It’s been thirty years since he sentenced the troublemaker to die, but Pontius Pilate can’t get Jesus out of his mind. . . .
Forced to live out his life in exile, Pontius Pilate, the former governor of Judea, is now haunted by the executions that were carried out on his orders. The life and death of a particular carpenter from Nazareth lay heavily on his mind. With years of solitude stretched out before him, Pilate sets out to uncover all he can about Jesus—his birth, boyhood, ministry, and the struggles that led to his crucifixion. With unexpected wit and candor, Pilate reveals a unique, compelling picture of Jesus that only one of his enemies could give.
In a vibrant, inventive, completely engaging novel that places Jesus and his teachings in a wonderfully accurate historical setting, James R. Mills has created nothing less than a new gospel that illuminates the beginnings of Christianity from an astonishing and unexpected point of view.
"OUTSTANDINGLY ORIGINAL, SUPERBLY WRITTEN, FASCINATING AND ENGAGING." –Midwest Book Review
A Conversation with James Mills Question: Explain the genesis of Memoirs of Pontius Pilate.
James Mills: Some time ago, the pastor of my church said in a Sunday morning sermon it’s a great pity that we don’t have a life of Christ written by one of his enemies. He said we know what his followers thought of him; we have the Gospels, four accounts from men who were totally committed to him, but it’s a one-sided view. What would an account from one of his enemies look like? What could we learn from that?
The questions interested me. We know a lot about Pilate from ancient sources. The Bible characterizes him quite well, though in relatively few words. We also have the writings of Josephus, and we have further information from Philo of Alexandria. They all make him out to be the same kind of person: a professional politician, one who was very cynical and whose principles were, well, flexible. I was thinking on that morning that I know this person, and that it would be possible to compose a life of Christ from the perspective of Pontius Pilate.
Q: What in your experience made such a character familiar to you?
JM: Twenty-two years in the California legislature, ten of which I spent as president pro tempore of the California Senate. I was a career politician. I have seen people like Pilate on all levels of government; people who are pragmatic and don’t let what is right or wrong get in the way of what they’re doing–and what they’re doing is surviving. Pilate was in a difficult situation: his protector, Sejanus, had been thrown off the Tarpeian Rock with his wife and children, and the enemies of Sejanus were looking to dispose of Pilate as well.
Pilate demonstrated a common failing of many politicians: overlooking justice to save himself. He determined that this carpenter from Nazareth was not guilty of the crime that he was charged with, and yet decided to execute him. His decision was made to gain the favor of those whose support was important to him, namely, the Sadducees, a small but influential minority of the Jewish population at that time who were convinced that Christ was a danger, particularly after his raising of Lazarus.
Following that event, the high priest, Joseph ben Caiaphas, said it is better that this man should lose his life than that we should lose our place as a nation. That was important to them, and they were important to Pilate because they were the only supporters the Romans had in the Holy Land. The Sadducees were the only ones really interested in trying to live with the Romans as their conquerors. One of the issues I tried to raise in the book was not only the motivation for Pilate, but the motivation for the Sadducees for pursuing this carpenter to death.
Q: Untangling the knot of religion and politics at the heart of Christ’s historical moment seems to be a chief concern in Memoirs of Pontius Pilate.
JM: Very much so. The average Christian and the average Jew know very little about the time and place in history in which Christ appeared. I thought the book would be an effective way to convey an understanding of what was going on in Palestine at that time. To understand the life of Christ, we need to understand the conflicts between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and, earlier, the Jews and the Greeks who had been settled in that land by Alexander the Great. These conflicts shed light on the nature of the relationship between the Jewish subjects and the Roman rulers, factors that had a bearing on Pilate’s decision.
It’s interesting to me that Christians know so little about the scene within which Christ’s life was lived, and that Jews know so little about the scene within which Jewish orthodoxy was developed. Jewish orthodoxy was really being formulated at that time by the Pharisees. I thought all of those things would be very useful to people in understanding the life of Christ. You can’t really understand somebody’s life if you don’t understand the scene upon which it was played out.
Q: How did you go about creating a voice for Pilate?
JM: I started with the knowledge that we have of Pilate, the recurring description of him as a cynical, pragmatic politician. So I thought the appropriate thing was to present him that way. His voice is that of a man who is there to make some money, a man not above taking a bribe, which was something you could do often as the governor of a Roman province.
The actual language that I employed was a Latin form of English; that is to say that I tried to create a voice that was like the great Roman writers of prose, particularly Julius Caesar and Cicero. I wrote relatively simple sentences of the kind for which they were famous. I tried for a consistency but did not want to carry that too far. There were times when I thought a person like Pilate might become slightly lyrical.
