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Forced to live out his life in exile, Pontius Pilate, the former governor of Judea, is now haunted by the executions that were carried out on his orders. The life and death of a particular carpenter from Nazareth lays heavily on his mind. With years of solitude stretching before him, Pilate sets out to uncover all he can about ...
Forced to live out his life in exile, Pontius Pilate, the former governor of Judea, is now haunted by the executions that were carried out on his orders. The life and death of a particular carpenter from Nazareth lays heavily on his mind. With years of solitude stretching before him, Pilate sets out to uncover all he can about Jesus—the truth about his birth, boyhood, ministry, and the struggles that lead to his crucifixion.
In this vibrant and completely engaging historical novel that places Jesus and his teachings in a wonderful accurate historical stetting, James R. Mills has created nothing less than a new gospel that gives us fresh insight about Jesus' time on earth.
About the Author:
James R. Mills has been a teacher, historian, an California State Assembly member and senator. As president pro tempore of the Senate, Mill served as acting governor when the governor and lieutenant governor were absent.
A Child Is Born
That strange carpenter came riding into Jerusalem on a donkey at the beginning of the last week of his life. He was greeted like an emperor by a madly rejoicing multitude, and the high priest of the Jews, whose name was Joseph ben Caiaphas, was alarmed. He was certain the fellow intended to raise a rebellion against Rome. I was not. Caiaphas therefore decided he should inform me as to why he thought Jesus of Nazareth such a serious threat to the peace of Judea.
He ordered a number of scholars to work all that night to produce a manuscript that described the circumstances and occurrences connected with the birth of Jesus, because those things were among the chief reasons for the concerns of Caiaphas and the other Jewish priests. He sent me that manuscript the next day. Later my wife became interested in the carpenter, so she insisted on saving that roll of papyrus. Therefore I still have it, and I present it here without any comments of my own.
To Pontius Pilate,
Procurator of the Provinces of Judea, Samaria, and
Peace be unto you.
During the reign of King Herod, the chief priests of Israel considered his reign a judgment of God that our people should bear patiently. Since his death we view the subjugation of our country by Rome in the same way. Some of the Pharisees agree, but most of them and their followers pray to God that He will soon reward their submission to His will by sending a messiah who will drive out our Roman rulers and restorethe Jewish monarchy of David and Solomon.
According to most of the rabbis, the kingdom of God is now at hand. Among the books they accept as Scriptures is one which was written long ago by a man named Daniel. In it Daniel predicted the appearance of a messiah seventy weeks after Cyrus, the emperor of Persia, authorized the reconstruction of our temple in Jerusalem. Rabbis have construed this prediction to mean weeks of years rather than weeks of days, and that waiting period of 490 years expired shortly before King Herod was placed upon his throne by the senate and the army of Rome. Consequently, some very dangerous ideas are gaining acceptance among the Jewish people. Political events and natural phenomena are being analyzed by rabbis as to whether or not they relate to the prophecy of Daniel. Most of those impractical scholars are agreed that the appearance of a messiah could occur at any time.
Specifically, the birth of a savior is expected. The author of another of those ancient books that the rabbis have chosen to accept as Scripture, a man named Isaiah, wrote, "Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given, and the government shall be upon his shoulders, and his name shall be called wonderful, counselor, the mighty God, the everlasting father, the prince of peace." So it was into an ominous religious ferment that Jesus of Nazareth was born.
At that time a general census for tax purposes was under way in Judea. The man who is presumed to be the father of the child, a carpenter from Nazareth named Joseph, had come with his pregnant wife to Bethlehem, which was the city of King David. Followers of Jesus now say that Joseph was a descendant of David, and that is probably true. David had hundreds of wives, and he lived a thousand years ago, and Bethlehem is a little town, so everybody from that place is very likely descended from him, and Joseph was the lowly scion of a family from Bethlehem.
Since Roman law requires that owners of real property appear and pay taxes on it in the jurisdiction within which the property is located, Joseph had gone to Bethlehem because he had inherited an interest in a piece of land there. The location of the birth of the child is important because an ancient writer named Micah, who is another one of those men whom the rabbis consider prophets, predicted the messiah would be born in Bethlehem. If that fellow who rode into Jerusalem yesterday on a donkey had been born a week earlier—or a week later—in Nazareth, he probably would now be married and the father of a family and earning an honest living as a carpenter there.
As chance would have it, his birth took place at the time of an unusual phenomenon: the appearance of what seemed to be a bright star. Although it was viewed by ordinary people as remarkable, it was a natural occurrence, the conjoining of Jupiter and Saturn so that together they appeared to be one bright heavenly body in the constellation of Pisces.
