Random House, 352 pages, $26.95
New Directions, 160 pages, $12.95
Memoirs of Pontius Pilate: A Novel
James R. Mills
Baker, 224 pages, $16.99
It's no surprise that, growing up, I did not hear much about the New Testament at my synagogue. I never heard much about Joseph of Arimathea, Judas, Paul, or, for that matter, Jesus. I did learn something about Pontius Pilate: that he was a very bad man—not because he killed an obscure carpenter from Nazareth, but because he was a coward. If he had handled Jesus' crucifixion with a little more courage, Pilate might have spared Jews centuries of grief, centuries of being labeled host-desecrating, blood-drinking Christ-killers.
Pilate's reputation may improve a tad, thanks to a biography and two novels of mixed quality.
British reporter Ann Wroe has garnered much acclaim on both sides of the pond for her elegantly written, engrossing study of Pilate. Pontius Pilate is not, as the dust jacket suggests, a biography of Pilate, about whom precious little is known: hard evidence amounts to an inscribed stone, a few coins, a few mentions by Josephus, a couple of pages on Philo of Alexandria, a sentence in Tacitus, and (of course) the Gospels.
Wroe's valiant attempts to reconstruct Pilate's life, therefore, are a little suspect. But her study of how Pilate has been remembered and imagined by writers, artists, and theologians for the last two millennia is striking.
Imagining Pilate's wife
One of the most fascinating passages in Pontius Pilate is about not Pilate but his wife, Claudia Procula. The Bible tells us little about Mrs. Pilate. Unnamed by Scripture, a la Lot's wife, she makes a brief appearance in Matthew 27:19: "While he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent to him, saying, 'Have nothing to do with that just Man, for I have suffered many things today in a dream because of Him' " (NKJV). That brief message, Wroe reminds us, earned Claudia a place in Christian history: in Greek and Coptic churches, she is a saint.
Since antiquity, Wroe says, people have been especially fascinated with a detail Matthew leaves out: just what Claudia dreamed. Nineteenth-century Claudia-philes insisted she dreamed of Jesus, "his face appearing with all the sad-eyed solemnity of the lithographs that lined their halls." But medieval writers said Claudia dreamed of the devil, who whispered seductively in her ear, "Your husband holds sway over the life and death of a holy and saintly man. His name's Jesus, who calls himself Christ. You must be sure your husband doesn't pass sentence on him, for if he does you'll both be utterly destroyed."
The different ways Christians have imagined Claudia's dreams point to a greater tension about Jesus' death. We revile Judas and Pilate for their role in it (as, in past centuries, we have also reviled Jews). But would we really go back in time and prevent Judas and Pilate from crucifying Jesus? After all, the salvation of the world depends on the Crucifixion.
Two new novels about Pilate also share an interest in Claudia. Modernist poet H. D. wrote Pilate's Wife in 1929, but it was published for the first time this June. In this rendering, Pilate's wife—H. D. calls her Veronica—is a spiritual seeker, casting about for a soothsayer or prophet who can help her answer the gnawing question of who she is. "I am Veronica," she repeats throughout the book, trying to convince herself. "She could say that and sense it, bite it and feel it."
But even the savviest star-chart-reading psychic in the empire fails to hold Veronica's attention the way an obscure Jew does. She sleeps restlessly, dreaming catch phrases from Scripture: "Unless ye become as a child," "Consider the lilies." Veronica, it seems, wants what all of us want—not fortune-telling and palm-reading but union with God. (It's noteworthy that H. D. was analyzed by none other than Freud, who pioneered the argument that dreams are all, at some level, wishes.)
Veronica seems enchanted with the Jesus who comes to us most clearly in the Gospel of Luke—the Jesus who hangs around with poor folks and lepers and women. She had heard that Jesus "loved women, yet was no lover. Yet who was a lover. What sense did that make? It belonged to some fabulous state of innocence; could one get back?"
Veronica never fully grasps that "getting back" requires following Jesus. Instead of allowing him to save her, she tries to save him, slipping an opiate into his water so that he merely passes out on the Cross. (It is, of course, one of the oldest heresies in the book: Jesus never rose from the dead because he never died.)
James Mills, a California state senator turned novelist, is also interested in Mrs. Pilate. Despite his not giving her a name, Mills offers readers a Mrs. Pilate who is remarkably modern and who shares in a remarkably modern marriage: her husband consults her on important state matters, shares all his secrets with her, and seems at a loss after she dies. But the Pilates' anachronistically companionate marriage is just one of many problems with Memoirs of Pontius Pilate.
