A Life of Jesus

Kenneth B. Tindall

Chapter XXI.

The Letter.

Pontius Pilate to Marcus Cornelius Lentulus Greeting..

When I think of your summer villa at Pompeii with its magnificent view of the Bay of Neapolis, I am moved with envy and with longing to be with you. Now that the spring has come, the wisteria will be in bloom and the bathing season just beginning. Perhaps this very evening you have enjoyed a dip in the blue water of the bay.

I wonder if you ever bestow a thought upon your friend, doomed to live among the barbarians of Judaea. If so, you might well pity me this evening, cooped up in this dirty and turbulent city, where the praetorium is the only decent house with the exception of King Herod’s summer palace, to which, by the way, we receive no invitations.

The weather for the past three days has been oppressively hot; and at this season, when the Jews celebrate their principal annual festival, the whole place is crowded with pilgrims, not only from the country districts but from all over the Empire, with the result that the noise and the smells are appalling for one brought up in the refinement of the Imperial city. This evening there is an improvement in the weather; a pretty severe earthquake shock in the middle of the afternoon has cleared the air.

You will ask why I am so foolish as to visit the capital at the festival season. “Why not remain at the residency on the coast?” you will say. Duty, my dear Lentulus, duty. I represent the Divine Tiberius in this out-of-the-way corner of the Empire, and it is at the festivals that there is a risk of riots and bloodshed. So I feel it to be incumbent upon me to be in residence here at least for the spring and autumn festival weeks.

Only today we have had a narrow escape from a serious disturbance; to avert it I have had to stretch justice a little, a fact which I regret, for I hold it to be one of the functions of a provincial governor to uphold the dignity of the Senate and Roman people by impartial decisions. However you shall hear of the dilemma in which I was placed; and it will interest me to know whether you consider that the course I adopted was to the advantage or disadvantage of the State.

When I arrived here at the beginning of the week, I was delighted to find that only one serious case awaited my decision; this was a case of a breach of the peace which had cost the lives of two legionaries. The accused were six brigands, the leader of whom is a notorious ruffian named Barabbas. I arranged to hear this case yesterday. The evidence was insufficient and, to some extent, contradictory, with the result that the trial lasted somewhat longer than I anticipated. But the main charge was proved beyond dispute—that when a squad from the garrison intervened to quell the riot, three of the brigands set upon them and two of our men lost their lives. I accordingly sentenced Barabbas and his two more guilty accomplices to death by crucifixion, and the other three to various terms of imprisonment. The death sentences were to be carried out today. When this case was over, I naturally hoped that I should not be further disturbed. You can imagine my annoyance, then, when I was informed at daybreak today that the priests had referred another case to my court. I think I have explained to you in previous letters that among the Jews the priests exercise considerable influence, not only in moral but even in political matters. When I asked the messenger for particulars of this new case, he told me that a deputation of priests and councillors had asked for an interview. In the worst of tempers I rose and dressed.

At the time of their sacred festivals these Jews have a ridiculous custom of considering it a contamination to enter the house of one who does not accept the superstitions of their race. I can imagine your feelings, my dear Lentulus, if a Jew refused to enter your seaside villa, lest he should be defiled by contact with something unclean! But you know the mildness of my disposition; for the sake of peace I am prepared to put up with discourtesy, even from the foreign subjects over whom I hold sway. I therefore complied with their request and agreed to see them in the paved portico under the pediment of the praetorium.

I was surprised to find that the High Priest himself, one Caiaphas, was leading the deputation in person. This implied that the case was regarded as one of supreme importance, and I glanced at their prisoner, who stood behind them in the custody of a squad of their Temple Guard. The man’s face seemed familiar to me, but I could not place him. I find it difficult to describe him; suffice it to say that he was tall, spare and dignified, and had neither the appearance nor expression of a criminal.

The High Priest presented the case: “Excellency,” he said, “we are bringing to you this man, Jesus of Nazareth; our Council is agreed that the case should be referred to your judgement. We accuse him on three charges: first, he is corrupting the religious and ethical standards of our nation; secondly, he has publicly said that it is unnecessary to pay taxes to the Emperor; thirdly, he blasphemously claims to be the Messiah—the divinely appointed King of the Jewish race.”

