He Suffered Under Pontius Pilate

‘What is truth?’ Pilate asked. Truth was looking him in the eyes when he asked this.

Mihály Munkácsy, “Pilate’s Court,” 1881, Hungarian National Gallery, Budapest
Mihály Munkácsy, “Pilate’s Court,” 1881, Hungarian National Gallery, Budapest (photo: Public Domain)

The birds of Jerusalem welcomed brother sun’s rise with morning songs. The shadow cast by the Second Temple pointed westward toward the governor’s palace. It was westward, toward the palace, that the mob led by chief priests and elders and learned men made their way. 

What is it this time? Pontius Pilate wondered.

On most days the governor resided in Caesarea Maritima. The capital was a port city with Roman temples, Roman baths, imposing public structures commissioned by the late Herod, and a theater overlooking the sea. Gladiators fought in the theater. But the likelihood of local uprisings was elevated on this week of the Passover. Pilate was in Jerusalem to see to it that order would be maintained.

His ancestors, commoners from southern Italy, had been ennobled as equestrians, or middle-ranking nobility. He’d diligently served in the army, and made proper acquaintances, in his younger years. The reward for his ambition was to succeed Valerius Gratus as the prefect of a small and seemingly insignificant province on the Empire’s eastern edge: Roman Judaea.  

He remained subordinate to the imperial legate of Syria, aristocratic Lucius Aelius Lamia, an old man nowhere to be found within Syria itself. Local protests and insurrections erupted in Judaea far more often than in other provinces. His was an office that those closest to the emperor wouldn’t have cared for.

Pilate had made prior attempts to introduce the Imperial Cult into Jerusalem itself. Such attempts were met with zealous resistance. Though he’d once believed that Rome would bring light unto whatever lands she took for herself, his experiences had taught him otherwise. So be it! he figured. Let those circumcised Jews cling to their backward ways.

He wanted to keep his office. Though it meant rather little to Rome’s most powerful men, it brought him much localized honor in Judaea, and even the authority to decide the fates of men. One got accustomed to wielding such authority rather quickly. Rome needed good-enough reports of his performance in order for him to keep his office. What good news could be brought about from the mob entering the courtyard? 

Pilate emerged from the bowels of the palace. He looked down upon the courtyard from the colonnade above. Those in the mob refused to enter the palace itself. Roman guards stood, ready to pounce, at the courtyard’s edges. Pilate’s eyes fell upon the Man wearing a plain tunic whom the mob had bound. This Man’s face was bruised.  

Caiaphas was there. Pilate had allowed him to remain high priest throughout his own tenure as governor. Pilate allowed this because he considered Caiaphas cooperative enough, because he’d hoped that stability and trust could prevent him from being bothered with their religious affairs, and above all because he just didn’t care enough to see a new high priest get appointed. 

“What accusation do you bring against this man?” Pilate asked. 

“If this man were not a criminal,” they answered, “we would not have handed him over to you.” 

“Take him yourselves,” Pilate said, “and judge him according to your law.” Extrajudicial stonings were not unheard of.

“We are not permitted to put anyone to death,” they explained. “We found this man inciting our nation, forbidding us to pay taxes to Caesar and saying that he himself is the Messiah, a king.”

Inciting the Jews and forbidding taxes? Pilate thought, smirking. How ironic!

Charges of sedition were indeed in the interests of Rome. Pilate signaled the soldiers to escort the bound Man into the headquarters. They did so.

The Man stood before Pilate in the palace halls. His shining eyes pierced to the very soul. 

“Are you the king of the Jews?” Pilate asked.

“Do you ask this on your own,” Jesus replied, “or did others tell you about me?” 

“I am not a Jew, am I?” Pilate quipped. “Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?”

“My kingdom does not belong to this world,” Jesus said. “If my kingdom belonged to this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” 

Imaginary kingdoms have no forces, Pilate concluded, and therefore are no threat to Roman rule. He’d found this strange Man standing before him rather intriguingly. “So you are a king?”

“You say so,” Jesus replied. “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

Pilate had met plenty of men, who believed in plenty of different things, over the course of his life. The Roman pantheon, and Jewish insistence upon their one God, were among those differences. In youth he’d felt so certain in what he believed, and detested that lack of zeal common among old men. He gradually realized that much of what he professed to believe was driven by expedience rather than any real conviction. Now he himself was like one of those old men. “What is truth?” Pilate asked.

Truth was looking him in the eyes when he asked this.

Pilate emerged from the palace along with Jesus. “I find no basis for an accusation against this man,” he declared.

The chief priests and elders in the courtyard continued shouting their list of accusations. 

“Have you no answer?” Pilate asked Jesus. “See how many charges they bring against you.” 

Jesus remained silent. 

Pilate was all the more amazed. Other men would’ve argued or begged. He wondered how to get out of the situation at hand, being caught up between an innocent Man and a mob demanding his blood, when the voice of another accuser arose: “He stirs up the people by teaching throughout all Judea, from Galilee where he began even to this place.”

Jesus was indeed from Galilee, Pilate confirmed. Galileans were under the jurisdiction of the tetrarch Herod Antipas, son of the late builder. Herod was a Hellenized Jew, whom Pilate had had previous disputes with concerning jurisdiction, and who likewise just happened to be in Jerusalem for Passover. Pilate agreed to hand Jesus over to Herod. 

