Wait A Minute! ~ PILATE'S TRIAL

[Before I begin, I would like to say that the following article might make sense only to those who are familiar with the story of Jesus and Christian history; it might be advisable for others to miss reading it].

Only now, when religion has lost its stranglehold on us and we are free to examine things, can we see that much of the world, and the West especially, has been misled and deceived by organized religion for 2,000 years. Regrettably, only a small minority avail themselves of this opportunity; many more still accept and cling to the propaganda they have been fed for so long, and rejoice in wearing their chains as if they were garlands. On the other hand, there are even more who have no interest in religion at all, and who dismiss it as old rubbish, but by doing so, they completely miss the positive side and deprive themselves of much benefit.

The ancient Egyptians are long gone, leaving pyramids, temples, tombs, desiccated mummies and fragments of papyrus to fascinate and cause us to wonder and speculate about what kind of people they were. They had a brilliant civilization, of which the West still stands in awe today.

The idea that most Westerners have of the ancient Egyptians, however (I was no exception, until I began to think about it), comes, firstly, from the Jewish-Christian Bible, where they are depicted by the Hebrews as cruel tyrants who enslaved them for 400 years and forced them to build pyramids, pylons, sphinxes and other awesome monuments, and secondly, by the movies. But have we ever tried looking at this story from the point-of-view of the Egyptians? Wouldn’t it be only fair to do so, especially as their civilization was so advanced? They kept slaves, it is true, and worked them hard, no doubt, but in this they were no different from other civilizations of that time or much later—the Sumerians, Persians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Greeks, Romans, Chinese, Indians and Arabs; in those days there was no concept of human rights, and the institution of slavery was accepted and taken for granted; no-one questioned it except maybe the slaves themselves, and then only because they were slaves; had their situation been reversed, they would probably have kept slaves, too.

What I will look at here, however, are the Hebrews who, while they were slaves in Egypt, complained—understandably, of course—about their ill-treatment at the hands of the Egyptians. Were they in any way superior to the Egyptians? (We should not place too much importance on Cecil B. de Mills’ sensational movie, The Ten Commandments; that is fiction). Were the Hebrews more cultured and refined, more humane and compassionate than the Egyptians? Did they learn anything from all their suffering to make them morally superior or more spiritual?

Before anyone accuses me of racism or anti-semitism, let me say that I’m not speaking here of present-day Jews, who I have nothing at all against as a race; they are also human beings, even if Hitler and his gang did not think so. I am speaking of people who lived thousands of years ago; it has nothing to do with the Jews of our time. I do not subscribe to the biblical notion that the descendants of a man will be punished for his sins; people cannot be held responsible for what their ancestors did, unless they choose to be responsible and insist on taking the burden upon themselves. And if reincarnation is true (I am neither saying it is nor is not; I’m only saying if it is true), any or all of us, regardless of our race at present, could have been a Hebrew, an Egyptian, or a member of any other race in the past; who knows? (Should it be that we are born every time as a member of the same race or nation? The idea, which I accept, leaves no room at all for narrow ideas such as racialism or nationalism). The early Hebrews—as portrayed in the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible, also known as the books of Moses, and revered by the Jews as the Torah) had no concept of an after-life, whether in heaven, hell or elsewhere; this life was all there was for them. In order, therefore, to persuade them to live cohesively and obey the laws of their tribe, their leaders convinced them that their sins would be inherited and paid for by their descendants. It was only much later that they got hold of the idea of an after-life—borrowed, in all probability, from the Babylonians during their exile in Babylon.

