Pontius Pilate, and The Crucification of Christ

From Epics of History: More Prisoners of Eternity.

Many years ago, a young Russian Jew was paid a rouble a month by the Mayor to stand at the outskirts of his town so that the Messiah would have someone to greet him upon his arrival. When a friend of his complained that the pay was so low the man replied, ” I know, but the job is at least permanent.” Or so the old Jewish story goes.

The Coming of the Messiah remains a hotly disputed subject within the Jewish community to this day, but for one breakaway sect from the Jewish tradition the arrival of the Messiah is not a topic of intellectual discourse but a fact. For the Christian faith declares the Messiah to have been the carpenters son, Jesus of Nazareth, who lived and preached in the land of Israel 2,000 years ago. He was, according to Christian belief, the subject of a virgin birth, the Son of God, who died upon the Cross for the remission of our sins.

Who, however, was responsible for the death of Christ? Was it Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor of Judaea who, it is said by St Matthew, washed his hands of any responsibility? Or Caiaphas, the High Priest of the Jewish Temple?

Not a great deal is known about the life of Pontius Pilate. He is believed to have been born in the village of Bisenta in the Abruzzi region of Italy. His family were of the Equestrian Order, members of the aristocratic class that ranked below the Patricians, and so would have been born to minor nobility. In AD 26, during the reign of the Emperor Tiberius, he was appointed to replace Valerius Gratus as the Prefect of the Roman province of Judaea.

Caiaphas, as High Priest of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, was the spiritual leader of all Jews around the world. He also presided over the Sanhedrin, the Jewish Supreme Council that dictated and controlled Jewish civil and religious law. Their overriding purpose was to maintain order, but the final say on all decisions made lay entirely with the Roman occupiers. Caiaphas lived a life of conspicuous luxury but was only able to do so because of his willingness to work hand-in-glove with the Romans to ensure no serious threat to their rule emerged. Caiaphas, saw it as his role to ensure that the Jewish people remained compliant.

Religious preachers were not uncommon in Judaea. Roman policy towards such people was one of indifferent toleration. They couldn’t care less about foreign religions unless of course they posed a threat to their rule. As such, they were mostly left alone, and the one known as John the Baptist had been baptising people in the waters of the River Jordan for a number of years. This was not necessarily the approach of the Jewish Authorities, however. They did not welcome the constant talk of a Messiah. Indeed, they feared it.

The preacher they called Jesus (Joshua Bar- Joseph) was being widely talked about as this Messiah. He had been gathering disciples for only a short number of years but his fame and popularity was fast gathering pace. He had a reputation as a healer and as a miracle worker. Such talk could not be tolerated.

Caiaphas felt threatened by the increasing popularity of Jesus and was particularly concerned about his attacks upon corruption within the religious establishment. The Jewish Temple, for example, was a money-making cash-cow. For example, to gain entry into the Temple a Jew had first to be ritually cleansed in a mikveh (bathtub). The priests charged for their use. Once inside business transactions took a plenty. It had become an arena of commerce rather than a place of worship. Jesus was outspoken in his condemnation of such activities. When he stormed into the Temple and overturned tables accusing the moneychangers and sellers of trinkets as blasphemous it was a scandal. The Temple, he said, was little more than a den of thieves.

To attack the religious establishment was one thing, to assail their holiest shrine and threaten their wealth was another. Caiaphas was unequivocal in his response – Jesus had to die. Others amongst the priesthood were not so sure. Had Jesus committed any crime? Was he not right in his condemnation? How would the people react. Certainly, by attacking the Temple he had committed a crime against God and an act of treason but he had criticised the moneychangers and the priesthood for permitting their activities. Could that really be construed as blasphemous? Pilate didn’t think so.

Even if blasphemy could be proved, to commit a crime under Jewish law was not to commit one under Roman law, and it was Roman law whose remit ran in Judaea. If Jesus were found guilty then that guilt and any sentence would have to be approved by Pilate, and blasphemy against the Jewish God was not a crime under Roman law.

Pontius Pilate was reputed to have been an insensitive man who crassly trampled upon the religious sensibilities of others, but he was no fool. As far as he could tell Jesus had committed no crime. The Sanhedrin that had condemned him according to Mosaic Law now accused him of openly opposing the payment of taxes to Caesar and of encouraging others towards non-payment. Tax resistance was a capital offence under Roman law.

