Memoirs of Pontius Pilate

Written by . James Mills
Review by James Hawking

Mills mixes the Roman historical genre with the early Christian form.

The blurb stated that Mills started with what he with no false modesty calls “a remarkable idea: What if one of the Gospels had been written by an enemy of Jesus, not a friend?” An anti-Semitic Pontius Pilate, in exile at Vienne, around the year 64 A.D., narrates a history of the events when he was procurator of Judea, Samaria and Idumea. Mills prefers the tradition of a smug and satisfied Pilate to those which made him a prisoner, a suicide, or a saint.

The narrator Pilate starts out as a Roman version of a modern anthropologist, demonstrating a considerable knowledge of Jewish history and lore, as well as early Christian history. Some of his knowledge came from Caiphas’s secret memos describing the perfect matches between the messianic prophecies and Jesus’ life as insistently as the Gospel of Matthew. Pilate says he has access to a biography of “the carpenter” by one of his followers, and we might assume that the document is “Q,” the source of the Synoptic Gospels. This explains the detailed description of such New Testament stories as the visit by the Magi and the visit to the Temple by the young Jesus. Caiphas explains Jesus’ miracles as coming from Satan. Pilate points out how easily they may have been fabricated, but his friend the Baptist-beheading Herod Antipas was convinced the miracles were genuine. Mills’ Pilate does not give any indications of Christianity, nor does his philosemitic wife who is sympathetic to Jesus, but not a follower as in some traditions.

On the Roman side, Pilate’s ties to the deposed Sejanus fixes him in Roman history. A visit from the future emperor Vitellius highlights Roman corruption. The links to Pilate in the historic record are used to establish a plausible theory about the years in which Jesus was born and died.

Weaving history out of thin sources is difficult, but other fictions have brought Pilate to life better than this. Paul Meier’s professorial novel Pontius Pilate shows its sources well enough to see where the history ends and fiction begins. Anatole France’s Pilate in Procurator of Judea is the complete opposite of Mills’ on the issue of Pilate’s memory of Jesus. Medieval mystery plays ascribe colorful penalties or repentance to sainthood.

Memoirs of Pontius Pilate is well-intentioned, but it brings no new revelations. Ultimately it is the Gospel according to a dull and unobservant man who missed the point of what was going on around him.