Monday, March 30, 2015

Questioning Pilate

One scene in The Case of the Empty Tomb that I liked, was Maximus questioning Pontius Pilate about when Jesus was brought before him. The night before Maximus had been attacked in the night and he stood before Pilate with cuts and bruises. 

Pontius Pilate had received his appointment from Emperor Tiberias, and took over the governorship of Judea about three years ago. I had only been in Judea a year. Pilate had a reputation as a good administrator. The construction of the new aqueduct had garnered him much praise from all quarters. Since Jerusalem was on the edge of a desert, everyone appreciated the need for water in the city. As an administrator, Pontius Pilate managed to exceed the usual amount of bribery, corruption, cruelty, murder, misappropriation of funds and malfeasance, while still carrying out his duties. For a Roman, duty was the main objective, and we carried it out per fas et nefas– through right and wrong. Pilate’s position of governor gave him control of the military forces, and he carried the authority to order the death sentence. His feeling towards the Jews was no secret; he did not like them. The Jews, of course, reciprocated similarly. As Governor of Judea his home was in Caesarea, the Roman administrative centre. Fortunately for me, the Governor was still in Jerusalem. As it was, the Prefect would not see me until midday. While I waited, I privately thanked Ruth for convincing me to visit the baths before my interview with Pilate. I felt clean and refreshed, prepared for any eventuality.

I was shown into an audience chamber of Pontius Pilate’s residence in Jerusalem. The room was richly decorated with ornately carved columns, and imitation marble panels on the wall. Several chairs and statues stood around the room. In the centre of the room was an ornamental pool whose bottom consisted of an intricate wave-pattern mosaic. To the right of the double doors I entered, were two long steps that ran half the length of the room to a balcony. Against the far wall, upon a handsome chair with eagle heads carved into the arms, and surrounded by attendants, sat the prefect.

Pontius Pilate was a serious looking man. He was tall and thin and bony. Bony shoulders poked through his toga. Bony elbows rested on the arms of his chair. And bony knees peeked out at me from beneath his tunic. His thin lips did not smile, for fear people would not take him seriously, and so he also refrained from revealing any humour or wit. His close-set blue eyes regarded me curtly. Pilate seldom looked at me directly during the interview, but chose, instead, to study his hands.

"Claudius Maximus, what happened to you?" he asked more out of curiosity than concern.

"An accident, your excellency" I responded.

He clearly did not like that answer. "It distresses us that one of our tribunes allows himself to be seen in public in this condition. I trust you will be more careful in the future."

"Yes, Prefect."

"What is it you wished to see us about?" His thin lips barely moved as he spoke. His voice and manner were condescending. This was not going to be at all pleasant.

"Prefect, I am tending to the matter of a disappearance of a body from its tomb." I regarded him closely for some sort of reaction, but he revealed none. "Do you recall the man? His name was Jesus. He was crucified last Friday. I was led to understand you were interested in the incident."

"Yes, Tribune," he exclaimed hastily. "You need not remind us. What is it you want?"

"I find I must know the details that led up to his crucifixion." Pilate sat and with a wave of his hand, his dismissed the attendants. The governor waited until they were out of the room before he allowed me to continue. "Prefect, I understand you presided over the trial, and pronounced sentence on him."

Still he said nothing. He was not going to make this at all easy for me. I decided to stare back. It worked. After a tense moment he spoke.

"When the man Jesus was brought before me, it was simply pro forma. His fate had already been determined by his own people, and in regards to them, they were merely going through political channels. It was all predicted."

"But Prefect, you have total authority," I spoke as politely as I could. "The man did not have to die."

Pontius Pilate did not appear to agree. He regarded me coldly, and then continued.

"The governorship of Judea is not an easy nor simple task," he began in a monotone voice. "For one thing I must keep Rome happy, and that means money in the way of taxes. It is also my duty to bring Roman law and Roman order to these desert people." He said ‘desert people’ with no little contempt. "These Jews are a thick-neck lot. You could fill parchment after parchment with their laws and customs. And they cling to these laws and customs as if their very lives depended on them. I, on the other hand, must impose Roman law while trying to keep these people from open rebellion. I am a military governor, yes, and I have the might of our legions under my command, but I am a governor never-the-less, which means I must carefully choose when to force the will of Rome upon the Hebrews, and when to gracefully withdraw from a situation where the possible consequence would outweigh any benefit. Before I came to Judea, the Emperor himself entrusted me with the Pax Romana– the peace of Rome. I intend to honour that trust.

"You were not present in Jerusalem at the time, Tribune, but one of my first acts after arriving here was to erect image-baring standards in the city. You would think that to be a very common, and simple decision. Not so when dealing with Jews. They considered the standards idolatrous. They petitioned me to remove the standards. I declined. The next thing I knew they protested vigorously, and finally I was forced to remove the standards. As Romans– as leaders of the world– we understand that these decisions must be made from time to time. Your father understood.

"If one man must die so Jerusalem may have a little peace, then clearly exitus acta probat– the result validates the deed. Is that so difficult to understand, Tribune? Besides, if it does not deal directly with Rome, or pose any threat to Rome I allow the Jews to handle their own affairs."

