Enemy of the People
“The trial of Jesus of Nazareth and why Jesus was crucified for being a reformer.
A Short Story by Richard Dorsey
“What is it these people want?” the Captain of the Guard asked of me without expecting a reply. “Are they looking for some sort of an alternative to their obnoxious god?”
I remained at attention. As a soldier guarding the Procurator, I report what I see and hear, but offer nothing unless asked a direct question. The Captain, like most Romans new to Jerusalem, was grousing, dismayed at Judean religion. I told him what I had overheard when the Sanhedrin brought their case to Pontius Pilatus, and the Captain was puzzled as to why the highest court was involved in condemning a lowly preacher to death over reform.
“Is it that the prisoner is another greaser?” the Captain mused in street slang Greek, the lingua franca of the Levantine, since speaking soldier’s Latin in the halls of Roman administration would label him a rube.
When I failed to blink, he fudged. “I know,” he admitted, “Messiah means, ‘the oily one’.”
My superior was having fun with me over my own heritage.
“All right! ‘The anointed one,’ he puffed seeing my raised eyebrow. “How many Messiah claimants are there now?
“Three,” I answered.
“So there!” he said as if that explained everything.
But what he said was true. There have been Judeans calling themselves the Messiah for eons. It is difficult to succeed as an itinerant preacher if all you have is attitude. Calling yourself ‘The Messiah’ lends a certain aura. The “good book” says; god will select a high noble as the “anointed” one, and the people will acclaim him king, and he will unite all the tribes and lead them back to the golden age. Most people don’t want to reform and they constantly bring up the good old days as if times were better then. Country preachers could care less about golden ages, they are simple reformers, fire and brimstone, but you know people. One day they shout hallelujah, the next day they are bad-mouthing change. People are naturally happy being sinners, but that doesn’t stop the reformers. They keep popping up, knocking heads and shuffling on to the next town. Like all the hill tribes Judeans fear change, they just want to hear themselves arguing, incessantly. I should know, I am of them, from a northern tribe; one who left home early to go into the security business. Tiberius hired me to find out what is going on behind the smiling faces. He’s a high-wire act, but the pay is good. And there are plenty of us foreigners in the Roman army, so who is going to ask questions?
“Here they come again.” The Captain joined me at attention as the Procurator passed, coolly indifferent to the gaggle of scowling bearded faces waddling behind, lugging their weary prisoner back to interrogation. The Captain left me alone guarding the doorway while he finished his rounds.
Pontius Pilatus is a product of mid-level, upper class Roman society, not patricians but nouveau riche merchants who have become part of the urban sprawl by dint of the grindstone. An administrative posting to the sandlot is no plum, but it can be lucrative if you watch where you step.
Pilatus’s smile faded as he sat on one of those backless chairs, the ones that Romans claim are good for your posture. Propped on a dais he was just high enough for him to sit and look down on the bound prisoner slouched before him. The room was small and close with the smell of too many male bodies. Instead of cooling air, curtains to the Prefecture’s rostrum balcony billowed inward pumping heat in from the streets. Though isolated at the inner doorway, I could see the worm of fluid under the skin at Pilatus’ temple pulse as he leaned toward the prisoner. He spoke in a somber timber and avuncular manner, “Listen son, this is serious business. They accuse you of blasphemy. I can’t help you if you remain stubborn. Talk to me.”
The prisoner lifted his head and settled his placid eyes, and it was then that the Procurator saw that the bruises and cuts on his face told of a forced confession. The prisoner winced at the glaring light refracting through the balcony curtains forcing his face toward the knot of priests and their scribes huddled to the side, where their nervous shuffle implied they were angry and displeased at the Procurator’s suddenly stern features. Outside, the restless crowd gathering in the streets droned like a hive of angry bees.
“Setting aside this messiah issue for the moment,” Pilatus starred peripherally out of the corner of his eye as if looking into his own mind. “I am curious about something.” He was speaking to the Sanhedrin and sounded friendly. “You want to condemn the prisoner to death for claiming to be the son of your god?” Pilatus tongued the corner of his mouth and narrowed his eyes like he had seen lawyers in Rome do when about to set a verbal trap. “Aren’t all Israelites children of your god?”
