Books: Clean hands, dirty tricks here here

'What is truth?' said jesting Pilate. He would not stay for an answer, but Miranda Seymour goes in search of the elusive reality behind his myth; Pilate: the biography of an invented man by Ann Wroe Jonathan Cape, pounds 18.99, 352pp

ERIC GILL, working on a stone bas-relief figure of Pilate for Westminster Cathedral, spent 17 years chiselling out a face for us to hate. Gill's Pilate stood for authority at its worst, the cold mask of a man in the pay of a powerful Empire. At the end of a century of colonial oppression, Gill intended his Pilate to be a contemporary indictment. The sculptor had thought of everything, except for the unexpected tricks light can play. Caught between the gleam of the cathedral floor and the play of shadows above, Pilate's face took on an unintended expression, of longing and incomprehension.

Gill's instincts were sure. The man Tiberius sent out from Rome to be the new governor of Judea was keen to please his master. Tactlessly, outrageously, his first act was to confront the Jewish population with gigantic gold medallions, set along the battlements of the great Antonian fortress, each of them offering a dazzling image of the emperor. His second was to propose the erection of a mighty aqueduct, as monstrous to ancient eyes as a Tarmac highway, across some of the province's most sacred sites. Philo, his Alexandrian contemporary, called him a brute of "inflexible, stubborn, and cruel disposition," presiding over an administration notorious for "endless savage ferocity". Philo's Pilate would not have had a second thought about ordering the crucifixion of a Jewish troublemaker.

Was Philo right? The aqueduct proposal was Pilate's doing, but the images of the emperor may never have decked more than his own apartments. There are no other indications of Pilate as a provincial tyrant. If Matthew's Gospel is correct in stating that he brought his wife Procula to Judea, Pilate becomes a bit of a softy. Roman governors were in the habit of leaving their wives at home.

The truth about Pilate is that we know nothing which cannot be questioned. Ann Wroe's book is not a search for a man who can't be found, but a clear- sighted and intriguing look at Pilate down the ages.

Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, writing when Christianity was outlawed, prudently soft-pedalled Pilate's role. The Romans were in control; not, therefore, a good idea to let a Roman governor be the villain of the piece. Matthew may, nevertheless, have gone a bit over the top in granting the governor's wife an off-stage role to defend Jesus, and in letting Pilate perform the un-Roman act of handwashing during a trial. (Handwashing was part of a Jewish religious ritual.)

The only hints of Roman responsibility in the gospels are in the form of death - the Jews never went in for crucifixion - and the presence by the cross of a Roman centurion. Luke lets the centurion repent, but he is still there to see the deed.

In 381, the Nicene Creed stated baldly that Pilate crucified Christ. The medieval storytellers preferred to take their lead from Matthew's mention of Procula. The Pilate of the mystery-plays (which Wroe updates with some wonderfully funny translations) is a preening, sensual figure, always keener to be back in bed with his wife than taking tiresome decisions about rebel leaders. This Pilate was a jester, designed to keep an audience smiling. But he evolved at the same time as della Francesca's Flagellation, in which the governor watches the scourging from a detached distance: convincing "were it not for the fact that the hands of the beaters break into his calm rectangle of space, drawing him into the consequences of his orders".

Wroe's book is studded with such moments of quiet insight. Again and again, she jolts the past to life with an unexpected phrase. Caesar's death becomes more vivid when we know that he was clutching an armful of papers to be signed, like any modern minister.

Pilate's fate when he returned to Italy is as dimly-lit as his governorship. Was he ever pricked by a twinge of guilt? Probably not, but my favourite last image of him is still as one of the three traitors in Walter De la Mare's word-picture of Herod, Judas and Pilate riding like ghosts, searching for the shriving only Jesus can bestow: an invention, of course, but no more than the sexy preener of the mystery plays, or the conscientious governor Matthew set free with a bowl of water.

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Pre-Press / Mac Operator / Artworker - Digital & Litho Print

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: With year on year growth and a reputation for ...

    Recruitment Genius: Project Manager - Live Virtual Training / Events

    £24000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Project Manager is required t...

    SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

    £18000 - £23000 per annum + OTE: SThree: SThree Group has been well establishe...

    SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

    £18000 - £23000 per annum + OTE: SThree: SThree Group has been well establishe...

    Day In a Page

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
    A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

    It's not easy being Green

    After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
    Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

    Gorillas nearly missed

    BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
    Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

    The Downton Abbey effect

    Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
    China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

    China's wild panda numbers on the up

    New census reveals 17% since 2003