The Letter of Pilate to Tiberius

One item that floats around the web is the Letter of Pilate to Tiberius.  It appeared in English translation in the Ante-Nicene Fathers vol. 8 (here), and from there to all sorts of other places.  Another translation appears online in The Lost Books of the Bible, 1926[1]

Here is the ANF translation:

The Letter of Pontius Pilate
Which He Wrote to the Roman Emperor, Concerning Our Lord Jesus Christ.

Pontius Pilate to Tiberius Caesar the emperor, greeting.

Upon Jesus Christ, whose case I had dearly set forth to thee in my last, at length by the will of the people a bitter punishment has been inflicted, myself being in a sort unwilling and rather afraid. A man, by Hercules, so pious and strict, no age has ever had nor will have. But wonderful were the efforts of the people themselves, and the unanimity of all the scribes and chief men and elders, to crucify this ambassador of truth, notwithstanding that their own prophets, and after our manner the sibyls, warned them against it: and supernatural signs appeared while he was hanging, and, in the opinion of philosophers, threatened destruction to the whole world. His disciples are flourishing, in their work and the regulation of their lives not belying their master; yea, in his name most beneficent. Had I not been afraid of the rising of a sedition among the people, who were just on the point of breaking out, perhaps this man would still have been alive to us; although, urged more by fidelity to thy dignity than induced by my own wishes, I did not according to my strength resist that innocent blood free from the whole charge brought against it, but unjustly, through the malignity of men, should be sold and suffer, yet, as the Scriptures signify, to their own destruction. Farewell, 28th March.

So what is this item?  The ANF introductory notice is very unhelpful.  New Testament Apocrypha[2] does not mention it at all.  Nor does a Google Books search produce much.

Fortunately I have on my shelves a copy of J. K. Elliot’s The Apocryphal New Testament[3] and this has a section on the apocryphal Pilate literature.  Our item appears on p.206-8.

The work is written in renaissance Latin, probably in the 16th century.[4] The letter cannot be traced any earlier than the renaissance,[5].  It was composed in Latin[6].

Tischendorf printed the Latin text,[7] based on four witnesses, which he obtained from earlier publications:

  • Chas. — the text printed by Chassanaeus in part 4 of his catalogi gloriae mundi, 1571.
  • Flor. — the text printed by Florentinius in Martyrolog. vet. Hieronymi, p.113 (and reprinted by Fabricius).
  • Bodl. — the text printed by Abrah. Gronovius in the preface to his edition of the works of Tacitus in 1721, from an ms. or mss. of the works of Tacitus from the Bodleian library in Oxford.
  • Ven. — the text which Tischendorf himself obtained from a manuscript in Venice, Marcianus class. X. num. CXXXIV.  The ms. is 16th century.

The text had previously been edited by Fabricius[8], Thilo[9], and Giles[10].

Note that the Letters of Pilate and Herod exist in a Syriac version of the 6-7th century,[11], followed by that of Walker in the ANF in 1870.[13]  Another translation appeared in 1915 from A. Westcott.[14]

A Google search reveals an “epistola Pilati” is contained in the British Library ms. Cotton Titus D. xix, on f.88-89, but this is probably the epistola Pilati ad Claudium.[15]

There is also a Letter of Tiberius to Pilate, in Greek.[16] This also is a late production, not earlier than the 11th century.  This takes an unfavourable view of Pilate and alludes to a journey by Mary Magdalene to Rome to accuse Pilate.[17]

  1. [1]Copied from the Cowper translation of 1867.  The introductory words may be found on Cowper, p.389, here.
  2. [2]W. Schneemelcher, New Testament Apocrypha, 2 vols, Eng. tr. 1991.
  3. [3]J. K. Elliot, The Apocryphal New Testament, Clarendon 1993.
  4. [4]Z. Izydorczyk, The Medieval Gospel of Nicodemus, Arizona, 1997, p.8, gives the following description: “Epistola Pilati ad Tiberium: Pilate reveals that he sentenced Christ partly through his own weakness but partly through his loyalty to the emperor. This letter, which again presents Pilate in a positive light, was written in Renaissance Latin, probably in the sixteenth century.” and “Geerard, Clavis no. 68; Starowieyski, Apokryfy, 476″. Online here.
  5. [5]Elliot, p.206.
  6. [6]Elliot, p.207
  7. [7]Tischendorf, Evangelia Apocrypha, Leipzig, (2nd) 1876, p.lxxvi-lxxviii, p. 433-4. Online here.
  8. [8]J. A. Fabricius, Codex Apocryphus Novi Testamenti, 4 vols, Hamburg, 2nd ed., 1719. p.300-1.
  9. [9]J. C. Thilo, Codex Apocryphus Novi Testamentum, vol. i, Leipzig, 1832, p.801-2
  10. [10]J. A. Giles, Codex Apocryphus Novi Testamenti: The uncanonical Gospels and other Writings, London, 1852, vol. ii, p.14; so J.K.Elliot, but in the online copy of that work, I found that the reference did not seem to be correct.
  11. [12]
  12. [11]Texts and Studies, 5, p.xlviii.[/ref] but the Letter of Pilate to Tiberius is not  one of these.

