Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Gospel of Pilate

Well, hey, why not a Gospel of Pilate? If Judas can have one, then surely that other assassin of Christ is entitled to equal time.

Without these two men, who both played pivotal roles in the Crucifixion of Our Lord and Saviour, no believer today could enjoy the Salvation that Christ’s sacrifice has vouchsafed for them.

What set me to (again) thinking about this stuff was that we dropped in on friends last weekend and found them watching a dvd of Norman Jewison’s 1973 big-screen production of the rock-opera Jesus Christ Superstar. The Pilate presented in that Lloyd-Webber & Rice opus is — second only to the title character Himself, of course — easily the most intriguing portrayal in the show, albeit that he only gets barely about 15 minutes of screen time. (Priorities.)

As portrayed by Barry Dennen in the film, Pilate has a pronounced lisp — in conformity with an apparent tendency in cinema to camp-up the character, taken to sublime absurdity with Michael Palin’s rhotacistic Pilate in Monty Python’s The Life of Bwian Brian.

But little is actually known about Pilate — beyond his prominent role in the Scriptures as Procurator of Judea — that is not, at best, of dubious reliability. In the Sunday Age some time ago, Terry Lane described Pilate’s lot and function as “the daily grind of crushing little people”. While to a great extent that’s probably a fair characterisation — imperial Rome, after all, was necessarily and quintessentially a police/terror state — the fact is that various accounts of Christ’s trial before Pilate give the impression of the latter as an intelligent and complex character.

Indeed, a number of sources, including the Gospels, convey an impression of Pilate as being deeply conflicted regarding his role in Jesus’s fate. Further, among the Apocryphal texts, the Acts of Pilate presents a detailed narrative of Pilate’s active resistance to the Sanhedrin’s condemnation of Jesus.

An interesting modern treatment of Pilate’s role in the Crucifixion I’ve found is contained in the Soviet-era author Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel, The Master and Margarita. Bulgakov’s depiction of Pilate discretely occupies several chapters of the novel, and was dramatised by Channel 4 Productions in a short feature (about 1 hour) called Incident in Judea.

For anyone interested in reading further, the relevant sections in the text of the novel are Book One, Chapters 2 (“Pontius Pilate”) and 16 (“The Execution”); and Book Two, Chapter 25 (“How the Procurator Tried to Save Judas of Karioth”).

There’s also a dream-sequence in the “Epilogue” in which Bulgakov floats a redemptive resolution of Pilate’s perdition:

To the moon stretches a broad path of moonlight and up it is climbing a man in a white cloak with a blood-red lining. Beside him walks a young man in a torn chiton and with a disfigured face. The two are talking heatedly, arguing, trying to agree about something.

‘Ye gods!’ says the man in the cloak, turning his proud face to his companion. ‘What a disgusting method of execution! But please, tell me,’ — here the pride in his face turns to supplication — ‘it did not take place, did it? I beg you — tell me that it never took place?’

‘No, of course it never took place,’ answers his companion in a husky voice. ‘It was merely your imagination.’

‘Can you swear to that?’ begged the man in the cloak.

‘I swear it!’ answers his companion, his eyes smiling.

‘That is all I need to know!’ gasps the man in the cloak as he strides on towards the moon, beckoning his companion on.

A reappraisal of Pilate is perhaps in order, in consideration of his reluctance — albeit, ultimately futile — to deliver Jesus to the executioner’s gibbet. Was he the monster that is portrayed in tradition? Or just a flawed man, hence a pliant and unwitting instrument of God, the Father and Son?

Had Pilate not yielded to the clamour for blood of the priests and the mob, Christianity may have been stillborn. And ourselves, doomed, for want of heavenly Salvation.

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Anonymous Jacob said...

Blaming the Jews, Canonizing Pilate

Phew. Thank Christ I didn't mention the Jews.

22/3/08 1:02 AM  

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