I am talking here about history, or what goes under that term. We have only to read the first five books of the Old Testament (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy)—whoever has enough time and patience to do so, (it’s very hard going and repulsive, so be warned!)—to see that the Hebrews, or the ‘Children of Israel’, were a savage and blood-thirsty horde! One thing we have to concede is that the Hebrews (who only much later came to be known as Jews; the name ‘Jew’ comes from Judah, the eldest of the 12 sons of Jacob, who the 12 tribes of Israel were named after) were quite objective—if not always accurate—in recording their history as they saw it, as they included all the debits as well as the credits, and what a lot of debits there were! (They were much more honest than the Christian writers of the New Testament, who had no qualms about deliberately falsifying their reports). They burst out of Egypt, rejoicing in their freedom after centuries of bondage, and spent some time wandering around the Sinai desert until they got their bearings (40 years is just too incredible!) Then, arriving at the land of Canaan (known to us now as the troubled ‘West Bank’ of the Jordan), they proceeded to slaughter and exterminate the inhabitants there (down to and including their animals, in some cases!), and justified this by claiming that their tribal god, Jehovah, had ordered them to do so! ((While I was writing this, in Nov. 1995, news of the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin of Israel had just come through; the young Jewish killer said he was acting on God’s orders!)) Accounts of these atrocities and crimes like murder, rape, incest, etc., are there in the Bible for all to read. The Hebrews most definitely were not a cultured and humane people! But characters from the Old Testament—some of them murderers, thieves, rapists and liars—were presented to us as role models in our childhood! What a basis for morality! Abraham was about to sacrifice his only son to please his blood-thirsty God, but changed his mind at the last moment and slaughtered a ram instead; he also told his wife to agree to have sex with the Pharoah of Egypt in order to save his own life, and then his God punished the Pharoah with terrible diseases, when he was not the one to blame! Joshua was Moses’ right-hand man—his star-general—and perpetrated the butchery in Canaan. King David was a murderer and adulterer, subject to fits of madness and depression. And we were taught and expected to respect such people? How incongruous and strange! Stranger still is a God that demands blood-sacrifice! Why do people—how can they—continue to believe such stuff and make it the basis of their living? The fact that they can and do, when they really don’t have to, is simply fantastic, and indicates a kind of schizophrenia! Are they not aware that there are far-superior alternatives?

But, so much for the ancient Hebrews. Let us move ahead some centuries to the time of Emperor Tiberius of Rome, and his governor of Palestine, Pontius Pilate.

Following the story of Jesus that can be pieced together from the four gospels (let’s not question their authenticity for the moment; we do not have a great deal more to go on right now, though there is much doubt and speculation concerning it, fueled by the numerous discrepancies and errors in the New Testament), I wish to raise several questions concerning his trial and imagine what might have happened or how it happened. No doubt these questions have been raised before, but I do not recall hearing them, so I’m sure there must be many others who have never heard them.

Because Jesus had created quite a stir in Jerusalem since arriving several days earlier with his disciples, the priests of the temple had met and decided that he must be arrested and tried. Late one Thursday night, therefore, when Jesus and his disciples were praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, the temple-guards and servants of the priests came and captured him and hauled him off to the palace of Caiaphas, the High Priest, where the priests were already waiting to try him for blasphemy, the punishment for which—according to the savage law of the Jews—was death. It was a foregone conclusion. They had earlier bribed Judas, one of Jesus’ chosen disciples, to betray him; they feared his growing popularity would result in an uprising against the Romans, who would then retaliate by massacring the Jews; they also feared and hated the kind of things Jesus was saying about them and their corruption, and were determined to get him put to death by one means or another. However, the Romans had suspended their authority to condemn people to death.

Caiaphas asked Jesus if it were true what people had been saying about him: that he was the King of the Jews, the awaited Messiah. Jesus answered, non-commitally: “You say that I am”. The priests who were already wound up, went into a fury, and forthwith pronounced him guilty. Unable, however, to order him to be stoned to death (their preferred method; moreover, the stoning was carried out by the public rather than by a single executioner, and thus became not just a public spectacle but a public act, making everyone responsible and serving to deter others from committing the same faults), they had to appeal to the Roman governor for a final judgment. The Gospels are not very clear on what time all this took place, but we can assume it was sometime in the wee hours of Friday morning. Now, Pilate was probably an early riser, being a military man, but he would not have made haste to receive a delegation of priests (whom he despised and had little patience with anyway), until finishing his ablutions and breaking his fast at his usual leisurely pace, so it would have been well-past sunrise when they were finally shown into his presence.

