His role in Jesus' death is nearly all that can be certain aboutthis Roman governor of Judea. Still, Pilate's image has been endlesslyrefashioned in the centuries since that fateful encounter with Jesus.From the penitent Christian convert of medieval legend to the saint ofthe African Coptic tradition to the biblical boogeyman of the 20thcentury, his image has constantly shifted.
"We've been given so many versions of Pilate over the years, butyet we've got so very little to go on," said Ann Wroe, an editor at theLondon business magazine The Economist and author of the new "PontiusPilate" (Random House).
"Pilate is so important to the whole redemption story that we've gotto make something out of him--you can't have someone who is so key andnot know about his character. We can't just let him go."
Pontius' reputation took a beating as early as the first centuryfrom some Jewish writers who thought Gospel writers treated the Romangovernor with kid gloves in biblical accounts of the crucifixion.
"There was a sense that Pilate was well-treated in the Gospels atthe expense of the Jews," Wroe said. "People wanted to show that Pilatehad more responsibility for Jesus' death than the Gospel writers leton."
The specter of Pilate as biblical boogeyman blossomed within thepast century, said Wroe, as writers, theologians, and even filmmakersseized upon the story of Jesus and Pilate as a handy metaphor for theindividual battling authority.
"In 20th-century accounts, Pilate is viewed with more and moredisfavor," Wroe sid. "Jesus is portrayed as a political rebel, a manstruggling against the state, and if you make Jesus a rebel of that sort,then Pilate has to represent all that is overweening about the state.And in the 20th century, states are much more huge and much morepervasive than before, so Pilate has gradually taken on the role of thetyrant and oppressor.
"The worker-priests in Soviet-controlled Europe and theliberation-theology priests in Central America often compared themselveswith the state in the Jesus/Pilate way," she added.
But Pilate wasn't always the designated bad guy; Coptic Christiansof Africa took a gentler view of the man and elevated Pilate and hiswife to sainthood. The two are commemmorated in St. Pilate and ProculaDay on June 25.
"According to the Gospels, Pilate's wife sent a message to Pilatesaying 'have nothing to do with this just man,'" said former CaliforniaSen. James Mills, whose historical novel, "Memoirs of Pontius Pilate,"appeared in March. "That's why she was considered a saint by some--sherecognized Jesus was the Messiah."
Coptic legend also reports that Pilate himself died by crucifixion--upon Jesus' cross, Wroe said.
Such stories, she said, highlight the idea that mercy can beextended to all--even the murderer of Jesus.
"Through these stories, we get the feeling that anybody can beredeemed--Jesus isn't going to leave anybody out in the great scheme,so even the man who sent him to his death is capable of redemption,"Wroe said. "It's a persuasive image, a comforting and powerful image.There's the sense that grace is extended to everyone."
In other legends, a remorseful Pilate takes his own life afterrealizing he killed the Son of God.
"Very early church authorities referred to Pilate's suicide," Millssaid, noting that history left no real evidence of Pilate's fate. "Somepeople thought he committed suicide because he realized what he had donewhen he ordered the crucifixion of Christ; he was in despair afterfinally realizing the terrible thing he'd done."
During the 19th century, Pilate found a sympathetic audience in manyBritish colonialists, Wroe said.
"Perhaps the most interesting 'kindly' view of Pilate is that of theVictorian empire-builders in the 19th century," she said. "Theysympathized with him because they understood themselves what it was liketo run an empire; they too often had to deal with 'gurus and imams' whohad a big popular following but whose religion was a mystery to them.There was in fact a huge debate in the 1870s between John Stuart Milland Virginia Woolf's uncle, James FitzJames Stephen, as to whetherPilate was right to crucify Jesus.