This I knew to be only partly true. Pilate himself could appoint the Jewish high priest, and he exercised control over funds in the Temple treasury. It was not common knowledge around Jerusalem, but I knew that Pilate was using Temple funds to help pay for the new aqueduct that brought water into the city from a nearby spring. I decided not to reveal to Pilate that I was privy to this information.

"Prefect, could you tell me something of the man Jesus?" I asked him.

Pilate stared off trying to make it appear he was not thinking about the question.

"He was a man like any other," he replied.

"Was he intelligent?"

"At times he appeared most intelligent," Pilate admitted. "Yet at other times he appeared quite ignorant and stupid."

"How so?"

"Even after being impressed with the severity of the matter, the man would not say a word in his own defence."

"Surely he could see the gravity of the situation," I suggested.

"I suspected he knew. He simply did not care."

"What did he say?"

"Very little. I asked him if he were the messiah, a self-proclaimed king of the Jews. He said these words were not his."

"Why did you ask him that?"

It was clear Pilate did not like being questioned.

"These were the accusations made by the high priests," he spoke slowly and deliberately.

"Were they present during the questioning?"

"No. They waited outside."

"Why was that?"

Pilate shook his head. "They made some reference about not being allowed inside the praetorium during their holiday. As I told you, they have a myriad of rules and laws."

"What happened then?"

"Jesus would say little else. I went out to the high priests to tell them I found no guilt in the man. They insisted he was a criminal. ‘Then try him yourselves!’ I told them in disgust. They make me sick, these so-called ‘holy-men’.

"They practically told me they wanted the man dead, and I was the only one authorized to order the death sentence. I wanted no part of it, so I ordered the man to be brought before Herod."

"Why Herod?"

"Jesus was a Galilean. As tetrarch, Herod’s domain encompasses Galilee."

"What did Herod do?"

"How should I know? He questioned the man and sent him back to me."

"Passing the sestertius," I observed.

"Respondeat superior! The sestertius stops here!" Pilate responded forcibly and with some anger, as he pointed to the floor in front of him. "Jesus was again brought before me and again I tried to save him."
"Why?" I asked. I knew Pilate had no love for Jews. I could not see him urinating on a Jew if one burst into flames in front of him. Why did he try to save this one?

Pontius Pilate regarded me briefly and with some irritation, like he would a pesky insect.

"Just who is being investigated here, Tribune?" he asked suspiciously. "The Galilean or myself? If you are attempting to uncover some unlawful act on my part for a report to Rome, be aware that there are worse places than Judea where you might find yourself stationed. Places so remote that they have never heard of your family name, nor care whose son you are."

I thought it best not to respond to this, but waited for his ire to right itself. It did.

Pilate’s features softened slightly and I knew what was next.

"Of course the reverse is also true," he remarked, beginning to purr like a cat. "If you can bring this problem to a successful conclusion, it would reflect very favourably on you in my report to Rome." He let the last word hang in the air. "I could practically guarantee your request for a change of assignment to anywhere in the Empire. Yes, I dare say, you may even be granted an assignment in caput mundi."

And there it was, the threat and the bribe– the very heart of Roman diplomacy.

"As to your last question of ‘why?’," Pilate continued, "I have no interest in seeing an innocent man, be he Roman, Jew or other, put to death needlessly. Especially this man in particular."

I was not certain what he meant by this last part, but decided not to pursue it.

"To appease the Jewish leaders I ordered the man flogged, but that was not good enough for them– they wanted him dead. I decided to try another way around it. I told the Hebrew populace that during their Passover holiday it is traditional that as Governor I may release a Jewish prisoner. I gave the people a choice: I could release Jesus or the rebel Barabas. They chose Barabas.

"As a politician I have to recognize expediency. I fell back on an old Roman axiom, ‘give the people what they want’."

"So it was a decision made ad captandum vulgus," I commented with a hint of contempt. "In order to win over the masses."

"They were calling me a traitor to Caesar!" Pilate stated, and there was a hint of fear under his anger now. "Me, a traitor to Caesar! I did not need any grief over this. Better to be done with it. I handed Jesus over to be crucified and washed my hands of the entire affair." In an unconscious gesture he studied his hands.

"After the crucifixion you called the centurion, Lucius Drusus," I stated in an attempt to draw the Prefect back into the conversation. "You questioned the centurion if Jesus were dead. Why was that?"

Pontius Pilate lowered his hands into his lap, and looked away. He winced as if trying to recall the incident I mentioned. "Ah, yes," he said. "There was a request made by a Hebrew from Arimathea. This man wished to have the body of Jesus for burial. Before allowing him to take the body I thought it prudent to make certain Jesus was dead."

"And you allowed the Arimathean to take the body?"


"Why?" I asked. Pilate regarded at me with hostility and I attempted to explain my reasoning to avoid any misunderstanding. "Did you know this man? Did he claim kinship with Jesus? What was his interest in the body?"

Pilate turned to me with contempt. "It was a simple request, Tribune. I did not see any reason to refuse."

"Yes, but - "

Pilate stared at me steadily for the first time. "We are finished here, Tribune."

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