’s sentence thus represents the rejection of the world. Ironically, in a way, this paves the way for all future believers to accept Jesus. Although the next two thousand years would contain many instances of powerful Christian states and Church institutions, at its heart, the story of Jesus is of a God who assumed our humanity in radical humility, asking us to ‘believe also in me’ (John 14:1). The redemptive work of Jesus would not have been possibly had he been the worldly savior so many Jews of the time wanted. Likewise, had a pious Pilate saved Him there would have been no suffering, no death, and no resurrection.
An Admonition to Believe
In the account of John, Pilate doesn’t seem to know what to make of Jesus:
Jesus answered, “My kingdom does not belong to this world. If my kingdom did belong to this world, my attendants would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not here.” So Pilate said to him, “Then you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say I am a king. For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate said to him, “What is truth?” (John 18:36-38)
What must it have been like for this Roman figurehead to breathe the same air as God-made-man? What did He see when He looked into Christ’s eyes? Did He sense he was in the presence of something and Someone far greater than what he could comprehend? Pilate certainly seems curious. In the above dialogue, he is clearly feeling Jesus out, trying to get to the bottom of things.
His final question has lent itself to many interpretations. On its face, it looks like the ultimate statement of relativism. Others have seen it as sarcasm or an expression of frustration. There is yet another interpretation, according to Matthew Henry, a seventeenth century Presbyterian commentator:
Pilate put a good question, he said, What is truth? When we search the Scriptures, and attend the ministry of the word, it must be with this inquiry, What is truth? and with this prayer, Lead me in thy truth; into all truth. But many put this question, who have not patience to preserve in their search after truth; or not humility enough to receive it.
Pilate stands as both a cautionary tale and a call to faith. He shows the perils of not pursuing the truth. And, in so doing, he calls us to respond differently. When we seek the truth. When we ask the truth we must wait for Jesus to answer us.
The Mystical Theological Reason
Finally, there is a mystical theological reason for Pilate’s encounter with Christ. It was necessary for the Good News to be announced throughout the world. Jesus preached, of course, to his fellow Jews. But the Word also needed to reach the Gentiles. Of course, the apostles later would spread the Gospel, but it was fitting for the Word Incarnate to do so Himself. Pilate stands in for all the future Gentiles who would hear it.
Jesus’ mission had to be complete. Isaiah 55 describes God’s Word as if it was journeying throughout the world. 1 Peter 3:19 says He even preached to the ‘spirts in prison’—that is, those in hell, announcing to them the Good News they had forfeited. Indeed, in On the Incarnation of the Word, St. Athanasius says Jesus ‘filled’ the whole world with His teaching.
Many before Him have been kings and tyrants of the earth, history tells also of many among the Chaldeans and Egyptians and Indians who were wise men and magicians. But which of those, I do not say after his death, but while yet in this life, was ever able so far to prevail as to fill the whole world with his teaching and retrieve so great a multitude from the craven fear of idols, as our Savior has won over from idols to Himself?
Jesus continues to fill the world with His teaching today through the Church. Thanks to His enduring Presence among us we can be confident we still hear His voice speaking to us from the gospel accounts. And, while His words to Pilate may have fallen on deaf ears, may the opposite be the case with us.