Could Pontius Pilate be a Saint?
One Church regards Pontius Pilate and his wife Claudia as saints. Fr Ralph de Hahn wonders: Is it possible that Pilate was converted by his remarkable encounter with Jesus and its aftermath?
Is Pontius Pilate a saint, as the Ethiopian (Tewahhedo) Orthodox Church claims? It would indeed be a fascinating study to learn about the deeper feelings and emotions of Pontius Pilate during and after his historic encounter with Jesus — and whether there is any justification, from the pages of sacred scripture, in the claim that both Pilate and his wife, Claudia, were converted by that experience and are now saints in heaven.
We do know that not every word and action of Jesus — nor, obviously, of Pontius Pilate — is recorded in the Bible. However, we can probe and read between the lines. It seems certain to me that Pilate admired Jesus. He made more than one attempt to save Jesus from execution.
We are told that Pilate was of an Equestrian family, married to a beautiful, highly educated Roman woman, Claudia Procula, who accompanied him to the Roman province of Judea, where Pilate served as governor for ten years, from 26-36 AD. Pilate had no scruples about using cruel methods and brute force wherever negotiations failed; the historians Philo and Josephus do not speak well of him. We know that Pilate was concerned with Rome’s judgment of his governing ability, and the Jewish authorities were ever threatening to report his conduct to Rome during turbulent times.
The four Gospels give a short account of Jesus’ unique trial: Pilate meets the Son of God face to face. The governor is the judge. He reminds the Jewish prosecutors that while they judge by the Mosaic law, he will judge by Roman law. However the Sanhedrin cleverly reverts to Jesus’ claim of being a king — and thus an enemy of Caesar. The accused is now legally guilty of treason!
“Do you not hear how many charges are set against you?” Pilate asks Jesus. But to the governor’s complete amazement, Jesus offers no reply to the charges. Total silence (Matthew 27:11-14). “Are you the king of the Jews?” he asks. Jesus quietly replies: “It is you who say it.”
Pilate is perplexed
Pilate is perplexed about such a king and a kingdom not of this world. He stands on his authority — the power to execute or set the prisoner free — but Jesus reminds him that all power comes from above, from God. Pilate is fully aware that this man is innocent. “This man has done nothing to deserve death” — even Herod Antipas has agreed. He gives the mob the choice between Jesus and the notorious criminal Barrabas. The mob chooses Barrabas.
His wife Claudia sends a message of warning: “Have nothing to do with this man; I have been upset all day by a dream I had about him” (Matthew 27:19). Pilate believes the gods have spoken. The proud governor then stands before the crowd and over a basin of water washes his hands: “I am innocent of the blood of this just man.” Pilate is shouted down, and in his weakness he succumbs to the mob, and orders Jesus’ crucifixion.
The Gospels bring the trial to an end; but now begins the inner story. To what extent did Jesus touch and haunt the heart and conscience of the Roman governor? The scriptures clearly indicate Pilate’s indecision when challenged by the mob. However, Pilate had met his master, for never did man speak so eloquently as Jesus spoke. Such silent nobility! This must have haunted Pilate for the remaining three years of his life (he died in 36 AD).
He himself wrote the notice to be attached to the cross, “Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews”, in Hebrew, Latin and Greek. The Jewish authorities vigorously rejected this title. Pilate stood his ground. Did he really believe that this noble figure, whom he had condemned, was truly a king from a kingdom far beyond?
Pilate had these three years, together with Claudia, to search his conscience. Imagine the impact on Pilate when hearing the report of his centurion who witnessed the total happening on Calvary and his exclamation: “Indeed, this was a son of God!” There was the earthquake, the awesome fear that shook the soldiers, the people and the Jewish authorities; then the report that the huge veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The witness recalled the words he had heard from the cross: “All is now accomplished.” Pilate must have questioned what Jesus’ mission was, now fully accomplished by his death? There were Jewish prophecies of a messiah, but surely not one to be so cruelly humiliated. Then who was this Jesus?
The curious case of Jesus
We also cannot ignore Joseph of Arimathea’s visit to Pilate to ask for the body of Jesus (Matthew 27:57). Mark writes that Pilate was astonished that Jesus should have died so soon (15:44). Pontius Pilate must have grown increasingly curious.
Only a few days later rumours spread that Jesus’ tomb was empty and his body was missing. Surprise, consternation and disbelief! In fact, the man who died on the cross had been seen alive by some of his followers. What was Pilate to believe?
Did Pilate hear the words of the wise Pharisee Gamaliel, who cautioned the Sanhedrin: “If this movement is of human origin, it will break up of its own accord. But if it is, in fact, from God, you will be unable to destroy them; and you will find yourselves fighting against God” (Acts 5:38). Thousands of believing Jews were turning to what would come to be called the Christian God.
Pilate and Claudia were challenged to enter a new life, a new kingdom, and worship a new God.
Did they do so? We have only tradition and rumours — not facts — that speak of Pilate’s conversion and the remorse he experienced, and then his suicide. One theory has it that Emperor Caligula ordered Pilate’s death and that his body be thrown into the Tiber. Could it be because Pontius Pilate had converted to the Christian faith?
The question remains: Is the Ethiopian Orthodox Church justified in regarding Pilate and his wife as saints? Did Jesus truly convert the arrogant and brutal Pontius Pilate? The question remains unanswered. And yet one is left wondering: What if?
Fr Ralph de Hahn is a priest of the archdiocese of Cape Town
Published in the April 2022 issue of The Southern Cross magazine