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Washington Post Book World
Friday, November 17th, 2006
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Pilate's Wife: A Novel of the Roman Empire

by Antoinette May

The Passion: A Fictional Account of the Woman Who Tried to Persuade Her Husband Not to Crucify Jesus

A review by Ron Charles

She appears in just a single verse of the Bible, but it's a riveting inflection point, a moment that dares us to imagine that events might go either way: Jesus stands before Pontius Pilate. The leaders of the Temple have accused him of treason and want him crucified, but Pilate is wavering. Then the Gospel of Matthew adds this tantalizing detail: "When he was set down on the judgment seat, his wife sent unto him, saying, Have thou nothing to do with that just man: for I have suffered many things this day in a dream because of him."

The psychic wife of a Roman governor tries to stop the crucifixion of Jesus? Sounds like a plot that would make Dan Brown fall to his knees and cry "Hallelujah!" It's the inspiration for biographer Antoinette May's first novel. She's fleshed out a few scraps of Coptic legend to create a breathy romance about Pilate's wife. May imagines her as a young woman named Claudia, whose father serves a powerful commander of the Roman army. She's also a distant member of the emperor's family, which during this period -- the reign of Tiberius and his fiendish mother -- is more of a death sentence than an honor.

"First, let it be said that I did not attend his crucifixion," Pilate's wife begins. "If you are seeking insight into that tragic affair, you will not hear it from me." This is like sitting down with a survivor of the Titanic who announces that she has nothing to say about the sinking, and for hundreds of pages it appears that May, in fact, won't get to the Big Moment.

In a voice that swings from melodrama to self-pity, Claudia begins with her life as a military brat. This is about as rich as material gets: the world's superpower crushing all who resist, gladiators fighting to the death, young Caligula showing signs of lascivious madness, the emperor's mother snuffing out contenders for the throne. But May seems strangely unwilling to let us enter this raw, ancient world. Despite Claudia's bird's-eye view, we often learn of deadly battles via notes sent from the front line. Where we want bacchanalia, we get Victorian exclamations of shock: " 'Oh!' I gasped, my cheeks flaming as I stared at his naked body." And the book's chronic lack of irony makes Claudia's heavy-handed feminist insights particularly grating. Watching 800 slaves rowing her boat, for instance, she says, "I saw similarities between their lot and my own. No overseer lashed my shoulders, but was I any less a slave?" Well, Claudia, you might try asking one of them before he's whipped to death. Much of this has the earnestness of a school-approved YA novel: "Oh, little sister, what will they do to me?"

Release the lions, I say.

Still, the faithful read on, encouraged by the sighting of an ambitious officer named Pilate -- "sleek and handsome like a young leopard." Although he's looking for a woman with a large dowry, Claudia snags him with a magic serum. "The potion had worked beyond my wildest dreams," she says, and maybe circa 27 A.D. she was the first person to use these clichés. "We were a golden couple. What could ever change that?" In fact, their marriage is quickly wracked with jealousies and betrayals on both sides. In search of solace, she becomes a follower of the Egyptian goddess Isis, which inspires some exciting scenes but also too many New Age howlers such as: "Isis is for everyone....We are all part of each other like leaves in some giant tree." In any case, neither Claudia's feminism nor her spirituality keeps her from jeopardizing her life by panting after a hunky gladiator because he's "so, so...masculine."

If the bulk of this Roman romance is merely overwrought, its long-delayed climax is surprisingly offensive. Many scholars suggest that the exculpatory portrayal of Pilate in the New Testament arose from the early Christians' desire to curry favor with Rome and distinguish themselves from other Jewish groups. And so the Gospels show us Pilate, the representative of Rome, reluctant to condemn Jesus, convinced of the man's innocence, disgusted with the Jews' hatred, determined to wash his hands of the whole dirty business. All leading up to that horrible verse in Matthew when the Jews yell, "His blood be on us, and on our children."

Throughout the novel, May presents a wildly unorthodox version of Jesus's life: Her Jesus studies in the temple of Isis; he marries a rich prostitute in an ecumenical wedding that blends Egyptian and Jewish traditions; he's given a sleeping potion to fake his death on the cross. Of course, such inventions are all within the novelist's right -- as someone once wryly asked, "What is truth?" But when it comes to Jesus's trial, May suddenly gets religion and hews to the few blood-soaked Gospel verses that have served as the bedrock of Christian anti-Semitism for 2,000 years. Again and again, May exonerates Pilate to remove any doubt about who murdered the son of God. "Clearly, Pilate was the one reasoning mind against a rabid mob," Claudia tells us -- despite the fact that she's estranged from him and sleeping with another man.

Long before Mel Gibson clarified his attitudes about Jews during that infamous traffic incident, he noted that the apparently anti-Semitic statements in his Passion of Christ were merely lifted verbatim from the Bible texts. But May takes such license with those texts throughout most of her story that she has forfeited even that specious defense of her conclusion. And so we're left to wonder why a writer would want to resurrect this deadly old prejudice.

Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World.


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