One of the heavily bearded sages with a nose so hooked the air seemed to buffet when he moved forward. “You are correct your Excellency,” the sage countered. “We are the children of god,” he jabbed. “However,” he feinted. “Twisting sacred text to infer that as children of god we have divine countenance is unforgivable.” Boom, boom, came his savage one-two punch. “The Torah tells us that a messiah, if and when he comes, will not be divine, and, that if he is made king, he still is no more than an earthly leader. Therefore, to claim to be the messiah and also to be divine is to subvert the Word of god.” The voice chimed like a bell. “Twisting the Word of god is to erase god’s existence, for verily I say unto you, that it is the word of the father that guides his children.”
A knock out punch of logic, in my opinion. In Roman culture the father figure is omnipotent. The Roman father rules his family in all things and in all ways. The creed of the Roman state, SPQR; the fathers in the Senate speak for the Roman people. To claim to be the messiah and claim divinity was much an anathema to Judeans as a claim by a Judean to have rights equal to Roman citizenship.
“Well parsed praised Pilatus, “but I wonder, are you simply clothing an uneducated, superstitious country preacher in the raiment of sophistry?” Turning to the prisoner, Pilatus prodded, “Do you claim you are god?” The prisoner stayed stubbornly silent, whether from pride or resignation, I could not tell. But I understood the poor wretch. Every explanation he offered would be irrelevant since he had already been prejudged and found guilty.
“Answer the question, young man,” Pilatus demanded, raising his voice several octaves, “Have you ever said…think carefully…you were the son of god?”
In the total silence resulting from the Procurator’s outburst, the word “God” echoed and the crowd outside turned querulous causing the prisoner to cry out.
“Do you not know me? For I am in the father as the father is in me?”
For seconds there was shock and awe, then the Procurator bleated baaahhh, and said, “double talk” turning away, waving his hands and shaking his head. It was obvious from the way that Pilatus was approaching the interrogation that he did not want to condemn a man for pure stupidity, but the fellow was trying his patience. “Evasiveness is a sign of guilt.” Pilatus walked around his chair gathering his thoughts. “Everybody knows that.” He cornered on the prisoner. “Are you deliberately trying to get yourself killed?” But the man was lost, still mourning the soulful rejection of the crowd vibrating outside. Pilatus held his hands out in supplication to the Sanhedrin asking what could be done with a blockhead?
A young priest edged into focus, “We understand your Excellency.” This had to be one smart cookie, I thought, so young yet already a member of the Supreme Court. Hunching his shoulders slightly and squinting as if about to propose a tentative hypothesis, the young priest emulated the Procurator’s spread-hands gesture by folding his own in prayer, “The question really is, what can the Sanhedrin do when all power rests with Rome? Your Excellency, our hands are tied and the people are crying out against this zealot.” He tilted his head ever so slightly toward the shouts of protest rising from the streets. “A poor wretch certainly, but one who has repeatedly been chased out of every village, sometimes for no other reason than for flaunting his arrogance.” The young priest had everyone’s attention and spoke slowly and gravely. “He speaks in well known parables, but masterfully spins their meaning to serve his…personal agenda? Does he ever make a direct statement to which he could be held accountable? Never!” The priest suddenly expounded. “I am,” he declares, “before Abraham was.” The priest’s eyes opened wide in wonder. “What are simple peasant folk to think? Are they not righteously indignant that the unknown whose very birthplace is in question dares equate himself with their beloved god? The priest scooted to the side of the Procurator and leaned conspiratorially. “Our parables teach unruly youngsters to obey their parents, but this false messiah spins the stories.” Twirling a finger around his ear, “Crazy,” he says. “Like Meshugena,” he emphasized using Hebrew slang. “In one village he rants and raves physically abusing simple merchants at the temple on the Sabbath, but the next Sabbath, on god’s sacred day of rest, the hypocrite is working the crowds like a big shot above the rules. “It makes the public go wild, I tell you, this unmitigated audacity. Even his own followers are deserting him in droves ever since he told them, “eat my body and you get to join my kingdom. Ughhh,” the priest gagged; just a little to get his point across. What a show and I get to see it all for free! I watched attentively as the priest wound up for his finale. “I suppose you have heard of his so-called miracles?” Up went the priest’s hands and he loudly shouted, “poof.” Pulling an eyelid down with one finger, he looked the Procurator right in the eyes, “You can’t really see the miracles, that is, not unless you really believe enough in them.” The priest’s eyebrows rose as if saying, how about those apples?