I looked again at the prisoner; he stood, calm and aloof, and seemed to be taking little interest in the proceedings. I decided to speak to him direct.

“Well, my man,” I said, “you hear these charges against you. Are you the King of the Jews?”

“I am.”

That was his reply, Lentulus, and you can imagine it was a surprise. It also made things more difficult for me; an unlawful claim to royal authority, even by a mystic or a lunatic, is technically high treason. The priests began talking all at once, but I spoke again to the prisoner. I asked him if he understood the seriousness of the charges and of his own reply, would you believe it, he gave me no answer at all? So unlike most prisoners! Usually they are voluble with excuses and explanations.

One priest after another made accusations; but this really only confused the issue, and frankly I paid very little attention to what they said. I was much more interested in the accused than in the accusers. When they had finished, I spoke to him once more.

“Well, what have you to say for yourself?”

Again no answer.

“You have the right to speak in your own defence,” I explained.

Not a word.

I drew the priests aside, so that the accused could not overhear our conversation. I asked them point-blank why they had brought the fellow to me. The High Priest drew himself up.

“If this man were not an evildoer,” he said, “we should not have referred the case to your Excellency.”

“You have charged him on three counts,” I replied. “The first is that he is corrupting the morals of the nation; now, that is not a matter for my court at all, gentlemen. It is in no sense a criminal or political charge. The second accusation is that he has said it is unnecessary to pay tribute to Rome; is not that rather trivial, gentlemen? Are the lawcourts really to be flooded with cases against provincials who grumble about having to pay taxes? I dare say some of you gentlemen have yourselves had something to say about the burdens of taxation. So long as the taxes are paid, we take no notice of an occasional grumble. It’s only human nature, after all. That brings us to the third charge; you say he claims to be a King.”

“He says so himself, your Excellency,” put in one of the priests.

“Admitted,” I answered at once; “but does the fellow look to you like an agitator or a revolutionary? I flatter myself I am not a bad judge of character. He may be a religious or social reformer, but I am convinced he is not a political rebel. Very well; this is my advice, for what it is worth. You have your own courts; Rome in her wisdom allows you to preserve your own customs and your own religion. If this man has committed any offence against your code, take him away and judge him yourselves.”

The priests looked at one another uncomfortably; it became increasingly evident to me that the stories I had heard about the man were true; he was undermining the authority of the priests and in sheer envy they were trying to make things hot for him, perhaps get rid of him altogether. My opinion of the prisoner rose. At last the High Priest spoke.

“Excellency, the accused is a menace to law and order. Our council has given careful consideration to the matter and has adjudged him worthy of death. If our courts had the power to inflict the death penalty, there would be no need to trouble you. As it is.—” And the old gentleman spread out his hands with a shrug of protest.

“Very good,” I said, “if you insist, I will cross-examine the prisoner privately. But I give you fair warning; if the charges appear to me groundless, I shall dismiss the case. Have him sent to me please.”

And before they could reply, I walked into the praetorium. In a few moments the prisoner was ushered in. I told the legionary who had taken charge of him to wait outside the door.

A close view of the man confirmed my original impression. This was none of your discontented agitators; if he chose to put a spoke in the wheels of my friends the priests, it was no concern of mine. He was the first Jew I have seen whom I could honestly respect and admire. He looked you squarely in the face. Frankly, I liked the look of the fellow.

I went straight to the point. “Are you the King of the Jews?” I asked.

His reply was not what I expected.

“That is not your own idea, Excellency, is it? My accusers are making it their principal charge against me.”

I laughed. “I’m not a Jew, am I?” I said. “It’s your own people and your own priests who are bringing accusations against you. Now tell me honestly; what’s it all about?”

To this the astonishing fellow answered: “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, then my followers would fight to prevent me falling into the hands of the priests. But my Kingdom is nothing of that kind.”

“You stick to it that you are a king, then?” I pressed him.

“Certainly I am a king. That is the reason why I was born; that is the reason why I am in the world. To bring Truth to light. Everyone who loves the Truth will accept my teaching.”

