The letter of Tiberius to Pilate (Epistola Tiberii ad Pilatum)

A little while ago I wrote a post on the apocryphal Letter of Pilate to Tiberius, which is a Latin text of the renaissance period.  Perhaps it was written as a composition exercise, or something, but it is not ancient.

A correspondent asked me about the date of another item in the same bunch of apocryphal texts, the so-called Letter of Tiberius to Pilate (Epistola Tiberii ad Pilatum).

This item is a Greek text, which has been dated on linguistic grounds to no earlier than the 11th century AD.[1]  The Greek text itself was printed by M.R. James in Texts and Studies 5 (1893), 78-81, with an introduction on p.xl-l; these were reprinted with the same page numbers as Apocrypha Anecdota. The introduction begins as follows:

A very much later effort of the ecclesiastical romancer is the Letter of Tiberius to Pilate. This has been twice printed, and both  times very badly, by Birch and Fleck. I think it is just worth while—seeing that both the editions are rather uncommon books— to give here a text which I have constructed from a comparison of the two.

“Birch” is A. Birch, Auctarium Codicis Apocryphi N. T. Fabricani, Fasc. i, Havniae (1804), p.172; and the text is printed from Codex Vindobonensis 246.  “Fleck” is F.F. Fleck, Wissenschaftliche Reise, Band ii, Abth. ii, Leipzig (1837), p.145; and he prints the text from Codex Taurinensis Regius Graecus C. ii. 5 (no. cccii).  It is likely that each just printed the manuscript as it was before him – ah, how easy to do this, when you don’t have to give a facing translation! – and so James’ otherwise odd proceeding does have scholarly value.

J.K. Elliot, The Apocryphal New Testament, p.224 states:

Although this is a Greek text, it has a typically Western view of Pilate regarding him as a criminal. The Eastern churches, and the Coptic in particular, regarded him as a saint and martyr. It is late in date (possibly from the eleventh century), and has affinities with the Acta Pilati (Greek B).

Although Tischendorf knew the text of the letter in two separate manuscripts (Vindobon.-Nessel 246 and Paris 1771) according to his introduction to Evangelia Apocrypha (pp. lxxix f.), he chose not to include it.

From this we learn of a better shelfmark for the Vienna manuscript, and of a Paris copy.  I wonder whether the Turin manuscript still exists, however, after the fire of 1904?

An abbreviated translation of the work is given again by M.R. James in his Apocryphal New Testament (1924), p.156-7.  There is an introduction and translation in Bart Ehrman and Zlatko Plese, The Other Gospels: Accounts of Jesus from Outside the New Testament, OUP (2014), 285-8.[2], which is apparently a subset of his Apocryphal Gospels: Texts and Translations, 2011, p.529.  The translation is as follows:

The Letter of Tiberius to Pilate

This is the reply of Caesar Augustus and sent to Pilate Pontius, who holds the rule in the eastern part of the kingdom. He also wrote his judicial decision and sent it with the courier Rahab, to whom he gave two thousand soldiers as well.

“Because you condemned Jesus of Nazareth to a violent death that was completely unjust, and before condemning him to death you handed him over to the insatiably furious Jews, and you showed no sympathy for this righteous man, but dipping your pen you delivered a disastrous judicial decision, and having him flogged you handed him over to be crucified, without cause, and you received gifts for condemning him to death, sympathizing with him in what you said, but in your heart handing him over to the lawless Jews—or all this you will be brought to me as a prisoner to defend yourself and render to me an account of what you have done, on behalf of this one whom you handed over to death without cause. Oh your shamelessness and hardness! When I heard about this in a report, I was moved in my soul and cut to the core. For a certain woman has come to me, calling herself a disciple of this man; she is Mary Magdalene, from whom others testify that he had cast out seven demons. She has testified that this one performed great healings: he made the blind see, the lame walk, and the deaf hear; he cleansed lepers and, to put it simply, as she herself testified, he performed these healings by a word alone. How could you permit him to be crucified without cause? Even if you did not receive him as a god, at least you should have sympathized with him as a physician. But even from your own treacherous writing that has come to me you have pronounced your penalty, since you write that he is greater even than the gods that we worship. How could you deliver him over to death? But just as you condemned this one unjustly and delivered him to death, I in turn will deliver you to death justly. And not only you, but also all your councillors and companions, from whom you received the gifts for his death.”

