The Life of Christ – Written by Frederick W. Farrar – Originally published in 1874.
Jesus Before Pilate
“Per procuratorem Pontium Pilatum supplicio affectus erat.” 388 – TAC. Ann. XV. 44.
SUFFERED under Pontius Pilate” – so, in every creed of Christendom, is the unhappy name of the Roman Procurator handed down to eternal execration. Yet the object of introducing that name was not to point a moral, but to fix an epoch; and, in point of fact, of all the civil and ecclesiastical rulers before whom Jesus was brought to judgment, Pilate was the least guilty of malice and hatred, the most anxious, if not to spare His agony, at least to save His life.
What manner of man was this in whose hands were placed, by power from above, the final destinies of the Saviour’s life? Of his origin, and of his antecedents before A. D. 26, when he became the sixth Procurator of Judæa, but little is known. In rank he belonged to the ordo equester, and he owed his appointment to the influence of Sejanus. His name “Pontius” seems to point to a Samnite extraction; his cognomen “Pilatus” to a warlike ancestry. His praenomen, if he had one, has not been preserved. In Judæa he had acted with all the haughty violence and insolent cruelty of a typical Roman governor. Scarcely had he been well installed as Procurator, when, allowing his soldiers to bring with them by night the silver eagles and other insignia of the legions from Cæsarea to the Holy City, he excited a furious outburst of Jewish feeling against an act which they regarded as idolatrous profanation. For five days and nights – often lying prostrate on the bare ground – they surrounded and almost stormed his residence at Cæsarea with tumultuous and threatening entreaties, and could not be made to desist on the sixth, even by the peril of immediate and indiscriminate massacre at the hands of the soldiers whom he sent to surround them. He had then sullenly given way, and this foretaste of the undaunted and fanatical resolution of the people with whom he had to deal, went far to embitter his whole administration with a sense of overpowering disgust.
The outbreak of the Jews on a second occasion was perhaps less justifiable, but it might easily have been avoided, if Pilate would have studied their character a little more considerately, and paid more respect to their dominant superstition. Jerusalem seems to have always suffered, as it does very grievously to this day, from a bad and deficient supply of water. To remedy this inconvenience, Pilate undertook to build an aqueduct, by which water could be brought from the “Pools of Solomon.” Regarding this as a matter of public benefit, he applied to the purpose some of the money from the “Corban,” or sacred treasury, and the people rose in furious myriads to resent this secular appropriation of their sacred fund. Stung by their insults and reproaches, Pilate disguised a number of his soldiers in Jewish costume, and sent them among the mob, with staves and daggers concealed under their garments, to punish the ringleaders. Upon the refusal of the Jews to separate quietly, a signal was given, and the soldiers carried out their instructions with such hearty good will, that they wounded and beat to death not a few both of the guilty and the innocent, and created so violent a tumult that many perished by being trodden to death under the feet of the terrified and surging mob. Thus, in a nation which produced the sicari, Pilate had given a fatal precedent of sicarian conduct; the assassins had received from their Procurator an example of the use of political assassination.
A third seditious tumult must still more have embittered the disgust of the Roman Governor for his subjects, by showing him how impossible it was to live among such a people – even in a conciliatory spirit – without outraging some of their sensitive prejudices. In the Herodian palace at Jerusalem, which he occupied during the festivals, he had hung some gilt shields dedicated to Tiberius. In the speech of Agrippa before the Emperor Caius, as narrated by Philo, this act is attributed to wanton malice; but since, by the king’s own admission, the shields were perfectly plain, and were merely decorated with a votive inscription, it is fair to suppose that the Jews had taken offence at what Pilate simply intended for a harmless private ornament; and one which, moreover, he could hardly remove without some danger of offending the gloomy and suspicious Emperor to whose honor they were dedicated. Since he would not give way, the chief men of the nation wrote a letter of complaint to Tiberius himself. It was a part of Tiberius’s policy to keep the provinces contented, and his masculine intellect despised the obstinacy which would risk an insurrection rather than sacrifice a whim. He therefore reprimanded Pilate, and ordered the obnoxious shields to be transferred from Jerusalem to the Temple of Augustus at Cæsarea.
