Pontius Pilate in the Creed

“Suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried.”

As I write, it’s a few days before Palm Sunday. The start of what Christians often term ‘Holy week’. Each year, Pontius Pilate comes to the fore, as we read and listen to the passion narratives in the gospels during this week. My own meditation has drawn me to this line in the Apostles’ Creed. I pulled out Marcus Loane’s little book, Do you now believe?, and I have found his summary helpful. Here’s how he puts it:

These words in the Creed are not meant to hold up the name of Pilate for some special kind of execration, but to provide a firm context of time and place in which His death occurred.

 St Paul rightly declared that this thing was not done in a corner (Acts 26.26); it cannot be dismissed as though it were idle legend with no basis in the field of definite history. There is a sense in which it can be said that the eyes of the world were on Him when He died: ‘Herod, and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles, and the people of Israel, were gathered together’ (Acts 4.27). Pilate was a man of equestrian rank who became Procurator of Judaea under Tiberius in AD 26; he held office for some ten years until he was recalled by Caligula in AD 36. Philo and Josephus denounce him as merciless, obstinate, arrogant, and a troubler of Israel by his arbitrary conduct on a variety of things. The four Gospels depict him as one who was not without regard to the claims of justice and truth, but who proved weak, irresolute, vacillating, and subject to pressure. His figure is tragic and his memory pathetic because he was totally unequal to the supreme challenge of history and destiny.

Pilate had to say what he would do with Jesus, but he feared to decide as he knew he ought to decide. St John records that “he delivered him to be crucified’ (John 19.I6 RV); and the secular writer Tacitus says that it was in the reign of Tiberius that He suffered at the hands of Pontius Pilate.’ And the Credal statement in like manner insists on the historical reality of the death and passion of Jesus:

Paul wrote to Timothy: “Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession”  (1 Timothy 6.13 ESV).

It’s a neat little summary by Marcus Loane. There are plenty of others who have noted these details about Pilate, but I do like Loane’s opening emphasis. Sometimes as we recite the Creed we might be drawn to view it as an execration but, of course, we are not standing to denounce one man. Rather, the mention of Pilate in the Creed serves to place it in the historical context. And Paul’s words to Timothy underline how important that was. This ‘good confession’ actually happened in history! And that’s what we are affirming when we declare Jesus ‘suffered under Pontius Pilate’.

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