What is the truth about Pilate?

A quarterly look at books that ask the big questions

PONTIUS PILATE By Ann Wroe Random House 412 pp., $26.95

The Pontius Pilate we think we know," writes Ann Wroe, "is a mixture of dozens of invented men, each symbolic of something: the State facing the individual, the pagan world opposing the Christian one, skepticism versus truth, ourselves facing God.... He is the tyrant and oppressor, the implacable man of law, the perfect example of imperial authority; but also the grand equivocator, the modern democratic politician reading his polls and spinning his message, sliding from one expedient to the next.... Yet somewhere behind all this philosophy and fantasy lurks a flesh-and-blood Roman. And this world - this real world in which Pilate moved - is every bit as strange as the mythological one."

Wroe's "biography" of Pontius Pilate is, on one hand, an attempt to recover the historical reality of the "flesh-and-blood Roman" official who presided over the trial and crucifixion of Jesus. But, on the other hand, it is also a kind of survey of the ways he has been imagined and represented in legend, drama, and art down through the centuries.

Although Wroe clearly is interested in piecing together a picture of the actual man and the imperial world in which he lived, she is unwilling to leave it at that. To her, the German-born Pilate found in medieval European ballads is just as fascinating as the more historically credible Pilate born somewhere south of Rome, a descendent, Wroe suggests, of a soldierly mountain people known as the Samnites whom the Romans had defeated in 290 BC.

There is not much in the way of solid historical evidence out of which to fashion a life story of this otherwise minor and undistinguished Roman official. Like many a biographer faced with a paucity of hard facts, Wroe indulges in a great deal of speculation. Insofar as much of Pilate's significance resides in how he has been perceived as a figure rather than in the actual doings of the man himself, Wroe feels free, not only to speculate (e.g., if Pilate was a member of the Praetorian Guard, did he meet the Emperor Tiberias?), but also, on occasion, to abandon history entirely for the realms of theology, myth, and legend.

The result is impressive. "Pontius Pilate" is a veritable treasure-trove of history, legend, fascinating information, and thought-provoking speculation. Wroe vividly evokes the life that was often led by men like Pilate, sent far from home to govern a distant outpost of the empire.

She lucidly explains the beliefs and customs of Romans, Pharisees, Essenes, and Romanized Jews. But when she becomes involved in rehearsing the various legends, the biography's problems begin. The wealth of material becomes overwhelming after a while, as one legend cancels out another, and the author herself seems carried away on flights of rhapsodic rhetoric.

One can hardly be surprised in these postmodernist times to find a nonfiction writer claiming some of the inventive prerogatives of the novelist. And when the author is writing about someone like Pontius Pilate, of whom so little is known yet so much has been imagined, it seems more than usually appropriate to view him in the context of legend as well as fact.

Yet, there is irony in the contrast between Wroe's approach to her subject and the approach of 19th-century scholars like D.F. Strauss and Ernest Renan, who shocked their contemporaries by writing lives of Jesus based on historical research and eschewing all supernatural elements of the story.

While these 19th-century biographers of that extraordinary figure whose life and death generated oceans of art, literature, beliefs, and lore were determined to stick to the verifiable facts, this late 20th-century author tackling the life of an all too ordinary mediocrity seeks to find his significance in myth and legend.

*Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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