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
Saturday 13 March 1999
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.
Life & Style blogs
Men in tights: getting to the bottom of the latest trend
Night Nurse could put drivers over new drug limit
Snapchat removed the Best Friends list feature and 'stalkers' are upset
Baldness could soon be treated using stem cells, scientists hope
Xbox Live down: gaming service breaks itself, but hackers claim credit
9 reasons Greece's experiment with the radical left is doomed to failure
Have we reached 'peak food'? Shortages loom as global production rates slow
Greece elections: Syriza and EU on collision course after election win for left-wing party
British grandmother Lindsay Sandiford faces execution by firing squad in Indonesia
Liberal Democrat minister defends comments suggesting immigration causes pub closures
King Abdullah dead: We can't afford not to hold Saudi Arabia's royals to account
- 1 Venezuela Expo Tattoo 2015: Extreme body art from 'Vampire Woman' to 109mm earlobes
- 2 Saudi preacher who 'raped and tortured' his five -year-old daughter to death is released after paying 'blood money'
- 3 Ball pool for adults opens in London
- 4 Game of Thrones season 5 trailer: The first full-length look is here
- 5 Rashida Jones speaks out against male-centric porn saying 'women should have sex and feel good about it'
Excellent Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - HIGHEST QUALITY INTERNATIONAL FIRM - A...
Excellent Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - EXCELLENT FIRM - We have an outstandin...
Excellent Package: Austen Lloyd: IN-HOUSE - NATIONAL CHARITY - An exciting and...
Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: EXETER - A great new opportunity with real pot...