In this brilliant biography, a finalist for the Samuel Johnson Prize and a masterpiece of scholarship and imagination, Ann Wroe brings Pilate and his world to life. Working from classical sources, she reconstructs his origins and upbringing, his career in the military and life in Rome, his confrontation with Christ, and his long journey home. We catch glimpses of him pacing the marble floors in Caesarea, sharpening his stylus, getting dressed shortly before sunrise on the day that would seal his place in history. What were the pressures on Pilate that day? What did he really think of Jesus? Pontius Pilate lets us see Christ's trial for the first time, in all its confusion, from the point of view of his executioner.
Pontius Pilate is a historical figure, like Cleopatra and Alexander, who has been endlessly mythologized through the ages. For some he is a saint, for others the embodiment of human weakness, an archetypal politician willing to sacrifice one man for the sake of stability. Each generation has pressed onto Pilate the imprint of its anxieties and its faith. He has haunted—and continues to haunt—our imagination. From the Evangelists and the Copts (for whom he was a saint, martyred himself on the Cross) to more recent philosophers, artists, novelists, and politicians, Pilate has been resurrected in different guises for two thousand years. Ann Wroe brings man and myth to life in a book that expands the possibilities of the biographical form and deepens our understanding of the mysteries of faith.
It has often been said that Pontius Pilate was fingered by God to carry out the divine plan of salvation, just as clearly as Christ was. Ann Wroe shows how, in his hesitation before God, in his skepticism, his anxiety to do his job and exonerate himself of guilt, Pilate's story is very much our own.
Pontius Pilate, by Ann Wroe, is beautifully written, imaginatively researched, and intricately structured. Most importantly, it provides readers with a valuable emotional experience: a chance to rediscover and redeem Pilate's famous question--"What is truth?"--in a spirit of humility and hope. A handful of small coins and one inscribed stone are the only physical evidence that Pilate existed. All of the textual sources that mention Pilate, Wroe notes, are "so wrapped in propaganda or agendas that it is difficult to detect what, if anything, may be true." But since Pilate "stands at the center of the Christian story and God's plan of redemption," Wroe persevered in her efforts to discern the profile of his life. "Without his climactic judgment of Jesus, the world would not have been saved. To have a faceless bureaucrat at the heart of all this drama was unacceptable: something had to be made of this man." The book's bold ambition, however, is not blind. "This is not a search for the 'real' Pilate," Wroe admits. "At best, all we have are glints and hypotheses." To learn about her subject, Wroe had to sacrifice most of her sympathetic impulses and shift her concentration to the elements of Roman life that she did not understand. And oddly enough, the passages in which Wroe describes her ignorance most clearly are where we begin to glimpse "a man actually walking on a marble floor in Caesarea, feeling his shoes pinch, clicking his fingers for a slave, while clouds of lasting infamy gather overhead." Wroe takes current trends in the genre of biography one step further in this eloquent yet frustrating book, offering a reconstructed life of the Roman official who, by ordering the execution of Jesus of Nazareth but otherwise serving with little distinction, managed to become simultaneously famous and obscure. Outside the Gospels, which each bring the governor on stage for a brief if highly charged cameo appearance, there are only a few references to Pilate in contemporary sources. Where other biographers would see a historical desert, Wroe sees the tantalizing mirages that have sprung up over the centuries, from the fourth-century Acta Pilati to medieval mystery plays. She weaves these nonhistorical speculations together with well-researched accounts of first-century Roman lives, producing a shifting but suggestive portrait of an ultimately very human functionary. The writing is both precise and rich (as one might expect from the American editor of the Economist), and the insights into human character ring consistently true, but Wroe's bibliography is alarmingly scant when it comes to historical research on Jesus (who, after all, presents similar problems to biographers). And unlike Jaroslav Pelikan in his masterful Jesus Through the Centuries, Wroe often forfeits the opportunity to show how Pilate's reimagining served changing historical situations, juxtaposing quotes from mystery plays and letters from Cicero with deliberate abandon. "What did he look like? However men imagine him," Wroe writes. Readers who know the satisfactions of more conventional history will find such equivocations disappointing, but those who take Wroe's project on its own terms will find much to ponder. (Apr.) Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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