Next to Julius Caesar, Pontius Pilate—the governor of Judea who sent Jesus to the cross—is probably the best-known Roman citizen who ever lived. His name is etched into the Christian creeds, prompting some fallen-away Christians to quip that “crucified under Pontius Pilate” is the only article of Christian faith that they still find believable. Pilate is also the most vivid secondary figure in the Gospel passion stories, dithering over what to do with a man who is clearly no political threat but who has powerful enemies who will report Pilate’s name to Tiberius Caesar and also start a riot, a blot on Pilate’s administrative record, if he does not get rid of Jesus promptly. Pilate thus strikes a curiously modern—and for us fellow-moderns, affecting—note for an ancient personage. He is the consummate careerist, for whom the free fall of downward social mobility is the most frightening of all prospects, just as it is in our own socially fluid time.
In the Gospels, Pilate wrestles with his conscience over Jesus, but (again in a fashion that strikes us as all too familiar) essentially tries to weasel out of the problem in the hope that it will resolve itself. In Luke’s Gospel, he invokes a jurisdictional technicality to ship the Galilean Jesus out of his purview and into that of the Galilean kinglet Herod Antipas—who is far too clever to play the tar-baby target and so lobs Jesus right back. In John’s Gospel, Pilate entangles himself in a dense philosophical/theological conversation with Jesus during which he utters his haunting query, “What is truth?” He does not “stay for an answer,” as Francis Bacon famously put it, because saving his soul is far less important to him than saving his political hide. The Pilate who in John’s Gospel vainly hopes the crowd will feel Jesus’ pain—and spontaneously acquit him—if he has the Galilean brutally flogged and displayed to the crowd with the words, “Behold the man,” cannot help but resonate with the hide-protecting, split-the-difference sensibility of our timorous times.
Furthermore, Pilate has a wife. In Matthew’s Gospel, she plays a brief but riveting role in Jesus’ trial that turns it into a drama of the sexes, among many other things. At the very last minute she sends word to Pilate as he is about to pass judgment, warning him to “have nothing to do with this innocent man, for today I have suffered a great deal because of a dream about him.” This mysterious message—ignored by Matthew’s Pilate as the mob rumbling for Jesus’ death threatens to get out of hand—enhances our fascination with the Judean governor. Christian tradition quickly gave Pilate’s wife a name, Claudia Procula, and an aristocratic provenance, so that her parvenu husband was viewed as having married up, with all the tensions and awkward marital balance of power that such a situation entails. As the centuries passed, the folklore of Christians who were as fascinated as we are by the Pilates embroidered their marriage with rich detail. In the mystery plays of the medieval West, Procula became a sumptuously attired layabout who spent most of her waking hours in the bed where she had her famous dream.
Ann Wroe’s Pontius Pilate is in part an effort to write the biography of the official whose public and private life has engendered two millennia of wild speculation. As she acknowledges in her preface, this is a nearly impossible task. Pilate’s ten-year career, from a.d. 26 to 36, as prefect of Judea (his territory also included Samaria to the north and Idumea to the south) was fairly well documented (although with only two passing references to Jesus) by the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus. Josephus describes an impatient, imperious minor poobah, a creature of the Emperor Tiberius, who shares the characteristically Roman distaste for all things Jewish in his hardscrabble province. The Jews of Judea, who only twenty years before Pilate’s arrival had had their own kings (albeit those brutish puppets, the Herods), detested direct Roman rule. Many longed for the return of the monarchy, preferably in the form of the Messiah, or Christ (“anointed one”), King David’s heir. There were a number of nastily suppressed religio-political rebellions in the name of leaders who claimed or were thought to claim messianic status.
Pilate’s job was to keep order, period, while waiting for Tiberius to award him a more prestigious posting in, say, Syria or Egypt. During his ten years in office, according to Josephus, Pilate was far from the worst Roman governor the Jews had seen, but he managed, deliberately or no, to provoke several bloody skirmishes with religious Jews who resented, for example, his bringing Roman standards, which had pagan sacral associations, into the holy city of Jerusalem. In 36, Tiberius recalled Pilate to Rome, after Pilate’s troops massacred a crowd of followers of a Samaritan prophet. The Jewish philosopher and civic leader Philo of Alexandria wrote a broadside against Pilate describing him as “inflexible, stubborn, and cruel” and accusing him of all manner of violent acts against the Jews, including executions without trial. Philo was not known for his impartiality toward Roman governors, so we do not know how much truth there was to the most extreme of his allegations against Pilate. In fact, we know nothing more at all about Pilate, including what happened to him after 36, or where he came from and what he was doing before 26. Wroe writes:
We do not even know his praenomen, the name his mother and wife and friends called him by. The only physical evidence we have of this man is one inscribed stone and a few small coins. All the records he kept, as he was bound to keep them, have disappeared. . . . The only documentary sources for Pilate are a few paragraphs in the writings of Josephus, a Romanized Jew who wrote forty years after the governor was recalled from Judaea; two or three pages from Philo of Alexandria, a defiantly non-Romanized Jew and one of Pilate’s contemporaries; one sentence in Tacitus, looking back from the time of Hadrian; and those all too familiar scenes from the New Testament. All these have their biases. Each offers a version of Pilate’s character, but so wrapped in propaganda or agendas that it is difficult to detect what, if anything, may be true in them.