The latter incident is related by Philo only; and besides these three outbreaks, we hear in the Gospels of some wild tumult in which Pilate had mingled the blood of the Galilæans with their sacrifices. He was finally expelled from his Procuratorship in consequence of an accusation preferred against him by the Samaritans, who complained to Lucius Vitellius, the Legate of Syria, that he had wantonly attacked, slain, and executed a number of them who had assembled on Mount Gerizim by the invitation of an impostor possibly Simon Magus – who promised to show them the Ark and sacred vessels of the Temple, which, he said, had been concealed there by Moses. The conduct of Pilate seems on this occasion to have been needlessly prompt and violent; and although, when he arrived at Rome, he found that Tiberius was dead, yet even Gaius refused to reinstate him in his government, thinking it no doubt a bad sign that he should thus have become unpleasantly involved with the people of every single district in his narrow government. Sejanus had shown the most utter dislike against the Jews, and Pilate probably reflected his patron’s antipathies. ”
Such was Pontius Pilate, whom the pomps and perils of the great yearly festival had summoned from his usual residence at Cæsarea Philippi to the capital of the nation which he detested, and the head quarters of a fanaticism which he despised. At Jerusalem he occupied one of the two gorgeous palaces which had been erected there by the lavish architectural extravagance of the first Herod. It was situated in the Upper City to the south – west of the Temple Hill, and like the similar building at Cæsarea, having passed from the use of the provincial king to that of the Roman governor, was called Herod’s Praetorium. It was one of those luxurious abodes, “surpassing all description,” which were in accordance with the tendencies of the age, and on which Josephus dwells with ecstasies of admiration. Between its colossal wings of white marble – called respectively Cæsareum and Agrippeum, in the usual spirit of Herodian flattery to the Imperial house– was an open space commanding a noble view of Jerusalem, adorned with sculptured porticos and columns of many – colored marble, paved with rich mosaics, varied with fountains and reservoirs, and green promenades which furnished a delightful asylum to flocks of doves. Externally it was a mass of lofty walls, and towers, and gleaming roofs, mingled in exquisite varieties of splendor; within, its superb rooms, large enough to accommodate a hundred guests, were adorned with gorgeous furniture and vessels of gold and silver. A magnificent abode for a mere Roman knight! and yet the furious fanaticism of the populace at Jerusalem made it a house so little desirable, that neither Pilate nor his predecessors seem to have cared to enjoy its luxuries for more than a few weeks in the whole year. They were forced to be present in the Jewish capital during those crowded festivals which were always liable to be disturbed by some outburst of inflammable patriotism, and they soon discovered that even a gorgeous palace can furnish but a repulsive residence if it be built on the heaving lava of a volcano.
In that kingly palace – such as in His days of freedom He had never trod – began, in three distinct acts, the fourth stage of that agitating scene which preceded the final agonies of Christ. It was unlike the idle inquisition of Annas- the extorted confession of Caiaphas the illegal decision of the Sanhedrin; for here His judge was in His favor, and with all the strength of a feeble pride, and all the daring of a guilty cowardice, and all the pity of which a blood-stained nature was capable, did strive to deliver Him. This last trial is full of passion and movement: it involves a threefold change of scene, a threefold accusation, a threefold acquittal by the Romans, a threefold rejection by the Jews, a threefold warning to Pilate, anda threefold effort on his part, made with ever-increasing energy and ever-deepening agitation, to baffle the accusers and to set the victim free.
1. It was probably about seven in the morning that, thinking to overawe the Procurator by their numbers and their dignity, the imposing procession of the Sanhedrists and Priests, headed, no doubt, by Caiaphas himself, conducted Jesus, with a cord round His neck, from their Hall of Meeting over the lofty bridge which spanned the Valley of the Tyropoeon, in presence of all the city, with the bound hands of a sentenced criminal, a spectacle to angels and to men.
