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'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.

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