“What is Truth?” The words had slipped out of my mouth before I was aware of them. I found myself smiling. My mind had flown back to old Pseusippus’ lecture room. You must remember the day when he started his lecture with those very words: “What is Truth? That is our subject for today, gentlemen.” And when we came out afterwards into the sunny court, we all started to mimic the old boy, asking one another, “What is Truth?”

Well, Lentulus, remembering the nonsense old Pseusippus had talked about Truth, I didn’t want to start this Jew of mine off on the same tack. So I got up, to bring the interview to a close. I had got what I wanted; the man was perfectly harmless.

On coming out I was surprised to see what a large crowd had collected in the square. There were a few people hanging about inquisitively before, but now there must have been three or four hundred. I hoped they might be sympathisers with the prisoner: I was soon undeceived.

I addressed the High Priest, but I raised my voice so that everyone in the square could hear. “I find no fault in this man.”

A dead silence greeted my words. Then the High Priest began to speak; he was evidently put out. “He stirs up trouble and disobedience everywhere, inciting the people to rebellion. First it was in Galilee; now it’s here in Judaea.”

“Oh,” I said, “he comes from Galilee, does he?”

It seemed that the gods had shown me a loophole. For you must understand, Lentulus, that Galilee lies outside my official jurisdiction. It is an insignificant province in the north, governed by the Idumaean King Herod. Now it was reasonable to argue that if the man were a Galilean, the decision should rest with Herod. By sending the prisoner to King Herod for trial, I might be able to kill two birds with one stone. I could clear myself of the awkward necessity of acquitting a prisoner and so offending the powerful priests; and at the same time I might, by a delicate observance of etiquette, establish more cordial relations with his Idumaean majesty, with whom I have hitherto been barely on speaking terms.

I explained to the priests that I proposed to send the prisoner with an explanatory note to King Herod, as he had the right to try one of his own subjects. Than, chuckling at my own cleverness, I went in to a much needed breakfast, hoping to hear no more of the matter.

Hardly an hour and a half had passed when I heard to my disgust that the prisoner had been brought back; a note was handed to me by the centurion in charge. As I think it may amuse you, I will transcribe it in full.

“King Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee and Persia, to His Excellency Pilate, proconsul of Judaea, salutation and greeting.”

“I extend to your Excellency my heartfelt thanks for the courtesy which prompted you to refer to me the case of the so-called prophet, Jesus of Nazareth. It will interest you to know that I have long been desirous of seeing the man, for in the north I have heard many tales of miracles which he is alleged to have performed. Clearly these stories were gross exaggerations. I offered the fellow his liberty, if he would work one of these striking miracles before me. Not only was he quite unable to do anything of the kind, but he was so shamefaced that he could not even answer the questions which I addressed to him. Upon enquiry I find that the offences of which he is accused were committed in your province of Judaea; it would therefore appear that the responsibility of his trial rests with your Excellency. Be assured of my friendship at all times; I trust that your Excellency is in good health. Farewell.”

It was evident that Herod did not wish to be bothered with the matter at all and that he had no desire to be involved in a political quarrel with the priests. But my disgust was increased when I went out to where the prisoner was awaiting me; would you believe it, Lentulus? He was dressed up in royal robes. I questioned the centurion with some sharpness.

“I’m sorry, sir,” he replied; “this is King Herod’s doing; he and his courtiers had a bit of a game at the prisoner’s expense. They said if he was a king, he must be dressed like a king. They told me to bring him back to you like this, sir. I didn’t quite like to refuse.”

“Take those things off him,” was all I said.

I led the prisoner out again to the paved court. A small party headed by two Jewish councillors was awaiting me at the top of the steps. They asked me to extend to them the customary festival privilege and release Jesus of Nazareth.

You will need some explanation of this absurd custom; ever since our occupation of the country, the Jews have had the right at this spring festival of nominating one prisoner for a reprieve. No one seems to know how the custom originated; possibly the concession was made by Pompeius himself when he first brought the country under Roman protection. Be that as it may, it is now regarded as a right rather than as a privilege.

