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In Apostles' Creed, the name of Pontius Pilate is forever associated with the infamy of being Jesus Christ's persecutor.

I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.

I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended into hell.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic and apostolic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.

My question is, why did the authors of the Apostles' Creed include Pontius Pilate as the one who killed Jesus, and not Judas Iscariot or the Pharisees?

From this resource I found (which I am not sure presents a convincing argument), quoting Fr. Hardon, it is because

it has been “apostate Christians who have used the State to crucify the martyrs of Christianity.”

Pilate symbolizes the sufferings and persecution of the Church, which is the Mystical Body of Christ.

That doesn't seem to explain much. Even if this explanation is true, one can still ask why did the Apostle's Creed use Pilate to symbolizes the sufferings and persecution of the Church? Why not use someone or the Roman Empire else?

So, why did the authors of the Apostle's Creed pen Pontius Pilate as the one who killed Jesus, and not Judas Iscariot or the Pharisees?

  • It doesn't specifically say he died under Pilate, it says he suffered under Pilate. Which would be the torment Pilate subjected him to before his final presentation to the Jews. THEN he was led off to died. One might say Pilate was complicit with that too, but not exclusively. By the logic that reads the next line "crucified died and buried" as under Pilate would allow us to say he descended to tell and rose on the third day under Pilate too. Are these line breaks in the oldest versions of the Creed? I must assume they have intent. – Joshua May 3 '16 at 14:25
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    I think of "under Pontius Pilate" as a time reference. By mentioning Pilate, the creed puts the events of Christ's passion, death, and resurrection into a particular historical context. It tells us approximately when these things happened, and thereby distinguishes them from myths or fairy tales, which usually have no specific time attached to them ("Once upon a time, ...") Mentioning Judas Iscariot would not have quite the same effect, since he's unknown historically apart from the gospels; mentioning the pharisees wouldn't work either, as they existed for a very long time. – Andreas Blass Nov 2 '16 at 18:01
  • It is worthwhile to note that this phrase about Pilate is not only in the Apostles' creed, but also in the Nicene Creed, so it is universal to all denominations. – Ian Nov 3 '16 at 8:07
  • I agree with @AndreasBlass, just adding that, in theory, Pilate has legal power to free up Jesus, so he was the only one with "real" power to avoid the cruxcification. He himseld witnessed the Jesus's innocency. And this fact was SO strong that the Pilate's wife have dreams about this, and he washed hands, in a symbolic attempt of dodge this responsability. – Click Ok Jun 15 '17 at 16:57
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Piotr Ashwin-Siejkowski in his book, The Apostles's Creed: and its Early Christian Context, argues that Pilate was specifically mentioned primarily in order to argue for and defend the humanity and real death of Jesus.

He first emphasizes the historical importance of Pilate to Christianity:

Certainly the Scriptural detail that Jesus of Nazareth was executed under the rule of Pontius Pilate is one of the definite facts of Christianity. His role in early Christian apologetics and also in the creeds is to bring very important historical credence.

For example, Ignatius includes Pilate's role while defending the truth of Christ's suffering:

Stop your ears, therefore, when any one speaks to you at variance with Jesus Christ, who was descended from David, and was also of Mary; who was truly born, and ate and drank. He was truly persecuted under Pontius Pilate; He was truly crucified, and [truly] died, in the sight of beings in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth. (Epistle to the Trallians, 9)

Similarly, Irenaeus mentions Pilate while defending the historicity of the crucifixion in The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, 74, and Ashwin-Siejkowski summarizes Irenaeus's use of him:

In all his accounts Pontius Pilate is a recognisable evident sign of Christ's time on earth.

The wording "suffered under Pontius Pilate" was of significant importance to Irenaeus and others as they disputed Docetism, which held that the human form of Jesus was merely an illusion, and that he did not actually suffer. Similarly, Justin Martyr's apologetics emphasize Pontius Pilate in order to not only prove the historicity of the crucifixion, but to demonstrate that Christ fulfilled the prophecies of Scripture (e.g., First Apology, 35).

Another early father, Tertullian, took Pilate's importance even further. He suggests that Pilate was already secretly a Christian, and that, as the secular authority, he "represents God's law and order":

To Tertullian, the emperor is the instrument of God who enforces the law as well as guaranteeing the stability of the state. The emperor punishes crime and protects the rights of his subject. [...] Pontius Pilate was much more for Tertullian than a private person accidentally attached to the credal formula.

