“… And He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate and suffered and was buried.”
Who was Pontius Pilate? He was a Roman bureaucrat, procurator (governor) of the Roman province of Judea at the time of Christ. He was a mid-level official and had a lackluster career. The question becomes “why is this Roman bureaucrat in the Creed”? After all, the Creed is a precise, elegant statement of Orthodox dogma. The reason he is in the Creed is to anchor our faith in history. In other words, Christianity is rooted in history in a way other religions are not. For example, Buddhism teaches an eight-fold path to reach enlightenment. According to Buddhists, if one follows this path one will be enlightened. In other words, the important thing in Buddhism is the path. The truth or falsehood of Buddhism does not depend on the details of Buddha’s life.
Things are otherwise in Christianity. Much of the ethical teaching of Jesus can be found in Jewish or pagan sources. What is most important for Christianity depends on who Christ is. When we say that Christianity (and Judaism before it) we mean that God acted, intervened in historical events. For example, after the fall of Adam and Eve, God chose Abraham to make his covenant with, promising Abraham and his descendants God’s special care if they obeyed His commandments. Centuries later when Moses led the Jewish people out of the slavery of Egypt, he gave them the Law and a covenant on Mount Sinai. In the centuries following Moses, God sent prophets to the Jewish people telling them that the Messiah was coming and they should prepare for his coming by following the Law. Of course, we as Christians affirm that Jesus Christ is that promised Messiah. The history of salvation reaches its fulfilment in Jesus Christ. As important as Jesus’ teaching is, our faith and salvation depends on the historical truth of the Gospel narratives. More particularly, acted in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In his resurrection Jesus fundamentally overcame the power of sin, death and the devil, giving eternal life to those who follow him. The point is, if Jesus Christ did not really dies and rise again our faith is meaningless. As Saint Paul writes: “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.” (1 Cor 15:17) This is why Christian (and other) scholars study the New Testament from the historical point of view. If one is not used to reading historical criticism one may be shocked by the scholarly approach to the Gospels, but the fact of the matter is that after centuries of intense study of literally every word in the Gospel, historical criticism has found nothing that would undermine our faith. Sometimes when one reads or hears skeptical scholars in the popular media, one might find them criticizing the historical basis of the Gospel, especially of the resurrection. However, the substance of their conclusions comes down to a simple refusal to believe that God can act in history. If one does not have this preconceived bias, the historical truth of Christ’s resurrection is quite clear.
The inclusion of Pontius Pilate in our Creed is a reminder for all time that God decisively, in a small corner of the Roman Empire, was the place of God’s supreme act in history of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.