Pontius Pilate is perhaps the least talked about figure in the New Testament. It’s strange that so little is said about the man who in effect condemned Christ to death, the death which would become for Christians, the source of salvation for all mankind. However, despite all of this, his role in Christian thought is reduced to a brief mention during Holy Week, and an even more brief mention in the creed. In light of his importance to the Paschal mystery, I should think that the mysterious life of Pilate is a thing worth looking into.
This is where things get a bit odd. There isn’t just one story of what happened to Pilate after the Biblical narrative leaves off. Instead we have two, opposing stories of how the end of the life of this man, the man who washed his hands of the the issue of Christ, unfolded. However, these accounts leave little room for error, for according to them, he was either a martyr or a suicide victim.
The first account comes from the Ethiopian and Coptic tradition. In the Ethiopian and Coptic Orthodox churches the Roman Prefect of Judea is venerated as a saint, his feast day being June 25. This tradition continues from the general Orthodox consensus that his wife Claudia Procula is a saint, and martyr. According to tradition, she eventually caused her husband to convert to Christianity, and afterwards he was killed in one of the many persecutions of Christians in the Roman Empire.
Roman historian Eusebius provides the impetus for the opposing view. According to his Ecclesiastical History (ii. 7) he recounts the story of Pilates life, telling us that he “was exiled to Gaul and died in Vienne.” One might be tempted to take this view, given that it comes to us from a historian, as the definitive answer, but you have to bear in mind that this account was written many centuries after the fact, with unnamed sources. As such it is no more, or less, viable than the Ethiopian tradition.
So, what is the answer? Which is the correct view of Pilate’s life? Is he a saint, or an unfortunate soul?
Historically speaking, I can’t say that I know, but the stark difference between the two is what I find to be the most fascinating thing about this story. It’s interesting to see how the tradition of what happened to Pontius Pilate mirrors the famous maxim of French Absurdist Albert Camus, “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide.” It would appear that when Pilate asked “what is truth,” he really was asking the ultimate philosophical question.
In his Journals, Danish philosopher Kierkegaard writes that “the basest form of scandal in human terms is to leave the whole problem of Christ without a solution.” Pilate’s two options in life after the Gospel account forms a clear record of that. Kierkegaard continues saying that the fact “that Christianity has been announced to you means that you must assume a position in Christ’s regard.” You cannot escape the question, you cannot wash your hands. “He himself, or the fact that He exists, or the fact that He existed represents on decision to be made in life.” Thus, before the truly philosophical question of Christ, one is forced to take a position, yes or no. Even the one who “made the great refusal” to act, as Dante puts it, was eventually forced to consider this ultimate question, the question of Christ. Yes or no?