Pilate would have been well-educated and urbane by the standards of his time. He had been sent from Rome to keep order in that troublesome province, and had his headquarters in Jerusalem. He probably had no religious bias, but we can imagine that he had little sympathy with the Jewish priests, who were generally self-righteous bigots (at least, this is the impression we get of them from the Bible, which is the account we are following here). But protocol required that he hear their complaints, as they had quite a lot of power in their community and could cause trouble. He could no doubt see that they were worked-up about the person they had brought bound into his presence, but must have been somewhat amused to hear the charges made against him: that he claimed to be the Son of God, which was blasphemy under Jewish law and carried the death-penalty. The term ‘Son of God’, would have meant little to Pilate, and he would see it as insufficient reason to put a man to death, and though he was concerned with maintaining order in the province, he was not a cruel man. (The Romans ruled with a firm hand, it is true, but they were generally more cultured and just than the peoples they ruled). Questioning Jesus, Pilate was convinced he was innocent of the charges made against him; probably he thought he was just another religious nut, a little soft in the head, perhaps, but otherwise harmless. Maybe, at this stage, Pilate did not take the matter seriously and wanted to be finished with it, so, upon learning that Jesus was from that part of Palestine called Galilee, over which King Herod had jurisdiction, he saw a way out. “Take him to Herod!” he said; “He’s his responsibility, not mine! Let him decide what to do with this fellow!”

So, Jesus was brought to Herod, Judea’s puppet-king, who was residing in his Jerusalem palace at that time. He had heard of this ‘miracle-worker’ and was curious about him, but likewise did not regard him as dangerous. When he inquired about his miracles Jesus refused to answer, and Herod, unimpressed, sent him back to Pilate without a verdict.

This put Pilate into a deeper dilemma than before. The tempo of the drama was increasing, the priests insisting on Jesus’ crucifixion. Pilate questioned him again, and asked him if he were a king. Jesus answered: “You say I am. I came here to bear witness to the truth”. Pilate said: “What is truth? Is it some unchanging law? We all have truths; is mine the same as yours?” Jesus remained silent on this. Pilate again found him innocent of any offense. In an attempt to appease the priests and the people outside who were howling for the death of Jesus, however, Pilate ordered Jesus to be flogged, thinking that they might then agree to let him go. It did not work; although Jesus was savagely flogged, the priests would not give up their prey. No doubt they could see that Pilate wanted to release Jesus, and to prevent this, they resorted to blackmail, turning what had been until then a religious affair into a political matter—something very serious in the eyes of the Romans. The priests probably knew that Pilate had obtained his office through the influence of Sejanus, the commander of the Praetorian Guard, who had since been executed for treason in Rome. Pilate was therefore in a rather precarious position and could not afford any adverse reports about him to reach the ears of the Emperor. The priests understood this and exploited it, saying that he would not be considered a friend of Rome if he did not order the execution of Jesus on grounds of sedition. Cunning priests! Pilate was cornered!

But he still had one last hope of saving Jesus: that day marked the beginning of the Feast of the Passover—the Jewish celebration of the liberation from bondage in Egypt—and as a conciliatory gesture, it was a custom of the Romans to release a prisoner that day on the choice of the people. Now, at that time, there was a notorious criminal named Barabbas in jail, and Pilate thought they would not want him to be released, but when he asked the crowd outside who they wished to be freed—Jesus or Barabbas—they called for Barabbas as they had been told (or bribed) to do (the priests had assembled the crowd and instructed them to shout loudly for the execution of Jesus and drown out any calls for his release). Exasperated by the intransigence of the priests, and realizing there was nothing more he could do for Jesus (especially as he showed little interest in defending himself against the charges), Pilate called for water to wash his hands, saying: “I am innocent of this man’s blood”, and turned Jesus over to be crucified. Things had moved quickly; all this had taken place within a few hours in the morning; it was still only about noon.

