Why I Am a Christian

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

The Problems of Pontius Pilate

     Now that Easter is coming up, perhaps we should spare a thought for Pontius Pilate. In 2006 I watched the Black Hills Passion Play, and it depicted Jesus being brought before Pilate while it was still dark. Suddenly, a lot of things clicked.
     The gospels all mention the action taking place early. Matt. 27:1 even says prōïas dè genoménēs, "and as morning was becoming". Bearing in mind that the crucifixion took place at "the third hour", I think on the balance of probabilities the temple hierarchy waited till the crack of dawn and then hustled Jesus to the governor's residence. It is likely that Pilate was still in bed, and almost certain that he not eaten breakfast, when someone - his majordomo, possibly - came in and announced:
     "Milord, the leaders of the people want to confer with you urgently. Also, you will have to come out to meet them. They can't come inside because the festival is about to begin, and you are 'unclean'".
     We must therefore imagine a rather vexed Pontius Pilate getting his chief slave to adjust his toga, and at the same time muttering, "It had better be something important."
     And what was it all about? They wanted him to sign a death warrant! There's never any urgency about a death warrant. The prisoner isn't in any hurry, and while he's locked up and chained, he can't get away, and he doesn't cost much in food. Heck! They even had three brigands in prison awaiting crucifixion at the end of the festival. Pontius Pilate was a ruthless so-and-so, but he wasn't a rubber stamp, and he didn't like being used - especially at break of day, before breakfast, by a bunch of people who consider him unclean. When he asks for specifics, all he gets are generalised allegations of possible sedition, without any specifics. He has to interrogate the prisoner who, for some reason, refuses to say anything in his own defence. And all the time, he's hungry.
     Bright idea! The man is obviously a Galilean. Hand him over to Herod. Problem solved. Now he can have breakfast.
     But half, maybe three quarters of an hour later, he is told that Herod doesn't want him. The buck he thought he had passed has been passed back to him. Don't you just hate it when that happens?
     As I said before, Pilate was a ruthless so-and-so, and that was part of his current problem. He had originally ridden rough shod over Jewish religious sensitivities, and had had an official complaint made against him. But at the time he had been safe. For the first six years of his governorship, the Emperor Tiberius had been in semiretirement at Capri, and the effective ruler had been the praetorian prefect, Sejanus, a notable anti-Semite. But now Sejanus had been executed, and Tiberius was back in action, insisting that the customs of the local populations be respected. The last thing Pilate needed was an official complaint that he had released a local rebel whom the Jewish leaders had arrested.
     Another bright idea. He had been his custom (perhaps after the fall of Sejanus) to display his magnanimity of spirit by releasing a prisoner at the Passover. Perhaps he can offer them a choice of an obviously innocent man or some nasty so-and-so whom everybody wants dead. We know the name of the latter: Barabbas. Now, the interesting thing is that some versions of Matt. 27:16 call him Jesus Barabbas. This appears in some cursive codices, which are admittedly late, but also in the Syriac and some other early translations, and is quoted by Origen, the third century expert on all Bible versions. I am inclined to consider it original, for three reasons.
     Firstly, like Barnabas, Bartimaeus, and Bartholomew, Barabbas is not a personal name; it is a patronymic. It means "son of a father". Probably he was a priest's son who had gone bad. But he must have had a personal name, and Jesus was not uncommon in that regard. Secondly, it is a word which is more likely to drop out of a manuscript than to be inserted, as a copyist assumes that his predecessor had been guilty of a bit of dittography. Finally, it makes sense under the circumstances. We must imagine the following conversation:
     Pilate: Listen, I normally release a prisoner to the rabble during the festival. What are the names of those three brigands we were going to peg out once the excitement was over?
     Captain of the Guard: Well, there is X, and Y, and Jesus Barabbas.
     Pilate: Did you say "Jesus" Barabbas?
     Lucky Barabbas! He had the same name as the Saviour.
     Now let us step outside a minute. For the fickleness of the crowd, it has often been cited how they shouted "Hosanna!" when Jesus entered the city, and less than a week later clamoured for his execution. This is very unfair. There is not the slightest evidence that the two groups were identical. Jerusalem had a population of about 18,000, but at Passover it swelled to 180,000, with pilgrims camped in tents and booths right up to the Mount of Olives. (What they did for public lavatories is anyone's guess.) All the cities of the ancient world were rabbit warrens with very narrow streets, as the Old City of Jerusalem still is. Jerusalem was packed to capacity, and any commotion, such as the trial of a criminal, or the disturbance at Pentecost, would bring an instant collection of onlookers. However, the interrogation of Jesus by Pilate was probably conducted in the military barracks of the governor's headquarters. Onlookers would only get a peak in until the hierarchy rounded up a crowd for the purpose, and told them to vote for Barabbas.
     This brings us to an issue usually overlooked: language. The lingua franca of the eastern half of the Empire was Greek, just as English is for east Africa. When I visited Tanzania in 1985, it seemed that everybody spoke English. They did - on the main tourist routes. But once we got to the northern town of Tanga, I was surprised to find a staff member in the camping ground who could not speak English. Likewise, Greek would be understood in the main Jewish centres, such as Jerusalem and Nazareth, but not necessarily among the peasantry in the back country of Judea. We must assume that many in the "crowd" had only a minimal grasp of Greek. When Pilate asked whom they wanted, before any translation was provided, some stooges shouted out, "Barabbas!" and the rest took it up. Many of them would not know whether they were calling for Barabbas to be released, or to be executed.
      Pilate was beaten. After he had washed his hands of Jesus, and before he returned to his regular activities, he probably gave one last order to the captain of the guard: "You might as well peg out Barabbas' two cronies while you're at it."
     Poor Pontius Pilate! When he had gone to bed the night before, he never imagined that on the morrow he would find himself on the cusp of history, and would be immortalised as a man who wrestled with his conscience - and lost. It just goes to show: you should always keep your integrity in good working order. Because you never know when you are going to need it.