Authors & Events
Feb 27, 2001
| ISBN 9780345443502
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Feb 27, 2001 | ISBN 9780345443502
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 ofMemoirs of Pontius Pilate.James Mills: Some time ago, the pastor of my church said in a Sundaymorning sermon it’s a great pity that we don’t have a life of Christwritten by one of his enemies. He said we know what his followersthought of him; we have the Gospels, four accounts from men who weretotally committed to him, but it’s a one-sided view. What would anaccount from one of his enemies look like? What could we learn fromthat?The questions interested me. We know a lot about Pilate from ancientsources. The Bible characterizes him quite well, though in relativelyfew words. We also have the writings of Josephus, and we have furtherinformation from Philo of Alexandria. They all make him out to be thesame kind of person: a professional politician, one who was very cynicaland whose principles were, well, flexible. I was thinking on thatmorning that I know this person, and that it would be possible tocompose 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 Ispent as president pro tempore of the California Senate. I was a careerpolitician. 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 theway of what they’re doing–and what they’re doing is surviving. Pilatewas in a difficult situation: his protector, Sejanus, had been thrownoff the Tarpeian Rock with his wife and children, and the enemies ofSejanus were looking to dispose of Pilate as well.Pilate demonstrated a common failing of many politicians: overlookingjustice to save himself. He determined that this carpenter from Nazarethwas not guilty of the crime that he was charged with, and yet decided toexecute him. His decision was made to gain the favor of those whosesupport was important to him, namely, the Sadducees, a small butinfluential minority of the Jewish population at that time who wereconvinced that Christ was a danger, particularly after his raising ofLazarus.Following that event, the high priest, Joseph ben Caiaphas, said it isbetter that this man should lose his life than that we should lose ourplace as a nation. That was important to them, and they were importantto Pilate because they were the only supporters the Romans had in theHoly Land. The Sadducees were the only ones really interested in tryingto live with the Romans as their conquerors. One of the issues I triedto raise in the book was not only the motivation for Pilate, but themotivation for the Sadducees for pursuing this carpenter to death.Q: Untangling the knot of religion and politics at the heart ofChrist’s historical moment seems to be a chief concern in Memoirs ofPontius Pilate.JM: Very much so. The average Christian and the average Jew know verylittle about the time and place in history in which Christ appeared. Ithought the book would be an effective way to convey an understanding ofwhat was going on in Palestine at that time. To understand the life ofChrist, we need to understand the conflicts between the Pharisees andthe Sadducees, and, earlier, the Jews and the Greeks who had beensettled in that land by Alexander the Great. These conflicts shed lighton the nature of the relationship between the Jewish subjects and theRoman rulers, factors that had a bearing on Pilate’s decision.It’s interesting to me that Christians know so little about the scenewithin which Christ’s life was lived, and that Jews know so little aboutthe scene within which Jewish orthodoxy was developed. Jewish orthodoxywas really being formulated at that time by the Pharisees. I thought allof those things would be very useful to people in understanding the lifeof Christ. You can’t really understand somebody’s life if you don’tunderstand 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, therecurring description of him as a cynical, pragmatic politician. So Ithought the appropriate thing was to present him that way. His voice isthat of a man who is there to make some money, a man not above taking abribe, which was something you could do often as the governor of a Romanprovince.The actual language that I employed was a Latin form of English; that isto say that I tried to create a voice that was like the great Romanwriters of prose, particularly Julius Caesar and Cicero. I wroterelatively simple sentences of the kind for which they were famous. Itried for a consistency but did not want to carry that too far. Therewere times when I thought a person like Pilate might become slightlylyrical.Q: What about selecting a genre? You call Memoirs of Pontius Pilate anovel. 