As he gave the letter to the letter carriers, Augustus’s judicial sentence was also given them in a written order, that they were to kill the entire race of the Jews with the sword, and that Pilate was to be brought to Rome as a condemned prisoner, along with the leaders of the Jews, those who were then the rulers of the region, Archaelaus, the son of the despised Herod, and his companion Philip, and those who were their chief priests, both Caiaphas and his father-in-law, Annas, and all the leaders of the Jews. When Rahab went forth with the soldiers, he did as he was commanded, and slew the entire male race of the Jews with the sword, and the gentiles sexually defiled their profane wives; and the loathsome posterity of their father, Satan, came to life and rose up. The courier took Pilate, Archaelaus, and also Philip, Annas, and Caiaphas, and all the leaders of the Jews, and led them as prisoners to Rome. But it came about that while they were passing through a certain island named Crete, Caiaphas was miserably and violently severed from life. When they took him in order to bury him, the ground would not receive him at all, but cast him out. Seeing this, the entire multitude took stones with their own hands and cast them on him, and so buried him. But the others came to anchor near Rome.

Now there was a custom among the ancient rulers that if someone was condemned to death but should happen to see their face, he would be spared from his condemnation. And so Caesar ordered that Pilate not see him, so that he might not be saved from death. Because of this command, they bricked him up in a certain cave, and left him there. But they rolled Annas up in the skin of an ox, and as the leather dried out under the sun, he was pressed tightly in it, so that his intestines came out through his mouth, and it violently tore away his wretched life. But all the other Jews who were given over to him he delivered to death. They killed these by the sword. But Archelaus, son of the despised Herod, and his companion Philip, he ordered to be impaled.

One day the king went out to hunt and was pursuing a certain deer. The deer came to the opening of the cave and stood there. Now Pilate was about to be killed by the hand of Caesar. That the inevitable might be fulfilled, Pilate moved forward to see the ruler, while the deer was standing in front of him. Caesar placed an arrow on his bow to shoot the deer, and the arrow passed through the opening and killed Pilate.

All who believe in Christ, our true God and savior, give him glory and greatness. For to him is due the glory, honor, and worship, with his Father who is without beginning, and the Spirit who is of his same nature, now and always, even unto the ages. Amen.

The text is, in other words, a medieval fiction.  It is part of the numberless medieval folk-stories with supernatural elements which are so alien to the modern western mind, but so typical of the medieval imagination.

  1. [1]R. Gounelle, “Rapport de Pilate, réponse de Tibère à Pilate, comparution de Pilate,” in: P. Geoltrain & J.-D. Kaestli, Écrits apocryphes chrétiens, vol. 2, Paris: Gallimard (2005) pp. 304-7. Via here.
  2. [2]A title that would have irritated M. R. James, who would have found it annoying that any professional scholar would propagate a work under such a title.  It is calculated to suggest to the unwary reader that these texts are somehow equivalent in age and status to the New Testament but merely not included in it by its compilers.  James patiently explains over several pages why William Hone and his Apocryphal New Testament – which attempted the same trick – is misleading, and adds, “The point is this, that when Hone or any one else speaks in terms which suggest that our New Testament is the result of a selection made by a council of the Church or any similar body, from among a number of competing books which might just as well have been included in it as not, he is very much astray.”

13 thoughts on “The letter of Tiberius to Pilate (Epistola Tiberii ad Pilatum)

  1. Thank you – I’d never come across that catalogue (although I see that it hasn’t been updated since 2013). However the database must be very incomplete. I did a simple search on “Tertullianus”, because I know what medieval manuscripts of this exist in Italy. Very few appeared in the search results. So … there is still hope for the Turin ms!

  2. Roger, you are right about the Turin manuscript. I checked a printed catalogue and it seems the manuscript is still extant but to find it I had to do some tricky acrobatics.

  3. My reference for medieval literature is this: http://www.arlima.net/

    The catalogues for Italy are here: http://www.arlima.net/mss/italia/

    Seeing that online databases are incomplete, out of date or unreliable I checked the printed catalogues.

    It seems the Manus database is a simple digitization of the volumes printed by Olschki and that’s why the last update goes back to 2013.

    The catalogue we are interested in is F. Cosentini, “Inventari dei manoscritti delle biblioteche d’Italia”, 1922, which lists the manuscripts in the Turin Biblioteca nazionale, and is available online here:
    https://archive.org/details/inventarideimano28cose

    The shelfmark you give in your post is readable here:
    https://archive.org/stream/inventarideimano28cose#page/36/mode/2up

    For completeness’ sake I will transcribe the text:

    *299 (C-II-5).Commentaria ex variis excerpta Patribus in Evangelia (gr.).
    Cart., sec. XVI, cc. 310. (PASINI, Gr., 92)

    EDIT: Slight expansions.

  4. “Pasini” is a reference to an older catalogue that luckily is available on Archive.org. It’s in two volumes but the one we need is the first one.