While enjoying the theatre, the Captain of the Guard slipped up behind and in hushed tones informed me that the crowd outside was getting antsy and warning me to stay on my toes. “There is a lot of pushing and shoving going on. I have to keep things from getting out of hand. Slip over to the balcony when you can. Keep an eye out. If you hear trouble, come a running.|
When he was gone, I said to myself, Rabinashur, you are a spy not a soldier. Your job is to keep Tiberius tuned in on radical politicians not religious fanatics. Of course, reformers foment sedition, but this preacher wants people to follow the law not break it. As Pilatus rubbed his lower back I considered the villager’s point of view. No country wants to be occupied by foreigners, but that doesn’t mean you and I are going to refuse the benefits. I mean come on! Everyone knows that reform will lower living standards. When you don’t have two shekels to rub together it is difficult to turn the other cheek. That’s what was really rattling their cages. The crook pretending to be an observant Jew wanted to take away their cake. The little schmuck wanted to rain on their parade. They were too busy working hard to listen to a bunch of reform nonsense. Hey! If he could really multiply fishes and loaves of bread they would all be happy to accept a free meal, but the dupe was running on a platform of hope in the afterlife and desperate villagers were looking for a handout now.
The head judge raised his hand as if he wanted permission to use the water closet, so I used the distraction to ease my way along the back wall toward the balcony.
“It’s clear,” a loud voice said, stopping me dead in my tracks like a little boy caught with the wrong thing in his hands. “The prisoner,” the voice was speaking in two-word sentences. “Is guilty.” I kept on easing. “Of blasphemy.” It struck me funny that by the time high priest finished I could lap the room and be back at my post. Bowing to Pilatus and smiling obsequiously, the high judge said, “We come. To Caesar. For justice.” That was it. A fifteen word soliloquy. How pithy, I told myself, every one has his own shtick. A short fellow peeked out from the folds of the high priest’s garment and read from a tablet; “We the Sanhedrin have no authority. Rome is the government of Jerusalem. Only Rome can take a life. We obey and beseech you to execute the prisoner.”
Peering through the shear curtains I saw signs that read, “Crucify him.” Being nailed to a cross was the penalty for slaves; a long slow death that served as a warning.
Another sign with a black face and red horns bounced like a marionette. Under the demonic image were derogatory words for reformer.
“Go back to Egypt where you came from defiler,” shrilled a woman.
Men raised threatening fists while women tore at their clothing and children scampered among the throng chanting ditties culled from adult obscenities. I also saw too many armed men to believe this was a spontaneous occasion. Leaning out over the railing I looked down upon the polished helmets of legionaries shielding the building. The crowd jostled, tired of waiting, ready to erupt.
An elder with the white mane of a patriarch parted the Sanhedrin like a wave. “We have spoken with the parents of the accused,” he said gravely. “The brothers and a few friends. As the black sheep it’s hard to find a kind word in his hometown of Nazareth. The parents, however, are key witnesses.” The elder stood at Pilatus’ side both them starring at the downcast prisoner. “The father, Joseph, claims lineage to the house of David, but has no proof. The accused repeatedly refers to god as his father.” The elder rolled his eyes. “Conveniently one has to infer what that means, but according to his own testimony, then Joseph is not his father and therefore reference to the messiah is a moot point. Then there is the mother. A lovely woman, but,” the elder looked at the Procurator, his eyes brimming with mirth. “Here is where the story becomes very Greek. Gods have been fornicating with women since time began, Heracles a prime example. The mother’s name is Mary she says god did it. If we consider the argument that a swan cuckolded the woman when no one was looking, then bingo, we have to throw out any chance the accused is really the messiah. On the other hand, just for the sake of argument, let’s say an angel brought her a gift. That suggests that some angel is an adulterer and we are dealing with the simple matter of a son supporting his mother’s honor. Admirable, if not pitiful. But the idea of gods impregnating women is no more acceptable in Mosaic Law than to Romans. And that, I suspect, leads us to the real reason for this gathering. What we have here is an accused who by inference and innuendo, by deliberate obfuscation and misleading statements, by half-truths and fairy tails, and by failure to cooperate and fostering dangerous beliefs dares to repeatedly give the impression that he is the son of god, and as such is also god, and the messiah, and by fiat, king of Judea, thereby usurping sovereign authority and directing a challenge to both Caesar and to Rome.”