Disturbed at this early hour, and probably prepared for some Paschal disturbance more serious than usual, Pilate entered the Hall of Judgment, whither Jesus had been led, in company (as seems clear) with a certain number of His accusers and of those most deeply interested in His case. But the great Jewish hierarchs, shrinking from ceremonial pollution, though not from moral guilt – afraid of leaven, though not afraid of innocent blood – refused to enter the Gentile’s hall, lest they should be polluted, and should consequently be unable that night to eat the Passover. In no good humor, but in haughty and half-necessary condescension to what he would regard as the despicable superstitions of an inferior race, Pilate goes out to them under the burning early sunlight of an Eastern spring. One haughty glance takes in the pompous assemblage of priestly notables, and the turbulent mob of this singular people, equally distasteful to him as a Roman and as a ruler; and observing in that one glance the fierce passions of the accusers, as he had already noted the meek ineffable grandeur of their victim, his question is sternly brief: “What accusation bring ye against this man?” The question took them by surprise, and showed them that they must be prepared for an unconcealed antagonism to all their purposes. Pilate evidently intended a judicial inquiry;
they had expected only a license to kill, and to kill, not by a Jewish method of execution, but by one which they regarded as more horrible and accursed. “If He were not a malefactor,” is their indefinite and surly answer, “we would not have delivered Him up unto thee.” But Pilate’s Roman knowledge of law, his Roman instinct of justice, his Roman contempt for their murderous fanaticism, made him not choose to act upon a charge so entirely vague, nor give the sanction of his tribunal to their dark disorderly decrees. He would not deign to be an executioner where he had not been a judge. “Very well,” he answered, with a superb contempt, “take ye Him and judge Him according to your law.” But now they are forced to the humiliating confession that, having been deprived of the jusgladii, they cannot inflict the death which alone will satisfy them; for indeed it, stood written in the eternal councils that Christ was to die, not by Jewish stoning or strangulation, but by that Roman form of execution which inspired the Jews with a nameless horror, even by crucifixion; that He was to reign from His cross–to die by that most fearfully significant and typical of deaths – public, slow, conscious, accursed, agonizing worse even than burning the worst type of all possible deaths, and the worst result of that curse which He was to remove forever. Dropping, therefore, for the present the charge of blasphemy, which did not suit their purpose, they burst into a storm of invectives against Him, in which are discernible the triple accusations, that He perverted the nation, that He forbade to give tribute, that He called himself a king. All three charges were flagrantly false,and the third all the more so because it included a grain of truth. But since they had not confronted Jesus with any proofs or witnesses, Pilate – in whose whole bearing and language is manifest the disgust embittered by fear with which the Jews inspired him – deigns to notice the third charge alone, and proceeds to discover whether the confession of the prisoner – always held desirable by Roman institutions – would enable him to take any cognizance of it. Leaving the impatient Sanhedrin and the raging crowd, he retired into the Judgment Hall. St. John alone preserves for us the memorable scene. Jesus, though not “in soft clothing,” though not a denizen of kings houses, had been led up the noble flight of stairs, over the floors of agate and lazuli, under the gilded roofs, ceiled with cedar and painted with vermilion, which adorned but one abandoned palace of a great king of the Jews. There, amid those voluptuous splendors, Pilate – already interested, already feeling in this prisoner before him some nobleness which touched his Roman nature–asked Him in pitying wonder, “Art thou the King of the Jews?” – thou poor, worn, tear-stained outcast in this hour of thy bitter need – oh, pale, lonely, friendless, wasted man, in thy poor peasant garments, with thy tied hands, and the foul traces of the insults of thine enemies on thy face, and on thy robes – thou, so unlike the fierce magnificent Herod, whom this multitude which thirsts for thy blood acknowledged as their sovereign – art thou the King of the Jews? There is a royalty which Pilate, and men like Pilate, cannot understand – a royalty of holiness, a supremacy of self-sacrifice. To say “No” would have been to belie the truth; to say “Yes” would have been to mislead the questioner. “Sayest thou this of thyself?” He answered with gentle dignity, “or did others tell it thee of me?” “Am I a Jew?” is the disdainful answer. “Thy own nation and the chief priests delivered thee unto me. What hast thou done?” Done? –works of wonder, and mercy, and power, and innocence, and these alone. But Jesus reverts to the first question, now that He has prepared Pilate to understand the answer: “Yes, He is a king; but not of this world; not from hence; not one for whom His servants would fight.” “Thou art a king, then?” said Pilate to Him in astonishment. Yes! but a king not in this region of falsities and shadows, but one born to bear witness unto the truth, and one whom all who were of the truth should hear. “Truth,” said Pilate impatiently, “what is truth?” What had he – a busy, practical Roman governor – to do with such dim abstractions? what bearing had they on the question of life and death? what unpractical hallucination, what fairyland of dreaming phantasy was this? Yet, though he contemptuously put the discussion aside, he was touched and moved. A judicial mind, a forensic training, familiarity with human nature which had given him some insight into the characters of men, showed him that Jesus was not only wholly innocent, but infinitely nobler and better than His raving sanctimonious accusers. He wholly set aside the floating idea of an unearthly royalty; he saw in the prisoner before his tribunal an innocent and high-souled dreamer, nothing more. And so, leaving Jesus there, he went out again to the Jews, and pronounced his first emphatic and unhesitating acquittal: “I FIND IN HIM NO FAULT AT ALL.”
2. But this public decided acquittal only kindled the fury of His enemies into yet fiercer flame. After all that they had hazarded, after all that they had inflicted, after the sleepless night of their plots, adjurations, insults, was their purpose to be foiled after all by the intervention of the very Gentiles on whom they had relied for its bitter consummation? Should this victim whom they had thus clutched in their deadly grasp, be rescued from High Priests and rulers by the contempt or the pity of an insolent heathen? It was too intolerable! Their voices rose in wilder tumult. “He was a mesith; He had upset the people with His teaching through the length and breadth of the land, beginning from Galilee, even as far as here.”
