Book Reviews
Pontius Pilate

Pontius Pilate

by Ann Wroe
New York: Random House, 1999, 412 pages

Reviewed by John Bockman, Tokyo, Japan

The dust jacket of this book states that Pilate "might have vanished into obscurity had he not come to preside, with some reluctance, over the most famous trial in history." While this may be true, the fact is that Ann Wroe has precious little to go on in this "biography" of Pilate. In retrospect, some of the "Praise for Pilate" on the dust jacket rings hollow — "A splendid biography . . . meticulous and elegant," to quote a certain Karen Armstrong — the reason being that we finish the book knowing about as little of Pilate as we did when we started.

The dust jacket of this book states that Pilate "might have vanished into obscurity had he not come to preside, with some reluctance, over the most famous trial in history." While this may be true, the fact is that Ann Wroe has precious little to go on in this "biography" of Pilate. In retrospect, some of the "Praise for Pilate" on the dust jacket rings hollow — "A splendid biography . . . meticulous and elegant," to quote a certain Karen Armstrong — the reason being that we finish the book knowing about as little of Pilate as we did when we started.

However, before YOU dismiss the balance of this review, let me add that, for all its faults, this is actually quite an entertaining book. Ann Wroe manages to interpolate Pilate's early career by using the historical record which shows how young Romans got on in the world. The result is a remarkably clear picture. Though she trots out competing theories that do little more than add fluff to the text, she portrays Pilate as a scion of the Pontii, a noble Samnite clan of central Italy. As the Samnites were Oscan-speaking, when they were finally assimilated into Roman society, they were deemed second-rate citizens, all the more reason for the young Pilate to want to rise in the world — and quickly.

This would have required finding a well-placed patron. After a stint of military service ("Pilate" — one who is good with the spear), Pilate would have joined the Prætorian guard and been taken under the wing of Sejanus, Tiberius's right-hand man. Because there was no other way to attain the governorship of a province than through patronage, Sejanus would have been the right man to go to.

One story has it that the governorship of Judæa, one of the newest and most difficult of Roman provinces, was granted to Pilate out of revenge for having married into an imperial family.

(The plum jobs went to highborn cronies.) The remarkable part of it is that Pilate remained in the post for eleven years, far longer than any of his predecessors or successors, and this in spite of constant antagonism between him and the Jews. The problem centered on the clash between Roman arrogance and Jewish obstinacy. Romans found it difficult to comprehend how an uncivilized people could think themselves superior to the supreme Romans who provided them with paved roads and aqueducts. The Romans normally acquiesced to their demand not to be inducted into military service, for example, but Pilate was on a collision course with the Jews the very moment he stepped into Judæa.

One of the things he noticed was that, though other cities in the empire displayed numerous imperial statues and emblems, in Jerusalem there was nothing of the sort. As a gesture to Tiberius, he brought in the imperial standards and set them up on the Antonia under cover of night. The next day the Jews were appalled to find the "abomination of desolation" in their midst, and lobbied long and hard to get them removed. Pilate eventually gave in with considerable loss of face. As a result he confined himself thereafter to his palace in Cæsarea and ventured toward Jerusalem only when he absolutely had to, which wasn't very often, since the Roman power base was in Cæsarea.

Pilate's main job was maintaining the peace and keeping his fiscal house in order while enriching himself in the process. This was the prerogative of Roman governors, but it stuck in the Jewish craw, as we can see in the social status of the publicans who practiced similar extortion. Wroe suggests that, since Pilate was answerable to Rome, he maintained a network of spies to know exactly what was going on in his province. One medieval mystery play portrays Judas Iscariot as Pilate's toady. Even though Wroe suspects that Pilate would not have been able to comprehend any Jewish religious matters reported to him, and since he most certainly took no interest in them, his spies, if not Judas, kept him informed of the teachings of our Lord, Jesus Christ.

One long section is incongruously set in Havana, Cuba, of all places! Pilate is the party functionary and Judas is the eyes and ears of the State, keeping tabs on a dissident philosopher and his group of sympathizers. A clever parallel, but it smacks of grasping at straws to keep the "biography" moving. (Wroe could easily have dispensed with it.)

Since Pilate scarcely knew Christ upon meeting Him, it is hardly likely that Pilate kept close tabs on our Lord.

The imagined spy reports, however, are actually one of the better parts of the book because Wroe takes the Lord's teachings at face value and expounds on them with insight and without skepticism.