    Link for both volumes:
    https://archive.org/search.php?query=Codices%20Manuscripti%20Bibliothecae%20Regii

    Volume One: https://archive.org/details/CodicesManuscriptiBibliothecaeRegii1

    Volume Two: https://archive.org/details/CodicesManuscriptiBibliothecaeRegii2

    The reference for our manuscript is here: https://archive.org/stream/CodicesManuscriptiBibliothecaeRegii1/Codices_manuscripti_Bibliothecae_Regii_1#page/n223/mode/2up

    A transcription of the relevant text:

    CODEX XCII. c.IV.6
    Chartaceus,saeculi XVI. duplici columna exaratus,
    foliis conflat 310, olim Gabrielis Severi Philadelphiae Metropolitae. Habentur in eo commentaria ex variis
    excerpta Patribus, qui plerumque in margine adnotantur,
    in Evangelia, non quidem continuata serie, sed in loca peculiaria, quae moerum praecipue informationem, & fidei
    capita, doctrinaeque Christi explanationem spectant.
    Fol. 306. pag. 2 Sancti Patris AMPHILOCHII Iconiensis Episcopi in Virginem Deiparam, in Annam, & Simeonem.
    Incipit: πολλοί τ~ μεγαλων ανθρωπων & c.
    Extat Graece, & Latinae in Amphilochio Combefisii pag. 23.

    Knowing that the manuscript is pretty extensive, it would be interesting to discover its contents aside from the Epistola Tiberii ad Pilatum and what I believe are citations from Amphilochius of Iconium.

    To conclude, the manuscript was originally in the hands of the 16th century Greek theologian Gabriel Severus and certainly it had an adventurous life before arriving in Turin.

  5. I appreciate your remarks and quote in n.2. I get that Bart Ehrman feels silly about his previous evangelical fundamentalist upbringing. I do too about my own. But then he went a step further and lost his christian faith and now has an axe to grind against the faith. It’s a sad lesson about the dangers of fundamentalism, in my opinion. For what it’s worth, my Loeb editions of the apostolic fathers are my most cherished items in my small library because the spine says “Kirsopp Lake” and NOT “Bart Ehrman”.

    EDIT: Minor tweaks.

  6. @Ezio, thank you so much for chasing up the catalogues of the Turin library. I’m not sure that I could have located these. Thank you!

    So the Turin manuscript is still listed in the 1922 catalogue, but it has an asterisk (*) before it. Looking in the introduction, I see these words:

    “I codici preceduti da un * sono quelli ridotti in stato inservibili e racchiusi in casse,…”

    “The manuscripts preceded by a * are those reduced to a useless state and enclosed in boxes,…”

    In other words, they were ‘destroyed’ in the fire of 1904, and the remains were boxed up. However I hear that many of these are not actually completely destroyed, and the remains are significant.

    The manuscript was a 16th century paper manuscript containing extracts of the Fathers, gathered from all sorts of sources, including Amphilochius of Iconium. One of these was the letter of Tiberius to Pilate. It may still be there, of course.

    Thank you – this is all useful.

  7. This is interesting. Here are some patristic references that seem to be related to the discussion:

    Tertullian: “BUT to see the rashness and injustice of the laws against us, let us cast an eye back upon their original, and we shall find an old decree, whereby the emperor himself was disabled from consecrating a new god, without the approbation of the senate. M. Aemilius learnt this with a witness, in the case of his god Alburnus. And this makes not a little for the honour of Christianity, to see the heathens in consult about making gods; and if the god is not such a deity as they like, he is like to be no God for them. Strange! That the god is first to pray the man to be propitious, before the man will allow of his godship. By virtue of this old decree it was that Tiberius, in whose reign Christianity came into the world, having received intelligence from Judea about the miracles of Christ, proposed it to the senate, and used his prerogative for getting Him enrolled among the number of their gods. The senate, indeed, refused the proposal, as having not maturely weighed His qualifications for a deity; but Caesar stood to his resolution, and issued out severe penalties against all who should accuse the worshippers of Christ.” (Apology 21)

    Justin Martyr: “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;” 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.” 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.” (Apology 35)

    Justin Martyr: “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.” And that He did those things, you can learn from the Acts of Pontius Pilate. And how it was predicted by the Spirit of prophecy that He and those who hoped in Him should be slain, hear what was said by Isaiah. These are the words: “Behold now the righteous perisheth, and no man layeth it to heart; and just men are taken away, and no man considereth. From the presence of wickedness is the righteous man taken, and his burial shall be in peace: he is taken from our midst.” (Apology 48)

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