January 2, 2017

Why Pontius Pilate is Named in the Creed

“For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate, he suffered death and was buried.”1

When one recites the Nicene Creed it is difficult to ignore the sore thumb, so individually singled out, so historically vilified, and so strategically placed, that is Pontius Pilate. As the only polemical figure called out by name in the flagship Creed of the Christian faith, the theologically and historically minded alike are left with reflexive questions like, “Why would the Church want to call to mind the man who crucified Christ so prominently?” or, “Why single out Pilate, but not also Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin or Herod Antipas?” or, “Why even place such a controversial figure in such a crucial and defining document alongside the exalted names of the Blessed Virgin Mary and Christ himself?” The reason is far from straightforward, but is crucial to the early development and lasting perseverance of the Christian faith. Pilate served as a pivot point for theological culpability (I) and an allegorical moral compass for the early Christian (II) as well as a steadfast landmark on the map of Christian historicity and validity (III). Most significantly, amidst a growing threat of second and third century heresies undermining the young dogma of the Church, he was also an unlikely, yet effective, tool (IV) in culling out “antiquated and unprofitable fables.” 2
Among both scriptural and historical documents, Pontius Pilate is portrayed in contrastingly different roles depending on their sources and influences. By notable Jewish sources (e.g., Josephus3and Philo4), he boasts a harsh mantle of villainy, while Christian sources generally sought to present him in a tone of moral weakness and feeble political countenance.5 Since the early Christians had much to loose from both Jewish adversity and Roman authority, the Gospels reflected the more immediate of the two. Luke wrote that “Pilate gave his verdict that [the Jews’] demand should be granted” (23:24) giving the impression that it was the Jews who were ultimately to blame for crucifying Jesus.6 John wrote from the plight of the converted Jews who, upon confessing Jesus Christ as the Messiah, would be expelled from the synagogue and be immediately exposed Roman persecution.7  Moreover, all four gospels plainly portray Pilate as presenting Jesus to the Jewish public for them to reject.8
While scripture did a more than adequate job of directing accountability of the unjust aspect of the crucifixion, this left the later church fathers with the task of assigning the appropriate theology to the event and creating a proper balance in the cautious tensions between the Jews and Gentiles from the Christian perspective. With the gospel trailing its influence into the epistles, which carry the weaponry of statements like, “the Jews, who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets” (1 Thes 2:14-15), there was some work to be done to reset these tensions. Although the Roman Procurator may not have been the one to carry out the sentence, that circumstance relieved him of no less of his appointed responsibility, regardless of his intentions or the Jewish pressures.9 To hear his name proclaimed in the Creed recalls not only the one who held an innocent man’s fate in his hands and chose to give it over to injustice, but reminds us that right action is often not easy, popular, or safe. As Pilate washed his hands and declared himself “innocent of [Jesus’] blood” (Mt 27:24), the Creed effectively un-washed them for all time.
As we see that the gospels portray certain parties to the crucifixion in particular ways to portray the messages of the time, we also must look at Pilate’s character in the allegorical sense. Pilate’s name in the Creed directs us to see the Roman conviction against Jewish adversity, but it also serves to teach by example of what the Christian conviction should be by showing the weakness of its counterpart. In effect, the confessors and martyrs of early Christianity stood to learn a lot about how to conduct themselves by seeing through Pilate how not to conduct oneself.
Cowardice characterizes the scriptural portrayal of Pilate, particularly when he declares Jesus’ innocence three distinct times (Lk 23:4, 23:14, 23:22) and then essentially allows himself to be bullied by bending to the Jewish crowd in a questionable move that might even undermine the Roman Empire in an implication of administrative weakness.10 It could in fact be said that Pilate was the (major11) gentile witness12 to the kingship of Christ who failed in the performance of his predicament. Thus, we have an example of what future believers would come to know as a failure in conviction, as one who would choose popular appeal and avoidance of danger over “what is truth” (Jn 18:38); a mistake that the early Christian martyrs would not make.
