The Acts of Pilate


And how Christ after He was born was to escape the notice of other men until He grew to man's estate, which also came to pass, hear what was foretold regarding this. There are the following predictions: — Unto us a child is born, and unto us a young man is given, and the government shall be upon his shoulders; (Isaiah 9:6) which is significant of the power of the cross, for to it, when He was crucified, He applied His shoulders, as shall be more clearly made out in the ensuing discourse. And again the same prophet Isaiah, being inspired by the prophetic Spirit, said, I have spread out my hands to a disobedient and gainsaying people, to those who walk in a way that is not good. They now ask of me judgment, and dare to draw near to God. (Isaiah 65:2, Isaiah 58:2) And again in other words, through another prophet, He says, They pierced my hands and my feet, and for my vesture they cast lots. And indeed David, the king and prophet, who uttered these things, suffered none of them; but Jesus Christ stretched forth His hands, being crucified by the Jews speaking against Him, and denying that He was the Christ. And as the prophet spoke, they tormented Him, and set Him on the judgment-seat, and said, "Judge us." And the expression, They pierced my hands and my feet, was used in reference to the nails of the cross which were fixed in His hands and feet. And after He was crucified they cast lots upon His vesture, and they that crucified Him parted it among them. And that these things did happen, you can ascertain from the Acts of Pontius Pilate.

... And that it was predicted that our Christ should heal all diseases and raise the dead, hear what was said. There are these words: At his coming the lame shall leap as an hart, and the tongue of the stammerer shall be clear speaking: the blind shall see, and the lepers shall be cleansed; and the dead shall rise, and walk about. (Isaiah 35:6) And that He did those things, you can learn from the Acts of Pontius Pilate.

  • St. Justin Martyr, First Apology 35, 48a

Continuing from the Akhmim Text/Gospel of Peter thread, we'll now take a look at the so-called Acts of Pilate.

Justin Martyr, writing in the early 2nd century, is our earliest testimony to a document which he dubs "the Acts of Pontius Pilate." However, it is difficult to know whether Justin actually had such a record before him. On the one hand, since his remarks about his work are nearly identical in tone and phrasing to his citations from the canonical gospels and Jewish scriptures, he may have known such an acta first-hand and believed it to be a legitimate account of Jesus' trial. On the other hand, we get a suspicion that Justin had never actually read it but simply assumed that such a document could be found somewhere: in First Apology 34 he invites the reader to check "the registers of the taxing made under Quirinius, your first procurator in Judaea" - a document that almost certainly never existed.


Barely fifty years after Justin, Tertullian speaks in chapters 5 and 21 of his Apologeticus about a dispatch from Pilate to Tiberius, which contained such a detailed account of the miracles of Jesus that Tertullian believed he could regard Pilate as a Christian by conviction.

And now to treat somewhat more fully of the origin of laws of this kind, there was an old decree that no god should be consecrated by a general without the approval of the senate. M. Aemilius learnt this in the case of his god Alburnus. This, too, makes in our favour, because among you divinity is weighed out by human caprice. Unless a god shall have been acceptable to man, he shall not be a god: man must now be propitious to a god. Accordingly Tiberius, in whose time the Christian name first made its appearance in the world, laid before the senate tidings from Syria Palaestina 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.

...] All these things with reference to Christ, Pilate, who himself also in his own conscience was now a Christian, reported to the then emperor Tiberius. But even the emperors would have believed on Christ, if either emperors had not been necessary to the world or if it had been possible for Christians too to be emperors.

