The democracy that condemned Christ

by Cristiana de Magistris

From the evangelist St John, we know that the leaders of the Jewish nation, enraged against the Lord, who had just resurrected Lazarus, took counsel to eliminate him: “What are we to do? This man works many miracles. If we allow him to do so, everyone will believe in him: and the Romans will come and destroy our country and the nation.” (John 11:47–48) This statement concealed the most subtle form of hypocrisy, since the Jews, if Christ had been a political messiah (as they were well aware He was not), would have been the first to follow Him in order to free themselves from the Roman yoke. The high priest that year, Caiaphas, then pronounced the first death sentence: “it is better that one man should die for the people and that the whole nation should not perish” (John 11:50). “With the most diabolical cunning,” comments Fr Marco Sales, “Caiaphas pretends to be moved not by hatred of Jesus but by reasons of state and by zeal for the public good”. “From that day therefore,” St John concludes, “they devised to put him to death (11:53), thereby decreeing the death of the Just One.

Following the betrayal of Judas, the Lord was subjected to two trials: a religious one before Annas and Caiaphas, and a civil one before Pilate.

The first trial, set up by the Jewish authorities, took place at night: this procedure was illegal, as it was supposed to be conducted in the daytime and in the presence of witnesses, but these latter, in the middle of the night, were tripped up in their deceit (cf Mt 26:59 ff). Caiaphas then solemnly enjoined the innocent Jesus (contrary to the Mosaic law which, in this case, invalidated the confession of the accused) to tell him if He was the Son of God. Jesus then solemnly affirmed His divinity before the Sanhedrin, and for this was deemed worthy of death. For the rest of the night the divine Lamb is left at the mercy of the abuse and taunting of the Jews, who blaspheme Him by covering Him with spit.

But since back then Palestine reported to Rome, which had sole authority to issue a death sentence, the case had to be referred to Pilate, the Roman procurator, in order to obtain ratification of the sentence from the Roman authority. Jesus was therefore led to the praetorium, which the Jews did not enter so as not to be contaminated before the Passover. A strange legalism: they are afraid of contaminating themselves by entering the quarters of a pagan, but they are not afraid of killing an innocent man! So the political trial of Christ was about to begin, and before this new tribunal He had to be brought up on political charges. These totalled three. The Jews accused Christ of: 1) being a seducer of crowds; 2) forbidding the paying of taxes to Caesar; 3) claiming to be king. Pilate immediately saw the falsity of the first two accusations and dealt only with the last one. When, in an extraordinary discourse, Pilate asked Jesus whether He was a king, Jesus replied that He was, but explained the meaning of His kingship: “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36), He said, and in this way He brought the question back to religious ground. Satisfied with the answer, Pilate declared Him undeserving of any condemnation.

He then tried to set Jesus free by three expedients. First of all, he sent Him to Herod, since Jesus came from Galilee and Herod was tetrarch of that region, but this first attempt failed when Herod could not come up with an indictment but, instead of releasing Jesus, sent Him back to Pilate. Then he attempted a gambit in which he would trade off the Saviour of the world for a murderer, Barabbas, leaving the choice to the crowd, but this attempt too proved vain.

Finally, he had Him scourged. This was a terrible torture reserved for slaves, in which the victim often lost his life. After this dreadful ordeal, Jesus was presented to the crowd dressed in a scarlet robe, with a crown of thorns and a reed for a sceptre. Would they dare to see this mockery of a king as a competitor of Caesar? Pilate was already guilty of injustice by sending the innocent Jesus to Herod and by ranking Him with a murderer, but he did far worse by having Him scourged. Although he hoped in this way to placate the Jews, in reality – by showing his indecision – he made them more audacious in demanding the death of the innocent Jesus.

The Jews then brought back the charge that He had presumed the title of Son of God, as if it were the sole cause for His death. Pilate attempted one last expedient and, in a symbolic gesture, washed his hands to show the Jews that, before his tribunal, Jesus was innocent. “With this act,” Fr Sales explains, “Pilate makes a new dedication of himself to the fanaticism of the people. If Jesus is just, why in the world does His judge, who is supposed to make justice triumph, abandon Him into the hands of His enemies?”. He addressed the crowd a second and third time protesting Jesus’ innocence, only to hear the verdict of death reiterated. “Pilate spoke to them again, wanting to release Jesus. But they shouted: Crucify him, crucify him! And he, a third time, said to them: But what harm has this man done? I have found nothing in him that deserves death. I will chastise him severely and then release him. But they insisted with a loud voice, demanding that he be crucified; and their voices prevailed. Pilate then decided that their request should be carried out” (Lk 23:20-24).

Pilate was an insecure man, whose superstitious pagan conscience, informed by the dreams of his wife Claudia, feared possible punishment from the gods. On the other hand, he was even more afraid that the Jews would report him to Caesar if he did not give in to their demands. Therefore, Fr Sales points out, “instead of making justice triumph, he himself becomes an accomplice of iniquity, and in stifling the voice of conscience he lets himself be led by reasons of state. The fear of being denounced to Caesar as too lax in defending the authority of the empire makes him a docile instrument of the savage instincts of the crowd”.

It is commonly held that the Sanhedrin, as the Jewish authorities, were guilty of deicide and Pilate, as a pagan, of murder. But what was the precise nature of Pilate’s weakness and error?

Seeing his plans ruined, Pilate, Fr Sales writes, “commits the utmost imprudence of asking the people directly to decide Jesus’ fate”. Because the chief priests had seen how hesitant Pilate was, when he asked whether to release Jesus or Barabbas, they incited the crowd to demand Barabbas. “What shall I do then with Jesus called the Christ? They all said: Let him be crucified.” (Mt 27:22). Pilate shirks his responsibility by adopting a democratic principle: leaving a decision that was his alone to an enraged and maddened people, agitated by the Jewish authorities. Shortly before, the Lord Jesus, in His discourse with Pilate, had discreetly reminded him of his duty. Pilate then said to Him, “You will not speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to put you at liberty, and power to put you on the cross?” Jesus answered him, “You would have no power over Me unless it had been given you from above. Therefore he who delivered me into your hands has the greater sin” (John 19:10–11). It is as if He were saying, Martini comments, “neither from Caesar nor from my enemies would you have the right to do anything whatsoever against Me if, by special counsel, divine providence had not given you discretion over My life. Thus He modestly upholds the dignity of His being, and urges Pilate not to fear the fury of that mad multitude to the point of forgetting that infinitely superior authority to which he too was subject”.

But the Saviour’s words made no inroads to the heart of the Roman procurator. And the name of Pilate, who hoped with a symbolic gesture to deny all responsibility for the killing of an innocent man, was – by an ironic provision of providence – destined to be set down in the Creed of the Catholic Church until the end of time, infamous for having used a democratic procedure to condemn the Son of God to death.