To perhaps a lesser degree, Pilate’s scriptural character also symbolizes the inevitable downfall of the religions of the old world. While Jesus himself, his disciples, and most of the non-Pauline converts were of Jewish origin, indeed, that the “scripture has been fulfilled” to them (Lk 4:21), the gentile converts would be a later development with their old religion falling away almost entirely into the void of mythic idolatry. In this way Pilate serves as a symbol for the internal weakness and eventual downfall of Roman polytheism. Had he defended the “King of the Jews,” how would the future of the Roman religiopolitical machine have developed amongst the tensions of the growth of Christianity?
Matthew even presents us with one more gentile witness, receiving divine guidance through dreams in the typical Greco-Roman tradition13 that she would be accustomed to recognizing. Pilate’s wife urged him to “have nothing to do with that innocent man” after she “suffered a great deal because of a dream about him” (Mt 27:19). She operates as an additional driving force of the gentiles to sway her troubled husband into right action, which he would ultimately fail to do—and the paradigm of the Roman religion is brought down with him.
The myth of the old world found it difficult to survive amidst not only the expanding Christian faith but also the intellectual development of human culture at large. History and philosophy had been developing for the past six centuries and the Greco-Roman religions that previously stood on the shoulders of myth were already wavering from the ravages of political assimilation and philosophical criticism of their theology.14 While many Roman criticisms of the Christian faith stemmed from the very fact that it was founded on a man that actually lived in their (the Roman critics’) midst,15 those opinions were bred from a tradition reliant on myth. Ironically, the foundation of these attacks would ultimately lead to a profound perseverance of the faith they targeted, with the historicity of Christianity witnessing its own validity,16 not only to the early unbeliever, but the contemporary believer.
            Pontius Pilate is the only figure in the Nicene Creed with a political date stamp; he was a particular official in a particular time and place17 with no prior (and indeed, no desire for a) relationship to the events of scripture. The disciples of Jesus saw no reason for the timeline validations that later ecumenical councils would brandish since they expected an earlier return of Christ and judgement. Paul’s letters were even written, due to his time period, from a presupposition of the facts of Jesus’ time on earth.18 With the timing of Christ’s return becoming clearly unforeseeable and the years continuing to jog by, the church fathers were faced with new concerns in developing doctrine to survive the superstitions of the past and grow beyond the potential decay of myth.
Myth, as history had already demonstrated, has a tendency to fade and lose its potency in the minds of the faithful. The mighty deeds of the gods in a misty and indeterminate time period eventually become children’s bedtime stories; the labors of mythical heroes become unattainable and unbelievable to mortal men. Christianity, from the direct teachings of Christ, sought to maintain itself as a real faith, teaching from real events, and promoting belief not from imaginative contrivances or fear, but from the real presence of the messiah among his faithful.19 However, the Jesus of Paul’s writings had become an exalted character who performed marvelous deeds20 and was at risk of passing into the mythic status of a legendary hero. The defining Creed of the faith needed a counterbalance amidst its other wondrous components. Pilate, already serving a multifaceted role in the story of salvation, served to anchor the story to a point of not only historical, but also psychological believability. Whereas, as discussed in (I), scripture does more than its fair share to reference Jewish adversity, thereby anchoring the events in Israelite history,21 the inclusion of Pilate in the Creed placed another anchor firmly into the framework of the political history of the time, which was wholly stable, well documented, and un-mystical to believers and nonbelievers alike.
The gospels give us a character of Jesus that carries something of a “working class hero” appeal (“the carpenter, the son of Mary…here with us” (Mk 6:3)), particularly to the oppressed masses of his time. The “son of man”22 was an ideal figure for the divine incarnation to reveal the teachings of the new covenant. For the material reality of the incarnation to bleed into myth would be to risk removing it from history and could eventually reduce the faith to the sum of the social values of its doctrine,23 perhaps more akin to eastern philosophical religions. Although, there were some who sought out the more mystical promises of the scriptures24 and wanted a messiah as they understood him to be. The heresies of the 2nd and 3rd centuries sought to deliver that messiah.