Amid these confused and passionate exclamations the practiced ear of Pilate caught the name of “Galilee,” and he understood that Galilee had been the chief scene of the ministry of Jesus. Eager for a chance of dismissing a business of which he was best pleased to be free, he proposed, by a master-stroke of astute policy, to get rid of an embarrassing prisoner, to save himself from a disagreeable decision, and to do an unexpected complaisance to the unfriendly Galilæan tetrarch, who, as usual, had come to Jerusalem – nominally to keep the Passover, really to please his subjects, and to enjoy the sensations and festivities offered at that season by the densely – crowded capital. Accordingly, Pilate, secretly glad to wash his hands of a detestable responsibility, sent Jesus to Herod Antipas, who was probably occupying the old Asmonæan palace, which had been the royal residence at Jerusalem until it had been surpassed by the more splendid one which the prodigal tyrant, his father, had built. And so, through the thronged and narrow streets, amid the jeering, raging multitudes, the weary Sufferer was dragged once more.
We have caught glimpses of this Herod Antipas before, and I do not know that all History, in its gallery of portraits, contains a much more despicable figure than this wretched, dissolute Idumaan Sadducee, this petty princeling drowned in debauchery and blood. To him was addressed the sole purely contemptuous expression that Jesus is ever recorded to have used. Superstition and incredulity usually go together; avowed atheists have yet believed in augury, and men who do not believe in God will believe in ghosts. Antipas was rejoiced beyond all things to see Jesus. He had long been wanting to see Him because of the rumors he had heard; and this murderer of the prophets hoped that Jesus would, in compliment to royalty, amuse by some miracle his gaping curiosity. He harangued and questioned Him in many words, but gained not so much as one syllable in reply. Our Lord confronted all his ribald questions with the majesty of silence. To such a man, who even changed scorn into a virtue, speech would clearly have been a profanation. Then all the savage vulgarity of the man came out through the thin veneer of a superficial cultivation. For the second time Jesus is derided. derided this time as Priest and Prophet. Herod and his corrupt hybrid myrmidons “set Him at nought” –treated Him with the insolence of a studied contempt. Mocking His innocence and His misery in a festal and shining robe, the empty and wicked prince sent Him back to the Procurator, to whom he now became half – reconciled after a long – standing enmity. But he contented himself with these cruel insults. He resigned to the forum apprehensionis all further responsibility as to the issue of the trial. Though the Chief Priests and Scribes stood about his throne unanimously instigating him to a fresh and more heinous act of murder by their intense accusations, he practically showed that he thought their accusations frivolous, by treating them as a jest. It was the fifth trial of Jesus; it was His second public distinct acquittal.
3. And now, as He stood once more before the perplexed and wavering Governor, began the sixth, the last, the most agitating and agonizing phase of this terrible inquisition. Now was the time for Pilate to have acted on a clear and right conviction, and saved himself for ever from the guilt of innocent blood. He came out once more, and seating himself on a stately bema – perhaps the golden throne of Archelaus, which was placed on the elevated pavement of many – colored marble – summoned the Priests, the Sanhedrists, and the people before him, and seriously told them that they had brought Jesus to his tribunal as a leader of sedition and turbulence; that after full and fair inquiry he, their Roman Governor, had found their prisoner absolutely guiltless of these charges; that He had then sent Him to Herod, their native king, and that he also had come to the conclusion that Jesus had committed no crime which deserved the punishment of death. And now came the golden opportunity for him to vindicate the grandeur of his country’s imperial justice, and, as he had pronounced Him absolutely innocent, to set Him absolutely free. But exactly at that point he wavered and temporized. The dread of another insurrection haunted him like a nightmare. He was willing to go half way to please these dangerous sectaries. To justify them, as it were, in their accusation, he would chastise Jesus scourge Him publicly, as though to render His pretensions ridiculous – disgrace and ruin Him- “make Him seem vile in their eyes” and then set Him free. And this notion of setting Him free suggested to him another resource of tortuous policy. Both he and the people almost simultaneously bethought themselves that it had always been a Paschal boon to liberate at the feast some condemned prisoner. He offered, therefore, to make the acquittal of Jesus an act not of imperious justice, but of artificial grace.