It would seem, however, that the document Tertullian was referring to was not Justin's Acts (if that really existed), but a different work which also circulated under Pilate's name. (Yet another pseudepigraphical work, The Letter of Pontius Pilate is perhaps related to this.) As it is, the cited passages do not ring true for several reasons. First off, if Pilate did write to Tiberius about "the truth of Christ's divinity," he would also have had to admit to the colossal blunder of crucifying a living god. Given his precarious position around the 30s (what with the downfall of Sejanus, once the emperor's trusted confidant and possible sponsor/patron of Pilate), Pilate could not have afforded such an advertising of error. Even less likely would have been Tiberius' favorable attitude toward the divinity of Christ, since during his lifetime he controversially detested deification of himself or anyone else (he had only allowed a single temple in Smyrna to himself and the genius of the Senate in 26 after much wrangling, and even vetoed a decision by the Senate to deify his mother Livia - who had assiduously accepted divine honors in her lifetime - in AD 29.) Nor would the Senate have dared reject something which the emperor favored. (Although granted, Tiberius was so unpopular and his relationship with the Senate wasn't very good: it refused to posthumously vote him divine honors when Caligula became emperor.)

Fast forwarding to the 4th century, Eusebius comments at length on this letter of Pilate; but he makes no reference to Christian Acts of Pilate, although some mention of them would have been natural (Church History 2.2):

And when the wonderful resurrection and ascension of our Saviour were already noised abroad, in accordance with an ancient custom which prevailed among the rulers of the provinces, of reporting to the emperor the novel occurrences which took place in them, in order that nothing might escape him, Pontius Pilate informed Tiberius of the reports which were noised abroad through all Palestine concerning the resurrection of our Saviour Jesus from the dead. He gave an account also of other wonders which he had learned of him, and how, after his death, having risen from the dead, he was now believed by many to be a God. They say that Tiberius referred the matter to the Senate, but that they rejected it, ostensibly because they had not first examined into the matter (for an ancient law prevailed that no one should be made a God by the Romans except by a vote and decree of the Senate), but in reality because the saving teaching of the divine Gospel did not need the confirmation and recommendation of men. But although the Senate of the Romans rejected the proposition made in regard to our Saviour, Tiberius still retained the opinion which he had held at first, and contrived no hostile measures against Christ.

These things are recorded by Tertullian, a man well versed in the laws of the Romans, and in other respects of high repute, and one of those especially distinguished in Rome. In his apology for the Christians, which was written by him in the Latin language, and has been translated into Greek, he writes as follows:

[INDENT]But in order that we may give an account of these laws from their origin, it was an ancient decree that no one should be consecrated a God by the emperor until the Senate had expressed its approval. Marcus Aurelius did thus concerning a certain idol, Alburnus. And this is a point in favor of our doctrine, that among you divine dignity is conferred by human decree. If a God does not please a man he is not made a God. Thus, according to this custom, it is necessary for man to be gracious to God. Tiberius, therefore, under whom the name of Christ made its entry into the world, when this doctrine was reported to him from Palestine, where it first began, communicated with the Senate, making it clear to them that he was pleased with the doctrine. But the Senate, since it had not itself proved the matter, rejected it. But Tiberius continued to hold his own opinion, and threatened death to the accusers of the Christians. Heavenly providence had wisely instilled this into his mind in order that the doctrine of the Gospel, unhindered at its beginning, might spread in all directions throughout the world.[/INDENT]


This lack of testimony is surprising since Eusebius knows anti-Christian Acts of Pilate (*Church *History 1.9; 9.5.1) which were fabricated under the reign of the emperor Maximinus (308-314):

The historian already mentioned [Josephus] agrees with the evangelist in regard to the fact that Archelaus succeeded to the government after Herod. He records the manner in which he received the kingdom of the Jews by the will of his father Herod and by the decree of Cæsar Augustus, and how, after he had reigned ten years, he lost his kingdom, and his brothers Philip and Herod the younger, with Lysanias, still ruled their own tetrarchies. The same writer, in the eighteenth book of his Antiquities, says that about the twelfth year of the reign of Tiberius, who had succeeded to the empire after Augustus had ruled fifty-seven years, Pontius Pilate was entrusted with the government of Judea, and that he remained there ten full years, almost until the death of Tiberius.

