He is, to begin with, the only individual mentioned by name in the Nicene Creed, and is thus memorialized daily by millions in worship services around the world. He is also the gospel’s ultimate antagonist. One may, to be sure, point to Herod, to Judas, to Satan himself in the wilderness; but it is Pontius Pilate with whom Jesus enacts his climactic trial scene, and Pilate who, in hurried, pressured circumstances, with open (if historically questionable) remorse and without consultation, renders the verdict, on behalf of his Empire, that leads to the death of Jesus and the birth of Christianity. Yet what exactly do we know about this pivotal figure in the establishment of the world’s largest religion? Here is what we’re told in the Book of Mark, the earliest of the four canonical gospels and the principal source for the other three:
And straightway in the morning the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole council, and bound Jesus, and carried him away, and delivered him to Pilate.
And Pilate asked him, Art thou the King of the Jews? And he answering said unto him, Thou sayest it.
And the chief priests accused him of many things: but he answered nothing.
And Pilate asked him again, saying, Answerest thou nothing? behold how many things they witness against thee.
But Jesus yet answered nothing; so that Pilate marvelled.
Now at that feast he released unto them one prisoner, whomsoever they desired.
And there was one named Barabbas, which lay bound with them that had made insurrection with him, who had committed murder in the insurrection.
And the multitude crying aloud began to desire him to do as he had ever done unto them.
But Pilate answered them, saying, Will ye that I release unto you the King of the Jews?
For he knew that the chief priests had delivered him for envy.
But the chief priests moved the people, that he should rather release Barabbas unto them.
And Pilate answered and said again unto them, What will ye then that I shall do unto him whom ye call the King of the Jews?
And they cried out again, Crucify him.
Then Pilate said unto them, Why, what evil hath he done? And they cried out the more exceedingly, Crucify him.
And so Pilate, willing to content the people, released Barabbas unto them, and delivered Jesus, when he had scourged him, to be crucified. [Mark 15: 1-15]
That, plus a few subsequent lines in which Pilate gives Jesus’ body to Joseph of Arimathea, is all that Mark has to say about the governor of Judaea. Matthew adds to this foundational story a couple of minor embellishments – such as Pilate’s wife asking him to have nothing to do with “that just man,” for she has “suffered many things this day in a dream because of him” (Matt 27:19) – as well as these crucial lines: “When Pilate saw that he could prevail nothing, but that rather a tumult was made, he took water, and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this just person: see ye to it. Then answered all the people, and said, His blood be on us, and on our children." (Matt.27: 24-25) This last, outrageous detail – which biblical scholars nowadays recognize as an invention of the gospel writer designed to deflect responsibility for the Crucifixion from the Romans to the Jews – bears a great deal of the responsibility for the last two millennia of anti-Semitic persecution.
Then there is the Gospel according to Luke, in which Pilate, though not washing his hands, stands up more vocally in Jesus’ defense:
And Pilate, when he had called together the chief priests and the rulers and the people,
Said unto them, Ye have brought this man unto me, as one that perverteth the people: and, behold, I, having examined him before you, have found no fault in this man touching those things whereof ye accuse him:
No, nor yet Herod: for I sent you to him; and, lo, nothing worthy of death is done unto him.
I will therefore chastise him, and release him.
(For of necessity he must release one unto them at the feast.)
And they cried out all at once, saying, Away with this man, and release unto us Barabbas:
(Who for a certain sedition made in the city, and for murder, was cast into prison.)
Pilate therefore, willing to release Jesus, spake again to them.
But they cried, saying, Crucify him, crucify him.
And he said unto them the third time, Why, what evil hath he done? I have found no cause of death in him: I will therefore chastise him, and let him go.
And they were instant with loud voices, requiring that he might be crucified. And the voices of them and of the chief priests prevailed.
And Pilate gave sentence that it should be as they required. [Luke 23: 13-24]
Finally there is John’s Gospel, which fleshes out the trial in the way that this fourth gospel is notorious for – namely by having Jesus (who in the other canonical gospels avoids talking about himself) bluntly claim divine kingship. Thus it is in John that Jesus tells Pilute, “My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence.” To which Pilate replies, “Art thou a king then?” And Jesus answers, “Thou sayest that I am a king. To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth. Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice.” And then Pilate delivers his famous line: “What is truth?” After which he steps outside and tells the Jews, “I find in him no fault at all.”
