Review of ‘Pontius Pilate’ (a documentary novel)

Pontius Pilate by Paul L. Maier
Pontius Pilate by Paul L. Maier

This book, Pontius Pilate, has gained itself a particular distinction in my life: just yesterday, it made me miss my stop on the metro (underground). Many other books have come close, almost making me forget that theirs wasn’t the real world, but none has yet turned me into a confused traveller. Now that you know how much I enjoyed reading it, I’ll try to share why.

Paul L Maier, the author, not content with being a theologian and historian decided to try his hand at writing fiction. In this ‘documentary novel’ he masterfully melds together all his expertise without coming across as dry (regarding the history part) or frivolous and sensational (regarding the novel part). He draws on respected historical sources such as Josephus, Philo, Suetonius, Tacitus, Dio Cassius —and of course  the Bible—  for all the major plot events. Only when history is silent does he resort to invention.

The story follows Pilate for a large part of his life, from his being a tribune in the Castra Praetoria in Rome to his appointment as the Prefect of Judea and his dismissal from that post (over a decade later) and his subsequent return to Rome.  What got me hooked in the first few chapters was Maier’s description in gorgeous detail of Pilate’s wedding, a typical Roman upper-middle class wedding. Throughout the story, his wife is a constant presence at his side, a portrait that affirms marriage.

As the story continues we feel Pilate’s optimism as he sails to Palestine with the aim of doing a better job than his predecessors. We puzzle with him as he tries to negotiate the dangerous waters of staying in the emperor’s favour (three successive emperors, to be precise). We marvel with him at the Jews’ apparent stubbornness. We empathise as he tries (unsuccessfully, we know already) to defend Jesus at his trial. Later, Pilate is hard-pressed to explain the empty tomb and the transformation in the disciples. Maier never gives easy answers or descends into being preachy, even when one character was explaining to another what Christianity was all about.

I greatly enjoyed this book, and can’t wait for whoever borrowed Maier’s other novel Flames of Rome to return it so that I can dig into that as well!

Postscript

Between this and my last fiction review, I read 11 books—a two-book series and a nine-book series. I was disappointed. I thought the two-book series was about a dog, but the dog only played a supporting role. But what turned me off was the cultural Christianity the author portrayed. It was all about people transforming themselves by their own will-power, with a little prayer and doggy help on the side.

The second series was a mixed bag. Some of the books were close to abominable, and others were close to sublime. My gripe with this series was that, especially in the earlier books, the plot would grind to a halt as the authors explained some intricacy of the Hebrew language or of the OT scriptures. I picked up the book wanting to read a good story, not to learn the Hebrew alphabet or to be preached at. I despaired that one could write a Christian novel without a mini-sermon (or twenty).  Maybe I shall go on another fiction hiatus—right after reading Flames of Rome!

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