Our task was to provide protection to Pontius Pilate, the province’s prefect, and impose Roman law on the indigenous population including the collection of taxes for the emperor.
Earlier in the week, my unit had accompanied Pilate from headquarters in the coastal city of Caesarea to Jerusalem. The expected influx of pilgrims celebrating Passover, Judaism’s most sacred day, prompted Pilate’s decision for a military presence in Jerusalem.
I was not a religious person. But I was intrigued by the customs and beliefs of these Judeans. Their laws, however, sometimes conflicted with Roman law, which is what had brought their religious leaders to Pilate’s residence that day.
On arriving at the Praetorium that morning, an agitated crowd had assembled shouting at a prisoner who had been arrested by their religious police. The accused, named Jesus, was an itinerant teacher well known throughout the province for his miraculous powers and the large crowds he attracted.
We had encountered this fellow before. Sometime earlier when Jesus was near Caesarea, one of my fellow centurions had sent for him to heal his servant who had fallen deathly ill.
The centurion believed Jesus had such power that he need not even come to his home but simply speak the word, and his servant would be restored.
That same hour, the servant was healed. Word of this miracle spread quickly through the militia and Pilate’s household.
But now this wandering miracle worker stood before us, hands bound and head bent from humiliation.
Jesus had been arrested the night before after one of his followers had been bribed into betraying his whereabouts.
They interrogated Jesus throughout the night and charged him with several capital offenses under their religious law. But Roman law prevented them from carrying out an execution, which is why they had come to Pilate.
After interrogating the prisoner, Pilate concluded that no Roman law had been violated. It seemed the religious leaders were reacting more to this nomadic prophet’s popularity than any heinous crime.
Trying to appease the mob, Pilate offered to release one prisoner, a tradition commonly observed at Passover. But the mob, spurred on by the religious leaders, shouted for the release of Barabbas, a two-bit rebel accused of sedition.
Hoping to appeal to the mob’s sympathy, Pilate ordered that my detachment flog Jesus. We placed a hastily woven crown of thorns on his head and found a tattered scarlet robe that we draped over his mutilated back.
Pilate brought the badly beaten prisoner to the Praetorium’s portico in full view of the mob. But to no avail. They wanted him crucified.
Justice was sacrificed to mob hysteria.
It fell to me and three other soldiers to escort the condemned to a hill just outside the walls where crucifixions were carried out in full view of city residents. Two other prisoners joined the procession with each man carrying the beam that soon would bear his lifeless body.
As each man’s hands and feet were impaled to a cross, a crowd assembled, some calling out insults especially to Jesus. Others stood farther away in shock at the mockery of justice unfolding before them.
Tucked in my satchel with the hammer and nails was a sign that Pilate instructed be affixed to the itinerant preacher’s cross — JESUS OF NAZARETH: THE KING OF THE JEWS.
A contingent of religious leaders objected vigorously to the sign, but Pilate rebuffed their plea to modify the wording. Clearly Pilate was troubled by the events that had careened out of his control.
While we waited for death to overtake the condemned, I looked up as Jesus uttered something in Aramaic that translated into “My God, my God. Why have you forsaken me?”
Then he breathed his last.
Pilate ordered that the legs of the condemned be broken to ensure death. When the soldier came to Jesus, however, it was obvious he was dead. As a final act of torture and to ensure death, a spear was thrust into his side.
While gazing at his limp body, an eerie darkness crept over the land, and for a moment the earth shook violently. This was no coincidence as I exclaimed, “This surely was the Son of God.”
The religious leaders, who feared that Jesus’ body would be stolen, convinced Pilate to seal the tomb and station a guard outside. But three days later, the tomb’s seal was broken, and the guards were overwhelmed as an angel of the Lord rolled back the stone from the tomb’s entrance.
Jesus of Nazareth walked out.
The God of Creation had intervened to bring perfect justice. The penalty of death imposed because of humanity’s rebellion had now been fully paid by the Son of God. The curse of death was lifted for all who believe.
Hallelujah, the Lord is risen.
BOB BLAND is a Denton resident and a guest columnist for the Denton Record-Chronicle.