Friday, March 29, 2013

The Acts of Pilate

Some gospels didn’t make it into the New Testament canon. One such gospel was the Gospel according to Nicodemus. Contained within the gospel account is a section called the Acts of Pilate. Although there is no basis upon which we can consider this early Christian literature to be inspired, it is maintained by some that it is historically accurate. St. Justin Martyr, for one (a second century Father of the Church writing around 165 A.D.), made reference to the “Acts of Pontius Pilate” in his book, The Apology. He seems to have given it credibility when he wrote, “And that these things happened you can ascertain from the Acts of Pontius Pilate.”

In the Gospel according to Nicodemus it is evident that Pilate is convinced that Jesus is not only wrongly accused but he is divine. Jesus seemed to have pitied Pilate because he was weak. Pilate pitied Christ because he was innocent. And during their conversation, Jesus said he came to fulfill the Messianic prophecies of Moses and the prophets; that his death had been preordained from the beginning (note: this is not in the Gospels). But there was something else that led Pilate to believe that Jesus was special. As stated in the Gospel of Matthew, Pilate’s wife had a disturbing dream of Jesus. She warned her husband not to have anything to do with the indictment against Christ. This is interesting because according to the Gospel of Nicodemus, Pontius Pilate’s wife was a gentile (non-Jew) but one who converted to Judaism and faithfully observed its precepts. As such, Pilate was alarmed by her warning because he took it seriously.

In addition, according to the same gospel account, there were some in the crowd- the same crowd clamoring for the crucifixion of our Lord –who had been healed by him. Unlike their peers, they made their voices heard in support of the Savior. One such person was the woman who, by touching the cloak of Jesus, was healed of a twelve year hemorrhage. And another supporter was a man who was afflicted with paralysis for thirty-eight years but was healed by Jesus at the pool of Bethesda. After being healed, he was able to pick up his mat and walk. He too was said to be in the crowd vouching for the innocence of the Accused One. Pilate was not only aware of these miracles, but some of his soldiers spoke affectionately of Jesus. Their lives had been changed during the public ministry of our Lord.

All of this gave Pontius Pilate considerable anxiety. Perhaps this is why, according to the Gospels of the New Testament, he presumed Jesus to be the King of the Jews. In one instance, he asked the crowd: “Do you want me to release to you the King of the Jews?" On another occasion, he proclaimed to them: "Behold, your king!" And when all was said and done, Pilate wrote a sign on the Cross that read: "Jesus the Nazorean, the King of the Jews." Can there be any doubt that he took it from granted that Christ was indeed a king. However, like many politicians- despite his convictions -he gave into the demands of the majority.

Still, there are sources outside of the New Testament that lend credence to the belief that Pilate was convinced of our Lord’s kingship. In J. Quasten’s book, Patrology, he writes: “Tertullian [an early Church Father around 180 A.D.] refers twice to a report made by Pilate to Tiberius. According to him, Pontius Pilate informed the Emperor of the unjust sentence of death which he had pronounced against an innocent and divine person; the Emperor was so moved by his report of the miracles of Christ and his resurrection, that he proposed the reception of Christ among the gods of Rome. But the Senate refused. In another place Tertullian says that the 'whole story of Christ was reported to Caesar—at that time it was Tiberius—by Pilate, himself in his secret heart already a Christian.’”

Pilate, a Christian? Perhaps! In fact, there were very early Syrian and Coptic Christians who celebrated him as Saint. However, the Catholic Church never developed an official position as it regards to Pilate’s sanctity. But at the very least, we can say that Pilate was a good but weak man. Good, because he attempted to have Jesus Christ released on several occasions. Weak, because in the end he condemned the Innocent One to death. Indeed, he gave into the strongest instinct known to humanity: social conformity!

Letter of Pontius Pilate to the Roman Emperor

For more reading click: Ecco Homo: Behold the Man