‘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.

Since nothing whatever is known of Pilate’s early life, conjecture is supported by liberal allusion to and citation of Roman authors – Horace, Catullus, Pliny, Cicero, Seneca, Ovid. Whenever these witnesses to upper-class Roman life and thought are called we are told more about them than can possibly have any but the most tenuous connection with Pilate. Ovid suffered exile: suppose Pilate, dismissed from his job and summoned to Rome and probable disgrace, had also been exiled? In that case would he have felt as miserable as Ovid? Cicero thought thus and thus: might not Pilate have shared his views? Perhaps this presumably well-educated Roman had also been impressed by the sceptical philosophers? Although there is ‘no firm evidence’ that Pilate was Sejanus’ creature, just suppose he was? There are three solid pages about Sejanus, who may or may not have had dealings with Pilate.

Was Pilate a member of the provincial Samnite knightly class? Probably his father was, but he probably escaped that lowlier order of knighthood and migrated to Rome, where he probably lived in a rather fine house, here elaborately described. On the other hand, Pontius was probably poorer than the other boys at his school. We do not know his first name, the name he was called by in his infancy. All we can do is speculate. ‘As a child, whether he was called Marcus or Gaius or Lucius would have mattered; but as he grew older his friends and even his lovers would have used his cognomen, Pilate with three syllables in the vocative, when they talked or wrote to him.’ We are invited to consider what Pilate might have been like as a baby, then as a schoolboy. His first shave is described, and his behaviour at the baths. ‘Together Pilate and his friends would attack the baths in style, leaping in off the side, splashing all and sundry with their ferocious strokes, wrestling one another like dolphins, belting out songs in the wonderful echo of the changing rooms.’ His probable career as a soldier is outlined, and so is his probable style of life in Judea, which could have included being cut by a slave barber and routinely pissing into a pot held by yet another slave. The words ‘probably’ and ‘perhaps’ are freely employed, though perhaps not often enough.

Though perhaps not in bathroom matters, Pilate’s job and his lifestyle were probably very like those of a British official in India. His resemblance to Lord Reading is stressed; Reading, though expressing respect for the natives, kept them in their place and had Gandhi convicted on a charge of sedition. Reading may not have needed a knowledge of Indian languages, but it may be thought that Pilate had some linguistic problems in dealing with his Jewish subjects. Perhaps his Greek was fluent, perhaps it wasn’t. If it wasn’t, could the premature termination of his philosophical debate with Jesus have been caused by a language difficulty? At this point there is an argument about the use by both speakers of the Greek word aletheia, ‘truth’, said to be used by Pilate in ‘not quite the construction’ employed by Jesus. This argument, undeveloped, is obscure. Anyway, it is not improbable that both parties had conversational Greek. But as the conversation is presumably a fiction anyway, the whole discussion is, like so much else in the book, irrelevant. Even if one treats John’s text as an exact record of what was said it is not hopelessly difficult to explain it. When Pilate asked ‘What is truth?’ he need not have been talking like a sceptical philosopher but simply asking Jesus what he meant when he said he had come into the world ‘to bear witness to the truth’.

However, the gospel text is not a transcript of that sort. The author too often treats the Passion narratives as if that is what they were. The long process of giving body and interest to the character of the Judge actually began with the inventions of the evangelists. Latest in the long line of their successors, Wroe must have understood their motives, for she writes in the same spirit, for example inventing a good deal of brisk dialogue:

The woman with the issue of blood tried to speak, but the anti-Jesus lobby cut her short; women’s evidence did not count. Then came another shout, louder than the rest. ‘This man is a prophet, and the demons are subject to him!’

  ‘So why,’ asked Pilate wearily, ‘aren’t your teachers subject to him?’

  ‘We don’t know.’

  The Pilate of the Acta sat down in the judgment seat. He still did not know what to say. But as he sat there, he felt a whisper in his ear. An attendant murmured: ‘Message from your wife, sir.’

  ‘Not now.’

  ‘She says: “Have nothing to do with this just man, because I’ve suffered many things today in a dream because of him.” ’

And so on. The mention of the Acta goes some way to justifying this kind of invention as relating not to the historical events themselves but to later embellishments. Mostly one isn’t told where the new fancy originates. On what authority are we told that Judas was a hireling of Pilate – a legend with about as much historical value as the one that makes him an adopted son of royalty? Caiaphas is said to have kept his job by means of an annual bribe, so the question arises whether Pilate was bribable. In one place it is expressly stated that he wasn’t interested in money, in another we are told that ‘his principles followed the warm trail of cash.’ So far as I know there is no evidence one way or the other. It may be assumed that men in Pilate’s job would make as much on the side as they could before going back to Rome; but since there is no positive evidence that Pilate did fill his pockets, equivocation or self-contradiction is called for.

On the criteria here employed almost nothing can be declared irrelevant. Pompey’s desecration of the Temple is described, though it happened a generation after Pilate had gone home. The Jewish priests are shown anxiously turning over the creaking pages of their huge Bible; that this is a palpable anachronism merely underlines its status as a fanciful irrelevance.