In making this suggestion – in thus flagrantly tampering with his innate sense of right, and resigning against his will the best prerogative of his authority – he was already acting in spite of a warning which he had received. That first warning consisted in the deep misgiving, the powerful presentiment, which overcame him as he looked on his bowed and silent prisoner. But, as though to strengthen him in his resolve to prevent an absolute failure of all justice, he now received a second solemn warning- and one which to an ordinary Roman, and a Roman who remembered Cæsar’s murder and Calpurnia’s dream, might well have seemed divinely sinister. His own ventured to send him a public message, wife – Claudia Procula even as he sat there on his tribunal, that, in the morning hours, when dreams are true, she had had a troubled and painful dream about that Just Man; and, bolder than her husband, she bade him beware how he molested Him.
Gladly, most gladly, would Pilate have yielded to his own presentiments have gratified his pity and his justice – have obeyed the prohibition conveyed by this mysterious omen. Gladly even would he have yielded to the worse and baser instinct of asserting his power, and thwarting these envious and hated fanatics, whom he knew to be ravening for innocent blood. That they – to many of whom sedition was as the breath of life – should be sincere in charging Jesus with sedition was, as he well knew, absurd. Their utterly transparent hypocrisy in this matter only added to his undisguised contempt. If he could have dared to show his real instincts, he would have driven them from his tribunal with all the haughty insouciance. But Pilate was guilty, and guilt is cowardice, and cowardice is weakness. His own past cruelties, recoiling in kind on his own head, forced him now to crush the impulse of pity, and to add to his many cruelties another more heinous still. He knew that serious complaints hung over his head. Those Samaritans whom he had insulted and oppressed – those Jews whom he had stabbed promiscuously in the crowd by the hands of his disguised and secret emissaries – those Galilæans whose blood he had mingled with their sacrifices – was not their blood crying for vengeance? Was not an embassy of complaint against him imminent even now? Would it not be dangerously precipitated if, in so dubious a matter as a charge of claiming a kingdom, he raised a tumult among a people in whose case it was the best interest of the Romans that they should hug their chains? Dare he stand the chance of stirring up a new and apparently terrible rebellion rather than condescend to a simple concession, which was rapidly assuming the aspect of a politic, and even necessary, compromise?
His tortuous policy recoiled on his own head, and rendered impossible his own wishes. The Nemesis of his past wrong – doing was that he could no longer do right. Hounded on by the Priests and Sanhedrists, the people impetuously claimed the Paschal boon of which he had reminded them; but in doing so they unmasked still more decidedly the sinister nature of their hatred against their Redeemer. For while they were professing to rage against the asserted seditiousness of One who was wholly obedient and peaceful, they shouted for the liberation of a man whose notorious sedition had been also stained by brigandage and murder. Loathing the innocent, they loved the guilty, and claimed the Procurator’s grace on behalf, not of Jesus of Nazareth, but of a man who, in the fearful irony of circumstance, was also called Jesus – Jesus Bar-Abbas — who not only was what they falsely said of Christ, a leader of sedition, but also a robber and a murderer. It was fitting that they, who had preferred an abject Sadducee to their true priest, and an incestuous Idumean to their Lord and King, should deliberately prefer a murderer to their Messiah.
It may be that Bar-Abbas had been brought forth, and that thus Jesus the scowling murderer and Jesus the innocent Redeemer stood together on that high tribunal side by side. The people, persuaded by their priests, clamored for the liberation of the rebel and the robber. To him every hand was pointed; for him every voice was raised. For the Holy, the Harmless, the Undefiled – for Him whom a thousand Hosannas had greeted but five days before no word of pity or of pleading found an utterance. “He was despised and rejected of men.”
Deliberately putting the question to them, Pilate heard with scornful indignation their deliberate choice; and then, venting his bitter disdain and anger in taunts, which did but irritate them more, with out serving any good purpose, “What, then,” he scornfully asked them, “do ye wish me to do with the King of the Jews?” Then first broke out the mad scream, “Crucify! crucify Him!” In vain, again and again, in the pauses of the tumult, Pilate insisted, obstinately indeed, but with more and more feebleness of purpose none but a man more innocent than Pilate, even if he were a Roman governor, could have listened without quailing to the frantic ravings of an Oriental mob – “Why, what evil hath He done?” “I found no cause of death in Him.” “I will chastise Him and let Him go.” Such half – willed opposition was wholly unavailing. It only betrayed to the Jews the inward fears of their Procurator, and practically made them masters of the situation. Again and again, with wilder and wilder vehemence, they rent the air with those hideous yells “Αἶρε τοῦτον. ‘ Απόλυσον ἡμῖν Βαραββᾶν. Σταύρωσον,σταύρωσον oтαúрwбоv- ” Away with this man.” “Loose unto us Bar Abbas.” ” Crucify! crucify! “
“For a moment Pilate seemed utterly to yield to the storm. He let Bar-Abbas free; he delivered Jesus over to be scourged. The word used for the scourging ( ψραγελλώσας ) implies that it was done, not with rods (virgae), for Pilate had no lictors, but with what Horace calls the “horribile flagellum,” of which the Russian knout is the only modern representative. This scourging was the ordinary preliminary to crucifixion and other forms of capital punishment. It was a punishment so truly horrible, that the mind revolts at it; and it has long been abolished by that compassion of mankind which has been so greatly intensified, and in some degree even created, by the gradual comprehension of Christian truth. The unhappy sufferer was publicly stripped, was tied by the hands in a bent position to a pillar, and then, on the tense quivering nerves of the naked back, the blows were inflicted with leathern thongs, weighted with jagged edges of bone and lead; sometimes even the blows fell by accident -sometimes, with terrible barbarity, were purposely struck – on the face and eyes. It was a punishment so hideous that, under its lacerating agony, the victim generally fainted, often died; still more frequently a man was sent away to perish under the mortification and nervous exhaustion which ensued. And this awful cruelty, on which we dare not dwell – this cruelty which makes the heart shudder and grow cold – was followed immediately by the third and bitterest derision – the derision of Christ as King.