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 inthis book is derived from the Bible or from accepted history or ancienttraditions.The four Gospels provide the foundation of this book. I do not questionthe validity of anything in them. There are theologians involved inhigher criticism and lower criticism who analyze the Gospels todetermine which parts are true and which aren’t. I am not one of them: Iaccept the gospels in their entirety as true as a first premise for thebook.Q: What other than the Gospels did you accept as authoritativesources?JM: The ancient tradition that has Pilate committing suicide wasmentioned by Origen, an early church authority. The story which tells ofPilate walking into the Rhone River and drowning himself is very old,and I accepted it. People have been intrigued for centuries with thequestion of why Pilate took his life. Christians have been askingthemselves did he do it because he realized what he had done, that hehad 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 includevarious people’s speculation.Q: We don’t get a real wrestling with conscience, the proverbial darknight of the soul, in your depiction of Pilate looking back.JM: I don’t think a cynical, pragmatic politician is likely to sufferthrough that much soul-searching. I presented him as only moderatelytroubled by what he had done. He had brought about the death of a personunjustly; he regretted that, but it wasn’t the kind of thing that wasgoing to keep him awake nights. And he remains unconvinced frombeginning to end about the identity of the victim. Pilate entertains thepossibility that Christ was the messiah, but leaves the question openfor future generations to discover.Q: What has the experience of writing Memoirs of Pontius Pilate meantto you?JM: It was very satisfying to me to pull together so many ideas thatI have thought throughout the course of years. The book was theculmination of a lifetime of reflections, some going back to things thatI thought listening to sermons thirty or forty years ago.What’s more important, writing the book made me understand the events inChrist’s life better, and I’m happy to say that many readers have had asimilar experience. They say that one of the great things about the bookis that it enables them to understand the Gospels better; they find allof the four much more meaningful now that they have a feeling for whattook place. That means a lot to me, for I was trying to provide theinformation for today’s reader that the original readers had.Q: Toward that end, you devote significant attention to Herod theGreat.JM: One thing I thought would be interesting to Christian readers andto Jewish readers was the information that I presented about Herod theGreat, whose reign contributed greatly to setting the scene for the lifeof Christ. I think the reign of Herod the Great is very important increating the situation into which Christ was born and in which he grewup. Another thing that I tried to accomplish was to close the gapbetween the Old Testament and the New Testament, particularly the onethat exists in the Protestant Bible. I wanted for a lot of readers toconnect both books by filling in that historic gap. There again isinformation you need to know to make sense of the life and death ofChrist.Q: With presidential candidates citing Jesus Christ as a role model,your work appears both timely and timeless, that is, an aptconsideration of the uneasy intersection of religion and politics.JM: When I hear a politician publicly discussing religion I ask, isthis person really laying bear his spirit, or is he saying something hebelieves a lot of voters would like to hear? I don’t like to hear aboutreligion from the individual in a public forum. If somebody else wantsto say this person is a committed Christian or that religion reallymatters to him, fine. People should prefer to have politicians showtheir Christianity rather than talk about it.Q: How often did you ask yourself what you would do in Pilate’spredicament while writing the book?JM: What would I do if I were in Pilate’s position, where my tenurein the office if not my life could be imperiled by my decision to do theright thing. That’s one question, and one that none of us could answerunless we faced it.The more important question is this: Would today’s Christians havefollowed Christ during his time? Would they have been committed to Him?The chances are that a very large percentage of them would not. Ifreligious conservatives today were conservative then, they would nothave followed Christ, a radical. Christ would have been unnerving to alot of people who go to church every Sunday and look upon themselves asorthodox, 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’sfiction and contemporary.Q: Yet isn’t Pilate’s story utterly contemporary?JM: I’ve said to various people on various occasions, look, PontiusPilate is alive and well today. Pontius Pilate is on every city counciland state legislature that I have ever seen. He is in California and theUnited States Congress. In fact, he is present everywhere in politics.One of the reasons that things don’t turn out right for us is becausethere are too many people in decision making positions in politics whodon’t do what they think is right. They do what they think ispolitically expedient, which is what Pontius Pilate did.
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