After the trial of Jesus: a fictional reconstruction of a Pontius Pilate decision.
The question was posed by Pontius Pilatus, the Procurator of Judaea, that is to say, the administrator of the Province on behalf of the Roman emperor, responsible for peace, stability and prosperity of his domain for the benefit of the empire. The query was addressed to Melius, the Procurator's amanuensis, or scribe, or secretary-whichever way you want to call him. In fact, Melius was much more than that, and Pontius knew it and carefully cultivated that awareness. Indeed, he even encouraged Melius, a rather shy Greek from the island of Melos, to realize his worth. Up to a point, of course.
The Procurator needed someone off whom to bounce his own ideas, in order to reach his own conclusions. When he asked Melius a question, he did not know what the answer would be. For Melius was not a sycophant, trying to guess his master's intent and please him by confirming it before the matter was discussed. Melius had his own mind--indeed, he was a little bit of a philosopher, a Stoic (whatever that meant)--and proffered his opinion clearly, though gently and politely. Melius was a clever Greek, who knew his place, and was not indifferent to the benefits his position secured him; yet he did not efface his own opinions.
Melius looked pensive--unusually so. "It's hard, Sir, to figure out the man. He looks like a dreamer, but yet not quite out of this world. He listened to your questions, as they were translated by the Jewish interpreter, and did not rush with an answer. Whatever he said--and he did not speak much---sounded like a well thought out conclusion."
"That's true," said Pontius. 'Net, what interests me are his thoughts, which he was so careful not to reveal. He kept his thoughts to himself, and pronounced statements which to me remained enigmatic. When I asked him what is the Kingdom of Heaven, that he is reputed to speak about, he answered me that it is not of this world."
As Melius offered no comment, Pontius added: "And when I asked what other world he had in mind, he proclaimed: 'A world which is just and perfect!'"
"Well, Sir," suggested Melius, "this is in accord with the Stoic notions."
"Ah, Melius," exclaimed Pontius, "this is one way of reading that statement. Another way is to see it as an allusion to the imperfections of this world, of the order of the Roman empire which by being different from the just and perfect world must be imperfect and unjust. Behind the pious philosophy a rebellious plot may be lying in wait. Behind the dreaming eyes a sinister conspiracy may be hatched."
As Melius remained silent, the Procurator asked him bluntly: "What do you think?"
"The Stoics, Sir, strive for the perfection of the world without being rebels. That the Jew expresses such ideas--in a vague and general sense--does not seem to me to indicate a sinister intent."
"Maybe not," responded Pontius, easily switching from the suspicious investigator to the contemplative disciple of philosophers. Although philosophy was far removed from his interests, and being a practical politician he knew very little of it, he was not averse to a modicum of detached reflection--perhaps due to his secretary's subtle influence.
After a minute of silence, however, the governor's political instinct woke up. After all, Pontius reflected, he had to reach a practical decision, and the case involved a potential risk to the well-being of the empire. "Maybe not," he repeated, "but maybe yes. Every 'maybe' has two sides. Yet I cannot remain puzzled and undecided. As my responsibility as the Procurator of Judaea demands a decision, I cannot get away with a 'maybe.' Such a luxury only philosophers can afford," he added with a smile directed at Melius.
"The Stoics, Sir, if I may say so, also strive to reach practical decisions. They aim at the improvement of this world."
"If that Jesus was a Stoic like you, I would not break my head over the case," said Pontius wistfully. "I would let him go to Nazareth, to Jerusalem, or wherever he wished to preach and to teach."
Melius nodded his head in agreement, but said nothing. He knew that being too outspoken in his defense of Jesus might only stir the governor to indict the Jew.
Even so, Pontius said after a while: "The crux of the matter is in his response to my direct and straightforward question: 'Art thou the King of the Jews?' The answer of Jesus was short but elusive: 'Thou sayest.'"
He paused and his usually impassive face showed puzzlement and anger--perhaps anger at the enigma which he could not solve, which could easily carry over to anger at the man who had posed the riddle. "'Thou sayest,'" he repeated. "The fellow is as clever as ten Greeks. He turned the tables on me. If I suggested that he was the King of the Jews, who was he, a humble Jew and in no way a king, to deny the statement of a Roman governor. Yet, in avoiding the denial, his statement may also mean that he actually/s the King of the Jews, and being a king it would be below his dignity to deny it. It would be an act of treason toward himself inflicted by his own majesty. He could not do this and retain his standing among his followers and the crowds he intended to attract. For he must have realized that his responses would be leaked out to the Jews by the interpreter. He replied to my question--if a reply it was; but had in mind the people of Judaea.
"And so," concluded Pontius Pilatus with conviction, "he really considers himself a king, and will, in due course, make a claim to his kingdom. He is now reported to have a few followers. But in this volatile province, the few may soon become many, and the many will make trouble, and I shall find myself in a pickle. The simple solution is to bump off the fellow. One Jew less will save future Roman lives--or, for that matter, the lives of his followers. On the other hand, once he is off the scene, his disciples and other followers will disperse, and soon the would-be king will be forgotten."
