‘Message from your wife, sir.’ ‘Not now.’ ‘She says: “Have nothing to do with this just man”’

Frank Kermode

  • Pilate: The Biography of an Invented Man by Ann Wroe
    Cape, 381 pp, £17.99, March 1999, ISBN 0 224 05942 4

To develop a full-scale portrait of a character from hints, often terse and reticent, in the gospel narratives – using for the purpose your imagination and whatever help you can get elsewhere – is, it seems, an attractive idea. A couple of years ago, reviewing in these pages a book that gave Judas Iscariot the treatment (LRB, 2 January 1997), I tried to explain why I found the result unpersuasive. Now here’s a biography of Pontius Pilate, a long, sometimes lively and sometimes learned piece of work, that is equally unconvincing.

Pilate was of course a historical figure, represented not only in the gospels but in the writings of a contemporary, the Alexandrian Jewish philosopher Philo Judaeus, and, more prominently, in those of the Jewish historian Josephus, who lived from about 37 to 100. Nobody questions that Jesus was condemned by the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate. Josephus says so, so does Philo and so does Tacitus, who did not think well of Christians, mentioning their origins only when discussing their persecution by Nero. Some coins, and an inscription related to Pilate, survive, but there are no other records. Still, he certainly existed, and unlike Judas is, however scantily, known from texts outside the Biblical record.

Apart from his reputation for cruelty, easily acquired by anybody in his position (controlling a difficult and remote province of the Empire), little is known about him except in relation to the trial of Jesus. Having apparently presided with some reluctance, doubting the prisoner’s guilt, he eventually condemned the accused to death. In their accounts of the conduct of the trial, the events leading up to it, the date of it, and what Pilate did next, the gospel accounts all vary to a rather surprising extent, although there is a general tendency, perhaps politically inspired, to shift the blame for the sentence from Pilate to the Jews. Matthew alone gives Pilate a wife, whose dream he reports. He also testifies to Pilate’s act of symbolic hand-washing, an un-Roman act that is unlikely to have taken place. Only Luke’s Jesus is sent to the court of Herod and returned to Pilate’s jurisdiction. John, but not the others, is privy to the dialogue Pilate had with Jesus (‘What is truth?’) and John alone credits him with certain memorable sayings: ‘Behold the man,’ and ‘What I have written I have written.’

It is likely that the evangelists are all ringing changes on some original and more factual narrative that was closer to the historical event. In the course of time many other writers rang the changes on the evangelists. Some say that he repented. In this more generous tradition he became a devout Christian and was later a saint in the Ethiopian Coptic Church. His wife, nameless in Matthew, was identified as Claudia Procula in a fourth-century book called The Acts of Pilate, an early and fanciful attempt to consolidate the existing accounts. Claudia Procula also became a saint. Wroe, apparently accepting the authenticity of Matthew’s version, would like to know more about Claudia’s dream, and, as is her custom, has a guess at its import. The other and, at any rate in the West, stronger tradition, is so far from thinking of Pilate as holy that it makes him the most evil of men. Some say he committed suicide. The English miracle plays represent him as a red-haired ranting villain.

The present book is a modern ‘Acts of Pilate’, with copious allusion to these and other traditions, much spontaneous invention, and some speculation of a more modern sort about the kind of person Pilate may have been. What makes the book so tiresome is a deliberate failure to distinguish between invention and report, made all the more confusing by the author’s self-indulgent taste for digression. One’s attention is abruptly diverted from the life of Pilate to whatever takes her fancy – what medieval dramatists made of it, or what Bulgakov had to say.

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