What, then, is the book really saying about Pilate? A kind of superplot is suggested: Jesus and Pilate were probably about the same age, and their careers, and indeed the entire history of the world, had been divinely arranged to make their encounter inevitable. To prove this theory the book takes us back to the garden of Eden and the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Adam and Eve ate of the fruit, thus necessitating the Incarnation and the Redemption. Oddly enough, The Golden Legend reports that Pilate also pined for and ate an apple, with disastrous consequences. Thoreau also wrote about apples ‘too beautiful to eat’ in the woods of Massachusetts. The Song of Songs mentions apples. So it goes on, obscuring rather than illuminating the argument that Pilate was being prepared for the role of the judge who made possible the salvific act of the victim. This is the theory proposed – how seriously, the tone of the writing makes it impossible to tell. It is not really possible to say what this book is really saying about Pilate.

A digressive, excessive habit is established from the outset, when several pages are devoted to a storm at Blackpool in 1870, the same storm, it seems, that sank HMS Captain. In that wreck there perished all but one page of an Ethiopian manuscript. The surviving page contains, in Coptic, Pilate’s prayer for forgiveness. It is now in the Ashmolean; one can go and look at it. An interesting excursion, although it will add nothing to Pilate’s biography. Later there are many such excursions, some even less instructive, such as a description of the crowds in Victoria Street at morning rush hour, ‘glass towers above, sandwich shops below’. Westminster Cathedral and the Army and Navy Stores are close by. A smelly beggar holds out a McDonald’s paper cup. There is a carving, by Eric Gill, of Jesus before Pilate. We are told about Eric Gill and his smock, chiselling Pilate in Hoptonwood limestone. In another place relevance is discovered at length in an anti-abortion demonstration in America.

The inconsequence of the book has not prevented some readers, lovers of the expansive and the digressive, from admiring it; and of course there are charming and even profound books, not however serious biographies, which have those characteristics. It is possible to be a happy reader without ever being sure that the next page will have any profound relation to the one you’re reading; and to be charmed that even when the author is saying that something is undiscoverable or inherently incredible she is willing to take pages to say so. Less happy readers, even if they are too gentle to be thought austere, will disagree.

Obviously I belong to the latter group. Wroe knows a great deal about many things, and sees no reason not to make this plain. She freely refers not only to classical authors but to Dennis Potter, Dostoevsky, Bulgakov and Tolstoy (how relevant is it that he was disappointed by the reception of The Kreutzer Sonata?) Underneath all this padding there is a view of Pilate, but it is hard to see it clearly in the confusion of information, some of it boldly beside the point. If I have made out the message correctly, it is something like this: Pilate found himself with a chance to be very good, which was equally a chance to be very bad. All he had to do to be good was to act on his feeling, as recorded in the gospels, that there was no case against Jesus. However, he turned the chance down. The fact that he believed in the innocence of Jesus was the reason later writers made him into a pious convert. The fact that he nevertheless ordered the scourging and the Crucifixion was what made the rival tradition take him for a villain.

Of the two Pilates, one wicked and one saintly, it seems, on the whole, that the author prefers the latter. Her Pilate is a worried administrator, limited by his imperialist education, scared of his superiors and uneasy in his dealings with that difficult, headstrong nation, the Jews. He got in a real muddle at the trial and made a fatal mess of it. But one can’t leave the matter there. As she conveys Pilate back to Rome after his ten-year stint in Judea, Wroe is still asking unanswerable questions simply for the sake of asking them: which route did he take? Was he seasick? Did he notice the halcyons breeding on the calm water of the winter solstice? Wasn’t he afraid of his reception by the capricious Tiberius?

Actually, by the time he got back Tiberius was dead. This fact seemed inconvenient to earlier mythmakers, who ignored it, went ahead and described Pilate’s confrontation with the Emperor. That would be a step too far for a modern biographer: no such confrontation is declared to have taken place, but it is described all the same in a report on the apocryphal fantasies surrounding Pilate. Even the alp where he is buried, if he isn’t buried in Ethiopia, is included.

This book is most serious when it considers the structure of the Passion narratives. The behaviour of the Judge is important to these stories. There had to be a Judge because there had to be a Trial and there had to be a Trial because there was a prisoner who needed to be condemned. Pilate, filling the Judge’s role in the grand narrative, has to be more than a mere morality figure. His part was from the beginning filled out by the inventions of all who told the story.

It certainly adds interest that he could be shown to be uneasy and uncertain what to do. Out of that uncertainty there grew the rival legends of the holy and the wicked Pilate. These legends are in themselves worth attending to, but they should have no place in a biography with pretensions to historical accuracy. Such a narrative should distinguish clearly between what it vouches for and what it is reporting merely out of curiosity. There is a wantonness, almost a flippancy, in this study, and only some of its readers will find it engaging rather than irritating. In the end the problem is probably one of genre; biography as it is now understood is not the way it was understood in the age of the Acta.