It's worth noting that the current wording of the Apostles' Creed developed over centuries, and that the earliest versions of it, by Irenaeus and Tertullian, mentioned Pilate. (For more on this, see Schaff, Creeds of Christendom, p53)

Summary

Ashwin-Siejkowski summarizes:

Early Christian literature [...] was very attached to, later even attracted to, the character known as Pontius Pilate. This attachment was neither nostalgic nor marginal, as the Roman governor provided proto-orthodox Christianity with great arguments against the Docetic, then Gnostic, Jewish and pagan opponents. Certainly Pontius Pilate in the Creeds, including the Apostles' Creed, remains as a sign of the ancient theological debate, which aimed to prove the real human nature of the Saviour, not laughing, but rather suffering Redeemer.

Compared to Judas Iscariot and the Pharisees, we can see that mentioning Pilate makes for a much stronger historical case for the crucifixion, and, at least for Tertullian, emphasizes the secular authority's role (and therefore God's role) in Christ's crucifixion.


Piotr Ashwin-Siejkowski, The Apostles's Creed: and its Early Christian Context, pages 47–55. Italics in quotes are in the original.

2

First, the Creed does not say Pilate killed Jesus. As you point out in your question, there was plenty of blame to go around for Jesus' death. Biblically, we (i.e., you and me and every person who ever lived) are partly to blame. Let's also not forget that God the Father

. . . did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all . . ..

This delivering up by God the Father was planned from eternity past in the counsels of the Triune God. Nothing could stop it from happening, and no single person or group of people should shoulder the blame. While in a sense all humankind is culpable before God, God's plan was always to put forward his Son as the "Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world" (John 1:29 & 36).

When Jesus said from the cross, in essence,

Father, forgive them, for they are acting in ignorance,

the word they included not only the political- and the Jewish religious authorities of Jesus' day, but it includes all of humankind.

Second, in some versions of the Nicene Creed, the word suffered has been changed to the word crucified.

For example, the ecumenical version of the Creed which was published by the ICET (International Consultation on English Texts) is worded this way:

For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate.

While the Scripture does not in so many words tell us why God allowed Jesus to be tried before Pilate, one possible reason could have been to demonstrate Jesus' utter submission to the Father's will, even if that submission involved coming under the authority of an earthly potentate (though Pilate was a mere governor of a province, or district, within a very small country). As Paul pointed out in his letters to the churches (in Romans, for example),

. . . for there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God (13:1).

Jesus was not a law breaker, which fact alone made his trial a sham. Recall the occasion during his public ministry in which Jesus provided a coin miraculously for his payment of the temple tax. Even he "rendered unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's"! (Matthew 22:21; Mark 12:17; and Luke 20:25).

The central irony, of course, is that the "King of kings and the Lord of lords" allowed himself to be tried by a lesser, second-rate lord in order to fulfill God's plan for the ages.

Another possible reason for the inclusion of Pontius Pilate's name in the Creed was simple to ground in history the events surrounding Passion Week. Jesus' trial and his death, burial, and resurrection happened in a specific historical, religious, and cultural context, as did the other events in his life. Paul put it this way,

But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, so that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons (Galatians 4:4-5 NASB).

For years, theologians and Bible students have speculated on the reasons why God considered the first century of the Common Era to be the "fullness of time" (or, "the appropriate time," which is how the NET translates the Greek idiom).

They cite numerous historical and cultural factors which made Jesus' appearance in time and space to be the most propitious time, factors such as the Pax Romana; the existence of Roman-built roads which linked disparate parts of the Empire, making the spread of the gospel easier; the Roman admiration for Greek culture, particularly their emulation of the Greek literary tradition which included many forms of writing, including letters (or "epistles"), which comprised the bulk of the New Testament (and in koine Greek!); and the authoritative organization and hierarchical structure of Roman government, which made such things as "worldwide taxation (or "census," for assessing property taxes) possible, a factor which brought Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem! (The foregoing factors comprise a very short list indeed.)

The Gospels make perfectly clear that Pilate was not the only Roman authority implicated in the death of our Lord Jesus. Herod Antipas interviewed Jesus but he "passed the buck" and wound up sending him back to Pilate. Pilate also "washed his hands" of the Jesus affair and gave in to the will of the mob. Pilate may also have been influenced by the mob's specious argument that for him to release Jesus would mean Pilate was "no friend of Caesar [Augustus] (John 19:12).