On the present occasion it seemed a splendid opportunity of seeing justice done. I took my seat on the chair of judgement; assuming my best official manner, I addressed the priests and the crowd. I must admit to a certain feeling of nervousness when I noted the numbers in the square; it looked as if there might be trouble.

“You brought me this man this morning,” I began, “on a charge of corrupting your nation. After careful examination I have failed to discover any foundation for the accusation. King Herod evidently agrees with me, for he has sent him back without comment. There is no possible justification for pronouncing sentence of death. I admit that he may have been imprudent in his words and conduct; and to teach him to show greater respect for authority. I shall have him soundly flogged. After this punishment the case will be dismissed.”

There was an undercurrent of muttering all the time that I was speaking; this increased in volume until I could hardly make myself heard. The words: “Crucify him! Crucify him!” gradually emerged from the general babel of sound.

It was at this critical moment that young Lysippus came out and handed me a note. I expect you will remember Lysippus, Procula’s Greek slave boy. I tore open the note impatiently; what do you think was written in it? You have often smiled at Procula’s intuitions: now you will laugh outright. This is what her note said: “Caius, I implore you to release this prisoner; he is a just and good man. Last night I was troubled by disturbing dreams about him.” Procula and her dreams! It is strange, isn’t it, that women are such a prey to their superstitions?

I crumpled up the note and signed to Lysippus to leave me. Then I rose and advanced to the top of the steps leading from the portico down to the public square.

“A request has just been made to me,” I shouted; and for a moment there was silence. “I have been asked to make the usual concession and release a prisoner whom you choose. The name suggested to me is Jesus of Nazareth. Is it your wish that I set free the King of the Jews?” I hoped, you see, Lentulus, that a jest might alter the temper of the crowd. But the fury of Hades broke loose.

“Not this man, but Barabbas,” came the cry. And the shout was taken up in every corner of the square: “Barabbas! Barabbas!” I did hear a few voices raised for Jesus, but they were quickly drowned in the general chorus.

I glanced back at the prisoner; he was standing, his arms folded, leaning against one of the massive pillars supporting the pediment. He looked quite unperturbed; indeed, if the truth must be told, I could have sworn that an expression of relief passed over his face as the cries for Barabbas increased.

Barabbas, you will remember, was the man I mentioned earlier, whom I had condemned to death the previous day—the brigand.

There was no doubt about the popular verdict; the robber had to be set free; and I despatched a centurion to the cells to bring him out.

Within a few minutes the ruffian came swaggering out; a yell of pleasure greeted his appearance; he waved his hand jauntily and shouted: “That’s very nice of you, boys!” Then his eyes fell on the other prisoner; he started; he whispered something to the centurion, who nodded. Suddenly all the stuffing seemed to have gone out of him. He walked slowly down the side steps with his eyes on the ground as if he were ashamed of being set free at the other man’s expense. The shouts of welcome died away; the whole scene had proved an anticlimax.

I was quick to seize the opportunity. “What is to be done with this Jesus, whom you call the Messiah?” I asked.

There was a general shout: “Let him be crucified!”

I held up my hand for silence. “Why? What crime has he committed?”

But they were past reason. They continued to shout: “Let him be crucified! Have him crucified!”

When the uproar showed no signs of abating, I signalled to a slave and ordered him to bring out a basin of water. As the crowd saw him returning with a great bronze bowl, their curiosity got the better of their excitement. The noise subsided.

I dipped my hands in the bowl which the boy held in front of me.

“The prisoner is innocent,” I cried; “I can take no responsibility for his death. In token of this, I wash my hands to cleanse myself from the pollution of shedding innocent blood.”

“We’ll take the responsibility,” they yelled. “His blood be on us and on our children!”

There was only one hope now: to give their passion time to cool down. I signed to the centurion to remove the prisoner. He led him into the praetorium to await instructions. At last I managed to make myself heard.

“The prisoner is to be examined by scourging,” I explained. “If under the pain of the lash he confesses to any crime, he will be sentenced to death. If he still appears guiltless, there is only one course open to me.”

