Now wash your hands;Book of the week

26th March 1999 at 00:00
PILATE: the biography of an invented man. By Ann Wroe. Jonathan Cape. pound;17.99.

As next to nothing is known about Pontius Pilate, each era has invented its own version of the man who condemned Jesus Christ to death. David Self sorts truth from fiction

He has been seen as a cartoon villain, both culpably weak and culpably brutish. To some, he seems to have been a half-decent official, cowed by an angry mob; to others, he is the villain who condemned Jesus to the cross and whose attempt to wash his hands of all responsibility led to 2,000 years of anti-Semitism. Whichever stance you take, the fact remains that we know next to nothing of Pontius Pilate.

We don't even know his cognomen, the name he was called by his mother and wife. Pontius simply indicates he was a member of the Pontii clan, "known in Rome as rustic buffoons". Whether he even came from what is now Italy is also unclear. Tradition variously places his home as southern Italy, Spain, or Mainz in Germany.

The only tangible evidence we have for his existence is one broken stone memorial and a few small coins. Then there are the gospel narratives, written for theological rather than historical purposes; one sentence in Tacitus; three pages in the works of Philo of Alexandria, a Jewish contemporary of Pilate; and a few paragraphs by another Jewish historian, Josephus, written some 40 years after Pilate's recall to Rome.

It is staggering, then, that Ann Wroe has been able to create a 350-page book about him - albeit one subtitled "the biography of an invented man". Besides the few primary sources, she seems to have read (and quotes) everyone who even fleetingly touches on the Roman governor. Cicero and Martin Luther, Dostoevsky and Tony Blair - they all get to express their view of the hapless man. Blair, in particular, seems able to empathise with Pilate's dilemma: "Should we do what appears principled or what is politically expedient?" Less would have been more. It may have been Wroe's partial intention to show how Pilate's perceived character changed through the ages, but the lengthy paraphrases of the medieval mystery plays that imagine, for example, how Pilate and Judas Iscariot might have been drinking partners, add little to our knowledge of the man.

Even stranger are the modern events that punctuate her story. Indeed, the book starts with an account of a Blackpool gale in 1870, apparently included only because the same storm sank a ship in the Bay of Biscay which was carrying an Etruscan manuscript that mentioned Pilate.

The loss of a few such digressions might have made room for a much-needed index. For, such criticisms apart, this is an absorbing and illuminating book; one that will be supremely useful to anyone teaching or thinking about the Easter story. Its best aspect is the fascinating use of Roman sources to flesh out Pilate's role in those events. Inevitably, some of this is an argument from silence. As there is no evidence to prove Pilate was any different from any other provincial Roman governor, we therefore "know" exactly how he spent each day: at which cockcrow he got up, when he read letters from the emperor, when he was shaved and so on.

Some of this deduction is fantasy. When his fellow governor of Galilee, Herod, sent a delegation to Pilate, did our Pontius really listen "in a cold sulking fury"? More factual is the exploration of the balance of power that existed between the comparatively small Roman occupying force and the Jewish high priests. The priests actually welcomed the Roman authorities as protectors of the temple against attacks by Jewish zealots and Samaritans. The emperor Tiberius was also glad to provide a bullock and two lambs for sacrifice by Jewish priests each day in the hope they would bring him blessings.

In the middle of it all, Pilate (who almost certainly spoke no Hebrew or Aramaic and may have had difficulties with Greek) was expected "to secure tax revenue, keep the peace and establish trade".

Wroe is particularly convincing as to why it took Jesus comparatively little time to die on the cross. As she explains, the Roman punishment of scourging might leave the victim half dead, or be moderately lenient. It was the former when it formed the complete punishment; the latter when it was the prelude to crucifixion. So did Pilate inflict the former in the belief or hope that Jesus would ultimately be spared? If so, he had temporarily forgotten that Jerusalem was full of Roman informants, eager to sneak to the emperor with news of any misjudgment Pilate might make - which, of course, is why the high priests' final jibe tipped the scales against Jesus: "If you let this man go, you are not Caesar's friend."

Wroe has the measure of her subject. In one sentence she sums up this pivotal, elusive, vacillating man. "Pilate was a politician: he wanted to preserve his skin and please his audience and, somewhere down the line, try to do the right thing."

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