The Christian of today understands the Son to be Jesus Christ, but for some early Christians there was a substantial distinction between Jesus and the Christ. Ignatius of Antioch spent much of his theological efforts countering the development of Docetism that began during the 1st century that promoted these types of notions. The varieties of Docetism advocated a range of mystical doctrine: that the Logos/Christ came to be in Jesus, the man, at his baptism and left him before the passion; or, most prominently, so far as to say that the Logos came only phantasma carnis,25 i.e., that Jesus Christ altogether only appeared to be human and suffer. Ignatius addressed the name of the Son in his letters against heresy emphatically as “Jesus-Christ” or “Christ-Jesus”;26 this joining of the names further pressing the belief that the spirit of the Logos had become incarnate in the flesh. The docetists, being largely of a Jewish-Christian origin and still clinging to myth-driven notions about the divine, declared that the full story of Jesus was too divine to be real;27 again running the risk of allowing the faith to pass into the realm of myth. Ignatius also made frequent use of Pilate’s name, among others, to specify the time and place of the events of the gospel and assert the factual reality of Jesus in the flesh, i.e., paternity to the line of David, human birth by Mary, baptism by John, crucified under Pontius Pilate during the reign of Tiberius, etc.28 To this end, Ignatius began a pointed tradition of utilizing the name of Pilate to emphasize the reality of Jesus in the face of the wide varieties of increasingly heretical, myth-driven speculation.29
When the Gospel of Peter30 began to circulate, the humanity of Jesus was put in further jeopardy, especially to the Roman public and would-be gentile converts. Several differences in its account of the passion and crucifixion lent to docetic notions, such as the well-known utterance of Christ on the cross, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mt 27:46, Mk 15:34) instead retold as, “My power, my power, why have you forsaken me?” furthering the notion that the Logos had abandoned Jesus on the cross, a mere mortal man, to suffer as such. As seemingly just one more instance of heretical accounts, the Gospel of Peter also put forth that it was Herod, not Pontius Pilate, who gave the order to execute Jesus-- removing the Roman prefect even further from responsibility.31
Around this time, various documents under the title The Acts of Pilate32 made their rounds from a variety of authorships. All varieties shared components both inspired by and in support of the Gnostic movement and portrayed Pilate in a more sympathetic tone, reporting to the Roman Emperor Tiberius of Jesus suffering under an “unjust” death sentence and even personally attesting to his resurrection. The spread of these writings would lead to Pilate being more than an adversarial witness to the crucifixion, and eventually so far as to lead to his veneration as a saint and martyr by the Christians of Syria and Egypt.33 The Gnostic movement’s development also blended with the old religions and practices, such as the sect led by Carpocrates of Alexandria having an image of Christ (supposedly created by Pontius Pilate) which they honored alongside the images of other philosophers like Pythagoras, Plato, and Aristotle reminiscent to the practices of polytheism.34 Aside from the more obvious threat of mythologizing the Christian faith, the spread of Gnosticism and Docetism threatened the unity of the Christian people by splitting them into uniquely different sects, their ideals undermining the historical presence of the faith in favor of the intellectual progress of the individual, rather than the community of the faithful.35
With heretical movements abound during the first three delicate centuries of Christianity’s growth, tensions culminating in the Council of Nicaea, and Pontius Pilate’s name being used as both proponent and deterrent of heresies, the church fathers had good reason to decisively pivot his legacy in a specific direction to avoid confusion among an already impressionable population. With Pilate holding an unexpectedly integral place in (what would be deemed) apocryphal documents and heresies, it is clear that his name being emblazed so boldly in the Creed itself was the Council’s move to decisively pin him in his place.
