Take Me to the Pilate

I forgot to mention on Friday that it was the feast day of a saint unique to the Coptic Church, Pontius Pilate. Yes, the guy who executed Jesus, which really doesn’t make a whole lot of sense at first glance.

If you look at the Gospels, however, the early Christians really seemed to want to exonerate this man. He’s presented as caving in to the demands of the Jewish elders in having Jesus executed. He even makes an effort to get the Jews to free Jesus, but they choose Barabbas (whose first name was also Jesus/Yeshua) instead. Finally, before sending Jesus off to die, Pilate washed his hands, signifying his lack of responsibility for the man’s death.

According to Matthew 27:24-25, the Jewish people replied, “His blood be on us and on our children!”

This classic bit of antisemitism has been used by many self-styled Christians throughout history to demonize the Jews collectively. Hey, they said right in the Bible that they took responsibility for Jesus’ death! Mel Gibson was right! Based on what else we know of Pilate, however, this story is highly unlikely. It says in the works of Flavius Josephus that he had no respect for the Jews, purposely setting out to offend the people of Judea in ways that even the other Romans didn’t respect. He was known to execute people without trial, so why in this one particular case would he have been cowed by the Jewish leaders? He could easily have just had hidden troops beat them again, like he did when they protested Pilate using the Temple funds to build an aqueduct. And even if this really WAS a strange case of his actually listening to the people, by what right would the attending Jews have been able to transfer their guilt to their descendants? Children aren’t supposed to be held responsible for the sins of their parents and ancestors, are they? Different parts of the Bible give different answers for this, but even if God is “punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me,” as He says in Exodus 20, you’d think the statute of limitations would have long since run out.

Anyway, some Christians expanded the story of Pilate to claim that he eventually repented of his role in the crucifixion and secretly turned to Christianity himself, finally being martyred for it. There are many contradictory accounts of Pilate’s later deeds, however, some claiming he committed suicide. In Matthew 27:19, Pilate’s wife (unnamed in the Bible, but traditionally called Claudia Procula) is said to have warned her husband not to crucify Jesus based on a dream she had asserting his innocence.

The Eastern Orthodox Church holds that this dream led her to further investigate and sympathize with the message of Jesus, so they venerate her as a saint. It seems to be only the Coptic Christians who extend this honor to her husband. I think the chances of there being any truth whatsoever to one of his routine executions leading Pilate to becoming a member of a fledgling religion are pretty much nil, but the idea is interesting in a narrative sense, and highlights the idea that anyone can be forgiven through belief in Jesus. At the same time, though, the decision to make Pilate a sympathetic figure looks to be pretty firmly rooted in antisemitism.

So why 25 June for his feast day? I couldn’t say. It’s roughly half a year from Christmas, but I don’t know if there’s any real significance to that. For what it’s worth, the day before is celebrated by many Christian denominations as the Nativity of John the Baptist, and that’s been linked to the summer solstice.

I addressed this last year, but basically the date was chosen because John was said by the Gospel of Luke to be six months older than Jesus.

This entry was posted in Christianity, Coptic, Eastern Orthodox, History, Holidays, Judaism, Religion and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Take Me to the Pilate

  1. vilajunkie says:

    Anything to make the blame be on the Jews! Never mind that the Jews were the “ancestors” of Christianity! C’mon, Nathan, you should know this by now. :)

    If Jesus was really born in March or April (well, the Hebrew equivalents) like many historians say, that would make John the Baptist born sometime in September or October–making him the patron saint of the autumn equinox/midwinter instead. That is, if the six-months-before-Jesus thing is true.

  2. Nathan says:

    I think the bit about John being born six months before Jesus is only in Luke, and it’s so he could put in the scene of the unborn John leaping in the womb when in the presence of the unborn Jesus.

    • vilajunkie says:

      Yuck. I’ve never had a kid (of course) so I wouldn’t know, but I would think the baby jumping for joy in there would give you quite a stomach ache.

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