BOOK EXCERPT - Pilate
Pontius Pilate was a Roman prefect — a sort-of state-appointed territorial police commissioner. In service to Caesar, prefects were appointed to outlying territories with two often-opposing duties: keep the peace and collect taxes. Pilate was an official of the Equestrian Order, the lowest class among Roman aristocracy. And he was appointed to a backwater province fourteen hundred miles from Rome. Not really a political leader, he was more a political hanger-on; a glorified soldier who had probably served well in his military career and earned an appointment to ride a desk for a few years in a dusty farm town before retirement.
Not only is Pilate’s inconsequence shown in his rank and appointment, it shows in his actions. According to Luke, a doctor who authored one of our gospels, Pilate sent Jesus’ case to Herod Antipas, a sort-of Jewish co-king who governed one fourth of the Jewish kingdom which was ruled, in turn, by Rome. The motive for this move most obvious in the Biblical texts is that Pilate wanted to unload a politically unpopular legal case. But there may have been juridical dynamics at play too. Pilate may not have had the authority or political capital to sentence Jesus. He may have felt the need for Herod’s consent before executing a Jew. In the gubernatorial dance between empire and client state, Pilate may have ranked below a Jewish vice president.
So Pilate was not a particularly powerful military, political or religious official. He was not an emperor or king, nor was he a priest or prophet. He was not visited by an angel, did not witness any miracles of Jesus, and never shows up again in the Bible. So why our little history lesson here? Why so much detail about a low-level first-century military bureaucrat? Because Pilate is one of only three people mentioned in the Apostle’s Creed. The other two are the Son of God and the Mother of God.
Why is that? Why did the framers of the most foundational of Christian belief statements include this guy? After all, they could have achieved a similar effect with the line “suffered under Roman torture, died and was buried.” Perhaps they didn’t want to make a political statement (all things Roman are bad — Rome is the evil empire — etc.). Or perhaps they still held a grudge against Pilate. But my guess is that it was something else. I think they wanted to convey the very concrete, historical, blood-and-dirt, ask-your-grandad-he’ll-tell-you nature of Jesus’ death. And even if that wasn’t their intent, it was their effect. This line of the creed moves the Christian story from something that might have happened once upon a time in a land far away, to an event that did happen. On a Friday. In 33CE. In Jerusalem. For real.