Q: What about selecting a genre? You call Memoirs of Pontius Pilate a novel. Where do fact and fiction meet?
JM: The book is fiction only in the sense that the voices of Pilate, Herod, and others are fictionalized, but nothing else is. Everything in this book is derived from the Bible or from accepted history or ancient traditions.
The four Gospels provide the foundation of this book. I do not question the validity of anything in them. There are theologians involved in higher criticism and lower criticism who analyze the Gospels to determine which parts are true and which aren’t. I am not one of them: I accept the gospels in their entirety as true as a first premise for the book.
Q: What other than the Gospels did you accept as authoritative sources?
JM: The ancient tradition that has Pilate committing suicide was mentioned by Origen, an early church authority. The story which tells of Pilate walking into the Rhone River and drowning himself is very old, and I accepted it. People have been intrigued for centuries with the question of why Pilate took his life. Christians have been asking themselves did he do it because he realized what he had done, that he had killed the son of God. I don’t make any assumptions in that regard. I tried to make my book as factual as I could, and not to include various people’s speculation.
Q: We don’t get a real wrestling with conscience, the proverbial dark night of the soul, in your depiction of Pilate looking back.
JM: I don’t think a cynical, pragmatic politician is likely to suffer through that much soul-searching. I presented him as only moderately troubled by what he had done. He had brought about the death of a person unjustly; he regretted that, but it wasn’t the kind of thing that was going to keep him awake nights. And he remains unconvinced from beginning to end about the identity of the victim. Pilate entertains the possibility that Christ was the messiah, but leaves the question open for future generations to discover.
Q: What has the experience of writing Memoirs of Pontius Pilate meant to you?
JM: It was very satisfying to me to pull together so many ideas that I have thought throughout the course of years. The book was the culmination of a lifetime of reflections, some going back to things that I thought listening to sermons thirty or forty years ago.
What’s more important, writing the book made me understand the events in Christ’s life better, and I’m happy to say that many readers have had a similar experience. They say that one of the great things about the book is that it enables them to understand the Gospels better; they find all of the four much more meaningful now that they have a feeling for what took place. That means a lot to me, for I was trying to provide the information for today’s reader that the original readers had.
Q: Toward that end, you devote significant attention to Herod the Great.
JM: One thing I thought would be interesting to Christian readers and to Jewish readers was the information that I presented about Herod the Great, whose reign contributed greatly to setting the scene for the life of Christ. I think the reign of Herod the Great is very important in creating the situation into which Christ was born and in which he grew up. Another thing that I tried to accomplish was to close the gap between the Old Testament and the New Testament, particularly the one that exists in the Protestant Bible. I wanted for a lot of readers to connect both books by filling in that historic gap. There again is information you need to know to make sense of the life and death of Christ.
Q: With presidential candidates citing Jesus Christ as a role model, your work appears both timely and timeless, that is, an apt consideration of the uneasy intersection of religion and politics.
JM: When I hear a politician publicly discussing religion I ask, is this person really laying bear his spirit, or is he saying something he believes a lot of voters would like to hear? I don’t like to hear about religion from the individual in a public forum. If somebody else wants to say this person is a committed Christian or that religion really matters to him, fine. People should prefer to have politicians show their Christianity rather than talk about it.
Q: How often did you ask yourself what you would do in Pilate’s predicament while writing the book?
JM: What would I do if I were in Pilate’s position, where my tenure in the office if not my life could be imperiled by my decision to do the right thing. That’s one question, and one that none of us could answer unless we faced it.
The more important question is this: Would today’s Christians have followed Christ during his time? Would they have been committed to Him? The chances are that a very large percentage of them would not. If religious conservatives today were conservative then, they would not have followed Christ, a radical. Christ would have been unnerving to a lot of people who go to church every Sunday and look upon themselves as orthodox, faithful Christians.
Christians today should wonder if they would have followed Christ. Q: What’s next?
JM: I’m working on another book now; it’s completely different: it’s fiction and contemporary.
Q: Yet isn’t Pilate’s story utterly contemporary?
JM: I’ve said to various people on various occasions, look, Pontius Pilate is alive and well today. Pontius Pilate is on every city council and state legislature that I have ever seen. He is in California and the United States Congress. In fact, he is present everywhere in politics. One of the reasons that things don’t turn out right for us is because there are too many people in decision making positions in politics who don’t do what they think is right. They do what they think is politically expedient, which is what Pontius Pilate did.