MARCH 2000 | VOL. 4, NO. 3
Ann Wroe, besides being American editor of The Economist, holds a doctorate in medieval history which she has previously turned to good effect in writing A Fool and His Money. Now she turns the same skills to the intriguing question of the identity and character of Pontius Pilate.
The difficulty she faces is that the verifiable facts of Pilate's life can be written on the back of a postage stamp, whereas the suppositions, deductions and downright guesses fill several volumes. Analytically she demolishes a few of these, but is still left with a few snippets of information and a whole lot of "tradition."
I am the last person to disparage tradition as an embodiment of lost historical fact, and Dr. Wroe is careful not to build on the insecure ground of guesswork, but there are substantial quotes from medieval mystery plays which may -- or may not -- incorporate some authentic material. She is well-read, and has collected sources from many cultures and times, and her insights into Pilate's likely character are often convincing and elegantly stated. But they remain guesses, however educated those may be.
This is not to disparage the book, nor to say that we cannot write about those things we can never know. When she discusses Pilate's insensitivity to Jewish feelings and culture in, for example, placing images of Caesar on banners around Jerusalem, later transferred to his own palace, apparently on orders from Rome; she balances this with a recognition that he could be very accommodating in holding trials at convenient times. Even in the trial of Jesus, she notes that he came outside to the courtyard, rather than forcing the Jews to come under the roof of a Gentile house, which would have caused ritual impurity so close to Passover.
It is probably in the nature of a book such as this that it poses more questions than it can answer, simply by forcing us to think a little. We may know little about Pilate's time before he came to Judaea, but we can guess what sort of life he must have led. We know that he was not of senatorial rank, or he would not have accepted a low-grade job such as this; we know how much money he must have had in order to qualify, and we know what sort of military service he must have done. We can guess at his age, because Roman career paths followed a fairly definite structure, so he is likely to have been a handful of years older than Jesus. And we know that, gossip and scandal to the contrary, he must have been a fairly efficient governor, because he stayed in post longer than any other man bar one. He would have lost his position -- at least temporarily -- as a result of the death of Tiberius, but he had already been recalled, apparently for disciplinary reasons, one year earlier, and it seems likely that he arrived back in Rome to find that Tiberius had died in the meantime. He left no further mark on Roman history, and is presumed to have been exiled to the country.
As Dr. Wroe remarks, there is not one Pilate, but many, and who is to say that one is to be preferred? Her book led me to think very hard about his life, how we might ever hope to capture more of it -- and there is some hope, as even in this century newly-discovered inscriptions and texts have given us small additional insights -- and how it came about that an obscure Roman official should have found himself a pivotal figure in the founding of a religion. And behind it all, the key question -- did he have any real choice?
GRAHAM BRACK, a pharmacist by day, is the staff book reviewer for Renaissance Online Magazine. He lives in Cornwall, England.