Before Jesus was brought before him, Pilate had heard much about him. Even his wife knew of the "Messiah."
There were a number of rebels in Jerusalem causing trouble, but the "Messiah" was less interested in denouncing the Romans than in performing miracles, healing the sick, casting out demons, and walking on water. The stories about him were preposterous, religious absurdities for the soldiers to mock and ridicule in their free hours. Pilate had heard them with disbelief and then dismissed them. As long as the "Messiah" did not cause riots, he would let him alone.
Rome had already warned him several times that he was too harsh on the Jews. But that was why they had sent him to Judea, to force them into line and make them submit. Judea had been lawless long enough. Previous governors had failed to stop rebellions. Pilate had been chosen as governor because no other man could bring Judea into line. He was known for his success in such matters, and had assured his superiors that he would gain control. He had done so, but not without loss of life. Even Herod feared him, so much so that he had stirred up trouble in Rome, where the senators feigned horror at Pilate's methods in response to his complaints, claiming he was too brutal even though he had succeeded in obtaining peace. The Emperor had sent him a terse command: "no more riots." It meant, no more bloodshed, no more unnecessary punishments, and no more uprisings against Rome.
What was one Jew from another? Yet when Jesus was brought to him, Pilate knew he was different. He had faced greater men on the battlefield without fear, but Jesus intimidated him. He should not have, for he was chained and beaten, but his calm was disquieting. He made no attempt to deny the Sanhedrin's allegations. He chose not to defend himself. He looked on Pilate with compassion, though surely he must have known what the governor had done to his people: blood spilled, lives taken, the hatred he felt for the Jews. It concerned him to look into the eyes of a stranger and see a mirror of his soul. Jesus had incited no riots, harmed no soldiers, not even denounced the Romans. In the eyes of Rome, he was innocent… but the mob wanted his blood.
No more riots meant give them what they want.
It was not only his wife's warning that haunted him but the last glance the "Messiah" had given him as he was led away to be flogged, of such empathy that he felt cold. Floggings were frequent but a dark spirit possessed his Centurions, for they dealt out a punishment far harsher than ordered. Jesus should not have survived. Pilate had not intended it to be so brutal and hoped it would satisfy the crowd, but they still shouted, "Crucify him!"
Days earlier, Jesus' arrival in Jerusalem had caused such massive crowds that Pilate and his legions were delayed from entering the city for several hours. Garments and palm branches had littered the streets, as the echoes of "Hosanna" had faded away. No threats of violence would shift them from the gate, and their adoration of their new Messiah. But now the same mob wanted him dead. So Pilate sent him to his death, a violent, brutal death he did not deserve.
The governor was no stranger to crucifixions; he ordered them on a regular basis. He had never flinched away from them before, but as he stood on the balcony of the Palace of Justice and watched the procession following the crossbeam up the winding hill toward the city gates, he felt a deep, profound unease. As the afternoon wore on, it increased. Had he any doubts the gods were angry with them, it was confirmed when a heavy and stifling darkness fell in the mid-afternoon. He could not see beyond the small circle of light cast by the oil lamps in his quarters and beneath it the city fell into a terrified silence.
Personal reports were delivered to him each hour: "the king of the Jews still lives." Pilate wondered when would he die? Would he die? Or would he continue to live on and the darkness never lift, as punishment for their demands?
Several hours passed and then the city shook on its ancient foundations as the earth trembled and screams rose from the temple. Pilate watched as arches and stonework fell in the courtyard. Tiles shattered and split, the earthquake lasting only a few minutes but leaving devastation in its wake. Within the hour, a soldier came to inform him that the Messiah was dead.
One of the respected Jewish men in Jerusalem then came to ask permission to remove the body and Pilate granted it to him. After Joseph of Aramathia departed, he turned to the nearest of his men. "Place two guards at the tomb. There is a prophecy in Judea about a savior who will defeat death. Let us not allow them to fulfill it through theft. Go."