    The first English translation was made in 1867 by B.H.Cowper[12]B.H.Cowper, The Apocryphal Gospels and Other Documents relating to the History of Christ, Edinburgh, 1867, p.398-9.  Cowper tells us, p.xx, that he is translating Tischendorff.  There is no introduction to the “Epistle of Pontius Pilate” in Cowper.

  13. [13]A. Walker, Apocryphal Gospels, Acts and Revelations, Ante-Nicene Christian Library vol. 16, Edinburgh, 1870.  The Ante-Nicene Fathers series is a rearranged and pirated US edition of the Edinburgh series.
  14. [14]A. Westcott, The Gospel of Nicodemus and Kindred Documents, London, 1915, p.119-20. I was unable to access this, but possibly US readers may be able to do so, in which case I should be glad of a copy.
  15. [15]A catalogue online here, where the work follows the Gospel of Nicodemus.  Compiled by Nigel Ramsay, who gives a bibliography including, “The Gospel of Nicodemus. Gesta Salvatoris, ed. H.C. Kim (Toronto, 1973), chapter xxviii. [Epistola Pilati.]”
  16. [16]Epistola Tiberii ad Pilatum. Edited in Texts and Studies, second series, vol. 5, 1893.  Introduction on p.xlix-l; Greek text on p.77-82.
  17. [17]See this post on this letter.

15 thoughts on “The Letter of Pilate to Tiberius

  1. In Quasten’s Patrology Vol.1,115-117, we read:
    “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 remarked 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 Caesar—at that time it was Tiberius—by 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 witness for the history of the death and resurrection of Christ and the truth of Christianity…The oldest piece of Christian Pilate literature seem 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. Based on the Greek text, the English translation of M. R. James runs as follows…[The document is here quoted]….The other apocryphal Reports of Pilate, as for instance, the Anaphora Pilati, the Letter of Pilate to Tiberius, The Paradosis Pilati, i.e., the sentence of Pilate by the Emperor, and the correspondence between Pilate and Herod, belong to the Middle Ages.”

  2. Nice post. As it turns out, the Syriac chronicle of Michael the Great points to a much earlier tradition of a letter from Pilate to Tiberius. See above link.

  3. The Oldest Views and Literary Data on the External Appearance of Jesus
    The Description of Publius Lentullus
    The following was taken from a manuscript in the possession of Lord Kelly, and in his library, and was copied from an original letter of Publius Lentullus at Rome. It being the usual custom of Roman Governors to advertise the Senate and people of such material things as happened in their provinces in the days of Tiberius Caesar, Publius Lentullus, President of Judea, wrote the following epistle to the Senate concerning the Nazarene called Jesus.
    “There appeared in these our days a man, of the Jewish Nation, of great virtue, named Yeshua [Jesus], who is yet living among us, and of the Gentiles is accepted for a Prophet of truth, but His own disciples call Him the Son of God- He raiseth the dead and cureth all manner of diseases. A man of stature somewhat tall, and comely, with very reverent countenance, such as the beholders may both love and fear, his hair of (the colour of) the chestnut, full ripe, plain to His ears, whence downwards it is more orient and curling and wavering about His shoulders. In the midst of His head is a seam or partition in His hair, after the manner of theNazarenes. His forehead plain and very delicate; His face without spot or wrinkle, beautified with a lovely red; His nose and mouth so formed as nothing can be reprehended; His beard thickish, in colour like His hair, not very long, but forked; His look innocent and mature; His eyes grey, clear, and quick- In reproving hypocrisy He is terrible; in admonishing, courteous and fair spoken; pleasant in conversation, mixed with gravity. It cannot be remembered that any have seen HimLaugh, but many have seen Him Weep. In proportion of body, most excellent; His hands and arms delicate to behold. In speaking, very temperate, modest, and wise. A man, for His singular beauty, surpassing the children of men”

