Book Review – Ponzio Pilato: Un Enigma tra Storia e Memoria by Aldo Schiavone

Ponzio Pilato: Un Enigma tra Storia e Memoria. By Aldo Schiavone. Torino, Italy: Einaudi, 2016. 174 pp. EUR 18.70.*

Aldo Schiavone, professor of Roman law, is a columnist for La Repubblica and founder of the Italian Institute of Human Sciences (Istituto Italiano di Scienze Umane). He has taught in Paris (Ecole des Hautes Etudes) and is a member of the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, N.J.

His past historical studies that lead naturally to this new work on Pontius Pilate include: The End of the Past: Ancient Rome and the Modern West (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000. Reprinted 2002) and Spartaco. Le armi e l’uomo (Torino: Einaudi, 2011. English translation: Spartacus, Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 2013).

In a concluding note to Ponzio Pilato, Schiavone points to the importance of Pontius Pilate’s role in the trial of Jesus. Pilate is at the crucial juncture between Christian memory and imperial history. Any study of ancient Rome (imperial history), and the two millennia since, is incomplete without examining Pilate’s role in the death of Jesus: an event suspended between demonstrable facts and a suggestive and powerful Christian memory.

Schiavone summarizes the historical background of Pilate’s political origins and his career in Judea, using early historical sources (Josephus to Tertullian, and Pilate apocrypha such as the Acts of Pilate) along with the gospel narratives. He opens his work (chapter 1) with the dramatic moment of Jesus brought to trial by the Jewish authorities, before expanding on (in chapter 2) Pilate’s early political career and arrival in Jerusalem as governor. He demonstrates in two ways how Pilate learns to deal with Jewish authorities and religion: by describing an uprising in Caesarea when Roman banners are brought into the city, and by depicting how Pilate handled Jewish objections when Pilate wanted to build an aqueduct. Awareness of these political-religious tensions prepare us to understand Pilate’s encounter with Jesus after he has been arrested and brought to Pilate by the Jewish authorities.

The heart of the book (Chapters 3 & 4) is a detailed narrative of the trial and sentencing of Jesus. This is the most interesting part for Christians who know about Jesus through the Holy Week readings of the Passion and include in their creed: Jesus “crucified by Pontius Pilate.”  Schiavone’s careful, journalistic reconstruction of the trial and Pilate’s dialogue with Jesus accepts John the Evangelist’s version of the event. Schiavone sees this narrative as close to the early Christian memory of the event, if not as the memories of eye witnesses.

Schiavone expands on Pilate’s “fear” and subsequent questions to Jesus about his origins after unsuccessfully trying to have Jesus released because Pilate thinks he is innocent. To understand Pilate’s reaction when he hears the Jewish authorities claim Jesus is guilty because he said he was the “Son of God,” Schiavone notes Pilate’s psychology and typical Roman religious attitude where rationality was tinged with superstition. He also explores the larger theological dimension of Jewish (and Jesus’) monotheism in relation to Roman deities and myths.

Schiavone’s own hypothesis about why Pilate (who alone had the power to condemn Jesus to death) finally hands Jesus over to be crucified is this: after questioning Jesus, Pilate perceived that Jesus himself did not will to be released; such liberty would contradict his whole preaching and mission; the death sentence would in Jesus’ view be the climactic event that would reveal who God truly was! Pilate in effect cooperates with Jesus’ own intentions.

Biblical scholars will question whether John’s account of the trial before Pilate is historically plausible, e.g. because of John’s obvious “high Christological” agenda. But nonspecialist readers will thrill at a lively account of a crucial event of Jesus’ life. Schiavone’s interpretation probes the dramatic story of a Roman governor meeting the person who brought the Jewish God to the whole world. And such an approach to John has plausibility, given the author’s earlier section on the relation of history to “memory.”

James Zeitz

Associate Professor of Theology

Our Lady of the Lake University

San Antonio, TX

* Editorial note: Later published as Pontius Pilate: Deciphering a Memory. Trans. Jeremy Carden. New York: Liveright/Norton, 2017. 224 pages. $24.95