After the child was born, three astrologers came to Jerusalem from the East, and those men were responsible for making a potent omen from what was a natural, though rare, occurrence. It is most likely that those men were Jews from Babylonia. They declared they had come to pay homage to the newly born king of the Jews. Who but Jews would undertake such an arduous journey across a desert to pay homage to a newborn Jewish prince? Their Babylonian origin is to be assumed because astrology is so popular among the Babylonians and because there has been a large Jewish population there ever since Nebuchadnezzar carried our ancestors off into captivity. A lot of exiled Jews had chosen to remain in Babylon when Cyrus the Great offered them the option of returning to the devastation that Nebuchadnezzar had so recently visited upon our land.
As the high priest of Israel, I put no faith in astrologers, but according to Jewish lore, Pisces is the sign of Israel as well as the sign of the messiah, and there is another sort of symbolism involved. Pisces is at the close of the old annual passage of the sun and at the beginning of the new one. Therefore all astrologers read into the appearance of that star the sign of the passing of an old era and the beginning of a new one.
Every one of the planets has a special significance to astrologers, of course. As for the two which came together in that conjunction, Jupiter represents good fortune and is considered a royal star, and Saturn is equated with our God by Jews who study the stars. Furthermore, the Babylonians teach that Saturn is the star of Judea and Syria. For all these reasons, the three astrologers took the temporary new star to be the sign of the birth of a Jewish king. According to contemporary accounts, the three men arrived in Jerusalem saying, "Where is he that is born the king of the Jews? We have seen his star and have come to worship him."
Their appearance and their questions disturbed Herod the Great. The kingdom had recently been agitated by a group of Pharisees who had gone about declaring that God had revealed to them His decision to drive the Romans out of the land of Israel and that a sign from heaven would soon signify the coming of a new king. Therefore, on hearing of the arrival of the astrologers in Jerusalem and of the question they were asking, King Herod called a number of priests, including me, to his palace. He was an awful sight, and he stank with decay. At once he asked us where the messianic king would be born. We felt threatened, so one of us responded by telling him Micah said the ruler of Israel would come out of Bethlehem. Herod then summoned the three travelers to appear before him, and he informed them that they should go to Bethlehem. He directed them to send word back to him when they found the newborn king, in order that he too might come and worship the baby. They responded to this expressed interest of the king with skepticism. When they learned the future king they had come to worship was not of Herod's lineage, they suspected the king would get rid of the child.
It was after nightfall when they left Jerusalem upon the road toward Bethlehem, and a second conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, which occurred two months after the first, was in the dark sky over their destination. This new occurrence was taken by them to be yet another sign from God.
The astrologers found Joseph and his wife and the child in a stable, of all places. They presented gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. These costly items must have been sent by rich Jews in Babylonia. Presumably a collection had been taken up there after the meaning of the star was construed as it was. The three Eastern sages remained for some days worshiping the child. When they left Bethlehem to return to their own country at last, they did not go by way of Jerusalem, having correctly divined the intent of King Herod in regard to the child.
When he received word of how that trio of starry-eyed visitors had disregarded his order to return and report to him in Jerusalem, the king was furious. He had never hesitated to kill children of his own on the basis of unproven suspicions, and he was even less reticent about doing away with other people's offspring on similar grounds. He therefore decreed that all male infants in Bethlehem and its environs be put to the sword.
By this desperate decision the king compounded the problem he was trying to solve. Because a slaughter of the sons of Bethlehem is described in one of the books the rabbis hold to be scriptural, that massacre has been interpreted as an additional fulfillment of prophecy by followers of Jesus of Nazareth.
Joseph was apparently informed by the three astrologers of the king's interest in the child, so he bought a donkey and fled with his wife and their baby down the coast into Egypt. There are many villages of Jews in the delta of the Nile. The refugee family may have stayed among our countrymen in one of those small settlements, or they may have gone on to the city of Alexandria, to the Jewish quarter there. The expensive gifts the astrologers had brought to them would have given them the means to pay for lodging and food for a long time.
The deliverance of the child from death is now viewed by the man's followers as wonderful. It appears to them that King Herod had attempted to thwart the will of God by slaying the child and that God had intervened to save him.
The carpenter's supporters point out that another of our self-styled prophets, one whose name was Hosea, wrote, "I have called my son out of Egypt." So another alleged prophecy seems to have been fulfilled as a result of the murderous action of the king.
The common people of Israel have been taught by the Pharisees to believe in messengers of God that are known as angels. These beings are not mentioned by our prophet Moses in the holy books he wrote. If angels actually exist, we, the chief priests of Israel, are certain Moses would have mentioned them. He did not, so we do not believe in them. The carpenter's followers now tell each other of the appearance in the night sky over Bethlehem of angels that announced the birth of the future king of the Jews to shepherds in a field. Then the angels reportedly filled the heavens with hymns of praise to the newborn child. We assume this tale was invented later by someone who wanted to make the story of the birth of Jesus seem even more auspicious than it already appeared to be.
