Easter Without Hindsight: Pontius Pilate’s Problem …
The prospect of Jeshua, the celebrity rabbi, arriving in Jerusalem for Passover would have not filled Pilate with joy. Loathed by the upright and the uptight, but loved by the marginalised, Jeshua had the capacity to arouse strong feelings. Pilate may well have been assured by those who knew and understood Jeshua (including, possibly, Pilate’s own wife Claudia Procula) that the rabbi had no intention of starting any violence. That may not have entirely eased his mind though. That Jeshua had no violent intentions himself didn’t exclude a threat from those that thought that messiah would attack the Romans and had mistakenly put Jeshua into that frame.
Pilate’s worst problem could be dealing with the religiously motivated, which still might include Jeshua. The powerful disliked Jeshua because he challenged their authority in the eyes of the people. The disaffected, especially those without much of a stake in the economy, liked his repeated challenges of tyranny, especially the Roman tyranny Pilate headed up.
Pilate already had experience of protest driven by religion. Early in his time as Governor he had, as a loyal servant of the Emperor, had a series of standards, in Tiberius’ honour, displayed over the Antonia Fortress, adjacent to the Temple in Jerusalem. The locals had deemed them idolatrous and therefore highly offensive. Dozens of Jews had marched to Caesarea Maritima, the town on the coast where Pilate was normally based, to demand their removal. After a succession of fruitless meetings in which the Jewish opposition proved implacable, Pilate invited the protestors into a stadium where they were quietly surrounded by his troops. He heard their representations once more then, at a prearranged signal, his troops drew swords. Pilate’s ultimatum was simple: abandon the protest and return to Jerusalem peacefully, or die there and then.
After a pause one of the Jewish leaders exposed his neck and fell at the feet of the nearest swordsman, shouting that he preferred to die than abandon his God. The crowd followed suit and Pilate was left with the unacceptable prospect of his troops killing dozens of locals, with all the potential that created for violence to escalate out of control. He backed down and sent word to Jerusalem to remove the idolatrous standards.
With Jeshua heading to Jerusalem for Passover Pilate was probably wondering how he could control Jeshua. Roman power was based on the ability to scare potential rebels into submission or to kill them.
Pilate’s experience told him that Jeshua might view martyrdom as an acceptable outcome. If Jeshua saw violence as the last resort of Roman impotence and crucifixion as Pilate’s admission of defeat, then how did Pilate retain control?