With that, I turned on my heel and re-entered the praetorium; I gave orders for the poor fellow to be scourged. This was the only chance of saving his life. The men led him away to execute the sentence. I was glad of a moment’s peace and a deep draught of the excellent Falernian you sent me last year. The local wines are of very inferior quality.

The interval gave me time for reflection. There was no doubt in my mind that the whole of this demonstration had been organised by the priests. This impression was confirmed by agents whom I had posted in the square; they reported that agitators were working on the passions of the mob and spurring them to more intense desire for blood. This made things no easier. I weighed the situation carefully. If I yielded to the clamour and sentenced an innocent prisoner to death, it would be a slur on the justice of Rome and a proof of my own inability to oppose the wishes of the Jewish priests; if, however, I acquitted the prisoner in opposition to the demand of the mob there was certain to be rioting and bloodshed; I should have to call out the troops and I knew only too well that the garrison was insufficient to deal with any really widespread disorder.

There was my problem, Lentulus; and I asked myself what was the right course to pursue. I had reached no decision when the centurion reported that the scourging had been administered; the prisoner had made no confession; he had taken his punishment in absolute silence. I enquired after his condition.

“Exhausted, sir,” was the report, “but quite master of himself.”

I gave orders that he should be brought up again to the paved portico. Then I went out myself to speak to the mob. They listened to me quietly.

“The prisoner has been examined by scourging. Even under the torture of the lash he has confessed nothing. I therefore pronounce him guiltless of all crime.”

I heard the tramp of the escort, approaching along the corridor from the guardroom. Looking round I was considerably put out to see that the prisoner had been decked out in an old military cloak and a rough crown of thorns had been pushed down on his head. Evidently some of the men had been a bit too fresh and had been having some sport with him. I made a mental note to inquire into this and confine the offenders to barracks for a few days. Yet even so I leapt at the chance of turning the incident to the prisoner’s advantage. Seeing his plight, wounded and insulted, the crowd might be moved to some show of sympathy.

“Look!” I cried, “here is the man.”

And even as I spoke the words I felt how apt they were. This was a real man, a man of fortitude and dignity; mentally I compared him with his opponents, the crafty priests, the scheming lawyers, the fickle mob. He stood there, resolute and strong, though his back and face streamed with blood. He might have been a Roman, not a Jew; what more can I say?

At the sight of him the crowd caught their breath. Hope surged up in me. But it was short-lived. From the group of priests came a sudden shout.

“Away with him! Crucify him!”

Before the rabble could echo the cry, I broke in. “You must take him and crucify him yourselves then. I find no crime in him.”

But again the same voice answered: “We have a law and by that law he ought to die, because he claims to be the Son of God.”

I started. The words were so unexpected, so outrageous. I must speak to the prisoner again. Beckoning to the centurion I went inside once more; in a moment the man stood before me. I decided to lay aside all formality, to try to gain his confidence.

“Tell me all about yourself,” I said. He looked at me without rancour, as if he were summing me up. His steady gaze made me uncomfortable. You will laugh at this, I know, but I almost felt as though I were the accused and he the judge.

To hide my embarrassment I spoke again. “Why won’t you answer me? Don’t you realise that I have the power to acquit you and the power to send you to crucifixion?”

Then at last he spoke. His voice remained calm and restrained. “You would have no power over me at all, unless it were given you from above. The High Priest, who handed me over to you, is more to blame than you are.”

Extraordinary words, you will say, from a prisoner whose life hung by a thread! You are right; but it was an extraordinary man who uttered them.

I went out once more, leaving the prisoner where he was. I crossed to the group of priests who were still standing on the steps to my left. I spoke to them in undertones, reasoning with them, pointing out that I could not condemn an innocent man.

One priest, whom I recognised as a man named Alexander, suggested courteously: “Surely, Excellency, a claim to Kingship is an act of treason.”

“If the claim is seriously made,” I replied. “In this case,—”

“If you acquit this man,” interrupted Alexander—and he raised his voice so that everyone could hear—“you will be yourself guilty of disloyalty to the Emperor. If anyone claims to be a king, he is guilty of treason against his sovereign.”

