It is near dawn when the servant wakes Pilate. He sits up, the cold air gnawing numbly at his flesh. Procula rolls away from him, pulling the sheets tighter around her curled form. He turns and sits his feet on the cool stone floor. He sighs, grunts, stretches, and slips his thin slippers on. Unbidden, the servant comes near with a bowl of water. Pilate washes his face. Pilate never notices the servant light the braziers. He raises his robe and urinates in a brass pot. He never even glances at the slave holding it to the governor’s waist.
He sits in a chair by the window as the fingers of dawn scramble over the room. A barber shaves his face clean. Occasionally, you will hear Pilate hiss when his skin is nicked; the barber’s nimble fingers quickly apply a salve. He goes over the daily reports. It’s another of those Jews’ festivals. The worst one, in Pilate’s opinion: when the filthy little hairy atheists celebrate the end of their bondage under a foreign king. The word is raspy and phlegmy in Pilate’s Samnite mouth: Pascha. He eats a bit of bread, puts on his royal-rimmed toga and heads down to the Praetorium to take the seat. Is he worried? Were there ill omen shapes in the water as he washed his face?
After some time his guard brings him through the halls to the great dais. There is already a throng there. In the night, reports have come to him: the Roman appointed Jew-priests had arrested some malefactor or other. Pilate feels a cord of unease pull tight in his chest. What sort of man is it now? Some lestai who wandered the hills, disrupting the Roman roads, murdering publicans on tax collection for divine Tiberius’ coffers. He sits, staring at that damned Caiaphas walking forward, his father-in-law Annas behind, resting behind the curtains of his palanquin. The temple guards draw a ruin of a man forward, wearing a tattered robe. The blood spilt on it looks fresh to the governor’s soldier’s eye. Pilate signals the High Priest forward. “Joseph Caiaphas, why have you come?”
Caiaphas’ eyes are defiant–despite his dependence on Gentile gold and power: “We have brought this malefactor to you for judgment.”
Pilate cannot resist a little jibe at the Jews,”What do you say he has done?”
The whole retinue answered, “If He were not an evildoer, we would not have delivered Him up to you.”
Pilate said to them, “You take Him and judge Him according to your law.” What are they playing towards?
Caiaphas looked wounded.“It is not lawful for us to put anyone to death.”
At those words, Pilate leans forward. What could this roach have done to offend these little cut-throats? Pilate thought he knew who the man might be: Annas and his court ran the temple bazaar, and made a hoard off of the pilgrims come to make sacrifice to the Hebrews’ one little god. Reports said some backwater enthusiast had overturned the moneychangers’ tables and freed all the sacrificial beasts. No doubt Annas’ heart lurched at such a financial loss that day. But it couldn’t simply be that…and if they were seeking death….
“He says he is the King of the Jews,” Caiaphas snarls.
Maiestas…could it be sedition? An act of treason against holy Lady Roma? A defilement of the augustan, divine-brought Pax? The man does not move; but his eyes…Pilate averts the man’s stare: he seemed to stare right at the governor, fearless. No, this man was no bandit. What? What? What?
Pilate’s guards bring the Jew into the Praetorium. His accusers do not follow; the very stones of the floor would defile them from their feast. The prisoner has no option, but Pilate notes this strange Jew seems unbothered by the idea of defilement. Perhaps he thinks he cannot be defiled, ha! Pilate brings an interpreter forward to translate the mongrel Aramaic into blessed Greek. Pilate looks on the tatters of the man and, smiling, like he would at a festival Fool, he asks, “Are you the King of the Jews?”
The man looks at Pilate fearlessly. This unnerves Pilate somewhat. The prisoner says, “Do you want to know if I am king, or did they tell you to ask?”
Pilate pulls aback. Was that insubordination? As if a man educated in Rome, patroned by the lieutenants of the son of god Tiberius himself, would give one hang about some Jewish custom, some rule for these filth that cut at their own genitals like some barbarous tribe of the moonstruck? Pilate snarled, “Am I a Jew? Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered You to me. What have You done?”
There was a long pause, as the prisoner was taking measure of the judge and not vice versa. What is wrong with this Jew? Is he mad? The bloodied man sighs, and speaks as if he is reciting lines he has learned at the crib, in the long ago, “My kingdom is not of this kosmos. If My kingdom were of this kosmos, My servants would fight, so that I should not be delivered to the Jews; but now My kingdom is not from here.”
Pilate is stricken. ‘Kosmos?’ What does that mean? A kingdom beyond the dome of the sky? What is this man saying? A kingdom that had no need of blade and shield, of armor, or coins or horsemen? Pilate stutters, starts to speak a few times, stopping before he even begins. The guards glance at each other: When has Master Pilate ever been caught speechless,especially by some uneducated hill-Jew? Finally, he speaks, and a relief fills the room; the master will lead. Pilate latches on to the one clause that seems coherent, that would be found in a real world. Pilate said to Him, “Are You a king then?”
The man replies, “You say rightly that I am a king. For this cause I was born, and for this cause I have come into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.”
How long is this moment? Is there silence? A nervous chuckle in that knight’s mouth? How much do we all wrestle with that question, caught on its horns like brother Pilate, wrested off our feet, trying to find our footing, trying to answer, Jacob caught in the fiery grasp. Unable to escape, we gasp and plead; the Man touches us, and we are not the same.
‘The truth,’ the man said. The definite article. Not some truth, but the Truth, untarnished and incorruptible. What was happening? Pilate speaks, his words falling over each other in a hurried but defiant stumble–or maybe hopeful, hoping for some divine word, some hidden gnosis to heal his turbulent innards, but all that comes out, just the same, are those words, “What is truth?”
The man gives no reply; perhaps the man is the reply.
At that, the governor steps out to the steps again; the mob has grown with pilgrims and rubberneckers. He says to the Jewish rulers, “I find no fault in Him at all.” At that, Pilate watches the crowd roil and squirm like maggots on meat. He feels them pull from him. His mouth tastes like copper. Perhaps, he turn their own customs against them. He has to get this man, whatever he is, away from him. He troubles him–like looking at a tree with wonder, and suddenly seeing Faunus lazing among the branches. He will use their own barbarous ways against them, yes. “But you have a custom that I should release someone to you at the Passover. Do you therefore want me to release to you the King of the Jews?” Yes, remind them he is just some madman, harmless. Some Dionysiac foundling who does no more than wander the hills shouting at the sky. Harmless. But–
Then they all cried again, saying, “Not this Man, but Bar-Abba!” Bar-Abba? That was unexpected; Bar-Abba was a convicted traitor, a murderer of Romans and Hellenist-leaning Jews. The priests had out-planned him. This was their mob. They were trying to play the representative of divine Tiberius! So be it; Pilate will play till the bitterest end. Perhaps he can turn the mob…He will beat the man. No, he will scourge him, scourge him so badly no other punishment be needed.