A good example is the question of the tax:

On one notable occasion, our Lord was asked directly about payment of Roman taxes, a subject which would have been of considerable interest to Pilate. Jesus saw at once that this was a trick question: a ruse, as Matthew put it, "to take hold of His words and to deliver them into the power and authority of the governor." But He did not want that encounter with Pilate; it was not yet the hour for Him to court sedition and to draw a death sentence from Tiberius's devoted representative. Instead He demanded, "Show me the penny."

One was brought to Him. This was the coin Jews used to pay the poll tax that went into the emperor's privy purse; it was not acceptable currency in the Temple, but there would be a few of them on the moneychangers' tables. Unlike Pilate's small change, this coin was solid and of silver. It was probably a coin of Tiberius with the imprint around the edge: TI[BERIUS] CÆSAR DIVI AVG[GUSTI] FI[LIUS], "Tiberius, son of the divine Augustus," (another son of a god); and it would have carried the same blunt-nosed profile with the untidily cropped hair that Pilate had paraded through Jerusalem on the standards of his army.

Here, then, was another close call. The Lord held in His palm, looked at, and touched, the image of Tiberius: an image that counted as sacred to the man who was about to have Him executed.

"Whose image and superscription is this?" He asked.

"Cæsar's," they answered.

"So give unto Cæsar the things that are Cæsar's, and to God the things that are God's."

The Lord's profoundly wise answer meant many things. Most obviously, it meant that Cæsar could have his relatively unimportant offerings, so long as God was assured of His.

But there could have been a strong political charge in the statement too. The whole of Judæa, not to speak of Rome itself, was God's, and the Jews were His people in particular. The Lord may have meant that the hand of the Romans on Jewish money or Jewish property was an abomination. Indeed, His meaning may have gone further, since He behaved as a man who had scarcely handled money and had no coins about Him. Money itself was an abomination, and a world obsessed with money was a peculiarly Roman creation. Wroe speculates that the words "give unto Cæsar" could have in fact been interpreted by Jews as "pour Cæsar's money down his throat," as the Parthians had poured molten gold into the mouth of Crassus. Pay contemptuously, but keep them quiet. Play games with the money, throw it in the air, hide it in a sleeve, produce it from the sea, crack their precious denarii between their well-brushed Roman teeth, mock their desperation to collect it; but in the end, let them have it (pp. 141–2).

For these reasons I found the book at times amusing, highly entertaining, and hard to put down. But toward the end its over-speculative inability to really understand Him Who is "meek and humble of heart" made it hard to pick up again. The real problem with the book is that in the Gospels Pilate vanishes into thin air after the crucifixion, so Wroe has to plow through every tedious theory, fable, and folk tale to try to explain whatever might have become of him. It finishes up with another minute and graphic account, this time a visit to Switzerland by members of Queen Victoria's family to see a lake that was said to be haunted by Pilate's ghost! Well, of course, they didn't find him. Surprise, surprise!

The historical record, on the other hand, shows that in the year 38 or so Pilate put down what he saw as an insurrection on Mount Gerizim in Samaria. Because of his brutality he was recalled to Rome to answer for his mismanagement of Judæa. The sea lanes were closed because it was already winter Therefore he took the land route which would have taken him three months. When he arrived in Rome he would have found the city in a festive mood following the death of Tiberius, so it is doubtful that any charges were pressed against him. If they had been, he would have been banished, probably to southern Gaul, or he may have opted for an honorable Roman suicide. If not, he probably retired to a country villa.

In the Apocrypha of the New Testament (Vol. 8 of the Ante-Nicene Fathers) appear a number of undoubted forgeries of reports submitted by Pontius Pilate to the Roman emperor. Wroe mentions these, saying that the lack of records of the Crucifixion made it necessary to invent them. According to her, Roman governors tended to be very selective of what they reported to Rome and how they reported it. This is understandable when one considers how long Pilate was allowed to stay in the job. The Roman Senate no doubt regarded no news as good news.

However, if it had been known that Pilate had sanctioned the use of Roman soldiers to carry out a religious execution of an innocent man (One that Pilate himself had judged innocent, no less), the Senate probably would have thought otherwise. In fact, it was the governor of Syria who felt compelled to report on Pilate's massacre on Mount Gerizim, probably thinking rightly that Pilate himself was either going to twist the facts or keep very quiet about it.

Wroe also says that when Pilate was recalled, a lot of records apparently vanished. If Pilate had written a memo about the Crucifixion, that certainly would have vanished with the rest.