"Well, Sir," ventured Melius, "it may be the other way round. If he is condemned and executed, there may be an outcry and uproar and acts of despair and what not. I have heard rumors that his disciples call him by the Hebrew name of Mashi'ach in Greek Christos--which means 'the anointed one.'"
"What has anointment to do with this would-be kingling?" asked Pontius, genuinely puzzled.
"The Jewish kings of yore," explained Melius, "used to be anointed by some inspired spokesmen of their God, and thereby sanctified. Anyone harming the God's Anointed, the Chrisms, commits a sacrilege, proclaims a war on God, which justifies a retribution by the pious and righteous. Who knows what may happen if Jesus is put to death?!"
"A peculiar people those Jews are," commented Pontius philosophically. "They drag their God into every conflict. Yet, we cannot be ruled by their superstitions. If we get rid of Jesus, we shall get rid of Christos, or whatever you call him, at the same time. When the Jews see that even the divine anointment could not save their king from Roman justice, they will learn to stay calm and obey the law."
Pontius cast a penetrating glimpse at his secretary, trying to read his somewhat dejected expression. "Speak up, Melius," he said. "I see you have some doubts or concerns. Let me hear them."
"I'm afraid, Governor," replied Melius sotto voce, "that this approach does not accord with the teaching of the Stoa. To condemn a man on a mere supposition that his arcane teaching may cause problems, and sentence him to death for no clear transgression of law, is contrary to the eternal law of nature, the divine law, the universal principles of morality."
Pontius Pilatus burst out into a jovial laughter. "O my gentle Melius," he exclaimed. "what an illusory world you live in! Rome is not established on, nor is it guided by, your eternal roles of morality. We follow a simple rule: Salus rei publicae suprema lex est. 'The well-being of the republic is the supreme law!' It is not the ethical law that the republic follows, but it is the interests of the republic that determine the law, and thus shape our rules of morality. if it is to the advantage of Rome to bump off one Jew, or a thousand Jews, the Roman governor will do it, and thus remain faithful to his function, fulfill his obligation, do the right thing."
As Melius remained silent, Pontius added: "I see that you disagree. However, as our opinions are diametrically opposed, there is no point in discussing the question of political morality any further."
"I have been thinking, Sir, about the torment the man was going to suffer. Crucifixtion is an unusual and cruel punishment."
"You are soft-hearted, my dear Melius," responded Pontius, assuming the tone of a benevolent but stem pedagogue. "Every punishment inflicts suffering on the punished and thus is creel. If it were not, it would not be feared and would prove ineffectual. That much of practical logic even philosophers must accept. And as to its being unusual, the opposite is true. It is an accepted practice of execution of slaves and the lowest criminals. Surely this would include a rebel against Rome. Don't you know that the rebellion of the gladiators headed by Spartacus, when crushed by Crassus, entailed the crucifixion of thousands of rebels along the Via Appia? Such an end for the King of the Jews will put the fear of Rome into the heart of his followers or any would-be rebel."
He paused for a moment and then added: "I have no personal resentment against this peculiar fellow. I would spare him the suffering and perhaps even spare his life. But I have a duty to fulfill! Remember? Salus rei publicae ..."
"Yes, Sir," responded Melius, "but have you thought of the trouble his death may cause you? There are Jews who live in Rome, and some of them have connections in high places, perhaps even access to the Emperor. They may accuse you of a wrongful act. Some of your personal enemies may jump at the opportunity ..."
"Here you are right," Pontius interrupted him. "In my zeal for the well-being of Rome, I have not thought of my own concerns. In the pursuit of justice, I forgot the petty intrigues."
The Procurator of Judaea paused for a long while, his face darkened, while his scribe maintained a hopeful, though stoical, silence. Eventually the governor's features brightened and he spoke cheerfully. "There is a way out, Melius. I shall not take the responsibility for the judgment of Jesus. I shall put the blame on the Jews themselves. It's easy to do, for they speak not with one voice, and nobody can figure out what ails them. They have their priests and their scholars, who often are at loggerheads. They have their divergent cliques and sects. What do you call them? The Sadducees and the Pharisees in Jerusalem, the Essenes in the desert, and who knows what else ... They quarrel with each other in the name of the one common God, just as we Romans unite while allowing the gods to quarrel." Here he laughed at his own clever observation. "This makes it all too easy to assert that the Sadducee High Priest demanded Jesus's death, while the legal scholars disputed over it, that the people followed the lead of the Priest with some exceptions, and so on. Who in Rome will be able to disentangle this confusion, or even look into it?
"Yes, Melius, that's the way to proceed. Write it down, Melius: 'The High Priest of the Jews proclaimed Jesus a sinner deserving death. The Pharisees held long disputations and eventually, for their own reasons, were inclined to accuse him of sinful ways. The people, once they accepted the verdict of their elder and better, cried to see blood.' In this respect, they are no different from the people of Rome." He interrupted the flow of ideas and remarked sotto voce. "Don't write down this comment on the people of Rome, Melius."
"No, no," Melius assured the governor. "Of course, I'll omit such personal observations."
"I know I can rely on your good judgment, Melius. I just wanted to make sure that I'm not caught in my own snare."
