What I've been reading
I've always been a sucker for Pilate, so when I saw this book, I had to have it! Wroe doesn't write a biography, as such, because there's hardly anything that we actually know about Pilate, but it's still a fascinating book.
What Wroe does is write an imaginary biography of Pilate. She delves into what the life of a Roman soldier and gentleman of the early first century would be like and extrapolates from that. Of course, we can't know if Pilate was like that, but given that Roman men rarely broke the mold, we can easily believe that Pilate's life followed the track she lays out. Another thing she does is examine the legacy of Pilate through the writings of the Church Fathers and especially the medieval mystery plays. It's an interesting way of illuminating the life of a man about which we know hardly anything but played such an important part in the history of Western civilization.
Wroe basically lays out Pilate's life in chronological order, but with plenty of asides to delve into legend. She uses the Gospels liberally, naturally, but she also uses the Apocrypha as well. As she moves through Pilate's life, her tangents often become esoteric, but that's part of what makes the book so interesting. She psychoanalyzes Pilate to a degree, but she also gets into why we are so fascinated by him. It's difficult to understand what Pilate was thinking, of course, because the Bible doesn't get into that, but Wroe deftly takes the brief passages that deal with him and spins a tale of a man struggling with several different pressures as he tries this rebellious minister. She never absolves Pilate, but she does try to understand why the governor would allow himself get involved in the trial. As she tracks the trial, she puts us into his palace and into his heart. She shows us how different the Roman and Jewish cultures were and why Pilate could not understand this difference at all. Pilate might have been a cruel and inept man, as is implied in various sources, but that doesn't mean he didn't try to rule the colony in a way consistent with Roman values. That he failed, Wroe claims, is because he failed to appreciate the uniqueness of the Jewish way of life. This extended to the trial of Jesus, where Pilate allowed himself to be outfoxed by Caiaphas and the priests. Wroe takes her time with the trial, looking at Judas and his role, the Sanhedrin and the way it used Pilate, and how Jesus himself manipulated the governor. Pilate was a failure, but he wasn't a failure because he didn't care about governing well. He was a failure because he was in an impossible situation.
The most fascinating parts of the book is when Wroe takes off and imagines how Pilate acted based on texts written long after the fact. The English mystery plays are a big source, and Wroe shows how those writers, along with others, used Pilate to further their own ends. Pilate was useful to writers who wanted to cast Jews in a bad light and who wanted to prove that the governor was part of the divine plan. Pilate becomes a patsy who is twisted to suit God's plan, but Wroe makes the point that it was his very spinelessness that made him the perfect foil for Jesus. She gets into a complex discussion of the nature of faith itself, and how Pilate had none, so he was doomed in his battle with Jesus. But as Wroe points out, later writers became enamored of the idea of Pilate as the first witness to Christ, the first to proclaim Jesus as the King of the Jews (ironically-titled placard or not), and the first to understand the Resurrection. Pilate becomes us, every person who did not believe but saw the light. Later writers wanted to show that even someone as obtuse as Pilate could come around to the light of Christ, and some churches have made Pilate and his wife Procula saints. Pilate's struggles with Jesus become humanity's struggles to learn about Christ, and later writers wanted desperately to believe that he won. If Pilate couldn't see the light, what hope do any of us have?
Pontius Pilate is an extremely readable yet complex book. It's a fascinating journey through an almost completely imagined landscape, and although Pilate is in the middle of it, he's also a passive observer to so much history it's somewhat astounding. Pilate is the universal human, and that's what makes him so compelling. This book is extremely interesting, because it puts us in Pilate's place. What would we do? That's the question, and it's not an easy one to answer.