Bible Review

In "How Pilate became a saint," Robin M. Jensen (2003) convincingly makes the case that Pontius Pilate, who is often despised as a persecutor of Jesus Christ, was actually revered by some early Christians as everything from a convert to a man carrying out God's plan. To bolster his argument, Jensen relies on all four gospels, which consistently depict Pilate as proclaiming Jesus' innocence and trying to convince the crowd to set him free. Jensen also focuses on extrabiblical texts and writings by Augustine, who claimed Pilate converted to Christianity, as well as early Christian artwork that depicted Pilate favorably. But while Jensen makes a strong argument that Christians did not always despise Pilate, he misses the opportunity to make a more interesting inquiry into the timing of some of the more positive portrayals of Pilate. Some of the works Jensen draws on to show benevolent representations of Pilate came during and after the historic conversion of the Romans to Christianity. It would have behooved Jensen to at least raise the possibility that the more positive portrayals of Pilate were part of a campaign by early Christians to advance the cause of conversion, or by the Romans to mitigate their guilt for Christ's execution.

The case for Pilate

As Jensen (2003) points out, Pilate is often seen as a villain of the bible, who understood Jesus' innocence, but lacked the moral strength to stand up to a crowd of Jewish subjects and set Jesus free. But there is plenty of evidence that early Christians may have viewed Pilate differently. First, Pilate and his wife are portrayed in all four gospels as being arguably the only people involved in the persecution of Christ who tried to declare his innocence. Jensen cites the Gospel of John, which shows Pilate himself carving the plate that appeared above Jesus' cross, and personally turning Jesus' body over to Joseph of Arimathea. Also, the gospels demonstrate that Jesus advised Pilate to carry forth the persecution, saying it had been foretold by the prophets and was God's will.

In fact, Jensen (2003) argues that Pilate was depicted in early Christian works as a man forced to carry out an unsavory aspect of God's will, like more revered Christian heroes before him. Pilate is represented in a mid-fourth century sarcophagus alongside Abraham and Daniel, and such representations appear in other early-Christian works of art, Jensen argues. Abraham, of course, was asked by God to sacrifice his own son to prove his loyalty - an order later rescinded - and Daniel saved Susannah from persecution for adultery by steadfastly professing her innocence. In short, some early Christians depicted Pilate as part of a line of biblical figures who were injected into unseemly situations to carry forth God's greater plan. Jensen points out that the Greek Orthodox and Coptic faiths even named Pilate and his wife saints.

While the bible's discussion of Pilate ends with the death of Jesus, Jensen (2003) points out that early Christian writings add more detail about his life. Jensen argues that starting in the second century a.D., extrabiblical writings pegged Pilate as an early Christian convert, which is also supported by the writings of Augustine. The Acts of Pilate even tell a tale of Pilate revering - or perhaps even worshiping - Jesus, spreading out a cloak for him to walk on. According to these early stories, Pilate may have played an early, critical role in the eventual conversion of the Romans to Christianity. but, historically, that conversion demands more attention from Jensen. The timing of that conversion - and the attempts to get the Romans to convert - lines up with some of the positive portrayals of Pilate. This begs the question of whether Pilate was used by the early Christians, the Romans, or both as a public relations tool during the conversion process,…