    The letter from Pontius Pilate to Tiberius Caesar
    This is a reprinting of a letter from Pontius Pilate to Tiberius Caesar describing the physical appearance of Jesus. Copies are in the Congressional Library in Washington, D.C.
    A young man appeared in Galilee preaching with humble unction, a new law in the Name of the God that had sent Him. At first I was apprehensive that His design was to stir up the people against the Romans, but my fears were soon dispelled. Jesus of Nazareth spoke rather as a friend of the Romans than of the Jews. One day I observed in the midst of a group of people a young man who was leaning against a tree, calmly addressing the multitude. I was told it was Jesus. This I could easily have suspected so great was the difference between Him and those who were listening to Him. His golden colored hair and beard gave to his appearance a celestial aspect. He appeared to be about 30 years of age. Never have I seen a sweeter or more serene countenance. What a contrast between Him and His bearers with their black beards and tawny complexions! Unwilling to interrupt Him by my presence, I continued my walk but signified to my secretary to join the group and listen. Later, my secretary reported that never had he seen in the works of all the philosophers anything that compared to the teachings of Jesus. He told me that Jesus was neither seditious nor rebellious, so we extended to Him our protection. He was at liberty to act, to speak, to assemble and to address the people. This unlimited freedom provoked the Jews — not the poor but the rich and powerful.
    Later, I wrote to Jesus requesting an interview with Him at the Praetorium. He came. When the Nazarene made His appearance I was having my morning walk and as I faced Him my feet seemed fastened with an iron hand to the marble pavement and I trembled in every limb as a guilty culprit, though he was calm. For some time I stood admiring this extraordinary Man. There was nothing in Him that was repelling, nor in His character, yet I felt awed in His presence. I told Him that there was a magnetic simplicity about Him and His personality that elevated Him far above the philosophers and teachers of His day.
    Now, Noble Sovereign, these are the facts concerning Jesus of Nazareth and I have taken the time to write you in detail concerning these matters. I say that such a man who could convert water into wine, change death into life, disease into health; calm the stormy seas, is not guilty of any criminal offense and as others have said, we must agree — truly this is the Son of God.
    Your most obedient servant,
    Pontius Pilate
    So you are saying that this is all a lie?

  4. This material comes, I take it, from here? The Letter of Lentulus does exist in Latin manuscripts from the middle ages, or so I gather. The Letter of Tiberius above I don’t know much about; but there are certainly medieval texts under that name. (I would research it more, but I’m a bit busy today).

    These documents that you quote are not, in fact, genuine 1st century texts. They were probably written as part of **novels** at some point, and then mistaken later for genuine documents. In the 4th century AD, there was a fashion for Christianity after it became legal. At that time the newly Christianised population wanted more texts than the bible, and for such a market, naturally there were those to supply it. The same cause is responsible for the creation of hagiography – the largely fictional accounts of the lives of the saints and martyrs.

    People need fiction. They need to immerse themselves in the imagined lives of others. But recognising ancient fiction can be tough sometimes. However these items are not described as genuine by any ancient writer of the church. There is a list by Eusebius of Caesarea in his Church History, book 3 (and book 5). This was written between 300-325 AD, so is earlier than most of these productions.

    The exact origins of the literature is often complicated, tho. These texts form part of what is called the “New Testament Apocrypha”.

    There are also the heretical forgeries. In the 2nd century on (and indeed sometimes even today), people who were not Christians, but wanted to pretend to be, sometimes forged “gospels” to peddle their false teaching under the name of an apostle. This is the origin of the so-called “Gospel of Judas”, “Gospel of Peter”, and so on. These too are classified by scholars under the title of “New Testament Apocrypha”.

    One reason that some of these texts can be interesting is that people wonder if any material genuinely by Jesus and circulating orally in the 1st century made its way into any of them. We do know that there was a “Gospel of the Hebrews” going around, which was favoured by Jewish Christians and may have been a version of Matthew’s gospel. But nothing solid has been found.

    You may not know that people are **still* composing apocrypha about Jesus even today. E.J. Goodspeed made a collection of modern fakes in his “Strange New Gospels” (which is online here) and “Modern Apocrypha”. The most notorious of these is the Archko volume, faked in the late 19th century – or possibly written as a novel – by a US presbyterian minister who was defrocked for it. These things are generally made for either money or notoriety.

    Basically anything that had any real claim to come from the apostles or their circle ended up in the New Testament. Everything else is dodgy. For pagan material of the 1st century, there is Tacitus, Josephus (the long reference in that is fake tho), and Suetonius. Jesus, a Galilean peasant in worldly terms, was not an important figure to high classical culture in the 1st century AD. Of that high literature, only 1% has survived anyway. But we have a good chunk of literary evidence about him, certainly compared to similar figures.

    I hope that helps? There are a lot of people who have an interest in muddying the data about Christian origins, and pretending to defend it with faked evidence – pre-designed to be unmasked – is a trick as old as Tertullian, Adversus Praxean: “Manifold are the ways in which the devil has sought to undermine the truth. He is now trying to crush it, by pretending to defend it.”

  5. Hi Mr. Pearse,
    Thanks very much for the interesting article! I was wondering if you had any more information on the provenance of the Letter of Tiberias to Pilate, in Greek, referred to with your note 16? My wife is really interested in this type of stuff, and that letter in particular — she thinks it’s probably medieval, but I would be interested to hear your thoughts on it if you have time.
    Thanks very much again for the clear and concise description of these materials.
    Best wishes,
    Rhian Hunt

  6. Hi Rhian,

    I do; in fact I’ll do a blog post today on it. Briefly, the style of the Greek language in the “Letter of Tiberius to Pilate” means that it can’t have been composed earlier than the 11th century AD; this from a French scholar, and they tend to be very good on such things. So your wife is right. Writing such things as “letters of Pilate” was probably a schoolboy exercise in the Greek empire in that period, which is probably how most of them come into being.

    All the best,

    Roger Pearse

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