Howard Ingham: Unholy Writ

November 2000
Pilate's magical shirt
Previous Unholy Writs

Comment on this column PONTIUS PILATE. Washed his hands. Sent Christ to the cross. Got a bit upset about it. Washed his hands. Yeah, Pontius Pilate... and that's about it. We know next to nothing about this man, who is, let's be frank, pivotal to the passion narratives. We don't get to hear his side of the story.

Was he a Rotten Roman or an OK Occupier? A vicious governor or a man in the wrong place at the wrong time?

If every other minor supporting character in the New Testament gets his own book in the Apocrypha, then we'd have a perfect right to expect that Pilate would be no exception. And we'd be right. There are five books about Pilate alone that did the rounds in the early Church. Three of them are letters.

"Dear Emperor, Having a lovely time. Wish you were here. Executed somebody I shouldn't have. Love, Ponty."

Actually, that's pretty much how they go... but far more interesting are the two books that talk about the death of Pontius Pilate.

BOTH OF THEM begin with the Emperor Tiberius hearing about Jesus being crucified and getting annoyed (for some reason that is never adequately explained), blaming Pilate and calling him back to Rome where he has to stand account. But here they go in different directions.

The first one, "The Giving Up of Pilate", tells how Pilate explains what "the Jews" made him do. Apparently, as soon as Pilate mentions Jesus by name, all the statues of the gods in the senate house fall over and crumble to dust. The emperor is suitably impressed with this, and sends a general to sack Jerusalem. Meanwhile, Pilate is sentenced to death for his complicity in the death of Christ.

Pilate prays to God, saying that it wasn't his fault, really, and could God please rescue him, and God says (in his inevitable bass-baritone) 'All the generations of the nations shall count thee blessed, because under thee have been fulfilled all these things said about me by the prophets."

And then he gets beheaded anyway.

EVEN BETTER than that is the other book, called "The Death of Pilate, where our man has possession of Jesus' shirt (the one they cast lots for... he must have commandeered it or something – the story doesn't say) and wears it in front of the emperor. And while he's wearing it, the emperor can't say a thing against him:

Emperor: (bellows) PILATE!

Pilate: Yes, sire?

Emperor: I am really annoyed with you, Pilate! You have really done it this time, Pilate... although the reason why escapes me right now...

Pilate goes out of the room, the emperor remembers what it was and gets annoyed, calls him back, same thing happens. This happens about three or four times, until finally the emperor realizes that he's wearing a funny-looking shirt and tells him to take it off. Once Pilate's done this, the emperor remains annoyed and beheads him.

Curiously, the magical powers of the shirt never seem to have worked for Jesus himself...

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