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.

Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished

TV reviewGrace Dent: Jimmy McGovern's new drama sheds light on sex slavery in the colonies

Arts and Entertainment
Australia's Eurovision contestant and former Australian Idol winner Guy Sebastian

Eurovision 2015Australian Idol winner unveiled as representative Down Under

Arts and Entertainment
Larry David and Rosie Perez in ‘Fish in the Dark’
theatreReview: Had Fish in the Dark been penned by a civilian it would have barely got a reading, let alone £10m advance sales
Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl
filmFirst look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month
TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel
film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
    Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

    Lost without a trace

    But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
    Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

    Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

    Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
    International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
    Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

    Confessions of a planespotter

    With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
    Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

    Russia's gulag museum

    Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
    The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

    The big fresh food con

    Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
    Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

    Virginia Ironside was my landlady

    Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
    Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

    Paris Fashion Week 2015

    The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
    8 best workout DVDs

    8 best workout DVDs

    If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
    Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

    Paul Scholes column

    I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
    Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
    Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

    Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

    The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable