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Pontius Pilate Paperback – March 6, 2001
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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." --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Ann Wroe must have wondered the same thing, because this book is a 400-page exploration of Pilate in history, legend, and literature. Very little information about Pilate survives from his time: just the Gospel texts, some coins, an architectural fragment, and paragraphs from contemporary historians. To supplement this, Wroe pulls information from multiple other sources. She cites Pilate's colleagues to give an idea about what the life of a Roman governor was like. She quotes numerous texts from ancient gnostic, coptic, and early church legend books, as well as plays from the middle ages, to see how they embellished Pilate's tale. She references film and novels, and points out different locations in Europe that claimed to have a Pilate connection.
All of these sources provide multiple lenses for seeing Pilate. He is a violent oppressor, a sycophantic bureaucrat, a machiavellian conspirator, a man in over his head, a drunk, a blowhard, even a deeply apologetic convert. He's a saint in Ethiopia. Spaniards forged long-lost documents by him. His "childhood pants" were long displayed in a small German town, and, on Fridays, his ghost haunted a lake in the Alps. Because so little of Pilate is actually known, people have projected their ideas, their fears, their hatred, their idolization on him for centuries.
I was impressed with Wroe's ability to weave all these together. She takes Pilate's life, from birth to death, and explains how each text or legend describes those moments. She quotes these sources heavily, though Wroe's own writing is stylish, intelligent, and sometimes beautiful. The book does get long in the tooth in some spots, but whenever a lengthy quote from Cicero about the Roman idea of morality made my eyes glaze over, the next page featured a scene from a medieval play where Pilate steals the Holy Grail. By the end of the book, Wroe seems to take Pilate's question--"What is truth?"--and presents dozens of people's answers from throughout history, allowing us to decide.
What would be the difference between a "conjectural history" and a "historical fiction'? Clearly both can be based on extensive research. Possibly there's spectrum, involving a certain amount of overlap, across which "explicit uncertainty" and "implicit certainty" are found in inverse proportion. Any biography of Pontius Pilate would have to be conjectural; the total documentation of the man's existence could be printed in full, in the original languages and translation, on a few pages. However, fear not! Ann Wroe's "Pontius Pilate" is NOT a conjectural biography, though it is replete with identified conjectures based on established knowledge of Jewish, Roman, and later European history. Rather, this book is a study of the representations of Pilate - the concepts of Pilate within Christian and non-Christian communities - from the divergent accounts given in the four canonic gospels, to that of Augustine, to the entertaining figure of Medieval Passion and Corpus Christi dramas, to the Pilate that intrigued 19th C philosphers, to the bathetic parody of Hollywood cinema. What Wroe reveals is that the representation of Pilate has varied immensely, and that each successive concept of Pilate has served its purpose in the paradigm of religious, as well as political, beliefs of the successive epochs. Pilate is, and has always been, what people need him to be.
Wroe's respectful treatment of the Biblical portrayal of Pilate in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John will probably not be palatable to fundamentalist/evangelical Christians in America. First of all, it doesn't conflate them; instead it exposes their inconsistencies. Second, noting that all four accounts were written long after the events they purport to describe, Wroe (like Erdmann) uncovers the motivations of their authors, suggesting for instance that the Gospel of John, the latest to be written, set out explicitly to exonerate the Roman State, by making Pilate indecisive about Jesus's identity, and to 'pin the guilt' on the Jews. Of course, the Roman administration of a province like Judea reserved all control of executions to itself; historically, if anyone executed a man named Jesus by crucifixion, it was the Romans who did the deed. One can find some of the roots of virulent anti-Semitism is St. John's politically expedient evasiveness.
There were, however, not only the canonic Biblical representations of Pontius Pilate in the earliest centuries of Christianity. In Apochryphal and Gnostic sources, there are tales of a repentant Pilate, a Pilate who achieves redemption and sanctity. Likewise there are accounts of Pilate's wife, after the crucifixion, performing acts of charity and penitence. That wife, Claudia Procula according to some, was designated Saint Procula by Eastern Orthodox believers.
Some of the most astonishing representations of Pilate, and of Judas, come from much more recent sources, from the Corpus Christi dramas written in English, probably by local clergymen, in the 15th and 16th Centuries, and performed annually as pageants in various English towns, notably in York and Chester. Those dramas, full of low comedy and high theological pedagogy, rank alongside Chaucer's poems as the foundation of English literature. They are also extremely valuable sources of insight into the mindset - religious and social - of the English people in their formative era. Wroe has translated passage after passage into 'modern' English in order to delineate the Medieval perception of Pontius Pilate as a "corrupt ruler", a bad king if you will.
Closer to our times, Wroe finds a subtler image of Pilate. Here she quotes British Prime Minister Tony Blair:
"It is possible to view Pilate as the archetypal politician, caught on the horns of an age-old 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 test or what is morally absolute?..." This is a passage that might well resonate in the minds of American politicians following the recent battle over universal health care. Pontius Pilate, we assume, chose the expedient utilitarian test. Nancy Pelosi and the other Democrats who chose the moral absolute of extending health care to all Americans can pride themselves on not emulating Pilate.
There is another, far deeper question, which Ann Wroe probes gently but relentlessly, in the representation of Pontius Pilate within the Drama of God's Salvation of mankind. That's the ultimate theological paradox of God's omnipotence/omniscience versus human free will. What Christian thinker, since the Gnostics and Manicheans, has maintained that God did not intend the Crucifixion? Did not foresee and foreordain it? And in essence, execute the execution of Jesus Christ in order to fulfill His own Divine justice? But then, what "free will" did Pontius Pilate have? Was he a corrupt agent of a decadent despotism, as the Medievals imagined him? In that case, how can he be ascribed a will of his own? Wasn't he merely a 'fall guy" or a 'victim of entrapment? On the other hand, if he was a man of some conscience, who equivocated and tried to elude responsibility, to "wash his hands" of it, could he REALLY have chosen to liberate Jesus and thereby abort the divine plan of sacrifice? Of course not! God had the script in hand. Pilate was as much God's 'agent' in this schema as Mary, John the Baptist, or Peter. Or Judas, or Barabbas. Pontius Pilate stands as the embodiment of the inconsistency of personal guilt within a predestined eschatology. Beware, Christians! Pilate's dilemma is yours.
The more determined any reader is to have a single declarative answer to the question "what is truth", the less that reader will appreciate Ann Wroe's methodology or comprehend Ann Wroe's (un)conclusions. Readers with a taste for subtleties will find this book immensely readable, enjoyable, informative, possibly even revolutionary. Readers deeply committed to an assurance of the eternal verity and unity of Christian faith will find the waters of this book extremely disturbing to walk on.
PLEASE don't skip ahead and read the epilog before you finish the book...you'll be sorry if you do!