The darkness lingered and it was with relief that the sun rose in the early hours of the morning. Perhaps they were not cursed after all. His guard returned to tell him no one had disturbed the tomb; there would be no attempts made, as it was the Sabbath. And a sober one it was too, for Pilate was also informed that the curtain in the inner temple, their most sacred place, had been torn in two and many of the priests had fled in terror. The streets were unusually abandoned as the sun rose, the same silence over Jerusalem that had followed Jesus' arrest. Pilate wondered if they now regretted the absence of their messiah, if his death had placed the same weight on their minds as it had done him.
His hands looked different this morning. It would not have been discernible to anyone else, but Pilate stared at them as he stood in his inner chamber. He brushed his palm against his tunic as if wiping away an invisible stain. His fingers tingled with guilt. Sending an innocent man to his death had never troubled him before, but still he remembered the look in Jesus' eyes, not only of compassion but also forgiveness.
Claudia had warned him, but he had no choice but to listen to the mob. Their marriage had been in the knowledge that she often had prophetic dreams. He had never chosen to ignore them in the past and now sought comfort, hoping that the night would have brought her some peace. Wiping his hand on his tunic, he entered her room, dismissing her slaves from their presence. As they left he brushed aside the draperies at her bedside and sat down beside her. She did not stir and he touched the side of her face, finding her still drowsy, for it was early. Her beauty was untainted despite the heat of Judea. She belonged in Rome but was too valuable for him to leave behind. Claudia had not spoken to him since the arrest, but as her fingers curved around his, he found no resentment in her.
"What did the gods tell you?"
She shivered and was silent.
"Tell me." He pulled her into a sitting position and gazed into her eyes, searching them with open desperation. She had never seen him so frightened.
Drawing away from him, she said, "I saw death. I saw flames. I saw the earth split in two and spirits from the grave return to the city streets. I saw them convene at our gates. I saw blood on your hands and those of the Centurions, and on the one who betrayed Him. I saw his death, and the deaths of your soldiers, and your death… in Rome."
He felt a chill and released her, rising to his feet and shaking his head. "I did not condemn him!"
"You sent him to his death."
"It was not what I wanted! It is their responsibility, not mine!"
Brushing aside the curtains, she slid long legs over the side of the bed and touched her bare feet to the floor. Rising, her thin tunic unfurled around her, golden hair wild against her shoulders, an accusation in her eyes. "It is yours also. You are not innocent, Lucius. You have killed many men for far less noble reasons than halting a riot. You did it because you feared the mob and what would happen in Rome if you failed to maintain order. You did it to appease them. You did it to save your military career. You did it for yourself. His blood is on your hands, and on mine, and on all the people of Jerusalem who cried out for it. None of us are innocent, for we did nothing to stop it, and we will suffer for it. There will not be a day when he is not in our minds, when we do not beg for deliverance. It will drive some of us mad."
"No! The heat of this foul place has tainted your mind. This Jesus, this Messiah, was not one of the gods walking among men! He lived and suffered and died as all men must. What you speak is utter foolishness."
Striding out into the corridor, he attempted to escape but she followed. Her words flew after him like a storm, causing the servants lurking in the hall to scatter out of sight.
"You know he was no mere man!" she shouted after him, startling the centurions guarding the hall. He halted and thought about glancing back at her but could not bear to face her open accusations. His hand continued to tingle and he forced himself not to wipe it on his tunic. It felt like there was blood on it.
Watching him, Claudia felt compassion and softened her tone as she came up behind him. "Mere men are soon forgotten, Lucius. Their legacies die with them, but this one will be long remembered. His death will echo even in Rome."
This prompted him to look at her, finding sadness in her eyes.
"What then, Claudia? It is too late to save him."
Her eyes drifted to the window and her words sent a curious chill through him. "Maybe it is he who will save us."
Jerusalem was quiet.
But his hand still tingled.