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?
ebooks
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
  • Get to the point
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

    SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Dublin

    £13676.46 - £16411.61 per annum + OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment Cons...

    Ashdown Group: Marketing or Business Graduate Opportunity - Norwich - £22,000

    £18000 - £22000 per annum + training: Ashdown Group: Business and Marketing Gr...

    SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

    £20000 - £25000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Are you great at building rela...

    Ashdown Group: Database Analyst - Birmingham - £22,000 plus benefits

    £20000 - £22000 per annum + excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Application Sup...

    Day In a Page

    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'