Easter Without Hindsight, Part 13

Easter Without Hindsight: Jesus through Roman Eyes, Lighting fires in an oil store?

If the priests in the Temple were worried about the impact Jeshua might have when he got to Jerusalem, concern amongst the Romans may have gone all the way to the Governor. After the death of King Herod, Judea was inherited by Archelaus, whose rule proved to be a disaster. The Emperor exiled him and appointed a Roman governor instead. As Jeshua approached Jerusalem, the Governor was a man called Pontius Pilate.

For one known so widely, there is little hard evidence about him available today. The sack of Jerusalem in AD70 probably destroyed many local records. Judea was not a major province and such provinces had lower ranked governors directly appointed by the Emperor, usually former soldiers, so the records in Rome perhaps were patchy too. Syria, to the north, was a much larger and more important province. A higher-ranking Roman aristocrat, one who had significantly more autonomy, governed Syria and had a legion of regular Roman troops permanently at his command. Pilate was an eques, equivalent (in modern rank terms) to Knight rather than Lord, and was much more accountable to the Emperor.

Pilate would have had Italian-born officers under his command but his 4,000-odd soldiers were locally-recruited auxiliaries, probably from Samaria and Idumea. There was a religious dispute between the Samaritans and the Judeans as ancient and divisive as that between the Roman Catholics and the Protestants in Ulster. Pilate’s troops had just put down a rebellion by Judean ‘zealots’ who would have viewed Romans the way the Taliban view Americans.  Samaritans in Pilate’s army were even more widely despised than usual. The ill feeling was mutual, so a Jew crucified for rebellion would be treated with extra cruelty.

Pilate’s job was to keep the peace so that commerce could generate the taxes and duties, which lined his Emperor’s treasury.  He was obviously concerned therefore, that any violence that interrupted the flow of money to Rome would have the Emperor Tiberius looking in his direction for all the wrong reasons. The loathing between the subject peoples would add the extra fuel of civil hatred to any political unrest.

Was there another reason that Pilate wanted to stay out of Tiberius’ thoughts? It is possible that he was a protégé of the recently disgraced Sejanus, another knight of Rome. Sejanus had become the Emperor’s ‘hatchet man’. In doing so he had risen above his social station, to the disgust of many nobles in Rome. Having made lots of enemies, when Sejanus finally overstretched himself he was killed in the subsequent purge, along with family, friends and supporters. Pilate may have had a personal reason to avoid drawing attention to himself.

If Pilate was damping down one insurrection, while trying to stop civil war from exploding, the last thing he needed in Jerusalem was a rabble-rousing rabbi like Jeshua. Jerusalem at Passover was packed to the rafters with excitable pilgrims, many looking for messiah to lead them to free their land from the Romans and the sinners. Viewed from Pilate’s palace Jeshua would be as welcome as a boy lighting fires in an oil store.

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