Friday, June 3, 2005

Pontius Pilate: A Roman Perspective of the Gospel Story

Paul Maier’s Pontius Pilate is an excellent companion novel to Flames of Rome, the “prequel” to the later story of the early church. Whereas Flames of Rome is geographically focused on Rome during the days of the Bible book of Acts, Pontius Pilate tells the gospel story – from Pontius Pilate’s Roman perspective. Beginning in A.D. 26, when Pilate was first given a promotion, Prefect of Judea (replacing Gratus), through Pilate’s later years, the story encompasses much of what happened in ancient Israel, integrated as a part of the overall Roman world.

Slow at times, Pontius Pilate is nonetheless very informative and well-documented, complete with chapter-by-chapter historical notes. As with Flames of Rome, Maier again brings a strong “documentary novel,” in which all the character names are valid and all known story points are presented factually. Yet also, the subject matter simply has too many gaps, and here Maier has developed a good narrative story of what might have happened. The dating of events is interesting as well, since the important New Testament events –When John the Baptist began his ministry, and especially the year of the crucifixion – are not even known today. Though some historians place the crucifixion earlier, no later than 30 A.D., in Pontius Pilate the event occurs in 33 A.D., with plenty of time for the story to build up towards the great, climactic event towards the end of Pilate’s Judean career.

The known material presented, and expanded on, include Pilate’s confrontation with the Jews (early during his governorship) concerning the Roman soldiers’ icons (of Tiberius Caesar), and Pilate’s improvements to Jerusalem’s waterways – all of course minor things now compared to the crucifixion of Jesus, yet described by various writers including Josephus. Sprinkled throughout the narrative are references to Bible events: a mysterious star “about 30 years ago” and the late King Herod’s actions; the scandalous marriage of Herod Antipas to his brother Philip’s wife Herodias (who was also Antipas’s niece), and the rise of John the Baptist. The story moves inevitably forward, with Pilate himself acting in ways that seem of minor importance at the time, but would later have drastic consequences.

Predictably (after all, a book’s main character ought to be likeable), Maier presents Pilate in a more favorable light than do the historical documents of the time (i.e., Josephus and Philo, with their obvious pro-Jewish, anti-Roman bias). Maier’s Pilate is more of a pragmatic politician: a secular governor trying to do his job, to please his superiors by keeping order and peace in this very troublesome part of the empire. He is amazed time and again by the obstinacy and seemingly non-rational zeal of the Judean Jews, and the reader can relate to his frustrations.

Pontius Pilate by Paul Maier is an excellent companion book to Flames of Rome, and together the two books offer a very informative look at the Roman Empire during the 1st century. Pontius Pilate gives a great summary, in the historical fiction narrative style, for an entertaining as well as educational story.

No comments: