Did you ever think of Pontius Pilate as a saint?
On the third Sunday of Lent, many of us heard the Gospel about the Roman prefect (the imperial governor), Pontius Pilate’s slaughter of Galileans who were offering sacrifice (Lk 13:1). Starting with Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion and through Good Friday, we will hear of Pilate again, as Jesus is condemned to death, by Pilate. We also hear of this Roman official’s part in Jesus suffering and crucifixion in both the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed we say at Mass on Sundays.
Why would anyone think of Pontius Pilate as a saint?
And yet, in many Eastern churches, he is just that. For example, the Ethiopian church (sometimes in the past called the Abyssinian church) honors him — along with his wife — with a feast day on June 25.
Why would this have happened? We might understand Pilate’s wife being considered saintly, since it was she who tried to dissuade her husband from ordering Jesus’ death (Mt 27:19).
Became a Christian?
However, the tendency to look kindly on Pilate began early in the church. The Catholic Encyclopedia attributes this to a “tendency, already discernible in the canonical Gospels, to lay stress on the efforts of Pilate to acquit Christ” and adds that various writings of the fathers of the church did the same. This, it added, “led in later years to the claim that (Pilate) actually became a Christian.”
We will see how two of the Gospels portray Pilate during Holy Week. For example, on Palm Sunday, when he tells the “chief priests and the crowds” that “I find this man not guilty” Lk 23:4).
Early writers, such as Tertullian, noted that Pilate later sent a report about Jesus to the Emperor Tiberius. And others have indicated that Pilate may even have tried to convert Caesar. (This did not work and may, according to some traditions, have led to Pilate’s death.)
A great believer?
The Biblical Archaeological Society notes that many first century historians wrote unfavorably about Pilate — for things like persecuting Jews and taking bribes. However, it also notes, “early Christians saw Pilate in a very different way. (St.) Augustine hailed Pilate as a convert. … And, when Pilate first shows up in Christian art in the mid-fourth century, he appears juxtaposed with Abraham, Daniel and other great believers.”
Again, returning to the Gospels, we see this tendency of showing Pilate in a favorable way in his efforts to get Jesus released. He is quoted as saying, “I find no guilt in him” (Jn 18:38) and as quickly releasing Jesus’ body to Nicodemus for prompt burial (Jn 19:38). (An unusually magnanimous gesture.)
Other writers highlight the Gospel reference to the title Pilate placed on Jesus’ cross — “the King of the Jews.” While this could have been a derogatory statement against the Jews, it could also have been a statement of faith. In this vein, Augustine, writing in the fourth century, compared Pilate with the Magi — who came seeking “the King of the Jews.” Augustine said that the Magi first “bore witness to the King of the Jews at his rising … and Pilate, at his setting.”
Not only have some traditions considered Pilate a convert to Christianity, others say he died a martyr. History notes that Pilate did not live long after Jesus’ death and resurrection — dying in 36-37 A.D. (the actual year is unclear.) We know Pilate was recalled to Rome not long after the death of his imperial patron, Sejanus, in 31 A.D. He then seems to have fallen into disfavor around the time of the death of Tiberius in early 37 A.D.
The next emperor, Caligula, disliked Pilate, but whether he ordered Pilate’s exile, execution or suicide remains unclear.
Pilate’s wife, related to emperors?
Pilate’s wife is not named in Matthew’s Gospel, where she appears in the Passion narrative. However, tradition says she was named Claudia Procula and related to the Emperor Augustus, perhaps one of his granddaughters. This can be found in the Acta Pilati (also called the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus), which is in part based on official Roman records from first century Jerusalem.
Claudia is honored as a saint by the Russian, Greek and Coptic churches. Many Eastern Orthodox churches give Pilate’s wife her own feast day, on Oct. 27. The Greek Orthodox Church also recognizes her as a martyr. And the Russian Orthodox Church honors her on Nov. 9.
A long tradition says that St. Paul knew her and referred to her in his Second Letter to Timothy: “Eubulus, Pudens, Linus, Claudia and all the brothers send greetings” (4:21).
Sources: Catholic Encyclopedia; alateia.org; the Biblical Archaeological Society at basarchives.org; commonwealmagazine.org; Catholic Education Resource Center at Catholiceducation.org; All the Women in the Bible; orthochristian.com; and suscopts.org