Wroe’s approach to Pilate’s biography, therefore, is a kaleidoscopic one that explores the above sources together with the dense sediments of oral and literary lore that time and Christian tradition have deposited upon the Roman governor’s exiguous historical record. Her sources for the latter include Greek and Coptic apocryphal Gospels, Ethiopian calendars, medieval mystery plays, folktales from every corner of Europe, Victorian lives of Christ, and such contemporary classics as Mikhail Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita, in which a novel about Pilate plays a pivotal part.
As a scholarly and literary enterprise, Wroe’s book is vastly satisfying. Although she is neither a biblical scholar (thank God, one might interject) nor a classics expert, she has a doctorate in history from Oxford University, and she has worked for years as the literary and now the American section editor of the Economist, and so brings a lively journalistic sensibility to her materials and a sensitivity to their contemporary relevance. She is also a fervent Catholic and a columnist for the Tablet, the London Catholic magazine, and Christian meditation permeates her narrative.
The writing in Pontius Pilate is consistently superb, as Wroe teases thread after thread of poetic meaning, from, for example, the Anglo-Saxon legend that the same cock (a symbol of Pilate himself, as Wroe later proposes) that Peter heard crow when he betrayed Christ overflew Judas as he hanged himself:
Its wings were the onset of night itself, its spurs and eyes the stars. The cockerel was the bridge between the night of the arrest and the morning of the Resurrection: it marked the end and the beginning of the world. Its cry humiliated Peter as he sat in the tavern, reminding him that he had denied Christ and that the movement had fallen apart; but it also accompanied the women as they made for the tomb at dawn. Night fell, the cock crowed, the day appeared. This bird was no spectator, but an agent in the story; this bird might indeed believe, as the children’s poem has it, that his crowing made the sun rise.
These feats of interpretation occasionally segue into flights of overinterpretation. Wroe’s efforts to tie the story of Jesus’ passion to contemporary events-lengthy tropes comparing Judas to a Castroite spy in Havana or Jesus’ band of disciples to abortion protesters—are imaginative and well-intentioned, but they stray too far afield from her main subject. She also tends to turn Jesus’ ministry into a rather more organized social force than the Gospels and other sources warrant. Thus she writes, as above, that “the movement had fallen apart.” The New Testament does not indicate that there was ever a Jesus “movement” to begin with until after Easter and Pentecost. Before that, there was only Jesus, those whom he called to follow him, and the crowds that sometimes trailed him enchantedly and sometimes turned murderously against him.
Wroe is most compelling when she mines Roman sources to tell us what Pilate, as a provincial Roman official who owed his career to the emperor Tiberius, was probably like: what sort of education he received from his Greek tutors, what he wore and ate, and even how he fixed his hair. Pilate’s family, the Pontii, most likely originally hailed from Samnium, a rustic mountain redoubt south of Rome whose inhabitants had once been Roman allies until they mounted a losing war against Rome from 86-82 b.c.. The Romans crushed and slaughtered the Samnite nobility, including most of the Pontii. The few survivors ended up as second-class Roman patricians—their rank was that of knight, not senator—who were famous for their military valor but depended for their livelihoods on the patronage of the better-born.
Pontius Pilate probably had to grovel to Lucius Aelius Sejanus, Tiberius’ intimate and the commander of the Praetorian Guards who formed the emperor’s thuggish personal army. Sejanus poisoned some of his political rivals and arranged the arrests and deaths of others, until his ambitions began to alarm the emperor. In a.d. 31, around the time of Jesus’ death, Tiberius had Sejanus executed. “We have no king but Caesar,” Jesus’ Jewish enemies declare in John’s Gospel—and one can imagine Pilate’s icy sweat.
Wroe is thus able to paint a picture of Pilate that is fairly consistent from source to source. The Pilate of the Gospels is not very different from the Pilate of Josephus and Philo: superstitious and short-fused, terrified of offending Rome, and prey to every anti-Jewish prejudice his Roman social superiors held. There has been a tendency among some New Testament scholars to view the Evangelists as having whitewashed Pilate in order to blame the Jews for Jesus’ death. Wroe’s portrait of the governor is of a far more complex personality who was surely no saint, even in the Gospels. (Indeed, although the Coptic church canonized Pilate after he reportedly repented of his sins, in Western folklore he became a bogeyman, as feared as Satan, and in the mystery plays he was a villain.)
In the end, Wroe’s view of this deeply flawed man is closest to that of the evangelist John: he was a key player in a cosmic drama that entangles human history in a script of divine salvation. She writes: “It was symbolically necessary that Christ should die at the coming of the spring, not at any other time; that he should die on a tree, not in any other way; and that he should not merely hang there, as on a gibbet, but extend his arms like branches with the sap of his blood flowing from his hands. Only Pilate could effect that. Only he could provide the tau-shape of the cross, the Egyptian sign of life, on which life could be proclaimed through the act of death. His role was to be the winter to Christ’s spring.”
Charlotte Allen edits the Catholic page for Beliefnet.com, a website devoted to religion, spirituality, morality, and ethics. She is the author of The Human Christ: The Search for the Historical Jesus.