Having made this statement, Pontius picked up the judicial theme. 'Tes! The Jews, representing various factions, came to me and demanded Jesus's death, offering diverse reasons. I tried to convince them that there is no evil in him, but the more I argued, the more they insisted. Indeed, out of the cacophony of diverse opinions, my own arguments solidified them into a united chorus. I feared that if I let him go, there would be trouble. I had to give in to the natives' demands for the sake of law and order. Salus rei publicae etc.
"Then I ordered a pitcher with water to be brought and washed my hands, saying that I am innocent of the blood of this man ..."
Pontius stopped, visibly satisfied with his solution of the problem, and then addressed his secretary in a colleageal manner: "Thus, Melius, to put it bluntly--entre nous--I'll bump off this King of the Jews and put the blame for regicide on the Jews themselves. Isn't this a stroke of genius?"
Melius swallowed and said: "Very clever, Sir." He had another name for it, which he wisely kept to himself. Then he added: "Yet, governor, there is a certain risk in this ingenious plan."
"What is that?" asked Pontius, with a touch of anxiety in his voice.
"Quite simply," said Melius, "the Jews will deny it. The High Priest, the Pharisees, and the rest of them. Nobody will believe it. For, as we know, any Jew--whatever his station in society--who would deliver another Jew to the Romans for execution would be considered a traitor, and his life would not be worth a sestertius, not even a quadrans."
Pontius reflected for a moment and then said: "As usual, you make a good point, Melius. Yet, you see only one side of the coin--whether it be a sestertius or a quadrans. You play the devil's advocate, you present the stand of the Jews, and you ignore the rightful presentation of the Roman Governor. The Jews may believe what they wish, but who will give credence to their cries, when Pontius Pilatus, the representative of Roman authority, asserts their responsibility for the condemnation of Jesus? Roma, urbs et orbis, the city and the world, will prevail against Hierosolyma et Iudaea, a mere city in a tiny province."
And so the Procurator of Judaea had his way--as a judge, a politician, and a public relations genius.
The sequel followed the customary procedure of crucifixion, preceded by scourging, which is well known. The peculiarities of the event were the embellishments provided by the creative Roman soldiers. As Jesus was reported to have claimed to be the King of the Jews, the soldiers improvised a mock coronation, as reported in the Gospels. They put a scarlet robe on him and then crowned him--with a crown of thorns. Then they bowed the knee before him, saying, "Hail, King of the Jews." Over the head of the martyred victim they put the inscription: Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum---the famous INRI which has been replicated on countless crosses in subsequent generations, which revere Jesus not merely as the Anointed King of the Jews, but as the Messiah, the Christos---the King not of this world, yet bringing salvation to the denizens of the earthly abode.
The above report on the famous--or rather infamous--trial (or post trial pre-sentencing conversation between Pontius Pilatus and his secretary/scribe) is, of course, a work of fiction. Yet, the author intended to reconstruct the historical truth, or an approximation close to the truth. His presentation does not agree with the Gospels. Any orthodox believer in the veracity and authenticity of the New Testament will not accept the present version and may even find it offensive. Still, the present author may be allowed to argue in defense of his version and deviation from some crucial details of the Gospels. Essentially, he disputes the accusation that the Jews clamored for the death of Jesus, and the whitewashing of Pontius Pilatus of the judicial crime.
Jesus lived at a time of turbulence in Judaea and Galilee, inasmuch as the Jews refused to accept the bitter reality of Roman rule. Occasional small revolts, or threats of revolt, were crushed mercilessly by the colonial rulers, and the incipient leaders of revolt were executed. Such spontaneous leaders may not have created large followings, but any Jew who would deliver such a leader to the Roman authorities would have been regarded as a traitor and would have risked his own life. Jesus did not preach a military revolt against the Romans. Indeed, his kingdom was of a different dimension--which his Jewish followers understood, but which must have appeared as hallucination to the pragmatic Roman rulers. Pilatus was not concerned about Jesus as a human being in his own right, but judged him from the vantage point of supposed Roman interests.
The whitewashing of Pilatus in the Gospels becomes suspect as one reads their full account. If Pilatus really executed Jesus because of his kinsmen's demand, why did he have to choose the cruel torment of crucifixion? Why did Jesus have to be scourged before the execution? Did Pontius Pilatus wash his hands of these crime too?
The version of the Gospels seems to be a deliberate attempt to whitewash the Romans and put their blame on Jesus's kinsmen, a clever way for propagating Christianity among the gentiles--if not for the love of Jesus, then out of spite for the trouble-making Jews. Conceivably, the synoptic Gospels are a doctored version of the original account (which is here in this fiction "creatively" resurrected) at a time in the ancient world when the Church abandoned its humble position as a Jewish sect, and turned to proclaim its gospel to the world, orbi.
MORDECAI ROSHWALD, emeritus professor of the humanities at the University of Minnesota, was born in 1921 in Drohobycz, Poland. He immigrated to Israel and subsequently to the U.S. He is the author of philosophical science fiction and articles on Jewish affairs. His previous article entitled "Democracy as a Pancea" appeared in the Feb/March 2004 issue of Midstream.