Pilate's peaceful retirement to private life, according the Wroe, was found unacceptable to Christians in subsequent generations. After all, he had executed the Son of God. Only in the Coptic Church did the story spread that Pilate had begged Christ's forgiveness at His tomb, and that he converted and himself died a martyr's death on a cross, for which he was canonized by the Copts. Can you imagine a St. Pontius Pilate?

All in all, I give this book one thumb up.

John Bockman, Tokyo, Japan

The Sword and the Shield

The Sword and the Shield: And the
Secret History of the KGB

by Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin
New York: Basic Books, 1999, 700 pages

Reviewed by Father John Bockman

It has happened before, and it can happen again. Some venal Americans and Europeans will sell their souls and bodies to a foreign enemy at great risk to our political freedom. You and I and our descendants who do not know, who forget, or who ignore the lessons of history, are doomed to relive it.

This heavy 700-page volume is based on an "unprecedented, top-secret archive" which the FBI has termed "the most complete and extensive intelligence ever achieved from any source." It provides the reader with astounding details concerning the KGB's secret operations in the United States and Europe. It identifies hundreds of Soviet agents for the first time. As a result of this book, "no one who spied for the Soviet Union at any point between the Bolshevik Revolution and the 1980s can now be sure that his or her secrets are safe."

This is really an historical specialist's book, but it can give any literate person some valuable insight into how the Communists affected American society, especially in the 1930s, even while left-leaning American intellectuals were protesting that nothing subversive was taking place.

Orthodox readers will be especially interested in the chapter "The Penetration and Persecution of the Soviet Churches," pp. 486-507, and will find that the book greatly supports the biblical injunction: "Put not your trust in princes, in the sons of men, in whom there is no salvation."

In the early and mid-1930s American and West-European security systems were primitive, and America and the West generally were vulnerable to penetration by very capable Soviet agents. If this book is accepted as factual, which is almost surely to be the case, the KGB infiltrated every branch of the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration, precisely as many loyal conservative Americans fervently believed at the time. Over the years, as this book points out, the KGB encouraged and contributed to the assassination of many loyal uncorrupted American officials. It discredited J. Edgar Hoover as a homosexual; it successfully infiltrated not only Jimmy Carter's presidential campaign, but also the entourages of Pope John Paul II, Andrei Sakharov, and prominent dissidents worldwide; along with the FBI, it contributed to the smearing of Martin Luther King; it used Communist Sandinistas for terrorist attacks against U.S. targets; it successfully manned eavesdropping operations against Henry Kissinger; it intercepted major defense and technological secrets from Boeing, Brookhaven National Laboratory, IBM, Lockheed, Hughes, Sperry Rand, and other American companies (dust jacket). All the while American liberals insisted that "political right-wingers" were raising false specters.

The hero of this work is Vasili Nikitch Mitrokhin, an employee for almost thirty years in the KGB intelligence archive in Moscow, who assembled and reassembled KGB data over a period of twelve years beginning in July 1972. At that time, since the KGB offices in the Lubyanka in central Moscow had become seriously over-crowded, the First Chief (Foreign Intelligence) Directorate moved to a new building at Yasenevo, southeast of Moscow, beyond Moscow's Garden Ring. Mitrokhin was made solely responsible for checking and sealing the approximately 30,000 files in the archive before they were transported to the new headquarters. His routine was to spend Wednesdays at the Lubyanka inspecting the most secret files (of Directorate S), checking them, compiling inventories, and writing index cards. Once he personally reviewed them, batches of files were placed in sealed containers and transported from the Lubyanka to Yasenevo where he checked them again.

Mitrokhin spent increasingly more time working with the Directorate S files. These dealt with the so-called "illegals," KGB intelligence officers and agents, mostly of Soviet nationality, who worked under deep cover abroad as foreign citizens. They were named in contrast to "legals," who worked under diplomatic cover or in other official capacity in foreign capitals, but essentially pursued the same Communist goals.

Before World War I the "illegals" had been hugely successful worldwide.

They successfully achieved bogus identities as foreign nationals in a variety of professions, including Costa Rican ambassador, piano tuner, and Governor of New York State!

These "illegals" understood themselves and were depicted as self-sacrificing heroes in a great cause. It should be noted that contemporary Russia, though freed from the more deadly yoke of Communism, still celebrates them. Shortly after the death in 1995 of the best-known American illegal, Morris Cohen, President Yeltsin conferred on him the posthumous title of Hero of the Russian Federation (p.9).

