Holy Week 2012 finds the impeachment trial of Chief Justice Renato Corona still in recess. The Supreme Court, too, will shut down. This week’s rites will recall a trial, two millennia ago, presided over by a judge whose name “became a byword for ambivalence.”
Pontius Pilate is mentioned whenever the Nicene Creed is prayed. He served as Roman procurator of Judea 26 to 36 AD. Scores were crucified then. The victims included an itinerant preacher from Galilee and two thieves.
This was a backwater incident then. “[Yet] it binds eternal realms to the stumbling, messy chronology of earthly time and place,” former Archbishop of Canterbury Ronald Runcie wrote.
As late as 1960, archeologists dug up coins engraved with Pilate’s name in Caesarea. From this city, he oversaw 6,000 Roman soldiers. Their swords ensured that taxes were collected for the Emperor. They also quelled rebellions, especially during incendiary Passover feasts. Pilgrims would bloat Jerusalem’s population to over 2.5 million.
They crucified, when ordered. Pilate demanded that the centurion posted on Calvary verify Christ’s death. Only then did he allow Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus to take the body down from the cross.
“It is possible to view Pilate as the archetypal politician,” former Prime Minister Tony Blair wrote. Pilate “was caught in the horns of a dilemma.” He kept the peace, or he would be dismissed.
Does this resemble the quandary confronting 23 senator-judges? They must render judgment on the Chief Justice after Easter. Are Arroyo appointees in the Supreme Court in the same bind? They’ve sealed the dollar deposits of their embattled capo from examination by irate citizens. Will they trash the Senate trial as “unconstitutional”?
Rome appointed Pilate and his main collaborator, Caiaphas the high priest. Their sinecures wobbled when Christ expelled money changers from the Temple. “My house is a house of prayer,” He said, lashing out with a whip of cords. “But you made it a den of thieves.”
“Trouble for Pilate was trouble for Caiaphas,” British Broadcasting Corp. notes. So, the high priest rigged a “trial” where he acted as judge and prosecutor. He fractured three guidelines: The rules stipulated daytime trials but he held this one at night; hearings were prohibited on a feast day; and the venue was Caiaphas’ house, not a council chamber.
The witnesses couldn’t agree on what Jesus said. Blasphemy was not a crime under Roman law. So, Caiaphas sent Jesus to Pilate, charging sedition. Crucify him or you are not a friend of Caesar. That blindsided Pilate.
But what was the procurator really like? Clearly, he had a good Roman education. He did not call the prisoner “follis.” That’s Latin for the Filipino “gago.” Nor did he sneer, as in “Wah!” at the impeachment trial.
Pilate’s questions were probing, notes Andrew Thomas Kania of Oxford University. “Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” he said, trying to understand the prisoner before him. “Where are you from?”
“Are you a king then?” Pilate inquired when Christ said: “My kingdom is not of this world… Everyone who is on the side of truth hears my voice.” Quid est veritas? Pilate asked no one in particular. “What is the truth?” Was that the tipping moment?
Pilate vacillated, BCC’s Bob Chauncy adds. Pilate knew Jesus wasn’t leading a military uprising. “He found no fault with the defendant [and] drifts toward pardoning him. ‘See, I am bringing him out to you, that you may know that I find no crime in him,’ he tells the crowd.”
Then, Pilate drifted away again. He had Christ scourged and, without blinking, inquired: “What charge do you bring against this man?”
Pilate faced a dilemma: If he released Jesus, riots could erupt. That would not sit well with the Emperor. So, he offered a swap patterned after earlier Passover amnesties: He offered to release either the “King of the Jews” or Barrabas, a convicted murderer. Choose, he said.
“Crucify him!” the crowd roared. At the Gabattha or Stone Floor, he washed his hands in front of the crowd. He released Barrabas and “delivered Jesus in accordance with their wishes.”
Late on Good Friday, a different Pilate emerged. He rejected a “technicality” offered by the high priests. Rewrite the placard affixed to the cross which read: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews,” they badgered. Say only the impostor claimed such a title.
The Procurator curtly dismissed them, saying, “Quod scripsi, scripsi.”—“What I have written, I have written.” This firmness was overdue. However, it surged when the window of opportunity had slammed shut.
Too late. His image had been indelibly etched for centuries to come. “Whatever the truth about the real Pontius Pilate, such dilemmas are what he has come to symbolize,” Chauncy adds.
In the Corona impeachment, hundreds of technicalities have been lobbed by the defense. Will they drown out the truth from the senator-judges or Arroyo justices come decision time? Ambitions and perks can get in the way. They’d shrivel judges “into a clutch of shivers in search of a spine.”
But the window of opportunity hasn’t slammed shut just yet. On Holy Week, do they look back to Pilate? Quid est veritas? Or will their decisions bear Pilate’s mark of ambivalence? “Since you are neither hot nor cold,” the Book of Revelation cautions, “I will vomit you out of my mouth.”
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