In civilized nations all is done that can be done to spare every needless suffering to a man condemned to death; but among the Romans insult and derision were the customary preliminaries to the
last agony. The “et pereuntibus addita ludibria” of Tacitus might stand for their general practice. Such a custom furnished a specimen of that worst and lowest form of human wickedness which delights to inflict pain, which feels an inhuman pleasure in gloating over the agonies of another, even when he has done no wrong. The mere spectacle of agony is agreeable to the degraded soul. The low vile soldiery of the Prætorium – not Romans, who might have had more sense of the inborn dignity of the silent sufferer, but mostly the mere mercenary scum and dregs of the provinces – led Him into their barrack-room, and there mocked, in their savage hatred, the King whom they had tortured. It added keenness to their enjoyment to have in their power One who was of Jewish birth, of innocent life, of noblest bearing. The opportunity broke so agreeably the coarse monotony of their life, that they summoned all of the cohort who were disengaged to witness their brutal sport. In sight of these hardened ruffians they went through the whole heartless ceremony of a mock coronation, a mock investiture, a mock homage. Around the brows of Jesus, in wanton mimicry of the Emperor’s laurel, they twisted a green wreath of thorny leaves; in His tied and trembling hands they placed a reed for sceptre; from His torn and bleeding shoulders they stripped the white robe with which Herod had mocked Him – which must now have been all soaked with blood- and flung on Him an old scarlet paludament – some cast-off war cloak, with its purple laticlave, from the Praetorian wardrobe. This, with feigned solemnity, they buckled over His right shoulder, with its glittering fibula; and then–each with his derisive homage of bended knee — each with his infamous spitting — each with the blow over the head from the reed-sceptre, which His bound hands could not hold – they kept passing before Him with their mock salutation of “Hail, King of the Jews!”
Even now, even yet, Pilate wished, hoped, even strove to save Him. He might represent this frightful scourging, not as the preliminary to crucifixion, but as an inquiry by torture, which had failed to elicit any further confession. And as Jesus came forth – as He stood beside him with that martyr-form on the beautiful mosaic of the tribunal – the spots of blood upon His green wreath of torture, the mark of blows and spitting on His countenance, the weariness of His deathful agony upon the sleepless eyes, the sagum of faded scarlet, darkened by the weals of His lacerated back, and dropping, it may be, its stains of crimson upon the tesselated floor- even then, even so, in that hour of His extremest humiliation – yet, as He stood in the grandeur of His holy calm on that lofty tribunal above the yelling crowd, there shone all over Him so Godlike a pre-eminence, so divine a nobleness, that Pilate broke forth with that involuntary exclamation which has thrilled with emotion so many million hearts–
“BEHOLD THE MAN!”
But his appeal only woke a fierce outbreak of the scream, “Crucify! crucify!” The mere sight of Him, even in this His unspeakable shame and sorrow, seemed to add fresh fuel to their hate. In vain the heathen soldier appeals for humanity to the Jewish priest; no heart throbbed with responsive pity; no voice of compassion broke that monotonous yell of “Crucify!” – the howling refrain of their wild “liturgy of death.” The Roman who had shed blood like water, on the field of battle, in open massacre, in secret assassination, might well be supposed to have an icy and a stony heart; but yet icier and stonier was the heart of those scrupulous hypocrites and worldly priests. “Take ye Him, and crucify Him,” said Pilate, in utter disgust, “for I find no fault in Him.” What an admission from a Roman judge! “So far as I can see, He is wholly innocent; yet if you must crucify Him, take Him and crucify. I cannot approve of, but I will readily connive at, your violation of the law.” But even this wretched guilty subterfuge is not permitted him. Satan will have from his servants the full tale of their crimes, and the sign-manual of their own willing assent at last. What the Jews want — what the Jews will have — is not tacit connivance, but absolute sanction. They see their power. They see that this blood stained Governor dares not hold out against them; they know that the Roman statecraft is tolerant of concessions to local superstition. Boldly, therefore, they fling to the winds all question of a political offence, and with all their hypocritical pretences calcined by the heat of their passion, they shout, “We have a law, and by our law He ought to die, because He made Himself a Son of God.”