In this fictional rendering of the aged Roman prefect's recollections, Mills apparently tries to do what Marguerite Yourcenar accomplished with such panache in Memoirs of Hadrian:
Take a life that is known and completed, recorded and fixed by history (as much as lives ever can be fixed), so that its entire course may be seen at a single glance: more important still choose the moment when the man that lived that existence weighs and examines it, and is, for the briefest span, capable of judging it. Try to manage so that he stands before his own life in much the same position as we stand when we look at it.
But, on all counts, Mills fails. His prose is wooden, and Pilate sounds more like a man reading from an ancient history textbook than a man examining existence.
Who is culpable?
Central to all these books are questions of guilt and blame: who was really responsible for Jesus' death? Pilate? The Jews?
H. D. presents the most novel hypothesis: Pilate, under orders from his superiors and beholden to give "the people … their little sideshow," cannot simply stay the execution. But it is he who informs Veronica that there is still "one chance" to save Jesus; it is Pilate who instructs her to go to any of her mystical soothsayers and return with an opiate. Pilate is responsible for Jesus' death, but he is also responsible for trying to prevent it.
Mills's novel opens with musings about responsibility: who was guilty of starting the "great fire that destroyed Rome"? Maybe Christians. Or maybe it was the emperor himself, who then blamed the Christians. "Whether or not persons punished are responsible for the crimes of which they are accused is not the only factor to be taken into account sometimes," says Mills's Pilate. "That can be an uncomfortable truth, as it was for me in the case of the carpenter."
By the end of the book, Pilate doesn't quite kneel and pray the sinner's prayer, but his soul lurches toward Christianity. The last few paragraphs clinch the book's Christian message: "It is unlikely," Pilate muses, "that Christianity will survive, given the determination of Nero to obliterate it."
If Nero succeeds, than it will be clear that "Jesus of Nazareth was a poor mad fellow who misled himself and others into a tragic error." But if the church flourishes, if as many people come to believe in Jesus as in Hercules, if more people pray to Jesus than to Aesculapius, then we can conclude that Jesus was who he said he was: God. Pilate, it seems, would have become a Christian, if only he had had a crystal ball.
Although Mills's Pilate was coerced by Jewish leaders who would not take no for an answer, Pilate is still plagued with anxiety about his role in Jesus' death; so much so that he spends his last days recording everything he can remember about his brief encounter with Jesus. "[E]very memory of mine that has to do with Jesus of Nazareth is still clear," he writes. "Each of those vivid recollections seems like a punishment visited on me by some god."
Did Pilate suffer?
Wroe shows that this question—whether God visited a punishment upon Pilate—intrigued church Fathers for centuries. Did Pilate live out his days peaceful and prosperous, or the victim of suffering at the hands of an angry God?
Origen and Celsus debated the question in 248—if Jesus was indeed God, Pilate should have suffered a miserable end. Celsus argued that since Pilate had not apparently suffered, Christ must not be God. But Origen said Celsus came to the wrong conclusion: Pilate was not the guilty party. The Jews were. And they had been suffering ever since. Pilate, said Origen, lived out his dotage peaceful and obscure. "Philo and Josephus," Wroe tells us, "endorsed the view," as did Anatole France, writing in 1892 of a Pilate happily exiled to Sicily, unable to even remember who Jesus was.
Some church Fathers, however, did not accept Origen's account. "It was not good enough to say, with Origen, that he was innocent," writes Wroe. "[E]very one knew it was the Romans, not the Jews, who had actually crucified Christ."
Juvenal and others pictured Pilate wracked by a guilty conscience, exiled to Tuscany, or, as a 14th-century Latin verse has it, imprisoned for 12 years in a well in Lausanne.
Of course we should be keen to affirm, contra Origen, that it was the Romans and not the Jews who sentenced Christ to hang. But in affirming just that, we should not lose sight of the deeper truth: it was our sin, finally, that sentenced him to die. Pilate was responsible, to be sure. But so are we.
Random House has an excerpt from Wroe's Pontius Pilate.
Baker Book House has an excerpt from Mills's Memoirs of Pontius Pilate.
There's a site devoted to the works of H.D. , or Hilda Doolittle, but there's little on Pilate's Wife.
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