Monday, August 18, 2014

"Pontius Pilate" by Ann Wroe: A Review

He may have wondered, from time to time, why he had been sent to Judaea. Any number of later theologians and scholars could have told him. He was sent because the stars were in alignment and the other players in place. This was what God had planned from the beginning of the world. His son would be put to death, a symbolic* death on a tree, to save sinners. But it would appear to be a routine execution by a governor who did such things all the time. . . .

The Catholic Catechism adds: "For the sake of accomplishing his plan of salvation God permitted the acts that flowed from their blindness." But this is a refinement, in which God allows free will and incorporates it into his design. The unrolling of Scripture suggests a different, inexorable motion: the 'free" acts of Pilate and the others were already part of the plan. Although the Roman governor had never heard the voices of the prophets, he fulfilled them in every detail by trying Jesus and condemning him. (119)

It is amazing how little biographical information we have on some of the most important characters in the Bible. Could there be a more consequential supporting character in the narrative of the New Testament than Pontius Pilate? His part in the play is simple: hand Jesus over to be crucified. God raised Pilate up for that one providential moment - "Behold the man!"

Curious to see if there was more to his story from both Scripture and history, I picked up Ann Wroe's book simply titled Pontius Pilate. The book presents itself as a biography of the infamous governor of Judea, but such a billing is oversimplified. A biography, typically, unfolds the story of one's life correcting myths in order to present to the reader the person's narrative as it was. Wroe does not do this. Instead, she interacts and engages the myths making it difficult to decipher what is fiction and what is not.

Throughout the book, the author interacts with early Christian (read, "Gnostic") and medieval interpretations and fanciful legends of Pilate. She also interacts with modern plays and other renditions of the Pilate story. All of this is acceptable, but the book does too much of it.

Related to this, the author seems confused as to what this book is to be. It straddles the fence between these myths and the facts too strongly. At times, the book presents itself as a honest engagement with the historic and biblical record. At other times, the book is a collaboration of well-intentioned, yet fanciful narratives. Why interact with the dialogue of medieval poems or plays? Just give me the facts ma'am.

With that said, there are a number of things to commend the book for, especially at the books first one hundred pages (roughly). The book begins by interacting with the three major views of Pilate's origin and upbringing. The first of these three, in my opinion, seems most likely. In these pages (and sporadically throughout the rest of the book), the author provides real insight into the Roman world, Roman politics, the Judean world, and the historic context of Jesus of Nazareth. For example, at one point the author contrasts the parallels of the arrival of Pilate with that of John the Baptist. Great juxtaposition.

The reason for reading this book was to investigate the man of history and Scripture in personal study of the Gospels. The book contains this (though from a more liberal perspective) but this is often lost in the weeds. If this is all the book was, it would be much shorter and better.

In the end, however, the author summarizes why, for me at least, Pilate is such a fascinating figure:
He left almost no traces behind him. No roads, no milestones, no public buildings. Some miles from Jerusalem runs an aqueduct that may be his, solidly built of brick and lined with lead. Beyond that, all that remains is a block of calcareous stone and a handful of coins. (88)
And yet, he changed the world by handing Jesus over to be crucified.

* This word, symbolic, sticks out to me. Jesus death was not symbolic - a word suggesting that its meaning was not real. Orthodoxy holds to a real propitiatory atonement taking place that day. One heavy weakness of this book regards its limp theology rooted in either personal heterodoxy or ignorance.

For more:
To the Source: Pilate from Jewish Sources
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