A Son of God! The notion was far less strange and repulsive to a heathen than to a Jew; and this word, unheard before, startled Pilate with the third omen which made him tremble at the crime into which he was being dragged by guilt and fear. Once more, leaving the yelling multitude without, he takes Jesus with him into the quiet Judgment Hall, and “jam pro sua conscientia Christianus,” as Tertullian so finely observes — asks Him in awe-struck accents, “Whence art thou?” Alas! it was too late to answer now. Pilate was too deeply committed to his gross cruelty and injustice; for him Jesus had spoken enough already; for the wild beasts who raged without, He had no more to say. He did not answer. Then, almost angrily, Pilate broke out with the exclamation, “Dost thou not speak even to me? Dost Thou not know that I have power to set thee free, and have power to crucify Thee?” Power – how so? Was justice nothing, then? truth nothing? innocence nothing? conscience nothing? In the reality of things Pilate had no such power; even in the arbitrary sense of the tyrant it was an idle boast, for at this very moment he was letting “I dare not” wait upon “I would.” And Jesus pitied the hopeless bewilderment of this man, whom guilt had changed from a ruler into a slave. Not taunting, not confuting him – nay, even extenuating rather than aggravating his sin – Jesus gently answered, “Thou hast no power against Me whatever, had it not been given thee from above; therefore he that betrayed me to thee hath the greater sin.” Thou art indeed committing a great crime – but Judas, Annas, Caiaphas, these priests and Jews, are more to blame than thou. Thus, with infinite dignity, and yet with infinite tenderness, did Jesus judge His judge. In the very depths of his inmost soul, Pilate felt the truth of the words – silently acknowledged the superiority of his bound and lacerated victim. All that remained in him of human and of noble–
“Felt how awful Goodness is, and Virtue, In her shape how lovely; felt and mourned His fall.”
All of his soul that was not eaten away by pride and cruelty thrilled back an unwonted echo to these few calm words of the Son of God. Jesus had condemned his sin, and so far from being offended, the judgment only deepened his awe of this mysterious Being, whose utter impotence seemed grander and more awful than the loftiest power. From that time Pilate was even yet more anxious to save Him. With all his conscience in a tumult, for the third and last time he mounted his tribunal, and made one more desperate effort. He led Jesus forth, and looking at Him, as He stood silent and in agony, but calm, on that shining Gabbatha, above the brutal agitations of the multitude, he said to those frantic rioters, as with a flash of genuine conviction, “BEHOLD YOUR KING!” But to the Jews it sounded like shameful scorn to call that beaten insulted Sufferer their King. A darker stream mingled with the passions of the raging, swaying crowd. Among the shouts of “Crucify,” ominous threatenings began for the first time to be mingled. It was now nine o’clock, and for nearly three hours had they been raging and waiting there. The name of Cæsar began to be heard in wrathful murmurs. “Shall I crucify your King?” he had asked, venting the rage and soreness of his heart in taunts on them. “We have no king but Caesar,” answered the Sadducees and Priests, flinging to the winds every national impulse and every Messianic hope. “If thou let this man go,” shouted the mob again and again, “thou art not Cæsar’s friend. Every one who tries to make himself a king speaketh against Cæsar.” And at that dark terrible name of Cæsar, Pilate trembled. It was a name to conjure with. It mastered him. He thought of that terrible implement of tyranny, the accusation of lacsa majestus, into which all other charges merged, which had made confiscation and torture so common, and had caused blood to flow like water in the streets of Rome. He thought of Tiberius, the aged gloomy Emperor, then hiding at Capreæ his ulcerous features, his poisonous suspicions, his sick infamies, his desperate revenge. At this very time he had been maddened into a yet more sanguinary and misanthropic ferocity by the detected falsity and treason of his only friend and minister, Sejanus, and it was to Sejanus himself that Pilate is said to have owed his position. There might be secret delators in that very mob. Panic-stricken, the unjust judge, in obedience to his own terrors, consciously betrayed the innocent victim to the anguish of death. He who had so often prostituted justice, was now unable to achieve the one act of justice which he desired. He who had so often murdered pity, was now forbidden to taste the sweetness of a pity for which he longed. He who had go often abused authority, was now rendered impotent to exercise it, for once, on the side of right. Truly for him, sin had become its own Erinnys, and his pleasant vices had been converted into the instrument of his punishment! Did the solemn and noble words of the Law of the Twelve Tables –“Vanae voces populi non sunt audi endae, quando aut noxium crimine absolvi, aut innocentem condemnari desiderant” — come across his memory with accents of reproach as he delivered Bar-Abbas and condemned Jesus? It may have been so. At any rate his conscience did not leave him at ease. At this, or some early period of the trial, he went through the solemn farce of trying to absolve his conscience from the guilt. He sent for water; he washed his hands before the multitude! he said, “I am innocent of the blood of this just person; see ye to it.” Did he think thus to wash away his guilt? He could wash his hands; could he wash his heart? Might he not far more truly have said with the murderous king in the splendid tragedy —
“Can all old Ocean’s waters wash this blood Clean from my hand? Nay, rather would this hand The multitudinous seas incarnadine, Making the green one red!”
