Monday, August 18, 2008

Apostles' Creed Question: Suffering or Crucified Under Pontius Pilate

A bit off the focus of this blog on biblical studies and technology, but this question was recently addressed to me, and it caught me off guard. (To keep an attribution trail, I heard this from someone who thinks he heard it initially from the author and theologian, Marva Dawn.) Not quite sure where else to get some help on the matter, and I'm hoping someone of you might know more.
In the 4th article of the Apostles' Creed, all the traditional English versions [a number of English versions posted on Wikipedia] state that Jesus "suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried." >>> Isn't the point that Jesus suffered and was crucified under Pontius Pilate? (NOT that he suffered under Pilate and was crucified)

>>> This kind of phrasing question makes me wonder about underlying punctuation that may or may not be present in original manuscripts and word order matters that are different for Greek/Latin as compared to English.
Here are the original Latin and subsequent Greek of the phrase in question (texts from CCEL):

  • passus sub Pontio Pilato, crucifixus, mortuus, et sepultus;
  • παθόντα ἐπὶ Ποντίου Πιλάτου, σταυρωθέντα, θανόντα, καὶ ταφέντα
Both of these have punctuation supplied, but I don't know if any such indicators were provided in the original mss. Some things I do note:
  • Are the verbs "to suffer" or "to crucify" regularly used with sub / epi?
Answering this question would provide some guide to which verb the prepositional phrase most likely attached. Perhaps the use of the Greek epi to translate the Latin sub is a clue? >> I can't find much in the way of other texts to support a claim one way or the
other. (I am better at working with the Greek than the Latin, however...) Since Pilate did not take direct action in crucifying Jesus, I suspect that the use of sub/epi here indicates something like suffered/crucified under the authority of Pilate.

The best indicator of usage I can find in the Latin is the Nicene Creed! (Text and parallel table here):
  • crucifixus etiam pro nobis sub Pontio Pilato, passus et sepultus est
  • and crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, suffered and was buried
I suppose this could be taken as "crucified for us, under Pontius Pilate suffered and...," but I think it would indeed more naturally suggest that "crucified for us under Pontius Pilate" is the point of emphasis.

Another relevant indicator I found for understanding these phrases is involved in the complicated history of the Apostles' Creed. For convenience, here is a clip from the helpful parallel tables provided at CCEL.
This chart appears to indicate that the earlier formulations focused on "crucified under Pontius Pilate." The sub Pontio Pilato phrase does appear before crucifixus. The passus was added later. I suspect, therefore, that it is only in these later editions that the phrasing became "suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified..."

Note that I am not proposing to change the Apostles' Creed! Since Jesus did indeed both suffer and was crucified under Pilate's authority, it is not really a big deal, and perhaps the location of the prepositional phrase between the two verbs even suggests this concept.
What I might suggest is a relocation of the comma in the English versions >>>
  • ... suffered , under Pontius Pilate was crucified, died, and was buried...
Again, not a big deal, but it does bring emphasis to Jesus' crucifixion more than his suffering which I think really is the most important aspect.

Any other suggestions, comments, evidence, corrections...?

UPDATE (2009.02.01): Thanks for the comments which largely are supporting a broader reading of suffering in general (including crucifixion) and understanding the "under" as "in the time of." One more comparison to consider is the Nicene Creed. The 325 version just uses suffering which must include Jesus' crucifixion. The 381 version reads, σταυρωθέντα τε ὑπὲρ ἡμῶν ἐπὶ Ποντίου Πιλάτου, καὶ παθόντα, καὶ ταφέντα, = "having been crucified for us 'under' Pontius Pilate, and having suffered, and having been buried..."
a) Here is a clear statement that the "under Pilate" goes with the "having been crucified."
b) The 'having been crucified' and 'having suffered' are clearly taken together. (In contrast to the Apostles' Creed which could be read as suffered 'then' crucified.)



  1. Technically speaking, πάσχω is not passive but active, nor is patior, usually termed a deponent, but actually a middle. πάσχω may function as a passive in that it takes a ὑπὸ + gen. agent construction -- but it's a misnomer to call it a passive verb.

  2. EPI + Genitive is a fairly common way to say "in the time of" and that is how I always understood it and heard it explained. So to me, it makes no difference to which clause it is applied as all three of those actions all took place during the time of Pontius Pilate.

  3. Carl: You are indeed correct. (I was mainly thinking about the passive use of 'crucify.') I fixed the post to clarify. Thanks!
    Michael: I was looking at the Latin 'sub,' and using it as a guide to the Greek. Further checking on the Latin, though, shows that 'sub' can indeed also mean "in the time of."
    Perhaps, then, the issue is more of English translation. We say "suffer under," and I suspect most people hear it as "suffer at the hands of." (But to say "crucified under Pilate" probably evokes an image of Pilate crucified above him!)

  4. I think you're correct in saying that there can be problems in the English translation. I don't know who in the world is the author of the "official" English translation of the creed, but it is a little too wooden to be useful for really explaining what the original said as has just been shown. But revising the language of creeds is even more emotionally laden than that of the Bible I think.... Just try getting into the language of the Nicene creed "for us men and for our salvation"

  5. I really doubt that there was much in terms of punctuation in the original texts of the Creed. At any rate, my feeling has always been that πάσχω here is a general term that stands for undergoing misfortunes. These misfortunes are then clarified in a hendiatris.

  6. Marva Dawn told me that the reason she thinks it should be "suffered, under Pontius Pilate was crucified," is that this opens the possibility that Jesus' suffering included the time before the week of his crucifixion as well. E.g., those times when he put up with his disciples "How much longer must I be with you?" or when he said "How often I wanted to gather you under my wings, and you would not!" I think there is merit in this notion, even if it was not intended by the original authors of the Creed.