It would take a whole book to tell and examine this story in detail, and even then it would not be conclusive; so many books have been written about it and still there is confusion and dispute; little has been resolved. My purpose in telling it like this here is to show how Pilate tried hard to save Jesus, and to raise a few questions about things that many people have overlooked or maybe have not even thought about.

You see, we have been so influenced by Hollywood that it seldom occurs to us to ask what language the trial might have been held in. All the movie-characters speak the same language, but the reality would have been quite different. Jesus and Pilate probably could not communicate directly with each other. It is hardly likely that Pilate spoke Hebrew or Aramaic, or Jesus Latin or Greek. Obviously, a translator would have been used, and translation—as many of us know—is often inaccurate. This is the point at which I would like to ask my questions, which I consider quite relevant: Who reported the procedure of the trial? How did the writers of the gospels get their ‘information’ about it? None of the disciples were present, as they had all abandoned him and fled. The priests who had accused Jesus were also not present, but were waiting outside in an anteroom, afraid of becoming defiled—the bigots—from being in a Roman house. Were the proceedings of the trial recorded by a scribe? If so, might he, or the translator, have later reported what went on, and did he do it accurately? Jesus himself had no time to tell his followers about it, as he was led away for execution immediately afterwards. And Pilate, as far as we know, did not write about it (what if there turned out to be a ‘Gospel according to Pilate’—a report from his point-of-view? It would make interesting reading, no?) We will probably never know the answers, but I feel satisfied in having been able to raise these questions; they might cause a few people to think a bit more about something that is very doubtful. It has long been in my mind to write about Pilate, and I am happy that I have finally done so. But my line of inquiry concerning him does not end here. There is a little more.

Jesus was taken from Pilate’s palace to be crucified outside the city-walls, dragging his cross as he was led along. By this time, it must have been well-past noon, and it was Friday, the last working day of the Jewish week. Sabbath began at sunset that day, and all work then had to cease for 24 hours; it was considered a serious crime deserving severe punishment to work on the Sabbath Day. All business had to be settled before sunset.

Jesus was crucified, together with two criminals. Normally, death by crucifixion was a lingering and painful affair—and meant to be—lasting for several days; victims died from exhaustion rather than loss of blood. While hanging there, nailed through his wrists and feet, Jesus called out that he was thirsty. Someone stepped forward with a sponge atop a long stick and held it up to Jesus’ lips so that he might drink from it. The gospel-writers say the sponge was soaked in vinegar or bitter wine, but it might have contained a drug that caused Jesus soon after to fall into a state so resembling death that it was thought he had died.

Quickly, some of his followers went to ask Pilate to allow the body to be taken down for burial before sunset. Pilate was astonished, and cried: “What! Is he dead so soon?! How can it be?” Calling the captain of the execution-squad, he was told that it was really so. He then ordered the body to be taken down and given to his followers for burial. Maybe he suspected that Jesus was not dead, and at this late stage, still hoped to save him. “He’s a deluded but harmless fool”, he might have thought, “Let him go, if he still lives. The priests can’t complain he wasn’t crucified; they got what they wanted on that score. Let him escape, if he can; hopefully he’ll just disappear and won’t be heard of again”. He also ordered that the legs of the criminals crucified along with Jesus be broken, so they would die faster and could also be taken down before the Sabbath began; because Jesus was thought to be dead already, his legs were not ordered broken.

Before taking Jesus down from the cross, however, a soldier pierced his right side with a spear, though why he did so we can only guess. If he had wanted to make sure that Jesus was dead, he would have thrust the spear through his heart; Roman soldiers were trained to kill; they knew very well which side of the body the heart was on; it was not a mistake, and was not intended to be a fatal blow.