There were scattered cries of assent from the crowd, but they were not yet worked up to the earlier state of frenzy. My one remaining chance now was to show them the absurdity of the suggestion of treason. I signalled to the centurion to bring out the prisoner; but even as I did so, I saw in a flash how all this could be misrepresented in Rome; a formal protest by the Jewish priests; the acquittal of a prisoner who called himself a national champion and a king; the proconsul siding with the rebel, the recall of the proconsul and the end of the career of Caius Pontius Pilate. Dr. Alexander had seen the weak spot in my armour.

I sat down in my chair of office. I knew this was my last throw: if it failed, I must give in.

“The charge against the prisoner,” I said, and I spoke to the rabble, not to the priests, “is that he is aiming at making himself king. Now I put it to you that the charge is absurd; you have only to look at him yourselves to be convinced.”

And at this moment the centurion brought the man out. Surely the people would have some pity?

“Just look at your king!” I said; and I threw as much contempt into the words as I could.

But the priests were ready for me. “Away with him!” they cried. “Crucify him!”

And a roar went up from the thoughtless, bloodthirsty crowd: “Crucify him! Crucify him!”

“Shall I crucify your King?” I shouted.

And it was Dr. Alexander who replied: “We have no king. We owe allegiance to none but the Emperor of Rome, Tiberius Caesar!”

And again the yells burst forth: “Crucify the rebel! Crucify him! Crucify him!”

That was the end, Lentulus. I could not risk an insurrection. I signed the order for crucifixion.

My reason tells me that I have done the prudent thing. But I know that Roman justice has miscarried. And this troubles me.

I had one more round with my friends the priests—a round which I flatter myself I won. This was to do with the title for the prisoner’s cross. Instead of the usual name and the nature of the crime, I wrote the following inscription with my own hand: “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews;” and I wrote it not only in Latin, but Greek and Hebrew as well, so that everyone might read it.

As I expected, a formal protest was made by the priests; and Dr. Alexander was deputed to make it. I went out to see him with my tongue in my cheek.

“Your Excellency,” he began suavely, “your scribes have clearly made a mistake in writing the inscription for the cross.”

“Which cross?” I asked innocently. “There are three prisoners to be crucified.”

He paid no attention to this. “The title reads, ‘Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.’ Presumably what you meant was, ‘Jesus of Nazareth, who called himself King of the Jews.’”

“There is no mistake, Dr. Alexander,” I said curtly. “I wrote the title myself.”

“But it gives the wrong impression,” he protested.

“What I have written, I have written.”

That was my reply, Lentulus; and he went away with a flea in his ear. It was a cheap score, I grant you; but I was feeling so nettled that it gave me a little satisfaction.

Later in the afternoon, after the earthquake, one of the Jewish councillors came to see me—quite a decent fellow, I thought. He asked permission to remove the body of Jesus of Nazareth and give it proper burial. On receiving a report that the man was already dead, I gave permission readily enough. Since then I have been bothered by another deputation from the priests. They had the impertinence to suggest that I should post a squad outside the tomb to make sure that it was not tampered with. But by this time my temper was pretty short; I pointed out to them that they had their own Temple Guard and could do what they liked with it. My men had something better to do than watching to see that crucified prisoners were not spirited out of their graves. And I understand that they have actually taken the precaution of sealing the tomb and posting men to guard it.

If you ever have the patience to read so far as this, my good friend, you will be smiling tolerantly to yourself. “What has happened to poor old Pilate?” I can hear you saying. “He must be tired and overworked, to take the death of one wretched Jew so much to heart.”

Perhaps you are right; but you did not see the Jew.

Tired I certainly am; and so is my poor secretary, who has yawned three times in the last ten minutes. For the sake of our long-standing friendship you must forgive me for bothering you with the troubles of my office. Regard the whole affair as an interesting abstract problem and let me have your opinion on it. I am still quite uncertain whether I have served Rome well today or not.

To make matters worse, Procula refuses to speak to me and has gone off to bed in a huff.

I hope the case of dried figs which I had despatched to you last autumn has arrived safely. I know you have a weakness for them.


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