Why Does the Apostles’ Creed Single Out Pontus Pilate?

The question of today’s post never really occurred to me until I was reading Justo González’s book The Apostles’ Creed for Today. I found his discussion very interesting. He writes,

“When I first heard the Creed, I wondered why there was in it such animosity against Pontus Pilate. Why single him out, when so many others were at least as guilty as he was—Judas, Herod, the mob, the Roman soldiers? After all, all that he did was to withhold judgment, while others rushed to it. He even made a weak attempt to save Jesus, yet the Creed singles him out. Why?

The answer is quite simple. The name of Pontus Pilate does not appear in the Creed in order to lay blame, but simply as a date. The Creed would not date the suffering of Jesus ‘in the year X,’ for such dating had not appeared yet. At the time, most dating was based either on counting years ‘from the foundation of Rome,’ or on who happened to be ruling at a particular time. We find examples of this in well-known passages both in the Old Testament and in the New. For instance, in the Old: ‘In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne’ (Isa. 6:1). And in the New: ‘This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria’ (Luke 2:2).

Why did the Creed give such importance to dating the events to which it refers? Simply to show that these were not eternal recurring myths, as in many other religions of the time. In Egypt, for instance, the annual flooding of the Nile was explained by the myth of Isis and Osiris. According to this myth, the god Osiris was killed and dismembered by his brother Seth, who scattered the remains all over Egypt. Osiris’s wife Isis gathered the various parts of her husband’s body and brought him back to life. But his genitalia she could not recover, for they had fallen into the Nile. This is the reason why the river floods every year, bringing to the land the fertility of Osiris. . . . Now the Creed is about to state faith in a divine being who died and was brought back to life. This sounds very much like many of the surrounding religions of fertility. How did early Christians avoid that? By making it clear that the Creed is not referring to a recurring cycle but to a series of datable events. Osiris and the various fertility gods die and rise again every year. Jesus Christ died and rose again only once, but this once is good enough for all ages. . . . In the fourth century, Rufinus explained this particular clause in the Creed as follows:

Those who have bequeathed the Creed to us were very wise in emphasizing the actual time when all these things took place, so that the firmness of the tradition be well established, and there be no danger of uncertainty or vagueness.

This was particularly important, since there were those who turned the story of Jesus into a myth about eternal realities and thus felt free to mix and join them with the various myths of the time, simply adding Jesus to the list of their gods.” (40-41)

CREED for Today

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4 thoughts on “Why Does the Apostles’ Creed Single Out Pontus Pilate?

  1. Interesting. I had not thought about before. Thanks Louis.

  2. I have wondered about this myself, and agree that this was a way of anchoring Christ in history, and not telling his story as myth.

    Tacitus did something similar in Annals 15.44 – “Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular.”

  3. Tacitus, Annals 15:44, that is. Darn dyslexia.

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