Saint Pontius Pilate

The Ethiopian and Coptic Orthodox Churches hold that Pontius Pilate, the governor who condemned Jesus Christ to death, later converted to Christianity himself. So they revere Pilate as a saint.

Pontius Pilate washes his hands
Hans Holbein the Elder, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Pontius Pilate is a curious character in the New Testament. He is the symbol of Rome’s authority in Judaea, and yet he declines to punish Jesus for insurrection against that authority. When the Sanhedrin present their prisoner to him, Pilate cross-examines him and then famously declares to the crowd:

Behold, I bring him forth to you, that ye may know that I find no fault in him.

John 19:4

Pilate offers the crowd an opportunity to pardon Jesus, but they decline. He therefore washes his hands of the whole affair and condemns Jesus Christ to crucifixion and death.

You would think that this is enough to put Pilate in the Big Book of Biblical Villains. However, early Christian tradition was much more eager to pin the blame on the Jewish people than the Roman authorities. The early Church Fathers wanted to differentiate Christianity from Judaism and this was a good way to do that. (Yup, Christian antisemitism had some deep roots.)

One apocryphal text from the fourth century CE called The Acts of Pilate rehabilitated the governor. After the crucifixion, he summons “all the rulers and scribes, and doctors of the law” and tries to get to the truth of the matter. They conclude / confess:

And so it appears, that Jesus whom we crucified, is Jesus Christ the Son of God, and true Almighty God. Amen.

The Acts of Pilate

The Medieval view of Pontius Pilate split into Western and Eastern traditions. The West vilified him and developed a long story about his fall and demise. But in some Eastern Christian traditions Pilate and his wife converted to Christianity themselves. In the Ethiopian and Coptic Christian Churches he and his wife are actually revered as saints. In the Ethiopian tradition their feast days are on June 25.

(End note: The Acts of Pilate, also known as The Gospel of Nicodemus, was the first text to attach a name to three of the biblical nameless: Longinus, the Roman soldier who stuck a spear into Jesus’ side; and Gestas and Dismas, the two thieves crucified with Jesus. According to tradition both Longinus and Dismas converted to Christianity – Dismas pretty quickly! – and both are now revered as saints.)

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