Saint or Sinner? Don't Wash Your Hands of Pilate

Article excerpt

Byline: A. N. WILSON

PILATE: The Biography Of An Invented Man by Ann Wroe (Jonathan Cape, [pounds sterling]17.99)

WE MAKE our own Pontius Pilates and it was always so, even when they were writing the Gospels.

A friend of mine, a newspaper editor and devout Christian, once told me that Pilate was the only character in the Gospel story with whom he could 'identify'. When I asked why, he replied that he could imagine that Pilate, like himself, had been to Eton.

Early Jewish records - those of the Jewish-Egyptian philosopher Philo of Alexandria, or the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus - do not depict such a gentlemanly Pilate. They believed him to be a thug, a torturer, a bully, who ruthlessly suppressed any hint of rebellion in Judaea.

He crucified rebels readily - it was the usual Roman method of capital punishment for the criminal classes.

He deliberately insulted the religious sensibilities of the Jews by erecting the standards of the Legions (idols in Jewish eyes) within sight of their holy Temple at Jerusalem.

What were the Gospels to make of the man who was ultimately responsible for putting Jesus to death?

THE Gospel writers were in a difficult position. They were writing at a time when the Romans were at war with the Jews, levelling Jerusalem and taking its inhabitants into slavery, while fighting a long guerilla campaign against the few recalcitrant Palestinian freedom fighters.

The Gospel writers wanted to distinguish the new religion, Christianity, as much as possible from its Jewish roots, lest the Christians should also be persecuted.

So they put the blame for Jesus's death on the Jews. They can't get round the fact that Jesus died the death of a common Roman criminal just the sort of death Pilate meted out to Jewish freedom fighters. But they pretend, in the Gospels, that it was the Jews who insisted on this - 'and his blood be on us and on our people'.

Pilate absolves himself of any guilt.

He uses, in the Gospel-fiction, a Jewish method of purification ritual.

No real Roman governor would have ritually washed his hands in public, in the manner described in the Gospels.

Ever since the Gospels were written, humans have continued to interpret their own experiences, their own ideas of what it means to be human, to be a society, to be an individual under God, in terms of the story of Jesus. …