Pontius Pilate

Ann Wroe, Author Random House (NY) $26.95 (432p) ISBN 978-0-375-50305-4
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.)
Reviewed on: 04/03/2000
Release date: 04/01/2000
Genre: Nonfiction
Paperback - 432 pages - 978-0-375-75397-8
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