Excerpted from Memoirs of Pontius Pilate by James R. Mills. Copyright © 2/27/01 by James R. Mills. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
A Conversation with James Mills Question: Explain the genesis of
Memoirs of Pontius Pilate.
James Mills: Some time ago, the pastor of my church said in a Sunday
morning sermon it's a great pity that we don't have a life of Christ
written by one of his enemies. He said we know what his followers
thought of him; we have the Gospels, four accounts from men who were
totally committed to him, but it's a one-sided view. What would an
account from one of his enemies look like? What could we learn from
The questions interested me. We know a lot about Pilate from ancient
sources. The Bible characterizes him quite well, though in relatively
few words. We also have the writings of Josephus, and we have further
information from Philo of Alexandria. They all make him out to be the
same kind of person: a professional politician, one who was very cynical
and whose principles were, well, flexible. I was thinking on that
morning that I know this person, and that it would be possible to
compose 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 I
spent as president pro tempore of the California Senate. I was a career
politician. 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 the
way of what they're doing--and what they're doing is surviving. Pilate
was in a difficult situation: his protector, Sejanus, had been thrown
off the Tarpeian Rock with his wife and children, and the enemies of
Sejanus were looking to dispose of Pilate as well.
Pilate demonstrated a common failing of many politicians: overlooking
justice to save himself. He determined that this carpenter from Nazareth
was not guilty of the crime that he was charged with, and yet decided to
execute him. His decision was made to gain the favor of those whose
support was important to him, namely, the Sadducees, a small but
influential minority of the Jewish population at that time who were
convinced that Christ was a danger, particularly after his raising of
Following that event, the high priest, Joseph ben Caiaphas, said it is
better that this man should lose his life than that we should lose our
place as a nation. That was important to them, and they were important
to Pilate because they were the only supporters the Romans had in the
Holy Land. The Sadducees were the only ones really interested in trying
to live with the Romans as their conquerors. One of the issues I tried
to raise in the book was not only the motivation for Pilate, but the
motivation for the Sadducees for pursuing this carpenter to death.
Q: Untangling the knot of religion and politics at the heart of
Christ's historical moment seems to be a chief concern in Memoirs of
JM: Very much so. The average Christian and the average Jew know very
little about the time and place in history in which Christ appeared. I
thought the book would be an effective way to convey an understanding of
what was going on in Palestine at that time. To understand the life of
Christ, we need to understand the conflicts between the Pharisees and
the Sadducees, and, earlier, the Jews and the Greeks who had been
settled in that land by Alexander the Great. These conflicts shed light
on the nature of the relationship between the Jewish subjects and the
Roman rulers, factors that had a bearing on Pilate's decision.
It's interesting to me that Christians know so little about the scene
within which Christ's life was lived, and that Jews know so little about
the scene within which Jewish orthodoxy was developed. Jewish orthodoxy
was really being formulated at that time by the Pharisees. I thought all
of those things would be very useful to people in understanding the life
of Christ. You can't really understand somebody's life if you don't
understand 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, the
recurring description of him as a cynical, pragmatic politician. So I
thought the appropriate thing was to present him that way. His voice is
that of a man who is there to make some money, a man not above taking a
bribe, which was something you could do often as the governor of a Roman
The actual language that I employed was a Latin form of English; that is
to say that I tried to create a voice that was like the great Roman
writers of prose, particularly Julius Caesar and Cicero. I wrote
relatively simple sentences of the kind for which they were famous. I
tried for a consistency but did not want to carry that too far. There
were times when I thought a person like Pilate might become slightly
Q: What about selecting a genre? You call Memoirs of Pontius Pilate a
novel. 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 in
this book is derived from the Bible or from accepted history or ancient
The four Gospels provide the foundation of this book. I do not question
the validity of anything in them. There are theologians involved in
higher criticism and lower criticism who analyze the Gospels to
determine which parts are true and which aren't. I am not one of them: I
accept the gospels in their entirety as true as a first premise for the
Q: What other than the Gospels did you accept as authoritative
JM: The ancient tradition that has Pilate committing suicide was
mentioned by Origen, an early church authority. The story which tells of
Pilate walking into the Rhone River and drowning himself is very old,
and I accepted it. People have been intrigued for centuries with the
question of why Pilate took his life. Christians have been asking
themselves did he do it because he realized what he had done, that he
had 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 include
various people's speculation.
Q: We don't get a real wrestling with conscience, the proverbial dark
night of the soul, in your depiction of Pilate looking back.
JM: I don't think a cynical, pragmatic politician is likely to suffer
through that much soul-searching. I presented him as only moderately
troubled by what he had done. He had brought about the death of a person
unjustly; he regretted that, but it wasn't the kind of thing that was
going to keep him awake nights. And he remains unconvinced from
beginning to end about the identity of the victim. Pilate entertains the
possibility that Christ was the messiah, but leaves the question open
for future generations to discover.
Q: What has the experience of writing Memoirs of Pontius Pilate meant
JM: It was very satisfying to me to pull together so many ideas that
I have thought throughout the course of years. The book was the
culmination of a lifetime of reflections, some going back to things that
I thought listening to sermons thirty or forty years ago.
What's more important, writing the book made me understand the events in
Christ's life better, and I'm happy to say that many readers have had a
similar experience. They say that one of the great things about the book
is that it enables them to understand the Gospels better; they find all
of the four much more meaningful now that they have a feeling for what
took place. That means a lot to me, for I was trying to provide the
information for today's reader that the original readers had.
