Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Saint Pontius Pilate?

Discussing the proliferation of back stories for the Gospels among early Christians Simon Loveday comments: “Pontius Pilate is presented in such a positive light in ‘Paradosis Pilati’ that the Coptic and Ethiopian churches have made him a saint.” (The Bible for Grown-Ups: A new look at the Good Book, 179)

Pilate is indeed commemorated in the Ethiopian Orthodox church (see their synaxarium here under Senne 25), albeit not in the contemporary Coptic Orthodox church (search for Pilate in vain in their synaxarium, e.g., here).

Tibor Grüll examined “The Legendary Fate of Pontius Pilate” in Classica et Mediaevalia 61 (2010): 151–176, and offers some evidence for high regard for Pilate among Coptic Christians. He also notes that the Arabic version of Gesta Pilati has the Jews refer to Pilate as “the wicked foreigner from the land of Egypt.”

According to Josephus, Pilate was removed from his post after sending soldiers to Samaria to suppress a rebellion, resulting in a massacre at Mount Gerizim. The Samaritans complained to Vitellius, legate of Syria, who recalled Pilate to Rome where he seems to have arrived shortly after the death of Emperor Tiberius. (Whether Pilate did in fact have to face any negative consequences is unknown and in Grüll’s view unlikely.)

Within the Christian tradition there seem to be “fifteen texts of various languages, ages and affiliations” that seek to tell us more about Pilate than the Gospels (see Grüll, “Legendary Fate,” 159-160 for a list, from which also the information below is taken). Seven texts mention the later fate of Pontius Pilate; in three he becomes a true follower of Jesus and suffers martyrdom, in four “he is presented as a diabolical figure who was sentenced to exile or death by the emperor” (Grüll, “Legendary Fate,” 160).

The divergence of tradition is also geographical. The four texts that present Pilate as a diabolic figure are Latin documents, except for Tiberii rescriptum (Greek, Old Slavonic – fifth century?). The three that present the later Pilate in a positive light are
  • Paradosis Pilati (Greek; fifth century)
  • Homilia de lamentis Mariae (Evangelium Gamalielis) (Arabic, Ethiopian, Coptic – medieval?)
  • Homilia de morte Pilati (Martyrium Pilati) (Coptic, Arabic, Ethiopian – medieval?)

The Paradosis Pilati has the Emperor condemn Pilate to death for the crucifixion of Christ. Pilate prays to God before his execution, pleading ignorance and bullying by the Jews but acknowledging his sin. The answer from heaven is reassuring:
“All the generations and families of the nations shall count you blessed, because under you have been fulfilled all those things said about me by the prophets; and you yourself shall be seen as my witness at my second appearing, when I shall judge the twelve tribes of Israel, and those that have not owned my name.”
“And the prefect struck off the head of Pilate; and, behold, an angel of the Lord received it. And his wife Procla, seeing the angel coming and receiving his head, being filled with joy herself also, immediately gave up the ghost, and was buried along with her husband.”

I declare ignorance on the fate of Pilate in this world or the next but I observe that Pilate has not been counted as blessed by all that many people in history and that the legendary prayer of repentance is not a good example on which to model our own prayers.