Pontius Pilate arrived in Judaea in the year 26, sent to collect taxes and oversee the firm establishment of Roman law. His ten-year term was a time of relative peace in this fractious new outpost of the Roman Empire, where violence was not uncommon. He was not loved and not quite feared, and might have vanished into obscurity had he not come to preside, with some reluctance, over the most famous trial in history. In this brilliant biography, a finalist for the Samuel Johnson Prize and a masterpiece of scholarship and imagination, Ann Wroe brings Pilate and his world to life. Working from classical sources, she reconstructs his origins and upbringing, his career in the military and life in Rome, his confrontation with Christ, and his long journey home. We catch glimpses of him pacing the marble floors in Caesarea, sharpening his stylus, getting dressed shortly before sunrise on the day that would seal his place in history. What were the pressures on Pilate that day What did he really think of Jesus Pontius Pilate lets us see Christ's trial for the first time, in all its confusion, from the point of view of his executioner.
Wroe takes current trends in the genre of biography one step further in this eloquent yet frustrating book, offering a reconstructed life of the Roman official who, by ordering the execution of Jesus of Nazareth but otherwise serving with little distinction, managed to become simultaneously famous and obscure. Outside the Gospels, which each bring the governor on stage for a brief if highly charged cameo appearance, there are only a few references to Pilate in contemporary sources. Where other biographers would see a historical desert, Wroe sees the tantalizing mirages that have sprung up over the centuries, from the fourth-century Acta Pilati to medieval mystery plays. She weaves these nonhistorical speculations together with well-researched accounts of first-century Roman lives, producing a shifting but suggestive portrait of an ultimately very human functionary. The writing is both precise and rich (as one might expect from the American editor of the Economist), and the insights into human character ring consistently true, but Wroe's bibliography is alarmingly scant when it comes to historical research on Jesus (who, after all, presents similar problems to biographers). And unlike Jaroslav Pelikan in his masterful Jesus Through the Centuries, Wroe often forfeits the opportunity to show how Pilate's reimagining served changing historical situations, juxtaposing quotes from mystery plays and letters from Cicero with deliberate abandon. "What did he look like However men imagine him," Wroe writes. Readers who know the satisfactions of more conventional history will find such equivocations disappointing, but those who take Wroe's project on its own terms will find much to ponder. (Apr.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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March 06, 2001
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Excerpt from Pontius Pilate by Ann Wroe
Chapter 5 -- The Great Equivocator
The intriguing thing about Pilate is the degree to which he tried to do the good thing rather than the bad. He commands our moral attention not because he was a bad man, but because he was so nearly a good man. One can imagine him agonising, seeing that Jesus had done nothing wrong, and wishing to release him. Just as easily, however, one can envisage Pilate's advisers telling him of the risks, warning him not to cause a riot or inflame Jewish opinion. It is a timeless parable of political life.
It is possible to view Pilate as the archetypal politician, caught on the horns of an age-old political dilemma. We know he did wrong, yet his is the struggle between what is right and what is expedient that has occurred throughout history. The Munich Agreement Of 1938 was a classic example of this, as were the debates surrounding the Great Reform Act Of 1832 and the Corn Laws. And it is not always clear, even in retrospect, what is, in truth, right. Should we do what appears principled or what is politically expedient? Do you apply a utilitarian rest or what is morally absolute?
Christianity is optimistic about the human condition, but not naive. It can identify what is good, but knows the capacity to do evil. I believe that the endless striving to do the one and avoid the other is the purpose of human existence. Through that comes progress.
---TONY BLAIR, interview in the Sunday Telegraph, April 7, 1996
IT WAS DARK WHEN HE AWOKE. At the first cockcrow, at that time of year, the moon was often up and shining. At the second cockcrow, the gallicinium, night still hung in the silent trees. It must have been around four in the morning. A servant roused him, lighting the fire and opening the shutters to reveal the pale beginnings of the sunrise. The third legion in Syria had once adopted the local practice of saluting the rising sun; it had brought them luck in battle. The Acta Pilati imagined that Pilate, too, would have saluted it; later that day this account had him washing his hands "before the sun," the god of purification. Most later writers have liked to think that he ignored it, eyes screwed up, head aching from the fun of the night before; and that it was in this state, hungover and resentful, that he embarked on the day that was to seal his place in history.
In fact, it was not unconscionably early for him. Back in Rome it was not unusual for clients to get up and dress in the dark, in order to be the first to pay their morning respects to their patrons. Lawyers too started the court day at dawn, so that by three in the afternoon the business day would be over. Horace in one of his letters rejoiced in this arrangement: "At Rome it was long a pleasure and a habit to be up at dawn with open door, to set forth the law for clients." Others, to be sure, took a different view. Martial wrote that one of the chief delights of going to the country was that "the pale defendant will not break your sleep, and you can dream all through the morning." Bur Pilate's dreams had fled already, and the pale defendant was approaching.