The Invented Man

Nature, we know, abhors a vacuum. That is a general truth about the nonhuman world. But human nature abhors it at least as much; and, like inanimate nature, it has its own ways of filling it up. It is a sad fact, for instance, that our historical sources are niggardly with information about many interesting people, involved in important events, about whom we want to know much, much more. Ann Wroe has an excellent subject in Pontius Pilatus, the Prefect of Judaea, under whom Jesus Christ was sentenced to the death of a criminal: Pontius Pilate, a name to live in infamy, but a man about whom we are sorely short of reliable biographical information.

Wroe is far from being the first to take on the subject. From the twentieth century alone we have more than twenty books with his name in their titles, from Clarice M. Cresswell, Pilate Gave Sentence (1920) and Lea Gordon, Pilate: A Passion Play (1951), to Michel Fausset, Pilate Pasha (1939), and Ursula Bloom, Pilate’s Wife (1978), not to mention such alluring titles, in their time so snappily up-to-date, as Warren Keffer, The Pilate Papers (1976), Martin Page, The Pilate Plot (1979), and even Vincent O’Sullivan, The Pilate Tapes (1986).

A recent work of straight scholarship is Helen K. Bond, Pontius Pilate in History and Interpretation (Cambridge University Press, 1998); less straight is the sprightly re-creation of the Prefect’s correspondence by Joerg von Uthmann: Pontius Pilatus, Briefwechsel (Hamburg, 1991). Rumor whispers that certain professional scholars, who should have known better, wrote urgently to the imaginative author, asking to be allowed to read the original texts, which he pretended to be translating. One hesitates even to mention Richard Huggett, Pontius the Pilot: The Best of Catholic Jokes, Wit, and Humour (1986). And we must not forget the novel on Pilate which is being written by the Master in Mikhail Bulgakov’s classic novel, The Master and Margarita. “Why Pontius Pilate?” cries the demon Woland. “Couldn’t you choose a different subject?”

The desire to know more about every detail of the Passion story began early. In the fourth century Saint Helena, the mother of Constantine the first Christian Emperor, went to Judaea in search of the True Cross, and of course she found it. The desire for information did not fail to include the magistrate who had played such a central part. In the eighth century pious pilgrims to the Holy Land were being taken round the building that was supposed to be Pilate’s headquarters, and shown a painting on the wall which was a portrait of Christ, painted on Pilate’s orders. In the late Middle Ages someone forged a police description of Christ, drawn up on Pilate’s orders. It describes his

hair the color of an unripe hazel and smooth almost to the ears; but from the ears down slightly darker-colored corkscrew curls, more glistening, and waving downwards from the shoulders. He wears his hair parted in the center….

In the sixteenth century a…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.