It was also the time of Passover, the greatest of Jewish festivals, and it has been estimated that as many as 2 million Jews would have been in Jerusalem to celebrate it. Judaea was always one of the more fractious provinces of the Roman Empire, something of a powder keg, and the potential for trouble was great. Just days before his assault upon the Temple, Jesus had ridden in triumph through the city’s streets. People had turned out in their thousands to greet him, they had strewn flowers in his path, and laid their cloaks on the ground for him to pass over. Such adoration for a man of no status was unknown, unless, of course, he was truly the Messiah.

Sometime later Judas Iscariot, one of the 12 Apostles, Jesus’s closest associates, approached the Jewish Authorities and vowed to betray him for a payment of 30 pieces of silver. At what was to become known as the Last Supper, Jesus told his close friends that, despite their assertions of denial, that one of them would betray him. The following day Jesus was arrested whilst walking in the Garden of Gethesemane. Judas identified him to the Authorities by kissing him on the cheek. As the priests and their henchmen made to arrest him a violent scuffle broke out. Jesus quickly calmed the situation telling his followers that, ” those who live by the sword shall die by the sword.” Distraught at what he had done, Judas hanged himself.

Taken before the Sanhedrin, the Supreme Jewish Council, Jesus outraged Caiaphas by refusing to submit to his authority. He made no effort to defend himself and merely deflected the High Priests questions causing an increasingly frustrated Caiaphas to cry out, ” Will thou answerest nothing!” Finally to the question, ” Are you Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” Jesus replied, ” I am.” Caiaphas tore his robe in anger as he demanded to know, ” Are you then the Son of God?” Jesus, who had remained calm throughout his interrogation, cryptically replied, ” You say that I am.” A triumphant Caiaphas declared that there was no need for witnesses now that we have heard of his guilt from his own lips. The condemned Jesus was taken to Pilate where the they told the Prefect that he had declared himself to be the King of the Jews.

Pilate wants nothing to do with the affair. Realising that as a Galilean he fell under the jurisdiction of Herod Antipas he ordered that Jesus be transferred to him to deal with. Herod, who had only recently had John the Baptist put to death, mocked and humiliated Jesus, but he did so out of fear. He was quick to return him to Pilate who in his exasperation declared, ” I can find no fault in this man.” The Jewish Priests were quick to remind him that everyone that makes himself a King speaks against Caesar.

Pilate had been warned by his wife that no good would come of this and it was only with reluctance and against his better judgement that he put Jesus on trial for his life. Such was Jesus’s reputation that Pilate chose to question him personally. When he asked Jesus if he considered himself to be the King of the Jews, Jesus replied, ” My Kingdom is not of this world.”

It was the custom at Passover for the Roman Prefect to release one condemned man according to public acclamation. Pilate put the question to the crowd. The crowd chose not Jesus but a condemned thief and rebel, Barabbas. Pilate ordered that Jesus be crucified, nailed to a cross to die a slow and agonising death.

Forced to wear a purple cloak and crown of thorns in mockery of his claim to be King of the Jews, Jesus had to endure constant beating and flagellation as he carried the cross along the via Dolorossa to his place of execution at Calvary. The many women following the procession were in tears at his treatment but Jesus told them to weep not for him but for themselves and their children. Upon the Cross, with a thief similarly crucified either side of him, Jesus looks to the heavens and speaks aloud, ” Father, forgive them, for they know what they have done.”

Following Jesus’s death, Joseph of Arimathea requests of Pilate permission to remove the body for burial. It is granted but Pilate orders that the burial site be secured and a guard posted outside. It is done but a few days later the tomb is found to be empty. Jesus had been bought back to life. He announced his Resurrection to the Apostles and told them that they must not be afraid and spread His gospel throughout the world. He then ascended to Heaven.

But who was to blame for Jesus’s death? The condemnation came from the Jewish Priesthood and in particular Caiaphas, who was unequivocal in his determination to see Jesus executed. The ultimate decision lay with Pilate, however. If he had truly desired to release Jesus he could had done so. But then had he not left the decision to the crowd. Wasn’t it the Jews themselves who had chosen to save a thief, Barabbas, rather than their Messiah. Or was it God’s Will, and there could have been no other way?