It was a relief to pass this matter off into the hands of another. Perhaps Herod would even appreciate the gesture of having this case handed to him, Pilate figured, as amends for that prior incident in which those Galileans were slain in the Temple. Perhaps they could be friends after all.

Destiny is not so easily thwarted. The relief was short-lived. The angry mob, displeased by Herod’s verdict, returned with Jesus to Pilate. 

“You brought me this man as one who was inciting the people,” Pilate told them, “and here I have examined him in your presence and have not found this man guilty of any of your charges against him. Neither has Herod, for he sent him back to us. Indeed, he has done nothing to deserve death. I will therefore have him flogged and release him.”

It was clear enough that the mob’s leaders were jealous of this Man.

Word was sent to Pilate as he sat on the judgment seat. “Have nothing to do with that innocent man,” came the message from his wife, “for today I have suffered a great deal because of a dream about him.” 

Pilate realized yet another way out. It was his custom during Passover to release a prisoner chosen by the people. He would present them with an obvious choice of whether they’d prefer to have this innocent Man, or to have a criminal guilty of insurrection and murder, freely dwell among them. “Whom do you want me to release for you,” Pilate asked, “Jesus Barabbas or Jesus who is called the Messiah?” 

Educated men who claim to know all about the greater good carry great sway over a mob. Those conditioned to pay high regard to such men fear that they’d earn their peers’ contempt if they were to contradict such men, and thus be cast aside as lepers are. Those who doubt the wisdom of such men thus remain silent, oftentimes even while a majority happens to harbor hidden doubts, that the silence conspires. Men and women can be intimidated into claiming belief in just about anything, including that which blatantly contradicts common sense, under such conditions. The chief priests stirred the crowd to rally around the criminal.  

“Not this man but Barabbas!” they shouted. “Away with this fellow! Release Barabbas for us!”

How many of those who’d shouted “Hosanna!” on Sunday were numbered among those shouting “Crucify him!” by Friday?

Pilate sighed and nodded. He helplessly watched on as a criminal, very much deserving of punishment, was released in place of Jesus. “Then what do you wish me to do with the man you call the King of the Jews?” Pilate asked. 

“Crucify him!” they kept on shouting.

“Why, what evil has he done?”

“Crucify him!”

“Why, what evil has he done? I have found in him no ground for the sentence of death; I will therefore have him flogged and then release him.” He’d figured that by having this Man whom they considered deplorable flogged, giving them just that much, they’d be satisfied. He signaled the Roman guards.

Pilate watched as the Roman guards escorted Jesus to the pillar. He watched on as they left the courtyard, away from sight.

Jesus returned to the palace with the Roman guards. Open cuts, oozing with blood, ran all across his body. A crown of thorns dug into his cranium, covering his face and matting his hair with blood. A purple robe was flung around him.

Pilate, disturbed by the sight of him, returned to the colonnade.

“Look, I am bringing him out to you to let you know that I find no case against him,” Pilate told the crowd. He presented Jesus. “Behold the man!” 

“Crucify him! Crucify him!”

“Take him yourselves and crucify him,” he said, angered by the thought of a Roman capitulating to a mob of Jews, “I find no case against him.”

“We have a law,” shouted a voice, “and according to that law he ought to die because he has claimed to be the Son of God.”

Those very words, “Son of God,” so eerily similar to the words divi filius, sent a sudden chill down Pilate’s spine. Dread settled into his legs. He hastily returned to within the palace with Jesus. “Where are you from?” he asked.

Jesus gave no answer. 

“Do you refuse to speak to me?” Pilate asked. “Do you not know that I have the power to release you and the power to crucify you?” 

“You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above,” Jesus replied, “therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.” 

Who controls the pawns?

In to the palace. Out to the colonnade. Pilate kept on going back and forth, inside and out, like a man torn between conscience and fear. The mob was now on the verge of rioting. Those in Rome would surely be displeased to hear of yet another incident erupting in Judaea.

“If you release this man,” a voice shouted from the mob, “you are no friend of Caesar. Everyone who claims to be a king sets himself against Caesar.”

He sat once again on the Stone Pavement, the judge’s bench, bringing Jesus with him. “Here is your King!”

“Away with him! Away with him! Crucify him!” 

“Shall I crucify your King?” 

“We have no king but Caesar,” the chief priests shouted.

Those words, uttered by men conceding that they too were worldly, had gravity. It was Caesar, rather than this King of the Jews, whom men of this world answered to. Pilate’s fears were assuaged, and his heart was hardened, as he fell back down to earth. There would be no riots over this, nor explaining of failures to the emperor. He consented.

The Son of Man must be crucified.

Pilate washed his hands before them all as a gesture. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he declared.

“His blood be on us and on our children!”

The soldiers took Jesus and sank into the frenzied crowd. The crowd poured out of the courtyard like grains of sand in an hourglass. They were out of Pilate’s sight.   

Pilate ordered an inscription to be written, in Hebrew, Latin and Greek, and placed upon the cross. It read: “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” 

“What I have written I have written,” he went on to dismissively tell the chief priests when they complained about the wording.

Having fulfilled his role, having performed his duty, the governor presumed that the name of Jesus of Nazareth would soon enough be forgotten and lost. He would be wrong.