Q: Toward that end, you devote significant attention to Herod the
JM: One thing I thought would be interesting to Christian readers and
to Jewish readers was the information that I presented about Herod the
Great, whose reign contributed greatly to setting the scene for the life
of Christ. I think the reign of Herod the Great is very important in
creating the situation into which Christ was born and in which he grew
up. Another thing that I tried to accomplish was to close the gap
between the Old Testament and the New Testament, particularly the one
that exists in the Protestant Bible. I wanted for a lot of readers to
connect both books by filling in that historic gap. There again is
information you need to know to make sense of the life and death of
Q: With presidential candidates citing Jesus Christ as a role model,
your work appears both timely and timeless, that is, an apt
consideration of the uneasy intersection of religion and politics.
JM: When I hear a politician publicly discussing religion I ask, is
this person really laying bear his spirit, or is he saying something he
believes a lot of voters would like to hear? I don't like to hear about
religion from the individual in a public forum. If somebody else wants
to say this person is a committed Christian or that religion really
matters to him, fine. People should prefer to have politicians show
their Christianity rather than talk about it.
Q: How often did you ask yourself what you would do in Pilate's
predicament while writing the book?
JM: What would I do if I were in Pilate's position, where my tenure
in the office if not my life could be imperiled by my decision to do the
right thing. That's one question, and one that none of us could answer
unless we faced it.
The more important question is this: Would today's Christians have
followed Christ during his time? Would they have been committed to Him?
The chances are that a very large percentage of them would not. If
religious conservatives today were conservative then, they would not
have followed Christ, a radical. Christ would have been unnerving to a
lot of people who go to church every Sunday and look upon themselves as
orthodox, 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's
fiction and contemporary.
Q: Yet isn't Pilate's story utterly contemporary?
JM: I've said to various people on various occasions, look, Pontius
Pilate is alive and well today. Pontius Pilate is on every city council
and state legislature that I have ever seen. He is in California and the
United States Congress. In fact, he is present everywhere in politics.
One of the reasons that things don't turn out right for us is because
there are too many people in decision making positions in politics who
don't do what they think is right. They do what they think is
politically expedient, which is what Pontius Pilate did.
1. Reading Group Questions and Topics for Discussion
With what impression of Pontius Pilate did you pick up James Mills's book? What shaped that impression? How did Memoirs of Pontius Pilate challenge if not redefine your understanding of Pilate?
2. Mills has stated his ambition to write a fifth Gospel, one from the perspective of an enemy rather than a follower of Christ. To what extent does Mills succeed? What does his work have in common with the four Gospels? How does it differ?
3. Characterize the tone in which Mills's Pilate recounts the time in which his life intersected with that of Christ's. Given the retrospective gaze of the writing, do we discover in it considerable reflection or regret? What explains the evenness with which Pilate chronicles his tumultuous past?
4. A number of timely and timeless clashes and contradictions appear in Pilate's memoir: politics and religion, private ambition and public expectation, the secular and the sacred, landed and nomadic cultures, competing truths, faith and reason, literal and liberal interpretations of Scripture, prophecy and paranoia, vilifying and sanctifying, etcetera. Discuss them. What conflicts would you add to the list? What do we learn about these matters in weighing the reasons for Pilate's decisions? Are such issues fated to persist? Why?
5. What do we learn about crime and punishment in Christ's time? What has and hasn't changed today? What connections can we draw between crucifixion and the death penalties of today?
6. Mills calls his book a novel, while making clear a fidelity to the depictions of Pilate presented in the four Gospels. Attempt definitions of fiction, mythology, and history vis-a-vis the Bible and Memoirs of Pontius Pilate. Where do the genres overlap? How is each distinct? How does an oral tradition compare to a written one?
7. Provide examples of Pilate's qualities and shortcomings. What has the upperhand? Why? Do his weaknesses deepen or compromise his humanity? Why?
8. How does Pilate's regard for the God-worshipping Jews differ from his perspective on Roman pagans? Where does Pilate stand on the God/gods question?
9. Compare Mills's Pilate to the man depicted in the four Gospels. To which Gospel is Mills most indebted? With which aspects of Pilate's character does he take the most liberty? The least?
10. How is Christ depicted throughout Pilate's memoir? What contributes most to Pilate's understanding of the man's past and present? What weight do you assign to the letters of Joseph ben Caiaphas in coloring Pilate's perception of Christ?
11. What import do prophecy, superstition, dreams, and visions hold in Christ's time? What explains a group or individual's willingness to invest much in them? How does the otherworldly shape the worlds of politics and religion?
12. To what extent is Pilate a reliable narrator? What leads you to question or accept the veracity of his telling? Does his memoir attempt some sort of objectivity or play loose with events in the name of self-justification?
13. Discuss the scene in which Pilate asks Christ to define truth. What compels such a question, and in what tone is it asked--sardonic, earnest, reflective, etcetera? How does the elusiveness of an answer affect our reading of Pilate's memoirs?
14. In his waning years, Pilate notes that "political and religious leaders are willing to tolerate a man of principle only as long as he does not become a nuisance to them." How does his statement resonate in light of the stories he tells? What twentieth-century examples illustrate Pilate's point?
15. Seek out non-Christian and non-Western chronicles of Pilate's life, e.g., those collected in Ann Wroe's scholarly biography, Pontius Pilate. How does the depiction of Pilate's character differ from culture to culture, religion to religion? What do the myriad presentations tell about narrators and their subjects?
16. How many are responsible for the death of Christ? Who deserves the most blame?
17. What would you have done in Pilate's dilemma?