This, then, constitutes the full biblical report on Pilate (to which ancient historical records add only a few details unrelated to the Christian narrative). One point that emerges from these scriptural excerpts is that the famous trial scene many of us have in our minds is a composite – the framing narrative comes from Mark, the extensive exchanges between Jesus and Pilate from John, the prolonged back-and-forth between Pilate and the crowd from Luke, and the celebrated detail of the handwashing from Matthew. In any case, it doesn’t add up to much – not enough, anyway, to get a clear picture of the man. On the other hand, it’s not much less than the Bible gives us about Mary, and look at what we think we know about her. The fact is that with Pilate, as with Mary, the bits and pieces of the person that have been given to us in the scriptural narratives – which are themselves uncertain admixtures of historical fact, pious fiction, theologically motivated visions and revisions, and (to put it bluntly) what we now would call “political spin” – have, over the centuries, been enhanced by the wonder-workings of both popular and institutional tradition.
For it is itself one of the cardinal truths of history that when history – or scripture – fails to tell us all that we want to know about a given person, human imagination soon seeks to fill in the gaps. Take Shakespeare, whose personal life continues to be the topic of novels and films. And take Mary: omit the Magnificat and she barely has a speaking part in the Good Book; at the Crucifixion she is little more than a background extra. Yet over the centuries accumulated legends and stories have caused her to flower into a dynamic figure – and the center of an extensive theological tradition – whom countless Christians have felt they know intimately. It may surprise some readers of Ann Wroe’s new book on Pontius Pilate to realize that he, too, belongs to this exclusive club. For the fact is that there have been innumerable Pilates down through the generations: first, the Pilates of the gospels, not only the four canonical ones but also the several so-called apocryphal ones (including the Acta Pilati); and, in the centuries since, the Pilates of local myths and folk dramas, of mystery plays and grail legends, of sermons and theological commentaries, of painters and sculptors, playwrights and filmmakers, novelists and poets. And now, the Pilate of Ann Wroe’s book, which ambitiously sifts through all these Pilates in an attempt to – well, to what? What exactly is its purpose?
Perhaps it is fair to say that, just as there are many ways of looking at Pilate, so there are many ways of looking at this book about him. One way is to read it as an attempt, almost as if on a bet or a dare, to write a full-length biography of a man about which virtually nothing is known for sure. Seen from this perspective, Pontius Pilate is nothing less than a tour de force – an exemplary demonstration of the ways in which comprehensive and imaginatively pursued historical research can legitimately be used to enhance a human portrait. Undeterred by the fact that there are few established facts about Pilate, Wroe (an Oxford-educated journalist who writes for the Catholic journal The Tablet and edits the American section of The Economist) fleshes him out by asking such questions as these: what path would a Roman of his time have had to take in order to end up as governor of Judaea? What talents would he have had to display, what sort of education would he be likely to have had, and whose favor would he have had to curry in order to attain that position? What philosophies would have shaped the way he viewed the world and his role in it? What sort of people would he have socialized with? What would have been his regular duties? What would he have worn, eaten, read? If (as is the case) there are no surviving documents in his own hand, what can we learn from extant letters and sundry documents written by men in similar positions – that is, by the contemporaneous Roman governors of other provinces?
To such questions it is indeed possible to give informed answers – and Wroe is remarkable both for the industry with which she has done the necessary research and for the elegance and insight with which she has used the fruits of that reasearch to shape a remarkably vivid picture of a Roman governor’s life in the time of Christ. The book is packed with details that bring Pilate’s world vividly to life. To a Roman nose, she writes, the Jews and other provincials “had a smell about them, a sharp, foreign smell untempered by perfume sprays. When Verres was pro-praetor of Sicily he would bury his face, on unavoidable outings, in a string bag stuffed with roses. Modern writers, from Kazantzakis to Bulgakov, have imagined Pilate too seeking refuge in gardens and handkerchiefs, an aesthete suffering in an unbearable place.” She describes in sumptuous detail the white marble palace in which Pilate stayed during his sojourns in Jerusalem: “Among its columns of colored marble and glittering fountains flew sudden scattered clouds of white doves. Their feathers fell on pavements of mosaic, on floors of agate and lapis lazuli; their wings beat among improbably high ceilings where every beam was painted with gold and vermilion. The chairs and tables were of gold or silver inlaid with jewels, uncomfortable designer objects in which no man could relax, and Herod’s gifts from his emperor friends were on display in every room....And it was into this cold but fantastic hotel that Pilate brought Christ.”
