Pilate turns to one of the locals turned soldier (Pilate dreams of having real Roman soldiers but such is all he can get in this province; at least they aren’t Jews) and says, “Go, tie his hands and scourge him.” The man is bound to the post in an open yard. Pilate takes a seat; he will count each stroke; it is the will of Rome that will say when the victim has “had enough.” Oh, in more civilized places, the limit is 40 lashes, but out here in godsless Judea…here, Pilate is the lictor.
The lash’s cords are threaded with lead balls, perhaps bits of broken bone; every strike is paralyzing and instantly debilitating. Most men don’t even survive the scourging. Pilate has seen men drug away, their organs hanging out of their backs. Pilate will show Roman mercy–he will beat the malefactor nearly to death…so he won’t have to concede to the mob and kill him outright. The soldier lifts the whip and down it comes, over and over and over. The onlookers listen for each counted stroke: “Unum. Duo. Tria…Quinque. Sex et viginti…Quadraginta…” Who knows where the count stopped. Who knows when Pilate looked on the man and said to himself, “Here is enough.”
Eventually, after an eternity, it stops. The man quivers at the post, gasping. Pilate can actually see the muscles in his back working with each breath.Sufficit, Pilate thinks. He rises and orders the man be taken back to the steps of the Praetorium. With that, Pilate heads back through the halls. A servant comes to him bearing a letter. He takes it; it is from Procula. She had a nightmare; “Leave the man alone.” How can she know about him? A dark omen. Are the gods trying to turn him from the path?
The soldiers, however, have a game. “Kings,” it is called; played on the tiles with knucklebones. The criminal “wins” each roll, so he receives his royal vestments: a crown of bristling thorns, long and curved as a harvestman’s sickle. Holding it in leather gloves, they shove it down on his head. Blood like water runs. They bring a roughspun cloak of purple (as if he were an Eques on campaign). It clings to his bruised and broken flesh, stuck by blood and filth. His flesh is oozing and scabby, almost black with blood. His legs wobble, but he stands. One soldier grins, “These Jews, always defiant. Always standing when they should kneel,” he says, and strikes the man across the face; but he pulls away when the man looks at him in…love. The criminal says, “It’s alright. It’s alright. Don’t be afraid. Everything is alright.” The soldier hits him again, gasping, and says, “Take him to the governor! Take him! Now! Ite! Ite! Ite!”
Pilate cannot believe what he sees: the man before him, in his halls, bloodying the stone with his steps, is a ruin but still has that look of command on his face. This lunatic who claims he is come from beyond the edge of the world, beyond Ultima Thule. Pilate remembers then a story from his youth, the story of King Pentheus and the god Dionysus. When the wild god came among the people of Pentheus, sowing revelry and madness and hunger, and Pentheus refused to believe he was a god. The king jailed the moon-mad man, but the god revealed his divinity, broke jail, and drove Pentheus’ women mad as Bacchae. Pentheus was driven mad by the sight of the god in his unveiled glory and wanders into a bacchanalia. His mother and daughters, delirious with the new god’s touch, think him a wild swine and tear him in pieces. Thus to all men who do not recognize the gods. Pilate must be careful. So careful.
He goes out to the people. “I will show you this man. He is faultless. He is harmless.” He turns to his guard, “Bring him to me.” The mob is quieted. The Sanhedrinists (some are missing, Pilate notices; only those seeking this man’s death are here) stare.
His footfalls are quiet and stumbling. He is brought forth. So much blood. He looks out at the crowd. Pilate looks out and says, “Ide, O anthropos!” The words will echo down to us: Ecce homo. Behold, the Man. What do you see? What will you do with him?
The quiet holds a breath and then, resounding shouts, horrific roaring: “CRUCIFY HIM! CRUCIFY HIM!”
Pilate pulled away. His restraint falls away. He screams at the crowd, “YOU CRUCIFY HIM! HE’S DONE NOTHING! LEAVE HIM ALONE! YOU CRUCIFY HIM!”
Caiaphas seized the moment, the nail in the coffin, and screamed at the governor, “We have a law! You have a law! He must be killed because he called himself the son of God!”
