“Pontius Pilate”

An excerpt from one of Salon's 10 favorite books of 2000.

Topics: Books,

For four or possibly seven years, Pilate and Jesus shared the same territory. Although Pilate was most of the time in Caesarea and Jesus in Galilee, their paths inevitably crossed from time to time. The two antagonists were sometimes tantalizingly close. Like characters in a formulaic thriller or a farce, they seemed to miss each other by seconds: one behind a door as the other enters, one looking the wrong way as the other saunters down the street.

Jesus was noted on Pilate’s turf. He was reported teaching “on the coasts of Judaea beyond Jordan” and in Jericho; he was seen “in all the cities and villages” of the province, leaving behind him people marveling and fainting. But in John’s Gospel he also visited Jerusalem, and at precisely the moments when Pilate, too, was there to keep order. Every year, his parents and his family went up to Jerusalem for Passover. They also went for Tabernacles (the feast of Sukkot, in the autumn), and with such regularity that when Jesus decided not to go for the Sukkot before his death it was thought peculiar, and he went up later secretly after the rest of his family had gone.

He took some precautions in Jerusalem, though the Gospels insist that this was for fear of the Jews rather than the Romans. At dusk he would leave the city to spend the night with his friends in Bethany or on the Mount of Olives. Only in the morning would he reappear. Each time he emerged, however, he caused a commotion. He healed people, performed miracles, drew noisy and rapturous crowds. According to Matthew, “the whole city was in turmoil, saying ‘Who is this?’ And the crowd replied, ‘This is Jesus, the prophet.’” As one voice.

At the pool of Bethesda, by the sheep market, he cured the sick who had gathered there in expectation that an angel would come and stir the waters. The sick shouted as they were healed. Day after day he would walk in front of the Temple and in the Temple courtyards, teaching, as he termed it, but also haranguing the Pharisees, screaming at them. On these occasions, Luke said, “all the people hung upon him, listening.” Several times the Temple guards were scrambled to get him, but held back “because his hour had not yet come.” Once, at the Feast of Dedication in the winter, he was walking in Solomon’s Porch in the Temple when the Jews chased him, demanding to know whether he was the Christ or not, and got ready to stone him. He fled then “beyond Jordan,” but left behind a city half-crazed with him. By the time of that last fatal Passover, all the talk was of whether Jesus would come for the feast or not. The crowd knew that he had raised Lazarus from the dead, a mere two miles outside Jerusalem; they expected more wonders. Even Greeks in Jerusalem were asking, haltingly, to see him, the most famous tourist attraction after the Temple itself. Many of the chief rulers of the Jews were said to be secret believers in this man. In short, as the Pharisees lamented, “the world is gone after him.”

Pilate remained in Herod’s palace. In that great white mausoleum, where the marble floors absorbed his footsteps and the marble walls kept out all sound, he moved as if wrapped in insulation. Yet if he was to go to the window, or venture out to inspect the troops on duty in the western porticoes of the Temple, he might have glimpsed Jesus in the motions of the crowd, which swarmed about him like ants disturbed from the ground. He could have heard (though he would not have understood) the shout of Jesus to the crowd: “Why do you want to kill me?,” and the crowd’s raucous answer: “You’re mad! Who wants to kill you?” Called out to the entrance of the Temple after Jesus had argued there, he might have seen him leaving; an abrupt turn of the shoulder, a whip of the long robe, face and hands still flushed with violence. To touch him, even approach him, was impossible; it was in violation of the plan. Yet Pilate could tread in his footsteps across the Temple porch, and the same beggars who had tugged Jesus’ robe might be brushed aside by Pilate, too.

There were other opportunities. In the street near the Pool of Bethesda, the governor’s litter might have paused. Runners were meant to clear the roads, but in a seething, distracted crowd they made no headway. Pilate waited. If he parted the curtain, he might have seen by the gloomy cisterns a man whose brown hair, as some apocryphal writings described it, fell in waves about his pale face like the leaves around a filbert: a man beneath whose touch the water trembled as if the angel of the pool had indeed descended. But it was unnecessary to notice him. The only meeting that counted was the one that was scheduled: on that day in March, on the sixth day of the week, at the first hour.

The litter jolted on.

— From “Pontius Pilate” by Ann Wroe. ) 2000 Ann Wroe. Used by permission, all rights reserved.


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