Incredibly, in twelve years of service in the archives, Mitrokhin was never once searched. At great potential danger to himself he collected data from 1972 until his retirement in 1984, spent years sorting through his notes and assembling his data in a large volume with linking narrative, while he waited for the opportunity to make his information available to the world. Not until the break-up of the Soviet Union with attendant weakening of frontier controls at the borders of the new Russian Federation, was he able, in March 1992, to bring samples to the British embassy in the capital of one of the new independent Baltic republics.

There he told the British that the samples were only a part of a large personal archive which included material on KGB operations in Britain. He agreed to return a month later to meet representatives of the British Secret Intelligence Service (SIS). By September 1992 he was on his way to Britain in the company of the SIS, and in November he was able to move his family out of Russia to England. Now a British citizen, he has been spending several days a week working on his archive and responding to questions from intelligence services on five continents.

Mitrokhin reveals that the early and mid-1930s were an era of remarkable Soviet success in the establishment and implementation of a group called "the Great Illegals." This was composed of young, remarkably talented, ideological, and highly dedicated individuals, not only Russians, but a variety of multi-lingual Central Europeans who shared a visionary faith in the "Communist millennium." They went about successfully acquiring diplomatic ciphers and documents from agents motivated by money and sex rather than ideology. It is perhaps noteworthy that Soviet intelligence made use of the prestigious Tsarist Okhrana which had as a major priority the theft of foreign ciphers to assist in code breaking.

Documents from the 1930s relating to negotiations between British leaders and the highest leadership of Nazi Germany are still kept in secret archives of the British Foreign Office to conceal the British policy of collusion with Nazi Germany in the latter's eastern move against the Soviet Union (p. 55).

Among the inter-war heroes of Soviet foreign intelligence were the "Magnificent Five." This group of five young Cam-.bridge University students was recruited by Arnold Deutsch, an Austrian Jew, considered by many the most talented of the Great Illegals. The Five were Anthony Blunt, Guy Burgess, John Caincross, Donald MacLean, and Kim Philby. They supplied such a volume of high-grade intelligence from the British Foreign Office and intelligence community that the Soviets had a hard time keeping up with it. How each of these men was able to accomplish his huge contribution to Soviet intelligence is reported in great detail.

Most Americans are too young to have lived through the dangerous years of subversion by Soviet agents and their American and British "fellow travelers." Left-leaning politicians and academics have largely ignored facts in painting a rosy picture of our relations with the Soviet Union before and during World War II. As a result, the great genocides and enormous injustices perpetrated by the Communists against their own people and other nations have been glossed over compared with the demonization of Hitler and the Nazis. It would be good if younger Americans were made aware of the extent to which American and West European institutions had been successfully infiltrated by Communist agents over many years, and of the ways in which these infiltrations have contributed to the present breakdown of American culture.

This is a fascinating book. It forewarns of the constant danger that other men and women will be tempted to sell their souls and their country to a foreign power for ideological reasons, or simply for hard cash, as predatory forces arise to threaten us in the future. We are already witnessing how far this danger has progressed from the side of Chinese Communism.

Father John Bockman

What Does It Mean, "To Love Russia"?

Throughout history many Russian people have asked themselves that same question: What does it really mean, to love Russia? In our day the question has acquired a particularly tragic connotation. For after so many terrifying decades of Communist tyranny which destroyed Russian faith and culture — the greatest and best strengths of the nation — almost nothing of them remain in Russia today. It is difficult, among the ruins of Russia to speak of love for Russia, where millions of Russians are forced to drag out a miserable existence, living on the edge of poverty, lacking both spiritual enlightenment and daily bread. Under such conditions it is not surprising that everywhere there prevail irritation and bitterness over one's personal lot and overthat of the unfortunate motherland. Meanwhile, in the depths of their soul many sincere Russians retain a warm feeling for their native land, despite the poor position they are in. At times it is an inexplicable and unconscious feeling, but at the same time apparently deep and inseparable from the mysterious Russian soul. And it is possible that many through their love for Russia may come to a knowledge of the truth. But contrarywise, there is the danger that precisely because it is unconscious, enemies of Russia may play upon and use this feeling in seeking their mercenary goals, skillfully directing a false Russian patriotism against both Russia and the deceived Russian people. Then there will be no hope for the recovery of Russia, but instead its calamities and sorrows will increase and end in its inevitable downfall, material and, what is worse, spiritual.

The Russian people will be able to avert this terminal catastrophe only in the event that they find their true national consciousness, turning it to God and recognizing the higher destiny of Russia.

Adapted from Vozvrazheniye, No. 22, September-October, 1999, p. 1

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