A few years ago I visited a wonderful little museum of Russian icons in Clinton, Massachusetts. One detail that caught my eye and intrigued me was a depiction of Pontius Pilate with a halo! This came back to me recently when I ran across a reference to Pilate as an accidental prophet. With his “Ecce Homo,” he presented a mocked king, crowned with thorns, covered with welts and spittle, to a crowd clamoring for his crucifixion. “Behold the human condition,” says Pilate, “this is what fallen man is—a pitiful caricature of the divine image.” This is the king of the Jews.
Early Christianity went easy on Pilate. He was a protégé of Lucius Aelius Sejanus, a Roman noble who had by then practically become co-ruler with the emperor Tiberius. It was Sejanus who had Pilate named prefect of Judea in the year 26. Just a few years later, in October of the year 31, Sejanus was convicted of treason and executed. Pilate was recalled to Rome in 36 following the suppression of a Samaritan pilgrimage. Nothing certain is known of his subsequent career. Popular imagination filled in the gap. One tradition has Pilate committing suicide in his disgrace. Another has him testifying to Jesus before Tiberius (cf. the apocryphal Acts of Pilate) and eventually suffering martyrdom because of his testimony. The Gospel accounts are, in general, sympathetic to Pilate. He tries to save Jesus but is bullied by the priests and scribes and finally acquiesces. He does, however, proclaim Jesus the King of the Jews in the inscription on the Cross and refuses to backtrack. When Joseph of Arimathea asks for the body of Jesus, Pilate grants his request.
Tertullian invokes Pilate as a witness to the death and resurrection of Christ and of the truth of Christianity—and explains that this is why he is mentioned in the Nicean Creed. St. Augustine saw Pilate as a prophet of the Kingdom of God (cf. sermon 201). Hippolytus draws a parallel between Pilate and Daniel—in so far as both proclaim themselves absolved from the shedding of innocent blood (Daniel 14:40). Other Church Fathers likened Pilate to the Magi, who also recognized Jesus as King of the Jews. Pilate’s wife is honored by the Greek Church on October 27. The Ethiopian Church venerates both Pilate and his wife on June 19.
What to make of all of this? Modern biblical scholars generally reject the patristic vindication of Pilate as a pious legend. They may be right. But perhaps the wisdom of the Church Fathers and the intuitions of popular piety see things on another level. All of our acts are mysteriously symbolic and interlinked in ways we cannot yet know but which will one day be made manifest. In Pilate, we seem to have a functionary who sympathizes with Jesus but has to operate within the limits of his responsibilities, who is uncertain of a truth that would complicate his duties and allegiances. He pulls out all the stops to save Jesus, whom he did not, of course, recognize as God. But who did? Not the Apostles, who had fled. Nor Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemas, who were simply trying to do the right and decent thing. Nor the good thief (cf. Peter Steinfels's Commonweal article on the Good Thief), nor the myrrh-bearing women. It may have been enough to have mercy on a dead and humiliated God, even if one is unaware of the hidden transcendence of this mercy.