Pilate freezes. ‘Son of God.’ Filius Dei. His master, the great Caesar Tiberius, son of the divine Augustus, who was son of the divine Julius. This was a deadly wrinkle. He could shrug off some itinerant madman…but a man accused of claiming kingship over the Jews and to be the son of God…no, Tiberius, moody Tiberius, would have him humbled utterly. If Pilate was lucky, he would only be recalled, perhaps exiled. But to not get rid of a man guilty of maiestas, of defiling the majesty of Rome, incarnate in Tiberius…Tiberius once had a man tortured because he went to the bathroom with a few coins in his pocket; why? Because the coins had the emperor’s face on them. Maiestas. Sejanus wouldn’t even be able to protect him from the cold hands of the gloomy lord. Pilate wrung his hands. No. Damn them. Damn them.
He must ask the man. He has the man brought back into the Praetorium. He grabs his arm, “What are you? Where are you really from? Tell me! Tell me! Tell me what to do!” The man smiles at him. Pilate roars in fear and rage, “To me?! To me, you won’t speak? I have the power to crucify you or set you free!”
The innocent man (the god?) smiles at him, and recites, “To me? To me you have no power at all. It was given to you from someone above you. The ones who brought me here have committed themselves to a greater sin. I am always free, Pontius; you have not the authority to chain me.”
It was too much for Pilate. Obviously, if he is not a god, he is one of their messengers. He had to get rid of him. He had to get rid of him. He went back outside, almost running. “He’s done nothing wrong! Nothing. I will let him go. He has been punished.”
From behind his curtain, Annas speaks, “If you let him go, you are not Caesar’s friend.”
What stew of thoughts boiled in Pilate’s mind? Caught between potential deicide and the wrath of a vengeful son of god, he must act. Perhaps…perhaps better mercy that can be seen, felt. The mercy of the god emperor. Perhaps prayers to the divine Julians will ameliorate his judgment. Perhaps Jove will see his dilemma and not lent him be rent apart. He mutters a prayer to his household gods. He signals to his men and they bring the man down to the Pavement. PIlate looks out at the crowd then holds his glare at Caiaphas. Quietly, defiantly, he says, “Behold your king.” Pilate gets a little delight seeing Caiaphas snarl his face at him. The priest cries it first and the horde follows, “Away with him! Crucify him”
Pilate holds his stare at Caiaphas. “Shall I crucify your king?” He will make this Jew, this atheist say it. Say it! Say it, Jew!
Caiaphas spits, “We have no king but Caesar.
Pilate nods. “Thou sayest.” He turns to his guards: “Take him to Skull Hill; crucify him. Crucify Caiaphas’ king.”
They drag him away and Pilate feels a sort of relief wash over him. He signals for water and washes his hands slowly in front of Caiaphas. “I am innocent of his blood.”
Caiaphas sneers. “His blood on us and our children, then.” When Caiaphas said this, Pilate noticed the preacher shake his head, tears in his eyes. “I forgive you,” he said. Caiaphas spat at him; Pilate stared, his eyes wide. He stifled a hysterical sound that would have been a laugh and a scream. Deicide. Deicide.
A servant brought a stylus and a titlus to the governor. Watching the damned man being led away, Pilate glanced at his accusers and wrote. A final jab at the conspirators, at the mob, at this hellhole called Judea. “Yeshua Notsri,” Caiaphas read aloud in Aramaic, chewing each word, “King of the Jews..No. No. It should say, ‘He said he was king of the Jews.'”
Pilate smiled at the bearded Jew atheist and responded in Greek, “O gegrapha, gegrapha. Go away.”
And then Pilate had lunch brought to him.
Later in the day, Pilate sees the sky go black. On the day divine Julius was murdered there was an eclipse. The sky herself hid her face, for a god had been slain by impious men. Perhaps he wrung his hands. Perhaps he just turned from the window.
Afterword: I realize I have not followed the Gospels’ accounts absolutely. This was deliberate but not intended as disrespect. I left out the Herodian Interlude in the interest of keeping it all on Pilate. A Midrash is a sort of story-commentary. Pilate has always fascinated me. In some ways I find him one of the more pitiful politicians of history. Pilate, like his Pontii ancestors, tried to find a middle ground; in doing so, he ordered the killing of God. His Samnite forebears were conquered by the Romans while trying to find the middle way. Seeking a political solution, he had his hand in the killing of God. Seek not the kingdom of man, it kills holy ones. Seek the kingdom of God. How much Pilate knew about Jesus prior to the trial is open to speculation; he was at least somewhat aware of him from daily reports, in all likelihood.
Pilate was eventually exiled after he brutally put down a Samaritan uprising. He is lost to history and traditions.