Accordingly the forgery of those who have recently given currency to acts against our Saviour is clearly proved. For the very date given in them shows the falsehood of their fabricators. For the things which they have dared to say concerning the passion of the Saviour are put into the fourth consulship of Tiberius, which occurred in the seventh year of his reign; at which time it is plain that Pilate was not yet ruling in Judea, if the testimony of Josephus is to be believed, who clearly shows in the above-mentioned work that Pilate was made procurator of Judea by Tiberius in the twelfth year of his reign.


Having therefore forged Acts of Pilate and our Saviour full of every kind of blasphemy against Christ, they sent them with the emperor’s [Maximinus’] approval to the whole of the empire subject to him, with written commands that they should be openly posted to the view of all in every place, both in country and city, and that the schoolmasters should give them to their scholars, instead of their customary lessons, to be studied and learned by heart.

The earliest near-certain allusion to our Acts of Pilate comes from St. Epiphanius of Salamis’ Panarion (50.1.5), written around AD 375. Epiphanius speaks of Christians during his lifetime who believed they could accurately date the crucifixion to 25 March on the authority of a work known as the ‘Acts of Pilate’.

After these two intermingled sects of Phrygians and Quintillianists or Priscillianists, another one, called the sect of the Quartodecimans, appeared in its turn. These too hold all the doctrines that the church does; but they are foiled in everything because they do not adhere to the proper order and teaching but to Jewish fables. And yet their doctrines are not the same as the Jews’, “For they know not what they say nor whereof they affirm.” (1 Tim. 1:7)
The Quartodecimans contentiously keep the Passover on one day, once a year, (i.e. rather than keeping a week-long fast. Cf. Eusebius, H.E. 5.24.12 (Irenaeus).) even though their doctrine of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit is good and in agreement with , and they accept the prophets, apostles and evangelists, and likewise confess the resurrection of the flesh and the coming judgment, and everlasting life. But they have fallen into an error, and one of no small importance, by following the letter, if you please, of the Law’s saying, “Cursed is he who shall not keep the Passover on the fourteenth day of the month.” (cf. Lev. 23:5; Num. 9:4-5; Deut. 27:28, and see Hippolytus Haer. 8.18.1.) Others though, who keep the same one day and fast and celebrate the mysteries on the same one day, boast that they have found the precise date in the Acts of Pilate, if you please; it says there that the Savior suffered on the eighth before the Kalends of April (i.e. the day of the spring equinox. Cf. Acts of Pilate, Prologue; Hippolytus, In Dan. 4:23; Tertullian, Adv. Jud. 8).
They keep the Passover on whichever day it is that the fourteenth of the month falls (so Hippolytus, Haer. 8.18.1); but the ones in Cappadocia keep the same one day on the eighth before the Kalends of April. And there is no little dissension in their ranks, since some say the fourteenth day of the month, but some, the eighth before the Kalends of April. Furthermore, I have found copies of the Acts of Pilate which say that the passion came on the fifteenth before the Kalends of April. (Probably a variant date of the spring equinox (Strobel p. 223)) But in fact, as I know from much minute investigation, I have found that the Savior suffered on the thirteenth before the Kalends of April. (This date is given in the spurious Acta of the Council of Caesarea 1; Martin of Bracara, De Pascha 1; Niceta Remesiana (=Tractatus Athanasii) 1; Sozomen, Hist. 7,18. Sozomen says that it is the date celebrated by Montanists.) Some, however, say it was the tenth before the Kalends of April. (Consularia Constant. MG. Auct. Antiq. 9.220; Chronicon Paschale 218; Lactantius, Div. Inst. 4.10.8)

The date which Epiphanius gives is identical to that in the Greek Acts of Pilate, which dates the Passion to the nineteenth year of Tiberius “on the eighth day before the Kalends of April, that is, the 25th of March.”


Shortly after Epiphanius, an anonymous author writing a homily around AD 387 under the name of St. John Chrysostom made reference to the "Acts done under Pilate" and likewise attempted to fix the date of Easter at 25 March. After this, allusions to records of Christ's trial in Greek become scarce, although in the West we find Orosius (Historiae adversum paganos 7.4.5) and St. Gregory of Tours (Historia Francorum 1.21) alluding to the "Acts of Pilate."

