PILATE CROSSES PATHS WITH JESUS
The morning of the day began with a weary Jesus standing in front of Pontius Pilate at the usual hour for Roman judicial business—- 6 a.m. The day was April 7th A.D. 30, and Pontius Pilate was in no mood to be crossed by anyone. As if it were not enough that there were now 500,000 excited Jews in Jerusalem for Passover, some 250 times the numbers of troops he could muster on the day, there were various zealots in the jail next to the Antonio Fortress, with Jews clamoring for their release, on the basis of some ancient festival custom, also observed in the Egyptian province. Pilate despised these people, with their haughty claims that their god was the only god, and that the Emperor should not be worshipped as a deity. He did not understand having a temple with no images or statues of deities in it. And Passover of course was some kind of festival celebrating getting free from Egyptian oppression. It didn’t augur well for any sort of foreign rule or ruler. On top of all that, at the beginning of the week, there had been some fool riding into town on a donkey to acclamations and waving of palm branches, which Pilate had just been informed was a symbol of Maccabean victory and recapture of Jerusalem by an earlier generation of Jewish zealots—- just marvelous! If that were not enough, this same Jewish fool from somewhere in Galilee had performed some kind of symbolic act of turning over tables of money changers, and setting some creatures free in the outer court of the temple. And now this fool was standing right in front of him, looking tired but calm and collected.
Annas and Caiaphas had insisted it was urgent that Pilate deal with this man with dispatch, because Passover would begin later that same day (or for the Jews at the beginning of the next day. Another irritating feature of Jewish life was they didn’t even reckon days the proper Roman way. Was there no end to their contrariness?). In a normal Roman proceeding, there was a lot of begging and pleading by the defendant as he was expected to speak for and defend himself. But this, Jesus did not do— at all. The proceeding was going nowhere, and Pilate’s already short temper was getting shorter. Honestly, he had no desire to give the Jewish priests what they wanted. He thought maybe he could have Jesus flogged, as a token lesson of Roman justice, and then set him free. That would show he had taken the matter seriously but was still the final authority in the matter- not exactly giving these Jewish leaders what they wanted.
What Pilate couldn’t make out is why they saw Jesus as such a threat. “So you say you are a king?”
“That’s what you say,” retorted Jesus. “If my dominion were of this world, my disciples would fight for me.”
“So you do have a kingdom….somewhere?
“ I came into this world to proclaim the truth.”
Pilate snickered, “And what precisely, is this truth you speak of?”
Jesus did not answer, and so Pilate went out to the Pavement where a crowd had formed and told one and all— “I find there is no case against this Jesus from Nazareth. Shall I release this so-called King of the Jews?”
“Give us Barabbas instead” he heard some voice cry out. This was unexpected, but one thing Pilate knew— Jesus seemed to be nothing more than another messianic dreamer, but Barabbas was no dreamer— he was an assassin of Romans. Pilate had no interest in releasing Barabbas. It was already now the second hour after sunrise, and this was going nowhere. He had Jesus flogged, and dragged out before the crowd saying again he had no case against Jesus—- adding ‘Ecce Homo’ Behold the man. Then the cry broke out—- ‘crucify him, crucify him’.
Pilate retorted “you take him and crucify yourself” but the Jewish authorities were quick to reply “While we have a law that says he ought to die, as you know, we are not allowed to execute anyone in a Roman province, and he should indeed die because he claims to be the Son of God!’
This took Pilate completely by surprise. Tiberius wouldn’t be happy to hear about some Jewish prophet claiming to be a son of the gods and his not being dealt with by Pilate. Now Pilate was in a vulnerable spot. He had Jesus dragged back into his chamber. “Where are you really from?” asked Pilate, but Jesus refused to answer.
Don’t you understand that I have the power to have you released or to crucify you?”
Jesus replied: “You would have no power over me, if it had not been granted you from above. The one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin than yours.” Pilate tried again to release Jesus, but the Jewish officials had saved their trump card for last—- “if you release Jesus, we will report this to the Emperor, and you will no longer be on his list as an amicus Caesaris, a special friend of Caesar’s in line for good promotions.” This was the breaking point, and so Pilate went out, sat on his judgment seat, asked should he crucify the Jewish king and when their answer was affirmative, he handed Jesus over for execution. Good riddance thought Pilate. At least we will not have to deal with that pathetic man again. What is it about Judea that causes so many messianic figures and prophets to spring up?
Now crucifixion was called the Extreme Punishment, something no Roman citizen would ever undergo. It was reserved for the worst of the worst—- those who committed high treason, or those who led slave revolts or slaves who committed atrocities against their masters. Jesus apparently fit into the former category. The titulus above the cross which Pilate had fashioned did not read Christos/ Christus/Mashiach of the Jews, but rather Basileus/Rex/Melek of the Jews, a more obviously political charge. But was it an accurate charge, a just charge—- was Jesus, had he really claimed to be the King of the Jews? The matter was not clear to Pilate, and against his wife’s better judgment, he had done away with him.
Pilate was surprised that afternoon to learn that Jesus was already dead by the ninth hour, and the sky had turned unnaturally dark about then. Two members of the Sanhedrin had come and requested the body which Pilate readily granted, and to prevent any chicanery or theft, he had a guard posted at Joseph’s tomb. He did not really expect anything to happen, but better safe than sorry. More likely Jesus’ former followers would make themselves scarce at this juncture. But when the day of the Sun rolled around, suddenly a breathless centurion came running to Herod’s Palace where Pilate was staying with the report that somehow the stone had been rolled away, and Jesus’s body was gone, despite the guards, who now claimed to have seen nothing.
At first Pilate wasn’t too worried, but then there were reports that Jesus had been seen, in various places, by various people, and this did not augur well. Pilate himself had great fear of ghosts, and that Sunday night over dinner with his wife he said “I should have listened to you. This is the way it all begins. Somehow someone claims that a hero has slipped out of the grasp of Charon and Lethe and has escaped, and now, the man Jesus may be more dangerous dead but gone than he ever was before he was crucified.”
And so it was that unwittingly Pilate prophesied a remarkable truth—that the Jesus who had lived and taught and healed in Galilee and Judea was not nearly so dangerous or radical as the Jesus now in an unknown location, unleashed upon the world in story and argument inspiring either fear or wonder in his opponents or proponents.
“Who did move that stone?” murmured Pilate to his wife, “and where has the body gone?” These were the thoughts that haunted Pilate that Sunday night and many more after it.