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Acts of Pilate

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Estimated Range of Dating: 150-255 A.D.

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J. Quasten writes (Patrology, v. 1, pp. 115-116):

The tendency to minimize the guilt of Pilate which is found in the Gospel According to Peter shows the keen interest with which ancient Christianity regarded his person. The prominent position occupied by Pontius Pilate in early Christian thought is further evidenced by the Gospel of Nicodemus. Into this narrative have been incorporated the so-called Acts of Pilate, a supposed official report of the procurator concerning Jesus. Some Acts of Pilate, it seems, were known as early as the second century. Justin Martyr remarks in his first Apology (35) after he has mentioned the passion and crucifixion of Jesus: 'And that these things happened you can ascertain from the Acts of Pontius Pilate.' A similar statement occurs in chapter 48. Tertullian refers twice to a report made by Pilate to Tiberius. According to him, Pontius Pilate informed the Emperor of the unjust sentence of death which he had pronounced against an innocent and divine person; the Emperor was so moved by his report of the miracles of Christ and his resurrection, that he proposed the reception of Christ among the gods of Rome. But the Senate refused (Apologeticum 5). In another place Tertullian says that the 'whole story of Christ was reported to Caesaróat that time it was Tiberiusóby Pilate, himself in his secret heart already a Christian' (Apol. 21, 24). We see here the tendency at work to use the Roman procurator as a witness for the history of the death and resurrection of Christa nd the truth of Christianity.

The Gospel of Nicodemus preserves a document known as the Acta Pilati in chapters 1 to 11, with an addition in chapters 12 to 16, while chapters 17 to 27 are called the "Decensus Christi ad Inferos." Quasten writes, "The whole work, which in a later Latin manuscript is called the Evangelium Nicodemi, must have been composed at the beginning of the fifth century, but it seems to be more or less a compilation of older material." (Patrology, vol. 1, p. 116) It is possible that the material in the Gospel of Nicodemus was written to refute pagan Acts of Pilate created in 311, mentioned by Eusebius:

Having forged, to be sure, Memoirs of Pilate and Our Saviour, full of every kind of blasphemy against Christ, with the approval of their chief they sent them round to every part of his dominions, with edicts that they should be exhibited openly for everyone to see in every place, both town and country, and that the primary teachers should give them to the children, instead of lessons, for study and committal to memory. (H. E. 9.5.1)

F. F. Bruce writes (The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?):

We should especially like to know if Pilate sent home to Rome any report of the trial and execution of Jesus, and, if so, what it contained. But it is not certain that he must have done so; and if he did, it has disappeared beyond trace.

Certainly some ancient writers believed that Pilate did send in such a report, but there is no evidence that any of them had any real knowledge of it. About AD 150 Justin Martyr, addressing his Defence of Christianity to the Emperor Antoninius Pius, referred him to Pilate's report, which Justin supposed must be preserved in the imperial archives. 'But the words, "They pierced my hands and my feet," ' he says, 'are a description of the nails that were fixed in His hands and His feet on the cross; and after He was crucified, those who crucified Him cast lots for His garments, and divided them among themselves; and that these things were so, you may learn from the "Acts" which were recorded under Pontius Pilate." Later he says: 'That He performed these miracles you may easily be satisfied from the "Acts" of Pontius Pilate."

Then Tertullian, the great jurist-theologian of Carthage, addressing his Defence of Christianity to the man authorities in the province of Africa about AD 197, says: 'Tiberius, in whose time the Christian name first made its appearance in the world, laid before the Senate tidings from Syria Palestina which had revealed to him the truth of the divinity there manifested, and supported the motion by his own vote to begin with. The Senate rejected it because it had not itself given its approval. Caesar held to his own opinion and threatened danger to the accusers of the Christians."

It would no doubt be pleasant if we could believe this story of Tertullian, which he manifestly believed to be true but a story so inherently improbable and inconsistent with what we know of Tiberius, related nearly 170 years after the event, does not commend itself to a historian's judgment.

When the influence of Christianity was increasing rapidly in the Empire, one of the last pagan emperors, Maximin II, two years before the Edict of Milan, attempted to bring Christianity into disrepute by publishing what he alleged to be the true 'Acts of Pilate', representing the origins of Christianity in an unsavoury guise. These 'Acts', which were full of outrageous assertions about Jesus, had to be read and memorized by schoolchildren. They were manifestly forged, as Eusebius historian pointed out at the time;' among other things, their dating was quite wrong, as they placed the death of Jesus in the seventh year of Tiberius (AD 20), whereas the testimony of Josephus' is plain that Pilate not become procurator of Judaea till Tiberius' Twelfth year (not to mention the evidence of Luke iii. 1, according to which John the Baptist began to preach in fifteenth year of Tiberius). We do not know in detail these alleged 'Acts' contained, as they were naturally suppressed on Constantine's accession to power; but we may surmise that they had some affinity with Toledoth Yeshu, an anti-Christian compilation popular in some Jewish circles in mediaeval time.'

Later in the fourth century another forged set of 'Acts of Pilate' appeared, this time from the Christian side, and as devoid of genuineness as Maximin's, to which they were perhaps intended as a counterblast. They are still extant, and consist of alleged memorials the trial, passion, and resurrection of Christ, recorded by Nicodemus and deposited with Pilate. (They are also own as the 'Gospel of Nicodemus'.) A translation of them is given in M. R. James' Apocryphal New Testament, pp. 94 ff., and they have a literary interest of their own, which does not concern us here.

J. Quasten writes: "The oldest piece of Christian Pilate literature seems to be 'The Report of Pilate to the Emperor Claudius', which is inserted in Greek into the late Acts of Peter and Paul and is given in Latin translation as an appendix of the Evangelium Nicodemi. It is probable that this report is identical with that mentioned by Tertullian. If that is true, it must have been composed before the year 197 A.D., the time of Tertullian's Apologeticum." (Patrology, vol. 1, p. 116)

The Gospel of Nicodemus and "The Report of Pilate to the Emperor Claudius" can be read from the links above.


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