(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Roger Caillois’s novel Pontius Pilate is a compeling look at the dilemma that Pontius Pilate, procurator of Judea, may have faced in making the decision to execute Jesus. Caillois examines Pilate’s thought processes as he listens to those who would condemn Jesus and consults with individuals whose judgment he trusts. The novel is composed of seven chapters and an epilogue. In five of the seven chapters, Caillois presents a conversation between Pilate and one of the individuals or groups who might have been influential in his decision about Jesus. The last two chapters reveal Pilate’s final turmoil and moments of irresolution before he arrives at his final decision.

In the first chapter, Pilate is informed of the arrest of Jesus and told that Annas and Caiaphas, the Jewish high priests, wish an audience with him immediately. The Sanhedrin (the supreme Jewish council with authority in all judicial, religious, and administrative matters regarding the Jewish community in Jerusalem) has sat in judgment of Jesus and condemned him to death; the priests request Jesus’ crucifixion within the day. This chapter provides the reader with an understanding of Pilate’s situation in Judea and of his difficulties in dealing with what he views as the religious fanaticism of the Jews. Pilate, as a subordinate Roman official, is in a precarious position; he must consider his course of action in the light of how his superiors will react to it. Thus, in an attempt to transfer the problem to another official, he sends Jesus to Herod, tetrach of Galilee, but to no avail. The Sanhedrin quickly informs Pilate that Jesus, by calling himself King of the Jews, has attacked the sovereignty of Rome. The matter is no longer merely religious; it is now political as well. Herod sends Jesus back to Pilate, who realizes that he is trapped and will have to decide the matter. Pilate’s inclination is to free Jesus, whom he finds guiltless and preferable to the fanatics who are clamoring for his death, but he fears repercussions that could lead to his dismissal as procurator and to the end of his career. Pilate’s reflection on his dilemma is interrupted by a centurion who comes to tell him an angry mob is demanding the death of Jesus and by a slave sent by his wife Procula. The first chapter ends with an account of a dream about Jesus that has frightened her. Pilate promises to consult his Chaldean friend Mardouk about the dream.

In chapter 2, Pilate seeks the advice of the prefect Menenius, his...

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(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sources for Further Study

Bond, Helen K. Caiaphas: Friend of Rome and Judge of Jesus? Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004. Addresses the religious and political roles of Jewish priesthood and motives behind Caiaphas’s involvement in trial of Jesus, using historical and archaeological sources; considers Caiaphas as a literary character in the four Gospels.

Bond, Helen K. Pontius Pilate in History and Interpretation. 1998, Reprint. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Examines the presentation of Pilate in the Gospel of Mark and the works of Philo and Josephus. Examines Pilate’s role in Judea.

Carter, Warren. Pontius Pilate: Portrait of a Roman Governor. Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 2003. A portrait of Pilate that sharply contrasts with that of Caillois. Carefully documented, with biblical references.

Crozier, W. P., ed. Letters of Pontius Pilate: Written During His Governorship of Judea to His Friend Seneca in Rome. Amsterdam, Netherlands: Fredonia Books, 2002. Pilate discusses problems governing Judea, his policies, his impressions of Jesus, and who he believed Jesus to be.

Strenski, Ivan. Introduction to Pontius Pilate. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2006. Offers an excellent comparison of biblical version and Caillois’s version of the Crucifixion story, addressing Caillois’s philosophical position and the connection between the novel and Algerian War.