Pontius Pilate: Portraits of a Roman Governor

By Bautch, Richard J. | Journal of Biblical Literature, Summer 2004 | Go to article overview

Pontius Pilate: Portraits of a Roman Governor


Bautch, Richard J., Journal of Biblical Literature


Pontius Pilate: Portraits of a Roman Governor, by Warren Carter. Interfaces Series. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press/Michael Glazier, 2003. Pp. xii+162. $14.95 (paper). ISBN 0814651135.

Interfaces is a new series of book-length character studies drawn from the Bible and intended for use in undergraduate classes. While serving as a focal point, a biblical character such as King Saul or John the Baptist also exposes students to a portion of the Old or New Testament. The exposure is designed to be critical, with each study drawing on methodologies current in biblical studies, some even cutting edge. In lieu of the traditional survey course, it is suggested, a professor may assign several of the Interfaces volumes during a semester to introduce students to a range of interpretive approaches as well as to a significant portion of biblical content. Included in the series is Warren Carter's Pontius Pilate: Portaits of a Roman Governor, a book that endeavors to show how a relatively minor character in the Gospels can provide a window on issues of social justice and reflect significant literary artistry on the part of the evangelists.

In ch. 1, Carter prepares the ground for his own views of the biblical Pilate by referring to several scholarly positions. He questions whether Pilate was, as many have held, an indecisive and ultimately weak governor who became a pawn of the Jewish leadership intent on executing Jesus. Carter disputes other standard descriptions of Pilate's role (e.g., Christian convert) before proposing that Pilate was arrogant and manipulative so as to protect the interests of the ruling elite as well as the structures of Roman imperial power upon which those interests were based. In fact, this proposal becomes the book's thesis, and as such it is developed in subsequent chapters from the perspectives of the four Gospels.

In ch. 2, Carter explains his methodology: the character of Pilate is to be studied with techniques of literary criticism, specifically audience-oriented criticism (a footnote on p. 22 cites several practitioners of reader-response criticism). Like an audience, readers of the Gospels "build" or "assemble" Pilate's character, Carter suggests. Indeed, the following chapters offer a close reading of the literary object, Pilate's character, and with this method Carter draws attention to literary verities such as paradox and irony. With an interest in Pilate as a governor who makes alliances with the Jewish elite under the aegis of the Roman empire, Carter introduces a second methodology, postcolonial criticism. This reading strategy, Carter argues, foregrounds "the impact of imperial structures and worldviews" on the Bible's composition and subsequent interpretation (p. 31). Reading Pilate from a postcolonial perspective, he maintains, allows readers to see how the Gospels resist the Roman imperial system rather than submit to it. Here he cites Gerhard Lenski and R. S. Sugirtharajah.

Carter's use of postcolonial criticism merits an evaluative aside. On the one hand, reading the trial scenes as a highly political confrontation between God's providential order and Roman domination is not unique to posteolonial criticism (see, e.g., Marcus Borg, The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions [San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1999], 91). Postcolonialism additionally critiques current developments such as American imperialism, economic globalization, and power dynamics that have shaped the field of biblical studies, and readers would be profitably alerted to this fact. On the other hand, Carter's applications of postcolonialism are often masterful. For example, that the Matthean Pilate manipulates the crowd through words and signs such as his handwashing invites a posteolonial reading. Postcolonialism would identify in this part of Matthew a hegemonic code of discourse designed to authenticate the dominant values, prejudices, and prerogatives of the ruling class (see R. S. Sugirtharajah, Postcolonial Criticism and Biblical Interpretation [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002], 79-86). …

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