What really happened to Jesus, no-one knows, and because of this, he is without doubt, the most controversial person the world has ever known, and the uncertainty regarding him has caused so much trouble that a little bit of honest doubt might have prevented. There are no grounds at all for the implausible notion that he ‘rose from the dead’. It is likely that he wasn’t dead when he was taken down from the cross, and was revived later, as he is said to have appeared to his disciples several times afterwards, and they did not recognize him at first—their master! They did not recognize him for the simple reason that he had disguised himself to avoid detection by the priests, who were certainly skeptical of the report of his early death. If he had ‘risen from the dead’, he would have been beyond death and have no reason to fear it or disguise himself. We have not been told the truth—no, more: we have been deliberately deceived and misled!—for two thousand years. Why? To perpetuate a myth concocted by deluded and power-hungry people; it was all a matter of politics. We have not been shown the real Jesus, but have been left to discover him for ourselves, if this is at all possible.

There is now a rumor circulating that the Shroud of Turin was not a fake, as it was pronounced to be several years ago, but exactly what it was first claimed to be: the shroud that Jesus was wrapped in after he was taken down from the cross. The Vatican was in a very difficult situation and preferred to have it labeled a fake—was most anxious to have it declared a fake—because of what it revealed: that the person wrapped in it wasn’t dead, but still living and bleeding! Dead bodies don’t bleed; the blood clots upon death and ceases to flow.

Moreover, at the time when this shroud and the stains on it was supposed to have been ‘manufactured’, about 800 years ago, crucifixion had long gone out of style, and people believed that victims were nailed to the cross through their palms. That, however, wouldn’t have been the case, as the flesh of the palms would not have borne the victim’s weight for long and would soon have torn through. The Shroud shows that the victim had been nailed through the wrists, something that forgers of the 12th century would not have been aware of, as the Church had taught for centuries that Jesus was nailed through the palms (the paintings of that period and later all show the prevailing belief), and there are cases recorded of fervent Christians developing ‘holy stigmata’ like the wounds of Jesus, through long contemplation of the nail-marks on his palms and feet; the belief that he was nailed through the palms was so strong!

But if this second and more-objective claim for the authenticity of the Shroud is true, how do we account for the carbon-dating tests that were carried out on it that proved it was a forgery? Simple: the Vatican was not going to allow its very foundations to be undermined by the discovery that the body the shroud had contained was that of a living man rather than a dead one; there are clever and ruthless people in the Vatican who must have known this; they are not so stupid as to turn over evidence that would destroy them. A piece of another relic—the Vatican is full of relics—was given to the scientists, who must have momentarily lost their healthy skepticism and took it to be the genuine article; the whole precious shroud would not have been given into the hands of such sacrilegious people, who more than likely had doubts about its authenticity from the start. Were the scientists who carried out the tests on the fragment of cloth they had been given absolutely sure that it was from the Shroud and not from another old piece of cloth? Again, I must reiterate here that this is just a rumor that might or might not be true; I do not know. As far as I am concerned, though, the very basis of Christianity rests upon a rumor, and one that is not at all convincing! Resurrection from the dead: hard to disprove, but the onus of proof rests with those who claim it to be so, not with those who don’t. Even though it is only a rumor in place of another rumor, if it causes us to doubt the first rumor—which is far more implausible than the second—it will have served some purpose. If I had to choose between the word of a scientist and the word of the Vatican, however, I would not long hesitate, as the scientist, true to the methods of his discipline, would support his thesis with evidence, whereas the Vatican relies upon belief and threats of punishment. Galileo was a scientist, and the Vatican has finally had to back down over the stand it took against him; very hard for the ‘infallible’ Vatican to admit to making mistakes! There is room for honest doubt; belief must be put to the test.

History—which was Christian history, of course—has not been kind to Pilate and held him to be a tyrant, when this was not so. Convinced that Jesus was not guilty of the charges against him, he tried hard to save him, but did not succeed. Since then, Pilate has been on trial, but he also was innocent of the charges made against him. I cannot imagine Jesus holding any hard feelings towards Pilate, when on the cross, he forgave his executioners. Pilate was the most just of all the people involved with Jesus’ last days.

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