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ISSN 0045-0308

BOOK REVIEW  Published in Volume 52, 2004

Warren Carter, Pontius Pilate: Portraits of a Roman Governor. Interfaces. (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2003). Pp. Xiii+162. $US14.95.

This book is part of a new series, INTERFACES, edited by Barbara Green. Primarily aimed at undergraduate level students, the series explores particular characters within the Biblical narrative. The series is intended to provide readers with current methodological approaches to the examination of the Bible. The present volume adheres to the series agenda by placing the spotlight on the figure of the Roman governor Pontius Pilate through the lens of post-colonial criticism on the functioning of the Roman Empire in the province of Judaea.

After a brief introduction there are three chapters that outline the main theoretical parameters of the study. In the first chapter, Warren Carter sets the scene by summarising what he describes as being the five main existing views about Pilate, ranging from Pilate being a villain to him being a saint. Outlining the main sources of information about Pilate, Carter then proposes that the governor was anything but weak or incompetent. Rather, the Pilate presented in the gospel narratives was actively serving the interests of the Roman Empire. In a succinct second chapter Carter explains the methodological approach he will adopt in the reading of the gospel narratives. There are two key components of Carter’s approach. He will employ a reader-response criticism and post-colonial criticism to extract Pilate’s character. The latter is of fundamental significance for Carter’s reading of the dynamic between Pilate, Jesus, the Jewish elite and the crowds. As such, it is understandable that the third chapter sets out in broad terms the power structures that constituted the Roman Empire. Carter discusses the role of the governor in the system of Roman rule, with particular emphasis being placed on the view that the local Jewish elite served Roman interests to control the remainder of the Jewish population in what was an oppressive regime.

The remaining four chapters are devoted to reading the four gospel portraits of Pilate. Each chapter follows the same basic format. The relevant text is described with reference to existing interpretations about the portrait of Pilate along with a broad outline of the likely gospel audience. Detailed analysis of the relevant texts is then undertaken in the context of the dynamic of the Roman Empire. Chapter Four addresses the account in Mark’s Gospel. According to Carter, Pilate should be regarded as a “powerful and skilful governor who efficiently represents and protects Roman interests.” Pilate and Jesus are representatives of two quite separate social orders. Although Pilate believes he is victorious, the narrative is framed in a manner that criticizes Roman rule. Carter argues for a similar conflict in Matthew’s account of the encounter between Jesus and Pilate (Chapter Five). Jesus proclaims service while Pilate extols power and force. Pilate is not weak. Instead, he successfully manipulates the Jewish crowd to support the interests of the ruling power. The portrait of Pilate presented by Luke (Chapter Six) is one of an arrogant and almost disinterested governor. Pilate is allegedly unaware of the real threat that Jesus poses to the future of the Roman Empire. In Chapter Seven, the Pilate of John’s Gospel readily stands up for the interests of Rome to the point of even humiliating the Jewish elite. Again, Pilate represents a world order diametrically opposed to that advocated by Jesus. In a brief conclusion, Carter puts Pilate “on trial” for opposing God’s social order and speculates as to the type of arguments Pilate might put forward in his defence.

Carter certainly succeeds in bringing a fresh perspective to the gospel portraits of Pilate by constantly applying a post-colonial reading of the texts. Whether the gospel writers and their original audiences had such a thorough understanding of the machinations of the Roman Empire is a matter of debate. Although the focus of the book is on understanding the gospel portraits, more direct attention on the accounts of Pilate in Philo and Josephus would have been beneficial, especially given the methodological approach used.

Review by
James S. McLaren
Australian Catholic University
Locked Bag 4115
Fitzroy VIC 3065, Australia