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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Christ and Pilate

By Frederic William Farrar (1831–1903)

From ‘The Life of Christ’

A SON of God! The notion was far less strange and repulsive to a heathen than to a Jew; and this word, unheard before, startled Pilate with the third omen which made him tremble at the crime into which he was being dragged by guilt and fear. Once more, leaving the yelling multitude without, he takes Jesus with him into the quiet judgment hall, and—“jam pro suâ conscientiâ Christianus,” as Tertullian so finely observes—asks him in awe-struck accents, “Whence art thou?” Alas! it was too late to answer now. Pilate was too deeply committed to his gross cruelty and injustice; for him Jesus had spoken enough already; for the wild beasts who raged without, he had no more to say. He did not answer. Then, almost angrily, Pilate broke out with the exclamation, “Dost thou not speak to me? Dost thou not know that I have power to set thee free, and have power to crucify thee?” Power—how so? Was justice nothing, then? truth nothing? innocence nothing? conscience nothing? In the reality of things Pilate had no such power; even in the arbitrary sense of the tyrant it was an idle boast, for at this very moment he was letting “I dare not” wait upon “I would.” And Jesus pitied the hopeless bewilderment of this man, whom guilt had changed from a ruler into a slave. Not taunting, not confuting him,—nay, even extenuating rather than aggravating his sin,—Jesus gently answered, “Thou hast no power against me whatever, had it not been given thee from above; therefore he that betrayed me to thee hath the greater sin.” Thou art indeed committing a great crime; but Judas, Annas, Caiaphas, these priests and Jews, are more to blame than thou. Thus, with infinite dignity, and yet with infinite tenderness, did Jesus judge his judge. In the very depths of his inmost soul Pilate felt the truth of the words,—silently acknowledged the superiority of his bound and lacerated victim. All that remained in him of human and of noble—
  • “Felt how awful Goodness is, and Virtue
  • In her shape how lovely; felt and mourned
  • His fall.”
  • All of his soul that was not eaten away by pride and cruelty thrilled back an unwonted echo to these few calm words of the Son of God. Jesus had condemned his sin, and so far from being offended, the judgment only deepened his awe of this mysterious Being, whose utter impotence seemed grander and more awful than the loftiest power. From that time Pilate was even yet more anxious to save him. With all his conscience in a tumult, for the third and last time he mounted his tribunal and made one more desperate effort. He led Jesus forth, and looking at him, as he stood silent and in agony, but calm, on that shining Gabbatha, above the brutal agitations of the multitude, he said to those frantic rioters, as with a flash of genuine conviction, “BEHOLD YOUR KING!” But to the Jews it sounded like shameful scorn to call that beaten, insulted sufferer their King. A darker stream mingled with the passions of the raging, swaying crowd. Among the shouts of “Crucify!” ominous threatenings began for the first time to be mingled. It was now nine o’clock, and for nearly three hours had they been raging and waiting there. The name of Cæsar began to be heard in wrathful murmurs. “Shall I crucify your King?” he had asked, venting the rage and soreness of his heart in taunts on them. “We have no king but Cæsar,” answered the Sadducees and priests, flinging to the winds every national impulse and every Messianic hope. “If thou let this man go,” shouted the mob again and again, “thou art not Cæsar’s friend. Every one who tries to make himself a king speaketh against Cæsar.” And at that dark terrible name of Cæsar, Pilate trembled. It was a name to conjure with. It mastered him. He thought of that terrible implement of tyranny, the accusation of læsa majestas, into which all other charges merged, which had made confiscation and torture so common, and had caused blood to flow like water in the streets of Rome. He thought of Tiberius the aged gloomy Emperor, then hiding at Capreæ his ulcerous features, his poisonous suspicions, his sick infamies, his desperate revenge. At this very time he had been maddened into a yet more sanguinary and misanthropic ferocity by the detected falsity and treason of his only friend and minister, Sejanus, and it was to Sejanus himself that Pilate is said to have owed his position. There might be secret delators in that very mob. Panic-stricken, the unjust judge, in obedience to his own terrors, consciously betrayed the innocent victim to the anguish of death. He who had so often prostituted justice was now unable to achieve the one act of justice which he desired. He who had so often murdered pity was now forbidden to taste the sweetness of a pity for which he longed. He who had so often abused authority was now rendered impotent to exercise it, for once, on the side of right. Truly for him sin had become its own Erinnys, and his pleasant vices had been converted into the instrument of his punishment! Did the solemn and noble words of the Law of the Twelve Tables—“Vanæ voces populi non sunt audiendæ, quando aut noxium crimine absolvi, aut innocentem condemnari desiderant”—come across his memory with accents of reproach as he delivered Bar-Abbas and condemned Jesus? It may have been so. At any rate, his conscience did not leave him at ease. At this, or some early period of the trial, he went through the solemn farce of trying to absolve his conscience from the guilt. He sent for water; he washed his hands before the multitude! he said, “I am innocent of the blood of this just person; see ye to it.” Did he think thus to wash away his guilt? He could wash his hands; could he wash his heart? Might he not far more truly have said with the murderous king in the splendid tragedy:
  • “Can all old Ocean’s waters wash this blood
  • Clean from my hand? Nay, rather would this hand
  • The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
  • Making the green one red!”
  • It may be that as he thus murdered his conscience, such a thought flashed for one moment across his miserable mind, in the words of his native poet—
  • “Ah, nimium faciles qui tristia crimina cædis
  • Flumineâ tolli posse putatis aqua!”OVID, Fast. ii. 45.
  • But if so, the thought was instantly drowned in a yell, the most awful, the most hideous, the most memorable that history records: “His blood be on us and on our children.” Then Pilate finally gave way. The fatal “Ibis ad crucem” was uttered with reluctant wrath. He delivered him unto them, that he might be crucified.