Wavering at the curtains, I kept one ear on the street and one eye on the court because the slick was not finished.
“Despite preaching; “render unto Caesar,” our duplicitous dissembler implies that somehow Caesar is to be rendered “only some things.” By thus depriving Caesar authority in all things, it must be left to Rome to judge him, and therefore, using his own words, we render him unto Caesar.”
Outside the crowd chanted; “Cru-ci-fy-him, Cru-ci-fy-him, Cru-ci-fy-him.”
Pilatus motioned urgently for me to bring the prisoner and follow him onto the balcony. He stood facing the street with myself a step back beside him and the prisoner hidden to our rear. A milling throng packed the streets in all directions. They looked like everyday people, no sign of workers brown with the grit of dirt and sweat, rag-wrapped heads and skin blackened by the sun. No one was begging. These were not the dregs of society, the downtrodden and the oppressed. Rather they were minor tradesmen, semi-skilled artisans, local shopkeepers who lived where they worked. People with limited means who did not want to lose what little they had. Here and there a potbelly belied greater worth, but no thieves, skulkers, or outcasts lingered at the fringes. They might take the cheap seats in the amphitheatre, but they had a spare penny to get in.
“They don’t look bloodthirsty,” Pilatus said, sounding not surprised. “They look like they just finished a big lunch and stepped out for some exercise. What do you think?”
With only the prisoner nearby I assumed Pilatus was talking to me. Rhetorically, perhaps, but to my sensitive ears the jist of his brevity suggested that he was well aware that I was more than a doorway guard. Is not the world small? Someone had to have put a bug in his ear. Better the thief you know than the one you don’t. Could he have been feeding me disinformation? “Pushaw!” I had never seen him puffed up as something special. Pontius Pilatus was hard core, dedicated to the state, a worker who did his job and accepted praise without seeking it. If he knew I was a spy for Tiberius, I was no more than a fly on the wall and certainly no threat to someone devoid of ambition. A little schmoozing, therefore, was not out of the question, but honed by a talent for survival, I hesitated, “No, your Excellency,” was all I said.
Few in the crowd had noticed us on the balcony despite the fact that it was a rostrum for proclamations. I have noticed, however, that subjugated people have a tendency not to stare at anyone armed and in uniform who might kill them at the slightest provocation.
“It is alright to talk to me,” Pilatus said, “I don’t bite.” He smiled with his eyes. “You are a trained observer, tell me what you see.”
I gathered my thoughts and considered which to release. “They are the rock of Judea protesting from the heart for what they believe.”
Pilatus tilted his head back and without looking at me gave a nod to his head. “Yes indeed. Hard rocks, hard heads. Do you know the origin of scapegoats,” he asked out of the blue?
I did, but allowed Pilatus to tell me.
“Long ago, villagers used to sacrifice to their gods by tying an animal to a stake in the field in the hopes that the gift would propitiate their existence. In time the animal became the symbol of communal guilt and by sacrificing it, the community felt redeemed of their wrongs. The Judean religion has revised the concept of doing the wrong thing and has turned it into the idea of sin with broader implications such as evilness or a crime. The scapegoat became obsolete. The killing of a goat no longer satisfies communal guilt. That is what this trial is all about. The community wants to rid itself of guilt and is sacrificing the prisoner to replace the obsolete goat. Redemption now requires human sacrifice.”
“Crucifixion.” I said.
“So everybody can see their savior on display.”
And as if the crowd had heard, faces rose and Pilatus brought forth the prisoner. With our eyes on the heavens, the chant took on a life of its own, resounding like a drum beat: “Crucify him!” “Crucify him!” “Crucify him!”