When the Lord Christ had suffered and risen from the dead and had sent forth His disciples to preach, Pilate, the governor of the province of Palestine, made a report to the emperor Tiberius and to the Senate concerning the passion and resurrection of Christ, and also the subsequent miracles that had been publicly performed by Him or were being done by His disciples in His name. Pilate also stated that a rapidly increasing multitude believed Him to be a god. When Tiberius, amid great approval, proposed to the Senate that Christ should be considered a god, the Senate became indignant because the matter had not been referred to it earlier in accordance with the usual custom, so that it might be the first to pass upon the recognition of a new cult. The Senate therefore refused to deify Christ and issued an edict that the Christians should be banished from the City. There was also the special reason that Sejanus, the prefect of Tiberius, was inflexibly opposed to the recognition of this religion. Nevertheless in an edict Tiberius threatened denouncers of Christians with death.

Now it came about that the emperor little by little abandoned his most praiseworthy policy of moderation in order to take revenge upon the Senate for its opposition; for he took pleasure in doing whatever he wished and from the mildest of princes he became the most savage of wild beasts. He proscribed a great army of senators and drove them to death. Of the twenty noblemen whom he had selected as his counselors, he left scarcely two unharmed and destroyed the others on various pretexts. He put to death his prefect Sejanus who was trying to stir up a revolution. There were clear indications that he poisoned both Drusus, his son by birth, and Germanicus, his son by adoption. He also killed his grandchildren, the sons of Germanicus. To recite his deeds one by one would be too horrible and scandalous. Suffice it to say that his lust and cruel rage grew so violent that those who had scorned to be saved under the rule of Christ were punished under the rule of Caesar.

  • Orosius

So where does our Acts of Pilate fit into all this?

We have 19th century German biblical scholar Constantin von Tischendorf (1815-1874; the same guy who famously rediscovered - some would say 'stole' - the Codex Sinaiticus ;)) to thank for bringing the Acts to public attention in his 1853 Evangelia Apocrypha. Tischendorf identified the Acts of Pilate as we have it today as comprising of two parts: chapters 1 to 11 is the main body of the text and relates the trial and the crucifixion of Jesus; the second part (12-16), the Descensus Christi ad inferos, is an appendix relating Jesus' descent into hell. He distinguished two main Greek recensions of the text: the shorter version (A, collated from eight manuscripts*) and the longer version (B, from three manuscripts). In addition to the two Greek versions he also published a Latin text (derived from twelve manuscripts, and some old editions). In addition to Greek and Latin, there are also versions of the work in languages such as Coptic, Syriac, Armenian and Old Slavonic.

  • Technical footnote: Johann Karl Thilo (1794-1853) in his 1832 Codex Apocryphus Novi Testamenti had identified eight manuscripts of Recension A. Five of these were later consulted by Tischendorf (giving them the identificatory sigla A-E), who identified three more of his own (F, G, and H). Tischendorf used manuscripts A-H for his published text of Recension A, although he also identified yet another manuscript (I) in his apparatus. Later, English scholar Kirsopp Lake (1872-1946) published yet another manuscript of Recension A dating from the 14th-15th century in 1901; even later, the number of manuscripts had risen up further. We now currently have around twenty manuscripts of Recension A, the oldest dating from the 12th century.

The common consensus today is that the shorter version (Recension A) is the older of the two Greek versions, with the more widely-attested Recension B being a later expansion of the text. The account of the descent into hell is apparently later addition to the Acts: it is mainly only found in Latin copies (and their deritative versions) and a handful of Greek ones. (This appendix is what gave the work its other title of Gospel of Nicodemus.) The first half of the work (the Acts proper) is now currently dated around the 5th century: Tischendorf originally identified our Acts of Pilate with the one spoken of by Justin Martyr and consequently assigned an early date for the text. For all intents and purposes, we won't be dealing with the Descensus Christi ad inferos in this thread, but limit our scope to the first half and focus specially on Recension A - although we will also talk about Recension B and the Latin version.
Tischendorf in 1870


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