In conclusion, Jesus' crucifixion under the authority of Pontius Pilate was simply another way for God to bring His will to pass. Pilate was a tool in the hands of God. For all eternity, God the Father and His well beloved Son knew what was going to happen, when and where it would happen, and even gave promises, hints, shadows, and types to believers who lived millennia before Jesus was born. After he was born, only gradually did his followers begin to realize (and did Cleopas and the unnamed disciple in Luke 24) that all the major events of Jesus' earthly life occurred according to "the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God" (Acts 2:23 NASB).

  • I'd like to up vote this but before I do I want to make sure you are not suggesting that God planned to Kill his son. For the purposes of his Devine Plan I agree that he knew it was going to happen, but it is our doing that caused Jesus to suffer and be killed. Yes? – Marc Jan 11 '16 at 12:56
  • @Marc: No. The Father did not in any way kill his Son. There is a huge difference, I feel, between "killing his Son" and "allowing his Son to be killed." As I said, God's plan of salvation was "hatched," so to speak, in eternity. The Son loves his Father so much, that in the eternal counsels of the Trinity he said in effect, "Here am I; send me." (Compare Isaiah's call in chapter 6 of his book, and Christ's call in Hebrews 10. Notice that in Hebrews, the writer says, "Sacrifice and offering and burnt offerings and offering for sin thou wouldest not, neither hadst pleasure therein" KJV, but – rhetorician Jan 11 '16 at 16:36
  • in Isaiah 53, the prophet says, "Yet it pleased the LORD to bruise him; he hath put him to grief : when thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the LORD shall prosper in his hand" KJV. "It pleased the LORD" means that it was the LORD's will for his Son to suffer and die. He allowed it to happen because unlike the animal sacrifices of old, Christ's death was the only once-and-for-all-time sacrifice which could atone for the sins of the world. Moreover, Jesus died willingly. He laid down his life of his own accord. – rhetorician Jan 11 '16 at 16:42
  • This is very clear in John 10: 18, where it reads, " No man taketh it [i.e., my life] from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down , and I have power to take it again. This commandment have I received of my Father." See also John 19: "Jesus answered, 'You would have no * authority over Me, unless it had been given you from above; for this reason he who delivered Me to you has the greater sin'" (NASB). – rhetorician Jan 11 '16 at 16:54
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    -1 for being misleading. Your proposed substitution of King James English into the Apostles creed is bogus on several counts. ① Neither Mark nor this creed were written in English and the original contexts clearly define the senses in each case. ② Eeven in archaic English "suffer under" and "suffer to" are different. Suggesting the sense of "allow him to come under" for the creed is nonsense, the context is that he was flogged, crucified, and buried. ③ The original wording has "under Pilate" connected with "crucified", not suffered: σταυρωθέντα τε ὑπὲρ ἡμῶν ἐπὶ Ποντίου Πιλάτου. – Caleb Nov 2 '16 at 5:21
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It says that he was killed under Pilate. It does not blame him. In fact:

When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “It is your responsibility!”

(NIV)

On the other hand, this same verse has been used to label Jews as Christ-killers, so I think that the responsibility is shared.

Edit: in the heidelber catechism (of the presbiterian denomination)(I am afraid I can't get an english copy at the moment), it says that the reason that he is mentioned is to give a historical reference with a lot more credibility than "once upon a time".

  • 1
    Welcome to Christianity.SE, and thanks for taking the site tour. Thanks also for offering an answer here. You make a good point about the exact wording of the Apostles Creed. There is also a meta-question involved though, which is why Pilate was particularly mentioned in the Creed as the one under whom Jesus suffered. Your answer doesn't deal with that issue, which seems central to the question. For some tips on writing good answers here, please see: What makes a good supported answer? – Lee Woofenden Nov 2 '16 at 15:44
  • @LeeWoofenden Thank You for your advice. I will think about how to improve the answer. – Mark Gardner Nov 3 '16 at 7:22
  • Here's a copy of the Heidelberg Catechism in English, but it doesn't seem to indicate that the reference to Pilate is for historical credibility. – Nathaniel Jun 14 '17 at 13:06

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