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Pontius Pilate Hardcover – April 4, 2000

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Pontius Pilate, by Ann Wroe, is beautifully written, imaginatively researched, and intricately structured. Most importantly, it provides readers with a valuable emotional experience: a chance to rediscover and redeem Pilate's famous question--"What is truth?"--in a spirit of humility and hope. A handful of small coins and one inscribed stone are the only physical evidence that Pilate existed. All of the textual sources that mention Pilate, Wroe notes, are "so wrapped in propaganda or agendas that it is difficult to detect what, if anything, may be true." But since Pilate "stands at the center of the Christian story and God's plan of redemption," Wroe persevered in her efforts to discern the profile of his life. "Without his climactic judgment of Jesus, the world would not have been saved. To have a faceless bureaucrat at the heart of all this drama was unacceptable: something had to be made of this man." The book's bold ambition, however, is not blind. "This is not a search for the 'real' Pilate," Wroe admits. "At best, all we have are glints and hypotheses." To learn about her subject, Wroe had to sacrifice most of her sympathetic impulses and shift her concentration to the elements of Roman life that she did not understand. And oddly enough, the passages in which Wroe describes her ignorance most clearly are where we begin to glimpse "a man actually walking on a marble floor in Caesarea, feeling his shoes pinch, clicking his fingers for a slave, while clouds of lasting infamy gather overhead."

From Publishers Weekly

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 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Random House; 1st edition (April 4, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375503056
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375503054
  • Product Dimensions: 1.8 x 6.5 x 9.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.7 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (46 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #328,742 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Reading this book it seems that she can never quite make up her mind.
James Jordan
I read it to gain insight for period writing of my own; I loved it because it was phenomonally written.
Tracy Groot
Out front: This is the most interesting study of Christianity -- yes, that's what I said!
Giordano Bruno

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

35 of 38 people found the following review helpful By Luciano D'Orazio on May 25, 2000
Format: Hardcover
This book is unique in that it does not assume to have all the facts about Pontius Pilate's life. Rather, Wroe takes what little we know of him, coupled with classical writings of Tacitus, Pliny and Suetonius, as well as medieval and modern representations through drama and prose, and creates a general character that is as complex as any person should be under those circumstances. This is not a history of Christianity or the Jews, but an attempt to create a living character out of what little we know. I think any other method to examining Pilate's life would be reduced to crude hagiography.
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17 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Dr. James Gardner VINE VOICE on July 9, 2006
Format: Paperback
Ann Wroe's Pontius Pilate begins with the disclaimer that there isn't very much historical information about the former Prefect of Judea, and then goes on for 400+ pages. In fact, this book could be subtitled - "More than you ever wanted to know about who Pilate might have been." Wroe begins by giving us 3 different scenarios about Pilate's birth, with origins in Italy, or Germany, or Spain. Take your pick. Wroe provides three different stories with little guidance as to which is most likely. She then proceeds to tell us what life was like for the young adult when he lived in Rome. It's not about Pilate, per se, but about life in general for someone like Pilate, although we're not sure if it's the peasant Italian pilot, the swashbucking Spanaird, or the brooding German. Apparently it didn't make too much difference.

Wroe is a very good writer and she's obviously done her homework. So the fanciful sections about what life was like is very interesting and informative, but a reader who was drawn by the title "Pontius Pilate" might feel cheated that Wroe's central character is actually missing.

Here's some examples...

"...we have little more to rely on when we come to his age, or his marriage, or how bright he was. Of his age, we can only be certain that he was not younger than 30 when he went to Judea. That was the minimum age for governors..." (p. 40)

"The presence of Procula [his wife] in Judea, if she was there, has often been taken as an indicator of love. In the early years of the empire, wives did not normally accompany their husbands to the provinces." (p. 44)

"Ti estim alethia? was what he [Pilate] said, according to John; and if indeed he said it, Greek was very probably the language he used.
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24 of 28 people found the following review helpful By David W. Lee on October 30, 2000
Format: Hardcover
I was deeply moved by the feeling, eloquence and power of this book, and valued its interlacing of the lives of Pilate, Tiberias Caesar, and Jesus in a historical context. An especially powerful rendering, on pages 137 and 138, conveys the presence of Jesus as follows: ". . . the stars were in alignment, and the land of Judaea swarmed with intimations of Christ. . . . The leaves shivered and, before the wind, exposed the name of Christ on their pale undersides. . . . [W]ord came to the swallows that darted around the eaves of the houses . . . . All day they swooped and dashed across the terraces and into the cool tiles halls, squeaking the name of Christ."
It is impossible not to be affected by the spirit of what transpired during Pilate's life. This is a wonderful book, and a valued one.
David W. Lee leelawok@mmcable.com
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14 of 16 people found the following review helpful By Douglas Turnbull on April 23, 2001
Format: Paperback
As Wroe admits, there is not enough hard evidence to allow one to write a true biography of Pilate. So she doesn't attempt this. Instead, she weaves together the fragments that do exist into a wonderful book, which can be roughly divided into 2main sections.
The first deals with the historical background. Firstly,what did it mean for a Roman to be named a provincial governor? What sorts of people acheived this status, and how would they have viewed their job?
Secondly, what was the situation in Judea during Pilate's time there? What was the relationship between the Romans and the Jews? What do we know about Pilate's specific acts while there? Although I knew quite a bit of Roman history, these sections were still very interesting, and did a better job of putting that history into a personal context than the usual political histories.
The second section is much more speculative, and recounts the Passion, using both the Gospels and numerous medieval Passion Plays to explore Pilate, his character, and his motives. I think it is this section that some reviewers have objected to, but it was what I found most interesting.
Pilate only shows up briefly in the Gospels, but the very existence of this book testifies to the continuing fascination that he has for people. Wroe traces some of the historical threads and interpretations on Pilate that have been created, and supplies a few speculations of her own. To me, this section read like nothing so much as _The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony_ by Calasso, with its telling and retelling of the Greek myths, sort of a theme and variations approach to the numerous alternative myths that have grown up around the central stories.
So, maybe it isn't biography, but it is an enjoyable, informative, and thought provoking work of non-fiction, wherever you want to shelve it.
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19 of 25 people found the following review helpful By M. Packo on February 22, 2004
Format: Paperback
Since there is bound to be a surge of interest about Pilate
in the wake of the Gibson film, I thought it might be helpful
to post this cautionary note to the curious.
Be advised that there is scant factual information about the
real, historical Pontius Pilate available anywhere.
Therefore, Ann Wroe's biography is, as her title indirectly reveals -
and which she thoroughly admits to within -
an invention; though all credit to her, a superbly researched invention.
This is a virtual biography of someone who has become a cultural icon.
There is considerable scholarship and erudition on display in this portrait,
but so much speculation and reliance
on the fictionalization of its subject that it is guaranteed
to frustrate anyone who hopes to discover the real person
buried within.
Pontius Pilate is lost in time and all we have left is our
cultural phantasms of him. Ann Wroe finds these projections
interesting, but you may not. If you enjoy cultural history,
then by all means appreciate Ann Wroe's considerable research.
If you prefer a more factual representation, this book is not for
Fashionable rationalizations concerning the impossibility
of accurately reconstructing historical events or a person's
life actually work to this author's advantage in this case.
Otherwise, I think such arguments are sophistry at its worst.
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