Evaluating a book is something of a subjective task. Many poorly written books (I’m thinking specifically of you, Twilight) nevertheless enthrall a massive audience because they present a compelling plot concept that resonates with the right audience.
Pontius Pilate is not so poorly written that I’d compare it to Twilight, but the appeal here is definitely the “historical” part of the “historical/fiction” novel. The author seems to remember this by occasionally breaking from his narrative to remind us, for instance, that Passion Week will become a famous week. This interrupts his narrative and reminds us in the middle of the story why he is writing rather than simply letting us enjoy the story first.
Then there’s the meeting of all and sundry Biblical characters. Guess who shows up at Pilate’s meeting of tax collectors? Zaccheus, of course! He’s introduced by name, and we’re told that he’s mysteriously radiant and honest. Now, in a proper, self contained narrative, this is a poor trick to play. It’s random unless you remember the outside source material. Even then, when you remember the story of Zaccheus, it adds nothing to Pontius Pilate’s story – it simply recalls the Biblical story. Pilate also gets to meet Saul, in a meeting that feels surreal and unlikely.
These little details are not bad things – but they show that this book was written not so much as an independent, beautiful piece of literature so much as a sort of “movie tie in” to the main event. (I believe one of the comments on the back from a reviewer said that this is the perfect companion piece to the Gospels.) You don’t read a crappy movie tie-in because the tie-in is great but because the movie is great and you want something to help you recall it.
The characters are also flat. For a book about Pontius Pilate, he never really seems like a real person. In fact, sometimes he’s used as a cipher for a modern skeptical reader. Pontius Pilate asks Cornelius, a Christian Roman officer mentioned in the New Testament, whether he believes in Jesus as a myth or something that really happened. This question is almost unthinkable from the man who was there for many of these events and, in Paul L. Meier’s account, explicitly knew what Christians literally believed about the resurrection. Pilate is also portrayed as an atheist, a fan of Stoic and Skeptic philosophies with no time for Roman superstitions. This is certainly possible though it would be atypical of a Roman – Romans tended to be highly superstitious and not just for show.
Pilate goes through several major character changes without real explanation. Pilate starts the book as a strong supporter of the Princeps, or Emperor. Plenty of events come up to challenge this allegiance, but his reaction seems to be to patiently endure and stay on the sidelines. Suddenly, without warning or internal struggle, he’s a firebrand of a Republican! Or take this change: Pilate starts the book as a happy bachelor, who is engaged, but delaying marriage to better enjoy single life… and poof! Suddenly, without internal struggle or debate, he’s longing for marriage to his fiancée!
At times, the book tries to get deeper, but it does so with all the dry distance of a historian. Pilate expresses horror at the idea that Jesus of Nazareth could be divine, because of the implications for his role in it. But he’s never haunted by the idea. It just comes up in conversation from time to time. So too he avoids Emperor Caligula – we are told that Pilate is afraid of being summoned to the palace, but we never see it. He never loses sleep over it and he never seems to become a totally real human being because of his lack of convincing human emotion. Procula, his wife, is dealt with the same way – often we are simply told that she is upset, or worried but never shown what that means.
However… despite the flat characters and movie tie-in feel, I did enjoy this novel, and this is why: it’s saved by history. The novel is well written and researched, includes end notes for each chapter discussing the historicity/fiction of the events recounted therein and if you’ve studied the New Testament or first century Roman history you find yourself reading a familiar story, much like you might enjoy a story about a town you are familiar with. It is in this sense that this book was enjoyable for me: it was an enjoyable retelling of history with a few fictional trappings.
So, read this book if you want to know more about the setting: first century Rome and Judea. Read this book if you want to know more about the times of Jesus Christ and the story outside of but intersecting with the New Testament. Don’t read this if you have no interest in those two but would like an enjoyable read with well developed characters or a brilliantly written plot.