Books: His dilemma is also Blair's

Pilate: The Biography Of An Invented Man by Ann Wroe Cape pounds 17.99

Our abiding image of Pontius Pilate is probably of his hands, symbolically washed before the baying crowd as he surrendered Jesus to his fate. This Easter, when Christ's passion and death is read aloud in my local church, I will also be able, thanks to Ann Wroe, to put a face to the Roman governor of Jerusalem.

Or should I say faces? Pilate was depicted, in the early Christian sarcophagi and ivories as a stocky judge in a shoulder-clasped cloak. In a sixth- century mosaic at Ravenna, he has grown a neat dark beard to compliment his melancholy eyes, while 700 years later Giotto shaves off the facial hair and puts a golden chaplet on his head. Later still he was often shown wrapped either in gold, the colour of Roman nobility, or in red, the colour of blood. Oscar Wilde once described him as "the scarlet figure of history". Pilate is thus another of those figures in the Christian story about whom fact and fiction long ago merged. Every age has had its own take on him and at a distance of 2,000 years it is now impossible to disentangle the threads, though Wroe devotedly sticks at the task.

There is, for example, the question of Pilate's birth-place. The most popular theory has him originating among the war-like people of the mountain region around Samnium, south of Rome. The young Pilate was assimilated into the Roman way of life and joined its army and then diplomatic corps. But Giovanni Rosadi, an Italian writer at the dawn of the 20th century, had another idea - that Pilate came from Seville, whose residents once had the right of Roman citizenship. The basis for his claim was a large house in the centre of the Spanish city known as Pilate's House. And in medieval times, when German legends infiltrated and distorted the Christian tradition, Pilate was taken for a Rhinelander on account of a version of his life contained in the Golden Legend, a 13th-century compendium of saints' exploits. Near the town of Forscheim, reputedly Pilate's home, there is still a field named after him, while his red trousers were, until earlier this century, on display in the local museum.

Far more enlightening, though, is when Wroe abandons playing around with the unending historical question marks and the very few shreds of tangible evidence, and turns instead to Pilate's immortality as one of those pleasingly ambiguous characters in folklore. He is neither saint nor sinner, a man who evidently had a conscience but who, for reasons that have always been hotly debated, chose not to exercise it when Jesus's fate was in his hands. He is one of that select group of people - Joan of Arc, Cleopatra, Pope Joan are others - who have been dancers to different tunes down the ages, revived, promoted and reviled according to the mood of the time.

In our culture for example, Tony Blair, an inveterate collector of people and things with wide symbolic value, has felt moved to try and explain something about himself and his own beliefs by reference to Pilate. In a newspaper interview that Wroe quotes, the Prime Minister dwells on Pilate's agonising over Jesus's fate and describes him as "the archetypal politician, caught on the horns of an age-old dilemma. We know he did wrong, yet his is the struggle between what is right and what is expedient that has occurred throughout history."

Though Wroe's style bears all the best hallmarks of journalism - concise, well-ordered, avoiding technical jargon and never assuming any prior knowledge among her readers - her knowledge of the past 2,000 years is encyclopaedic and would put many academics to shame. She moves easily and fluently between last year's prime ministerial interview and Pilate's appearances in medieval mystery plays, between John Stuart Mill's condemnation of Pilate in On Liberty and Mikhail Bulgakov's portrait of her subject as the epitome of the spineless, provincial Soviet bureaucrat in The Master and Margarita.

That she brings in such a wide sweep of views on Pilate without ever losing the sense of a life unravelling is remarkable. Though, as the sub- title makes plain, this is the biography of an invented man, she manages always to keep Pilate living and breathing in the text, and occasionally kicking and screaming. Since it is impossible to accurately know what was going on in his head, she uses her imagination and psychological insights, buttressed by parallel examples of others who found themselves in similar waters at a similar time. And though this is very much a warts-and-all biography, Wroe never loses sympathy with his dilemma at that crucial moment in his life when he faced the prospect of playing executioner to God's son. There was no right or wrong answer, she asserts, simply an endless list of contradictory impulses.

Easter is traditionally the peak time for the appearance of books trawling through the Christian treasure-trove of ideas and characters. For too many years now, what is on offer has been so dull and repetitive that a Cadbury's Cream Egg has seemed a better investment. But the rise of a new genre of artfully constructed, culturally broad, historically sound and philosophically challenging biographies like this and the various recent outpourings of A N Wilson offer new hope. For they treat the history of religion and religious ideas not as a peculiar backwater for the converted, but rather as a mainstream, everyday topic that has both a fascinating place in our cultural heritage and strong resonances in the here and now.

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