Wroe informs us that Pilate was prefect of Judaea, not, as Anatole France’s famous story would have it, “procurator” – a title, she notes briskly, that had gone out of use by Pilate’s time. We learn, too, that both Augustus and Tiberius “sent golden vials and libation bowls to decorate the sanctuary” at the Temple in Jerusalem, “and the Roman administration (that is, Pilate’s officers) provided the bullock and two lambs that were sacrificed there daily on Tiberius’ orders for the safety of the emperor.” She authoritatively dismisses the tradition that the letters INRI (“Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum”) appeared on the Cross: the legend “would not have been abbreviated; it would need to be understood, and besides, Pilate was not a man for abbreviations.” (This last being a fact that she has already neatly demonstrated.) We’re told that while many Europeans came to see Pilate as “the wandering spirit of evil,” in Ethiopia the fact that he had washed his hands of Jesus’ blood caused him to be made a saint. (“The Coptic liturgy reflected the fascination with water of any dry-land people subject to inundations.”) And in one of many illuminating parallels between the Roman and British imperial periods, we’re reminded that the charge on which the British tried and convicted Gandhi – that of sedition – “was the same charge on which Pilate tried and convicted Christ.”
Among the book’s many fascinating passages is one in which Wroe – apropos of the gospel references to Jesus as king of the Jews, and by way of helping us to understand the significance of the mocking crown of thorns that the Roman soldiers placed on his head – explains how the Romans felt about kings. The Romans, she tells us,
had a dim view of kings, which they incongruously preserved long after the Republic had collapsed and the emperors had seized power.... ‘When we think of kingship, we immediately think of an unjust king,’ wrote Cicero. ‘All those who have power of life and death over a subject people, though they prefer to be called kings, are tyrants.’ Few boys in Pilate’s day would have escaped the set exercise of delivering a speech against ‘The Tyrant,’ a figure of fantastically stylized violence who could not be confused, even for a moment, with any ruler a Roman boy might know of.
Pages of anecdotes follow, all of them intrinsically interesting and all helping the reader better to understand the Roman perspective on kingship. By the end of the passage, Jesus' crown of thorns has taken on a richer significance than one could ever have expected it would. Here, as in many other places throughout her book, Wroe reminds us that context is all – and moves us to astonishment at the realization of how much we have missed by failing to fully grasp the context of certain familiar gospel passages.
But Wroe’s ambitions do not stop at fleshing out history and scripture. Her book is also a study of the interplay between strict historical truth and the forces that, from the time an individual becomes a public figure, begin to shape his or her public image into something different from the real thing. In a sense, in short, Wroe’s book amounts to an attempt to engage Pilate’s own query: “What is truth?” (Pontius Pilate, by the way, is apparently not Wroe’s first book to address this question; her previous works include Lives, Lies and the Iran-Contra Affair.) To be sure, her ultimate purpose is not to sort through legends to determine the actual historical facts – which seems, in Pilate’s case, an impossible quest anyway – but to help us peer through the web of variously dubious, cryptic, incomplete, and mutually contradictory stories about Pilate to the complex and ever-ambiguous human truths that inhabit scripture, myth, and history alike: to the reality, that is, of the faithful millions whose all-too-human impulses caused those legends to accumulate around Pilate’s name, and the reality of Pilate himself as a living, breathing human being with whom many a twenty-first-century reader might actually have been able to identify.
Yet Wroe’s ambitions reach still further. She is a Christian, and seeks to point to what she regards as the divine purpose that gave Pilate’s life its ultimate meaning – and that in doing so gave a new meaning, in her belief, to all human lives. And it is here, in her theology, that Wroe runs into a bit of trouble. For Wroe, a fatalist, sees Pilate and Judas (among others) as God’s instruments, compelled by Him to do certain evil things for which He then damned them to Hell. Jesus, maintains Wroe,
knew what [Judas’] role was among the disciples even before Judas was sure of it himself....When Judas asked Jesus ‘Is it I, Lord?,’ Jesus answered: ‘You said it.’ Pilate was later to ask Jesus questions to which he would get the same irritating answer, as if to say: ‘Of course. Those are the words I expected, the lines written in the script for you since time began. You said them. Well done.’