It may be that, as he thus murdered his conscience, such a thought flashed for one moment across his miserable mind, in the words of his native poet
“Ah nimium faciles qui tristia crimina caedis Flumineâ tolli posse putatis aquâ!”
But if so, the thought was instantly drowned in a yell, the most awful, the most hideous, the most memorable that History records. “His blood be on us and on our children.” Then Pilate finally gave way. The fatal “Ibis ad crucem” was uttered with reluctant wrath. He delivered Him unto them, that He might be crucified.
And now mark, for one moment, the revenges of History. Has not His blood been on them, and on their children? Has it not fallen most of all on those most nearly concerned in that deep tragedy? Before the dread sacrifice was consummated, Judas died in the horrors of a loathsome suicide. Caiaphas was deposed the year following. Herod died in infamy and exile. Stripped of his Procuratorship very shortly afterwards, on the very charges he had tried by a wicked concession to avoid, Pilate, wearied out with misfortunes, died in suicide and banishment, leaving behind him an execrated name. The house of Annas was destroyed a generation later by an infuriated mob, and his son was dragged through the streets, and scourged and beaten to his place of murder. Some of those who had shared in and witnessed the scenes of that day and thousands of their children – also shared in and witnessed the long horrors of that siege of Jerusalem which stands unparalleled in his tory for its unutterable fearfulness. “It seems,” says Renan, “as though the whole race had appointed a rendezvous for extermination.” They had shouted, “We have no king but Cæsar!” and they had no king but Cæsar; and leaving only for a time the fantastic shadow of a local and contemptible royalty, Cæsar after Cæsar outraged, and tyrannized, and pillaged, and oppressed them, till at last they rose in wild revolt against the Cæsar whom they had claimed, and a Cæsar slaked in the blood of its best defenders the red ashes of their burnt and desecrated Temple. They had forced the Romans to crucify their Christ, and though they regarded this punishment with especial horror, they and their children were themselves crucified in myriads by the Romans outside their own walls, till room was wanting and wood failed, and the soldiers had to ransack a fertile inventiveness of cruelty for fresh methods of inflicting this insulting form of death. They had given thirty pieces of silver for their Saviour’s blood, and they were themselves sold in thousands for yet smaller sums. They had chosen Bar-Abbas in preference to their Messiah, and for them there has been no Messiah more, while a murderer’s dagger swayed the last counsels of their dying nationality. They had accepted the guilt of blood, and the last pages of their history were glued together with the rivers of their blood, and that blood continued to be shed in wanton cruelties from age to age. They who will, may see in incidents like these the mere unmeaning chances of History; but there is in History nothing unmeaning to one who regards it as the Voice of God speaking among the destinies of men; and whether a man sees any significance or not in events like these, he must be blind indeed who does not see that when the murder of Christ was consummated, the axe was laid at the root of the barren tree of Jewish nationality. Since that day Jerusalem and its environs, with their “ever-extending miles of grave-stones and ever-lengthening pavement of tombs and sepulchres,” have become little more than one vast cemetery – an Aceldama, a field of blood, a potter’s field to bury strangers in. Like the mark of Cain upon the forehead of their race, the guilt of that blood has seemed to cling to them as it ever must until that same blood effaceth it. For, by God’s mercy, that blood was shed for them also who made it flow; the voice which they strove to quench in death was uplifted in its last prayer for pity on His murderers. May that blood be efficacious! may that prayer be heard!