In conclusion, the name of Pontius Pilate now carries a very distinct connotation and moral- Pilate is the man who crucified Jesus Christ. Though the gospels may give a less explicit portrayal, his methods and motives less distinct, the theological significance of the result is nonetheless the same. Through the permanent and judicious use of his name in the Creed, the Church fathers quite effectively put him in his place while simultaneously putting the unrestrained speculations of heresy in their place, ensuring unhindered, sustainable growth of the Christian community and doctrinal beliefs.


1. Article 4 of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed.
2. Michael D. Goulder, “Ignatius’ ‘Docetists,’” Vigiliae Christianiae 53, no. 1 (February 1999): 17.
3. Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 18.3.1-3.
4. Philo, On The Embassy of Gauis 38.299-305.
5. Helen K. Bond, Pontius Pilate in History and Interpretation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 201.
6. Bond, Pontius Pilate in History, 143.
7. Raymond E. Brown, “The Passion According to John: Chapters 18 and 19,” Worship 49, no. 3 (March 1975): 131.
8. Brown, “The Passion According to John,” 130.
9. So intent on dodging the issue altogether was Pilate that he used Herod, even having previously been his “enemy” (Lk 23:12), as an avenue to avoid passing sentence himself. Although, some sources suggest that Pilate rather sent Jesus to Herod to rectify their enmity which resulted from a previous incident in which Pilate intermeddled in Herod’s jurisdiction; others, as a diplomatic gesture or compliment to the tetrarch.
10. Harold W. Hoehner, “Why Did Pilate Hand Jesus Over to Antipas?” in The Trial of Jesus.Cambridge Studies in honour of C.F.D. Moule, Studies in Biblical Theology, Second Series 13 (London: SCM Press Ltd., 1970), 88.
11. The centurion of the synoptic gospels notwithstanding.
12. Johannes Quasten, The Beginnings of Patristic Literature, Westminster, MD: The Newman Press, 1950, 115.
13. Bond, Pontius Pilate in History, 133.
14. Even Plato as early as the 5th century BC began more explicit commentary on the intellectual weaknesses of religion of the time and its codependence (and mutual corruption) with the Athenian government (e.g., Euthyphro and Apology).
15. Rush Rhees, “Did Jesus Ever Live?” The Biblical World 39, no. 2 (February 1912): 80.
16. Goulder, “Ignatius’ ‘Docetists,’” 26.
17. Mark Galli, “Crucified Under Pontius Pilate,” Christianity Today 56, April, 2012, 34.
18. Rhees, “Did Jesus Ever Live?” 81.
19. Mark Galli, “Crucified Under Pontius Pilate,” 34-35.
20. Rhees, “Did Jesus Ever Live?” 85.
21. Bond, Pontius Pilate in History, 144.
22. Actualizing the title from Old Testament scripture (Psalms 8:4, Numbers 23:19, Daniel 7:13).
23. Shailer Mathews, “Is Belief in the Historicity of Jesus Indispensable to Christian Faith?” The American Journal of Theology 15, no. 4 (October 1911): 616-617.
24. Rhees, “Did Jesus Ever Live?” 86.
25. “spirit of flesh,” i.e., the Logos came to earth in spirit alone and therefore did not suffer the passion, death, or resurrection.
26. Goulder, “Ignatius’ ‘Docetists,’” 30.
27. Rhees, “Did Jesus Ever Live?” 87.
28. Goulder, “Ignatius’ ‘Docetists,’” 26.
29. L.W. Bernard, “The Background of St. Ignatius of Antioch,” Vigiliae Christianae 17, no. 4 (December 1963): 198.
30. The Gospel of Peter would later be officially rejected by Serapion of Antioch as docetic.
31. Quasten, The Beginnings of Patristic Literature, 114.
32. Later to be included in the document known as The Gospel of Nicodemus.
33. Quasten, The Beginnings of Patristic Literature, 117-118.
34. Ibid., 226-227.
35. Mathews, “Is Belief in the Historicity of Jesus Indispensable to Christian Faith?” 615.