Pilate’s role, she goes on to say,
was to be the winter to Christ’s spring. He could struggle, of course. He was free to do that. But the result of his struggling was already known: however he wriggled, he would end up as God’s agent....It was as if Pilate himself was doing God’s work of punishment....He was showing Judaea what the wrath of God was like; he was the implacable and violent opposite of Jesus’ gentleness and healing. This made them co-conspirators. Pilate did not need to creep, like Nicodemus, to visit Jesus in the dark. He was already instructed to behave as he was meant to. He was in the plan, enlisted already, condemned already.
This is somewhat disturbing theology, and one wonders if Wroe – who has made quite explicit her belief in a God of love – seriously credits it. How to square a God of love, after all, with a God who would condemn one of his children to eternal punishment for doing something God wanted him to do, something he was foreordained to do, something he was unable not to do? With elegant indefinition worthy of an Anglican (though she is in fact a Roman Catholic), Wroe avoids addressing this unseemly business head-on. And admittedly the problem of evil is not just Wroe’s but Christianity’s sticky wicket. Yet there is no discounting the fact that from the moment Wroe drags her own theology onstage, troubling questions begin to hover stubbornly over every page of her cultivated prose.
There are other unattractive moments. At one point, Wroe outlines the ancient historian Josephus’ account of a Jewish demonstration outside Pilate’s palace in Cæsarea. Though Pilate threatened to kill the protestors (who were challenging his decision to fly Roman standards in Jerusalem), they stood firm, willing to give their lives in order to show how seriously they took this act of desecration. Eventually Pilate caved, and the banners came down. In what is by far her book’s most incongruous passage, Wroe, after relating this story, compares these Jews to modern-day activists participating in a pro-life rally outside an abortion clinic. Wroe describes such a protest in detail and with unqualified admiration; and she likens Pilate, furthermore, to the commanding police officer at the demo, who, like the governor of Judaea, “is bound by the imperative to keep order, whatever the cost in terms of his own pride or his own convictions.” What is disturbingly implicit here is that true moral conviction exists only on one side of the abortion issue, and that a police chief who protects abortion-clinic workers and patients from physical harm has somehow failed in his deeper moral duties.
Elsewhere in Pontius Pilate, meditating on the “staging” of Jesus’ trial in the Fourth Gospel, Wroe offers up the following sentences, in which she manages to be simultaneously at her best and worst: “In the inward place, the grove, the cave or the praetorium, stands Jesus, who is the truth and the light; outside are the Jews in the darkness of their ignorance, refusing to enter. Between the two walks Pilate, constantly in and out, struggling to decide where he wants to be: in the howling darkness with those who do not believe, or in the holy and unsettling embrace of God.” Reading such a passage creates a strange sensation: one is struck at once by Wroe’s exquisitely sensitive insight, which puts the familiar episode in a remarkable new light, and by the appearance of insensitivity in her reference to the Jews. To be sure, it could be said in her defense that she is not speaking for herself here but is instead viewing the encounter through the gospel writer’s eyes. There is some truth in this; yet the problem here, as in too many other places in the book, is that Wroe is more eager to indiscriminately embrace every sentence of scripture and legend, presumably for the degree of human truth (as opposed to strict historical fact) that they may contain, than to do the more mundane job of winnowing out the specific things in those accounts that she believes or approves of from the things she doesn’t.
For the uncomfortable – and, by Wroe, underacknowledged – fact is that virtually everything written about Pilate in the Bible is deeply suspect, owing to the gospel writers’ desire to deaccentuate the culpability of the Romans in the Crucifixion, transfer as much guilt as possible to “the Jews,” and thus win gentile converts. It appears obvious that Pilate’s handwashing, and the crowd’s exclamation “His blood be on us, and on our children,” were concocted out of whole cloth precisely for this purpose. Wroe doesn’t take into consideration the way these details skew (to put it mildly) our picture of Pilate, and doesn’t even try to satisfactorily address the profound moral questions raised by them. To do so, of course, would cause Pontius Pilate to be a very different sort of volume – one less genteel and poetic and assured, perhaps, and more troubled in its engagement with scripture. There is, to put it another way, a certain quality of seamlessness and seemliness here that for all its attractiveness conceals a touch of falsity at the work’s core. It is unfortunate to have to say this about a book that contains so much excellence, and so much truth.
THE HUDSON REVIEW, Autumn 2001