Be that as it may, those actual incidents which did surround his birth and that appear to be fulfillments of prophecies were undoubtedly pondered by Joseph and his wife, whose name was Mary. In due time they decided to tell their firstborn son about all of them. Perhaps they thought he could be so inspired to become the means of bringing to pass the dreams of their people. Of course, that would depend on his developing the intelligence to capitalize upon his portentous beginnings, and they could hope for that.
The effects of their decisions upon their child were profound. They both talked about contacts with angels other than those in the sky over Bethlehem. They claimed such messengers from our God had appeared to each of them separately even before they left Nazareth to go to Bethlehem. They said the angels had informed them Mary's unborn child was going to be the messiah of the Jews. They also declared that the angels had told them to call the boy Jesus, which means "God saves." Joseph claimed that the angel that had appeared to him in a dream had told him not to hesitate to marry the woman even though she was obviously pregnant. The angel assured him, he said, that Mary was a virgin and that the unborn infant was the only begotten son of our God. Mary corroborated his story by reporting that an angel had appeared to her at a well and had told her that her baby would reign over Israel forever.
Skeptics made jokes about that tale of his being born to a virgin, of course, but it is evident that Jesus himself believed it and still does. No doubt he was teased as a child by playmates about appearing in this world too soon after the marriage of Joseph and Mary, and no doubt he took pleasure from their explanation for the indecent earliness of his birth.
There are also peculiar tales told about the birth of another infant in Judea a few months before Jesus was born. This was the child who later became known as John the Baptist, the self-styled prophet whom Herod Antipas beheaded a few years ago. His mother, a previously barren woman named Elizabeth, happened to be a cousin to Mary. His father was an elderly temple priest called Zacharias.
This Zacharias announced that an angel appeared to him in the temple, while he was performing his priestly offices, to tell him his wife would conceive and bring forth a son who would become a great man of God. Those of us who do not believe in angels assume that vision of Zacharias was some kind of hallucination.
Word of an experience as remarkable as that of Zacharias would have been communicated to other members of his family and to those of Elizabeth, even to relatives as far away as Nazareth, and it is only reasonable to expect that those family members, including Joseph, would have given credence to the report.
The story which Joseph later told about seeing an angel in a dream could have been true. He may have had such a dream. In the course of our lives, we find a lot of our dreams relate to desires and fears that preoccupy us during our waking hours. It would not be surprising if that vision reported by Zacharias generated just such a dream during the undoubtedly troubled sleep of Joseph. When a man is told by the love of his life that she has become pregnant without his involvement, it does not ordinarily make his sleep more tranquil, and the reasons his wife might have produced a concordant story, as she did, are obvious enough. The actual paternity of the child is, of course, open to speculation.
It is known that Mary spent some time in the home of Zacharias and Elizabeth while both of those women were pregnant. They surely talked about their unborn children then. Presumably they accepted each other's stories at face value. It would not have been courteous to do otherwise. One account of their visit includes a reference to Elizabeth's having accepted the child to be born to Mary as the messiah, in accord with Joseph and Mary's reports of their visions.
Further acts of Joseph and Mary added to the influences that would drive Jesus of Nazareth out of his mind and would move him to ride into Jerusalem on a donkey yesterday and would cause him to become a threat to our existence as a nation and as a people. After three years in Egypt the exiled couple heard of the death of King Herod. They returned with their child to the land of Israel but not to Judea, which had been bequeathed by King Herod to his son Archelaus. They were as terrified of him as they had been of Herod. So were we all.
Instead Mary and Joseph took the child to Galilee, which had been left by King Herod to his son Herod Antipas, who still rules there. They returned to the town of Nazareth. By so doing, they seemed to be fulfilling in the child a prophecy that the messiah would be called a Nazarene.
For obvious reasons it is important that you, as governor of this province, should know all these things about the birth of this fellow. I shall not exhaust your patience by telling you about his present doings. I am sure you are being kept informed about them, but I do want to inform you that the traditions about the messiah refer to his raising of the dead. The story that is now circulating about the carpenter resurrecting a man in Bethany is, therefore, a cause of great concern to me, and it should be to you.
In your next report to Caesar please inform him that the high priests of Israel pray daily for his continued good health
With all due respects,
Joseph ben Caiaphas
|1. A Child Is Born||41|
|2. The Boy Becomes a Carpenter||53|
|3. A Wayside Prophet||75|
|4. No One Ever Spoke Like Him||98|
|5. Triumph and Despair||113|
|6. The Affairs of Men||136|
|7. I Am He||153|
|8. The Trial||166|
|9. The Crucifixion and What Followed||193|
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 definitionsof 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?
Posted December 8, 2010
Posted April 15, 2001
Pontius Pilate is one of those Biblical figures whose a cardboard villain or a real weakling. Mills does a great job of giving this tyrant depth. Not always historically accurate, 'Memoirs' still does a great job of portraying Pilate as the vile, petty man historians tell us he was. I recommend this for anyone who wants to get a better sense of what was going on in Rome and Judea at that time.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.